My Chess Time at San Quentin Prison



My Time at San Quentin Prison

A Memoir



It is a day in May of 1961 and I'm only twenty three years old. I arrive at San Quentin at 9:30 a.m.


It takes thirty minutes for me to be admitted. My tie, shoelaces, belt, wallet, watch, and anything that could be used for a weapon is taken. 

 I'm left in a white shirt, dark slacks, socks and shoes without any laces. I am being checked for aything hidden on my body, by assuming the position. The search was done by the guard hand frisking me.

I think someone should invent some type of scanners so it can be done more efficiently and it wouldn’t be so demeaning.

I'm taken into San Quentin Prison through halls, escorted by a large muscular guard dressed for battle. He carries a club and a large flashlight that looks like a heavy weapon. Walking down each corridor, with the guard leading the way, clanking doors open in front of him and then close behind me before the next is opened allowing us to move along, deeper and deeper into the depths of this institution that nobody can escape, unless you are released.


What a depressing place this is, with no clue that a beautiful world exists outside. The further I go into this hell hole, the worse it feels. Everything is made of metal bars, locks, surrounded by grey cement walls.


The thoughts run through my mind like: I feel that I am in danger, a dangerous situation. I worry that something is going to happen to me, like being attacked by a convict. I have a feeling of being trapped. I feel enclosed. Maybe I have seen too many prison movies.

Straight ahead through side windows, I can see many convicts playing basketball completely oblivious to my presence. To the right, convicts are using several ping-pong tables with a dozen watching and some waiting their turns. Three or four prisoners are talking and staring into the room. All the cement walls are dreary dull, a flat grey color. The ceilings are at least twenty feet high, with light fixtures enclosed in metal grids.


The only light that comes from the outside world shines in through a few, very small windows that circle the roof, each of which has thick metal bars making them escape proof. If it weren't for those windows, I wouldn’t be able to tell it was daytime now.


The basketball players on the court are playing like nobody is watching, with quick agility and fast passes to penetrate and make baskets. Their yelling and screams echo and bounce off the concrete walls. Ping pong players smack balls back and forth, at times very close to the table, then flash back away, returning volley after volley. The tacky-tic-tack of the paddles striking the ping-pong balls, including the grunts, and talking, adds to the scene. they are probably that good since they had nothing else to do in their lives but play ping-pong.




            You touched the piece, move it!


At the same time I am glad that I am an upstanding citizen and not imprisoned here. I am only a visitor at San Quentin prison.


I said to a guard that was near me, "Say, we all wore a black suit, a white shirt and ties and then you take all that stuff away, why did we go through all that trouble?


"I'ts for your own safety that we do that."


"How is that for my safety?"


The guard smile and says, "If there is trouble like a riot, since you are wearing black pants and a white shirt, we know that we aren't going to shoot you. We will shoot only those wearing prison blue."


"Now I know all of it makes sense to me!"



Soon I will sit facing one of the convicts for my first time across a chess board. Six members of my Daly City Chess team will be facing their own opponents. I don't know how to act in this situation that I have never been in before. I don't know what is on the minds of my comrades. They don’t seem a bit bothered by their environment that surrounds them.


There's some chit-chat between some of my team and the convicts, looks like they are familiar with each other, exchanging greetings quietly and shaking hands.


This is a brand new room they have just built. All the wood framing is unpainted. Around two of the wall there are windows with thick glass and chicken wire running through the glass. There are ten prisoners in blue prison garb. Only seven will be playing two are subs. Guards aren't placed in the room when chess matches are held. They are look in through windows. The tenth prisoner is the match director.


The atmosphere is broken when the director of the chess match says, "The visiting team will face the windows. The C board is by the windows, the master board by the wall. Check and set your chess clocks and please introduce yourself to your opponent and shake hands."


"Hello. I'm Denver. And you are?" I force myself to say. We shake hands, and his grip feels warm and friendly.


"Hi. I'm Jim Walters," he says, with a deep resonant voice. He is a stocky, six foot, short hair man with tattoos on his arms, which that to me depicts a dangerous and violent person. He looks like he's in his thirties, arm muscles showing and in good shape.                          


In my mind I am carrying on a private conversation, giving myself suggestions.


I'm sure he could take me easily, I think. I never, ever put myself in harms way if I can help it . . . I have a wife and new son at home; they need me . . . I wonder what he did to get here? Maybe he's just a dangerous felon? . . . A thief? A gang  member?  A killer? .Oh heck . . .


Jiminy Crickets, why did I say I would play here as my first match? Idiot! . . . Why did I agree to come here? . . . I have always heard and seen movies about prisoners, jails, and I'm truly frightened . . .


I don't want this man angry, because he lost a  chess game . . . Should I play my normal attacking game and not worry about the consequences? Should I play a conservative game and win slowly, so I won't offend this convict? Or should I lose? . . .  I could draw! . . .


Look at him! He doesn't seem to have a care in the world . . . He looks so confident and dangerous . . . Phooey! . . . Play the board, not the man. . . He doesn't know that he is, a lamb coming to a slaughter!


Denver, stop it! Quit thinking like that! Don't look at him anymore!


I have made players angry before because of my aggressive play and the mannerisms that I use. For example, banging the pieces and the clock, moving quick. Some of my opponents have thought I was a sandbagger, a hustler, someone who is much better than he portrays, to gain a advantage in order to win.


OK, Denver; play nicely when we start and don't show cockiness, just make the moves very mellow, like a summer walk in Golden Gate Park . . .


I get up and walk up to the table with water and paper cups, where Dick, our team president and highest rated player, says to me, "You, OK? You look so serious and worried. Where’s your usual smile? You aren’t your normal self. Relax. Everything will be fine."


"Just my luck, I'll be the first person to meet his demise with a clock, pawn or a chess king stuck into my head, in a prison."


Dick turns and looks at my opponent and says sarcastically, "Yeah, I think you're right. He does looks bad. Better be careful how you win."


"You really think he's dangerous?"


"Sure he is. Why do you think he’s in here? Because he’s an altar boy?  Look at the expression on his face. Look at the bulging arm muscles. You're in big trouble," he says with a snicker.


"Thanks, Dick; that's just what I needed."


"Players. Please go to your boards," said the tournament director.


"Denver, we've never had a problem. They're low-security convicts." I needed to hear those reassuring words again. We hadn’t even started, and I was wishing it was over.


I sit down and glance at Jim, who is getting his writing pad ready.


"Good luck to everyone. Blacks, please start your clocks." Jim, without showing any emotion, nor looking at me, nonchalantly reaches over and pushes the button to start my time clock.


Take it easy! Wait, wait and pretend you're thinking, then move . . .


On my chess pad I just write my move down, and I move my King's pawn 


1. e4.


I push the button to start his time on the chess clock. He writes down my move. It takes him seven seconds to respond and restart my clock.


I write each move made, so I can replay the game later. It's also a record in case there is a dispute of an illegal move or the game.


Don't move . . . Take your time Denver . . . O.K. . . Write, move. . .


We continue this routine without either of us speaking to each other. The same is happening on all the other boards. Very seldom is something said to the other person. It's a not done in formal games.


I'm surprised that I'm ahead several pieces early in the opening phase. . . He and I are ranked "C" beginner players, but I'm better. . .


He lost several pieces because of serious blunders. I have good position and many possibilities. Gradually, my play begins to speed up, barely using my clock time. I'm just playing chess now. I'm relaxed and enjoying it; I’m oblivious to where I am. I start to slam the pieces down, louder, and I smack the clock harder as I make each  move. I use that as an intimidating tactic. I call it psychological gesticulation, and that tactic works sometimes.






It's my move next. I love playing white.


Hmmm . . . If I take his knight with my knight, check, he moves to g8. I move to h6 and double check, he has to move the king to h8. I check with my Queen sacrifice on g8. He has to take it with the Rook. Back I go. check on f7 with the Knight . . . Checkmate! . . .


Wow! That's a four-move Smother mate combination . . .  Denver, don't write down moves anymore, do that later! Just play it out . . .


I push the writing pad away. I take his Knight with my Knight.


16. Nxf7+  ...


I bang the clock, "CHECK!" I say loudly.


He looks at the position and thinks for about thirty seconds. He doesn't  look at me.


I can see that he is trying to see what is going to happen. His eyes are darting here and there.


He moves his King


20 ...  Kg8.


He gently presses the time clock button and writes his move down.


Instantly, I grab the Knight and slam it on


21. Nh6+!  . . .


I smack the clock,  "Double check," I say loudly.


Still, he shows no reaction. He writes my move down and just stares at the board. Up goes his hand and it just hovers over the pieces. If he touches a piece he has to move it. Seconds later, he  picks up the King and moves it to


21. . . .   Kh8


and presses the clock.He is cool in the heat of battle.


Maybe he doesn't know what's coming?. . . He doesn't see it. . .


After pondering for just a second, I grab my Queen and slam her down next to his King, queen to


22. Qg8+


"CHECK again," I say very loud, hitting the clock at the same time. I make sure that everyone in the room hears I'm attacking. Without looking at the other players I know some of my team looked over at me. They know that I’m in control. He glances up at me, then he looks at the board. I'm sacrificing my queen. I forgot the thought that he is dangerous.


I'm ready please make the move . . . Come on. Move! . . . There is nothing more for you do to do but resign. . . Mate is coming. Let's go! . . .


From his right side he moves his Rook, takes my Queen:


22. .....  Rxg8


and very gently presses the clock and goes to write the move down. But before he can do that, I reached for the Knight and plunk it down


22. Ne7++!


"CHECK MATE!" I yell and I smack the clock. He is still writing his move down


"What a mate. A smothered mate. How could you have not seen that? Are you blind? Any fool would have seen that. It"s a classic mate." I did it with a knight, even. I get up and extended my hand out to shake hands.       


Instantly his eye focused on me. I could see the anger boiling in his eyes. His unblinking eyes are glaring at me. We're eye to eye, like two snakes waiting to strike. The room is deathly quiet. No one had seen me play this game, they just heard me being loud. Several seconds pass.


His facial expression changes to boiling anger and he says. "You're a stupid jerk. An arrogant, obnoxious jerk."        


Abruptly he gets up and lunges at me with outstretched hands. His body comes over the chess table, his hands grasp my shirt collar and he  lands a hard punch on my mouth. I fall backwards to the floor.


The Chess pieces fly off the table and clatter as they landed on the cement. He lands on top straddling me. Raising his right hand he hits me with quick hard blows to my face. My glasses are flung across the room. As I lay on the floor, he's keeps hitting me quick blows to my face. I feel the blood running from my nose and cuts he inflicts. I am try to deflect the punches with my arms and I rotate my body to avoid more of them.


Several of my players get up and try to stop Jim from hitting me.


"Hey! Stop that you guys." A player yells.


The door to the room flings open and several guards with batons in hand rush into the room.


"OK. Hold it. Stop the fighting. Freeze!" a guard shout at us.


I feel the blows stop. I turned to look at him, I see a chess clock in his hand coming toward my face. I tried to dodge the blow and turn my head. It lands on my left temple. I hear the gush of blood spurt out immediately. That blow knocks me out and I lay on the floor like a sack of potatoes.


I wake up in the prison hospital. I'm still alive. I can't see. My head is wrapped up and some kind of oxygen mask is keeping me alive.


"See? You said you were going to be the first killed here. You're still alive Denver." The club president says softly. I hear him but I can't respond.


"The doctor said that you will be transferred to San Francisco soon. You're going to be O.K."


Dick was wrong, minutes later, internal head bleeding and blood clot in my brain made the difference. It was to late I never left the prison hospital alive. I was dead.


I knew I would be the first I told them so. Jim Walters will soon be in trouble. Maybe if I just hadn't been such a jerk It would have been different. . .


With all the worry about getting hurt, or being physically attacked, I even imagined my own demise . . .


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =


Back I'n reality, I am here still playing this chess game.


Immediately I reached for the Knight and plunked it on f7, "CHECK MATE!" I say and I smack the clock.


Instantly his eyes focus on me. I can see his unblinking eyes. We are eye to eye, like two snakes waiting to strike. Several seconds pass.


Oh no . . . Here it comes . . .


He reaches out with his right hand and says, "Nice game," and a smile comes across his face. He shakes my hand also uses his left had to cover both hands which is a warm friendly gesture.


Pheww! . . . I am so relieved he isn't upset by the loss . . .


"Thanks. I got lucky," I say.


"No. You weren't lucky. That was a great mate. You play really well.  You are better than a C rated player. I'm going to study our game."


"I never imagined that I would play that mate in one of my games. Can I send you the copy of the Classic game where it was first used? I just started playing in this league and all un-rated players start on the C board. This is my first match game."


"Please send it, and thanks for coming to San Quentin to play chess with us. As you know, we have to play all our games at home. They don't let us out, even though we keep asking."


We both laughed at that remark.


"Shhh.... Keep it down. The others are still playing." the director says.


Wow. This prisoner is just normal, like a normal person.


"Hey Denver, you want to play another game while we wait?" Jim whispers.


"Sure it will be a at least two hours for some of them. This time you play white."


Hmm....  How should I play him? . . . Should I win? . . . Here I go again. . .


 = = = = = = = = = = =




I never went back to San Quentin to play chess. I hope you enjoyed this piece and the presentation.












Interesting plot (I read the whole thing, don't worry). I like how the story went through four different perspectives. First how it would look like in your imagination (as if you didn't know what was going to happen), then how it is, and is, in reality. The third perspective made me cringe just a bit, but I like how it's "action-packed". Then the fourth just made me laugh...

I can't believe that this ACTUALLY happened. Your lucky not to get beat up after all...Wink

Overall, great story. Would love to read more of these. You should make a book.


I enjoyed your story, thanks for posting it.


Eh, hate to sound like an idiot or ass, but is this story true? Undecided


I enjoyed the story...thanks.


I usually don't read such long forum posts, but then again it's usually not this well written Smile.  I liked it.


Hi to all of you that made a comment.

I went to San Quentin only once. it was too stressful for me. I kept thinking the worst would happen. My mental state was my problem not my team mates. I won my  match in fifteen minutes.

I forgot to say it was one of my memoir pieces. I have about 170 pieces that I have written. Of course they are not all this interesting.

I Belonged to the Daly City Chess club and I played the "C" board. It was where the unrated players start. I stayed playing chess and I ended rated as a  agressive "B" player. I had to quit because my wife and I started a family.

I posted this because it was about chess.

Bye for now



This is the view of the current chess play at San Quentin. When I went women were not allowed to be part of the team that played the inmates.
I think the room was a dedication to Keres.

That was Awesome! read the entire thing

piturtle wrote:

Eh, hate to sound like an idiot or ass, but is this story true? 

Ouch, well I'm both. Great story, Denverhigh. I usually don't take my time to read long posts, but this one was well written.


Hi there.   bellchessteam19

I appreciate the remarks that you made about the different part of the piece. I never liked English when I was in high school and that was 60 years ago.

When I retired ,I started writing my memoirs for my four sons and their families  so they would know where the family came from. At least my side of the family.

I sucked, I wrote terrible. I didn't know about dialog to show instead of telling, punctuation, tenses, etc. etc. etc.

I took English courses at the local Jr. College. I took creative writing classes and found that they cannot teach you to write creatively, it comes from within yourself.

I am still learning and your comments really help me for my other pieces.

Thanks so much my friend.


what a story ... I mean that in a good way thanx Smile


Really good read... shame you couldn't post whole game...


This was something out of the ordinary, and an entertaining read. Thanks for posting... good game!!


Interesting read, I imagined most visitors being quite nervous when playing at San Quentin.



Kxg8 would be bad for you, onetwentysix.


Great writing. Nice read.


Denver, thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story with us.  It makes me want to find a similar opportunity here in the midwest, as I have no doubts that the inmates at San Quentin enjoy these matches immeasurably !!


I take no prisoners

onetwentysix wrote: place a pgn puzzle



Thanks for reading and putting in the puzzle, but if the king takes the Queen, there is no mate.


The Knight has to check first.

1. Nf7+  Kg8

2. Nh6+ double check  Kh8

3. Qg8+ next move is forces. Rxg8

4. Nf7 smother mate.



On the lower part of the puzzle, Black has two possible threat mates.

So it has to be forced moves for white above.

tonydal wrote:

I too once played at San Quentin.  This was around 1975...and I played the biggest, meanest-looking guy there (not an easy trophy to win, as you might imagine).  I won a couple pawns from him early, but he hung in there and came back nicely to win the game.

Hi Tonydal

What was the name of the club that you played for? You were there done that.



             Thanks for the comment.


The main reason the prisoners steal a chess piece because they melt down the black pieces and use them to make the Tattos. Then they trade them for stuff. So now they use wood light/dark or plastic without black pieces.