The passenger in my car, Samson Julius Benen, was the best chess player at Princeton. With his smart-kid cheekiness, he made you think of the actor Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller. But you couldn't blame him. He grew up affluent in New York City, the only child of devoted parents. As a schoolboy he was a chess prodigy, and now he was a freshman economics major at a university that had long trained the best and the brightest. When I asked him to name his favorite stock of the moment, he touted Sara Lee in such a knowing way that I almost turned over my 401(k) to him. His mother, he said, had already given him control of hers.
It was early on a cold, rainy weekday morning in April, and we were driving the 15 miles from the Princeton campus to Trenton State Prison, the only maximum-security correctional facility in New Jersey. Benen was going to referee the final matchup in the prison's chess tournament, then take on the winner.
"Nobody in there is going to beat me," Benen said, explaining that mere were, at best, 200 players in the U.S. who were better than he was, and not one was doing time in a Jersey big house.
I handed him two pieces of paper, the closest thing there was to a tournament press packet. They were rap sheets for the finalists, Carl Gooding and Jay Rutherford. I had been making regular visits to the prison for six weeks. I knew mat Rutherford had an easy smile and a relaxed manner and that Gooding did not.
Benen was 19 but looked as if he were preparing for his bar mitzvah. He considered the inmates' mug shots and vital statistics: birth dates, body measurements, aliases, criminal offenses, incarceration histories.
"Murder," Benen said. He turned the page. "And...murder. Wow."
One day late last year I read a story in my morning newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, about four players from the Princeton chess club who had visited the New Jersey State Prison, as the Trenton penitentiary is officially known, to play 55 inmates. It wasn't serious chess. Each student played 13 or 14 prisoners at the same time. The score was Princeton 50, Trenton State 2, with three draws. I wondered how good the best player at Trenton State might be, and how his mind might work.
It was easy to identify the best player at Princeton. Sam Benen, class of '07 and one of the four students who played the inmates, was a chess master (the equivalent of a scratch golfer, and then some). His International Chess Federation rating was a flashy 2,320. (The highest-rated U.S. player, Alexander Onischuk, has a 2,652.) From the third through 12th grades at Hunter, an elite public school in Manhattan, he won seven national scholastic chess titles.
Identifying the best inmate chess player was another matter. Roy Hendricks, the Trenton State warden (administrator, technically), was immediately open to SI's idea of holding a prison chess tournament and men having the winner play the Princeton kid. Since the state of New Jersey had put the kibosh on prison boxing programs about a decade ago—fear of HIV transmission and taxpayers' objections to inmates' engaging in the violence of boxing—Hendricks, a large, bearded and pensive man who played tackle on his high school football team in Utica, N.Y., had been eager to find programs to enrich the lives of his 1,940 inmates, 85% of whom were on death row or had been sentenced to life without parole. He invited inmates to participate in the tournament, beginning with the first round in early March. Thirty-two signed up. March Madness came to Trenton State.
The hulking prison comprised connected buildings from different centuries, the whole complex outlined by a 20-foot-high wall topped with razor ribbon. It is in downtown Trenton, in a poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood. Hendricks lives in a magnificent 1797 stone house attached to the prison. The inmates live in small, bare cells—one or two to a cell—in which they spend roughly 16 hours a day. "I get the worst of the worst," Hendricks said as we watched inmates play chess, a game that seems genteel but is rooted in war. The eyes of a guard nearby darted constantly, watching not the games but the players' hands. "You can never forget what they're in for and that they'd escape if they could."