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 there 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 that
Rutherford had an easy smile and a relaxed manner and that
Gooding did not.
May 30, 2004
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
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 then 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
During the pause before the tiebreaker, Benen re-created from
memory every move in both games and explained superior moves with
which either player could have won. It was all black-did-this and
white-did-that and black-should-have-done-this. The players and
the spectators huddled around the board, awed by how quickly and
precisely Benen worked. Minutes later, when he explained the
International Chess Federation rules for a tiebreaker, nobody
fussed at all.
Rutherford drew black, which gave him two handicaps: He would
play second, and he would have only five minutes on his clock,
while white would have six. But he had one major advantage: Under
the tiebreaker rules, a draw for black would be considered a win.
From the first move, the room was tense. The tournament had taken
on an outsized importance because there's little chance of being
recognized for anything when serving a life sentence. Gooding
went up a pawn early and won in 27 moves. He shook Rutherford's
hand with a slap, high-fived his friends, poured himself a cup of
coffee and prepared for Benen.
Gooding drew white for the first game against the Princeton kid.
For much of the game he sat with his head in his hands, hunched
over his pieces. Benen's eyes wandered all over the room.
Hendricks thought it was an act, to give the impression that the
match didn't require his full attention, but at a certain point
it did. Benen kept waiting for Gooding to make a mistake, but
Gooding made one sound move after another. The final two minutes
of the game were played at a furious pace: Make a move, hit the
clock; make a move, hit the clock. It was like the final seconds
of a prizefight that's tied on points, when the boxers, sucking
wind, get in a flurry of last-chance punches. It was a monster of
a game. Benen won after his 56th move, when Gooding ran out of
time. The inmate was spent. In the second game Benen played white
and won easily.
When it was over, Benen told Gooding, "At Move 44 [of the first
game] you could have had me." He quickly re-created their
positions on the board. "Had you done this, this and this"--he
went through a long series of moves and countermoves--"you could
have drawn me."
I asked Roy Hendricks if he would consider allowing a rematch.
"Yes," he said. "This was good."
"How about a home game for Sam?" I asked, meaning Gooding would
go to Princeton, three decades after his uncle had left.
"No," the warden said slowly. "No. No. No. No way."
The inmates had surrounded Benen, looking to get his autograph.
Phillip Dixon, the poet of "scribbled signatures," was among
Before Gooding went back to his cell, he said to me, "I played
him better than you ever thought I could, didn't I." He wasn't
asking a question. He doesn't do that much. He was stating a
A couple of weeks later, back in Philadelphia, I looked up a man
named Otis Burgess, who had taught Gooding chess in the late
1970s when Carl was in middle school. Burgess knew that Gooding
was doing a long sentence but not much else. After not hearing
from him for years, Burgess received a prison call from Gooding
in the mid-'90s. "He kept saying, 'They're trying to execute
me,'" Burgess told me.
Burgess had learned chess in the late 1960s, while serving 18
months in a Pennsylvania prison for a robbery conviction. Now he
worked in a restaurant kitchen and played chess over the
Internet, through the mail and, on certain Sunday evenings, at
the McDonald's where we were meeting.
"I remember hearing about this little kid who would sit on his
stoop with his chessboard and challenge grown-ups," Burgess said.
"I put fliers up and down his block, looking for kids who wanted
to play. He answered that. We'd go all over the city playing
tournaments--at schools, at the Holiday Inn in Center City,
sometimes over to Jersey. The whole experience of chess was a
mindblower for him."
Burgess said he had met Carl's mother. "She had her hands full,"
he said. The boy did not have a father at home. Burgess knew that
Carl needed a father figure but that he was not the one. He
remembers Gooding getting thrown out of Central and getting into
cocaine and street crime. They fell out of each other's lives.
"He always had a temper," said Burgess, "but he never showed it
I handed Burgess a recent mug shot of Gooding, the same one Benen
had seen. "You see, that's not the Carl I knew," Burgess said.
"The Carl I knew was from a long time ago."
I visited Carl's mother, Carole, in her bright row house in West
Philadelphia. She had Carl when she was 15. Carl's father, she
said, was an 18-year-old, low-level mob street hustler in South
Philadelphia. When Carl was born, Carole took him to his father's
house. The father's mother answered the door. Carole says the
lady looked at the infant and said, "Get that n----- baby off my
Carole eventually got a high school diploma, a college degree, a
master's degree and then became a Philadelphia middle school
teacher. She said she had applied for an assistant-principal
position. She talked to Carl almost daily on the phone and
visited him about once a month. "All he talks about now is chess,
chess, chess," she said. "He wants chess books and magazines. He
wants Mr. Burgess's address. He says he needs better
Carl Gooding was high on cocaine when he shot the two people in
the Camden apartment complex in 1987. One of the victims was left
a paraplegic. There was an address for him in Philadelphia, in a
subsidized apartment complex, but residents said he had never
lived there. The other victim was Lloyd Wallace, a retired
Philadelphia police officer who lived in an apartment in Atlantic
City. Seventeen years ago Gooding broke in on him and shot him in
the face--amazingly, the wound was superficial--and Wallace shot
back at Gooding, grazing him. Wallace testified during Gooding's
trial that he was sorry he hadn't killed Gooding, and Wallace
told me that he did not regret his testimony. "He was trying to
kill me," Wallace said.
Still, he was pleased to hear that Gooding had won the Trenton
State Prison chess championship. "A man's got to do something
with his life," Wallace said. "Otherwise, it's all just a waste."
Dixon's chess was deliberate--nearly nine hours for three games.
When you're doing life, there's no real incentive to play fast.
Before Gooding went back to his cell, he said, "I played him
better than you ever thought I could, didn't I?"