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Twice folded in half, square and simple, with bent corners and several layers of clear tape, my tattered old chess board turned 21 years old this year.
This creased cardboard slab of 64 squares sits next to a hand-sewn cloth sack with a knotted drawstring. I happen to know that the illegible letters on the side of the bag say “Gerrald.”
We were neighbors in a maximum security prison in Florida back in 2015. He was almost 70 years old then, and we spent countless hours playing chess.
I began playing in grade school, and I rarely lose. I made sure to tell Gerrald this the first time he invited me to play. He smiled benevolently and said politely, “Maybe. I can still teach you a few things.”
I smiled. After all, I’d been a ranked chess club member in nine Federal Institutions. At that time, I particularly enjoyed annihilating older, more experienced players.
I commented on Gerrald’s old chess set. He told me he’d bought it new for two dollars in 2000, when he’d started his sentence. Then, he allowed me to make the opening move, which I did with a flourish. He made a few offhand, simple moves, and minutes later, I was drowning in a quagmire of pathetic defensive strategies.
Soon, his calm voice began to intone advice, wisdom and good habits to stay out of prison. This, while I desperately sought an avenue to the least humiliating manner of my own defeat.
He was toying with me!
Gerrald made a few more moves and gave me more advice, though none of it about chess. Then, he had no choice but to capture my helpless king.
In between games, he told me he was glad I was due for release in a year or so, but that sadly, he might not live to see the end of his sentence.
And so it went for about a year. I rarely lost games to anyone else, but not one time did I ever defeat Gerrald.
The night before my release, Gerrald issued some final advice and one particularly brutal defeat on the chess board. He wished me luck and said he hoped I was ready.
But I soon went back to my old ways. Only months later, I had new felony charges. I was sent back to that same prison, and when Gerrald first spotted me, he just shook his head.
“Didn’t you learn anything?” he asked. The next day on the yard, he refused to play even one game with me. Instead, he gave me the set and said, “Get it right this time, because one way or another, I won’t be here for the next time.”
He died soon after that. And then I got transferred. I don’t play much chess anymore, but with less than two years until my release, I think a lot about all that good advice I ignored.
32 titans of battle, grizzled and wise, lay cloistered in that sack. Among them are two proud kings and queens, huddling together in peace, waiting for game time again.
Half white and half black, the two sets lay at rest, evenly matched and ready.
Occasionally, they discuss why white always gets to go first.
Don’t mess with my two-dollar plastic and cardboard chess set.
I mean it.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact checked.