Chess Wars: 20 Inmates, 5 Weeks, 1 Champion Deep in the woods of New Hampshire, 20 inmates are engaged in a fierce chess tournament in a secluded prison. The prize may be just a paper certificate, but even then, winning means a lot.
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Chess Wars: 20 Inmates, 5 Weeks, 1 Champion

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Chess Wars: 20 Inmates, 5 Weeks, 1 Champion

Chess Wars: 20 Inmates, 5 Weeks, 1 Champion

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's a contest underway in New Hampshire, and no, we're not just talking about the presidential primary - a five-week chess championship tournament in a prison. The winner who emerges in a few weeks won't get money or a prize or a trophy, just a piece of paper saying they're the best chess player at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility. It might not sound like much, but as reporter Keith O'Brien found out, for the inmates, it's a big deal.

O'BRIEN: The prison can be found deep in the woods, down back roads warning drivers to be wary of moose - so far north, actually, so close to the Canadian border that some inmates in Berlin have never received a visitor behind these walls and locked doors. But every Wednesday evening, almost without fail, one man shows up right on time.

ALBERT FRENCH: Albert French, volunteer - chess volunteer. I teach chess.

O'BRIEN: French is a big guy - stout and wide, bald and wearing a bushy, gray goatee. He's 60 years old, and he has a day job.

FRENCH: I'm a postal employee, a clerk. I'm the guy that sells you stamps over the counter when you come in. So my days are pretty long. I go in at 6, and I get out at 5:30. And then on Wednesday nights, I come up here.

O'BRIEN: In prisons across the country, chess is a popular pastime, an easy way to while away the hours when you've got hours to give. But French is an A-level chess player with a rating of 1,921. That puts him in the 94th percentile in the nation, in the top 20 players in the state. And from the moment he arrived at the prison eight years ago, he set out to do things a bit differently - working with the inmates.

FRENCH: So the one lesson here is - I want you to try and walk away from this with is king safety. Your game wasn't that bad. I did not have a lot of moves to make.

O'BRIEN: They wouldn't just play. They'd learn. And every winter, the men in his chess club would square off to determine who was best. Twenty inmates, five weeks, one champion, a title that each man hopes could be his.

SEVERINE WAMALA: Every beginning of the tournament, everyone is so pumped to say I'm going to win this time. I'm going to win this time.

O'BRIEN: Severine Wamala knows the feeling. The reigning champion, nine years into a 20-to-40-year sentence for sexual assault, has won the tournament seven years running. And he's kept his certificates, laying them out on the table to prove it.

WAMALA: Why is it a big deal? Well, you're a champion. It's as simple as that. It's the word champion. It's a big deal (laughter). Don't you see that? 2015 champion? That's it. That's all you get. Yeah, you don't get anything else.

MICHAEL BEVERLY: But he has lost, and people remember. I've beaten him, and I was only a 1,600 player at the time.

O'BRIEN: Inmate Michael Beverly.

BEVERLY: People can lose. They can miss a chance. And if you take advantage of it, you can win. And some people coming knowing that.

O'BRIEN: On the night the tournament began, Sue Young opened the door to the chess room, a windowless space with cinderblock walls and concrete floors.

SUE YOUNG: I have lots of keys today.

O'BRIEN: She's the prison's director of programs. Without her blessing, chess doesn't happen. But from the start, she saw the value in making French's club and even his tournament available to inmates who stayed discipline-free.

YOUNG: Chess is all about rules, right? And that's one of the big things that they learn while they're involved in this, is how important it is to follow rules.

O'BRIEN: The pieces can only move a certain way. And if you move one too quickly, if you're rash, you'll lose it. The consequences for your decisions are immediate. But if you think, focus, take your time, who knows? In chess, like life, anything can happen.

FRENCH: So let's do it. The boards are all numbered. First board will be Wamala, white, against Lique. OK. Pierce is board two against Lee.

O'BRIEN: French called out the pairings for round one with the room abuzz, the men anxious.

FRENCH: Keep it down. Keep it down until I'm done.

O'BRIEN: The inmates, dressed in green uniforms, took their seats, one across from the other. In a few weeks, one of them will be crowned the winner. They'll get that certificate. But even they know it doesn't really matter who prevails. It's a privilege, they say, just to be in the room, staring at a board in silence, thinking. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in Berlin, N.H.

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