Most of the inmates were in for murder. Some were famous, at least in New Jersey: The recent trials of two prisoners, one a contract killer for the mob and the other a rabbi who had his wife killed, got a lot of ink. Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, the former boxer and the subject of a Bob Dylan song, did time at Trenton State.
To enter the prison, you walk through a metal detector, get frisked and then head down a succession of windowless corridors and through a series of heavy metal doors with electronic locks, each closing loudly behind you before the next one opens. The journey in, particularly the first time, is unnerving, even with a visitor's badge on your lapel and a guard at your side.
The five rounds of the tournament were conducted over five weeks in a prison meeting room that looked like a high school cafeteria, except that the windows to the adjacent courtyard did not open and the doors were guarded and locked. Refreshments—juice and butter cookies—were served. Before the first round, two inmates set up 16 rubber chessboards and the corresponding 512 plastic chess pieces, looking like overworked busboys laying out silverware.
The 32 players had to remove their shoes and submit them for inspection. (During a recent religious service, one inmate had stabbed another with a metal shank he had hidden in his shoe.) The inmates all wore khaki pants, and most wore khaki shirts; they expressed their individualism through their hair and words. There were shaved heads and crewcuts and dreadlocks. One player, Phillip Dixon, had a Jimi Hendrix-style Afro and answered questions in long soliloquies. His chess game was deliberate. In one round he took nearly nine hours to play three games. When you're doing life, there's no real incentive to play fast.
One day Dixon gave me an envelope filled with his neatly typed poems, mostly about the black experience in America. One stanza of a poem called Nat Turner's Blade was about hero worship:
YOUR CHILDREN SCREAM MY NAME—HOPING FOR A SCRIBBLED SIGNATURE ON A PIECE OF LAMINATED CARDBOARD.
Between games Dixon and I talked about his experiences playing football and basketball while growing up in Camden, N.J., and about how Dajuan Wagner, a 2001 graduate of Camden High, was making out in the NBA When the field was down to Gooding and Rutherford, Dixon made his rooting interest clear. Rutherford was a Camden man, which gave Dixon reason enough to pull for him, and Gooding was from Philadelphia, which gave Dixon "all the more reason to hate him," he said. In an ill-considered attempt at defending Gooding's native city, I told Dixon that I lived in Philadelphia. "That don't change my opinion none," he said.
As the field was whittled over the next four weeks, the losing contestants became committed spectators, murmuring about moves they did not like. Don Mee, a veteran prison supervisor, said he had never witnessed a prison event, including religious services, in which the inmates had become so absorbed. A few of the players carried chess books that had been donated to the prison library by BeneCard, a New Jersey benefits company at which chess is part of the corporate culture the way golf is at other companies. There was more trash talk than at an ordinary chess tournament. A young player defeated a fellow inmate nearly twice his age and said, "Time for your nap, old man!" There were arguments, of course: You lifted your finger off the piece, dude! You own that move! On the other hand, you saw few of the facial tics and strange, repetitive body movements seen among players at a typical chess tournament. Mostly, you saw men in khaki shirts huddled over boards, lost in concentration. They were playing for keeps.
When he's not a resident of a suite in one of the Gothic dormitories at Princeton, Sam Benen lives with his parents in a two-bedroom apartment on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His mother, Jennifer Hershey, manages a consortium of five Broadway theaters, and his father, Neil, is a water-systems engineer who runs his own water-equipment distribution company. The family apartment is steps from Washington Square Park, the epicenter of chess hustling in Manhattan, and several blocks from the Marshall Chess Club, the old and famous sanctuary of elite chess players in the city. Those were the two main haunts of Josh Waitzkin—the child prodigy depicted in Searching for Bobby Fischer—and of Sam Benen too. When he was in sixth grade, Sam appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, playing chess against the host.
Growing up, Sam was a Little League second baseman who played on asphalt diamonds, a child actor with bit parts in two films, a devoted fan of the New York Yankees, an elevator operator at the St. James Theatre (where he met the real Matthew Broderick), a straight-A student, and a TV and film fanatic. He was particularly fond of crime shows, The Godfather movies and The Shawshank Redemption, a film about a wrongly accused banker who uses a rock pick to chip through his cell wall to freedom. One of the most disappointing moments of Sam's young life came when he was rejected by Yale.