When he and I arrived at Trenton State, he carried an official chess time clock for the Gooding-Rutherford final and for his match against the winner. He handed over his dorm-room keys and his cellphone to a prison guard and made the depressing walk into the heart of the prison.
I had interviewed Gooding and Rutherford, separately and at length, several days before their tournament final. Rutherford, 30, started playing chess after he went to prison at 18. He was convicted of killing, by a gunshot to the head, the owner of a Camden grocery store during a 1992 robbery and is serving a life sentence. "I just wish I'd discovered chess when I was 10," he said. Winning the prison chess title would be his greatest accomplishment, he added, and would prove to his mother that "I'm doing something good with my life."
Gooding, who turns 40 in June, said he started playing as a boy in North Philadelphia. He even scored well enough on a test to get into Central, one of the city's elite public high schools, but was thrown out after his freshman year for poor attendance. He said he seldom played chess in prison because there wasn't enough competition for him. He was sentenced to life for fatally shooting a North Philadelphia man during a drug deal in 1987 and handed another life sentence for wounding two people in a shooting spree at a Camden apartment complex a day after the first incident. In '90, while serving time at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, a decrepit 19th-century fortress of a penitentiary, Gooding and another inmate used small tools to chip through a two-foot-thick stone wall before being caught on the outer prison grounds.
I asked Gooding what he thought the Princeton campus was like. "I know exactly what it's like," he said.
"I've been there. I had an uncle who went there, Frederick Gooding. My mother's brother. He went to Princeton, and then he went to medical school at Howard. Now he's a doctor. I visited him at Princeton when I was a little kid."
With inmates, you can never be sure. I called Princeton. Frederick Gooding was right there in the alumni records, class of '73, which means that Carl was nearly nine when his uncle graduated.
Don Mee introduced Sam Benen to the finalists and the 30 inmate spectators. Benen explained that no serious, competitive chess is played without a clock and said that each player would be given 30 minutes per game. He also said there would be a tiebreaker, with its own set of rules, if the players split the two scheduled games. There was some grumbling. Gooding hadn't played on a clock in 25 years, and Rutherford never had. They had played best of three, without a clock, throughout the tournament, with the third game played the same way as the first two.
Gooding drew white for the first game, meaning he would make the first move, which gave him a considerable advantage. He moved his pieces forcefully, landing them with a decisive thud, but his play was conservative. Rutherford was wearing on his right wrist a rubber band on which he had written the letters WFMM, for Win For My Mom. His play was aggressive—if there was a piece to capture, he'd capture it—but his manner was not. During the most tense moments of the match the only sound you could hear in the warm room was the whirring of giant fans. In a quiet voice Benen told me that the players' moves were "unorthodox, untrained, but not illogical."
For most of the first game Rutherford had a slight edge. On Move 24, however, he blundered, capturing a pawn but leaving his queen unprotected. Two moves later Gooding cornered and checkmated him. The second game, in which Rutherford played white, was a reverse of Game 1 with Rutherford winning in 22 moves.