Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • When I wasn't walking the yard with Doug or worrying about every detail of my case, I sometimes taught men to play chess.

    Before I got there, no chess sets had been allowed inside - they said it was gambling --but when I told them of the great Mexican chess champions, and paid a healthy "inspection fee", they let F. bring me a set of cheap plastic pieces she had found in the market. I was looking forward to playing the game because by that time I had become resolved to needing distractions, as my case and the hot summer dragged on.

    I taught Doug the moves of all the pieces but he wasn't a good strategist and got himself into the same dead ends every time we played. He moved too fast, like he was playing checkers, and after we had made ten or twelve moves , he'd tip over his king and want to begin again. We would. I didn't care that he never gave me a good game. The game and his company was enough to keep me from more dire thoughts, and it was during these games that he told me about his life and his crimes and his wives, those divorced and those merely abandoned. I often marveled aloud to him about his conflicting code of ethics which sometimes displayed his Southern chivalry and as often showed his guile and disregard, his lying and his pimping of a long list of women, poor women of the South and even poorer women of Mexico. He would shush me, light another cheap cigarette and try to study the board.

    Over time, I taught several dozen men to play the game and while many only played a few times and gave up in frustration, quite a number kept playing and taught others with sets that they made from hand- painted boards and bottle caps. Soon we had enough players for a chess tournament in the library.

    I taught chess to thieves and murderers, pimps and drug dealers, kidnappers and embezzlers, army deserters and rapists. I earnestly taught them all, no matter how despicable their crime or reputation. I found no particular group of criminals any better at the game than any other. The man who murdered his lover played no more aggressively than the old man who picked tourist's pockets for a living. The bank embezzler was not a better strategist than the drug dealer or the car thief. The one thing that they had in common was that they all wanted to beat this gringo.

    While we played, I heard their stories. Each claimed to be innocent, or would shrug off the severity of their crime and claim his sentence unfair. That's the way that it is in prison -- if you proclaim your innocence often enough, others might believe you and pretty soon you'll believe it yourself, and then maybe there's a chance that the judge will believe you and set you free. I never heard a man admit his guilt -- nor did I. We were a village of innocents.

    It was very satisfying teaching those men to play chess -- especially when I saw them begin to think strategically and see more possibilities and realize that the balance of power was controlled by the pawns--the little guys , seemingly powerless like themselves -- but who when joined together by a strategy, controlled the game. When I saw that they realized this, I tried to make an inspiring speech about little guys overthrowing tyrants -- such as in their own country -- but my Spanish was not good enough and if anyone knew about powerlessness. it was these men. And from inside that place it sure didn't seem like there was any overthrowing to be done , except maybe on the chessboard sitting between us.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.