In 2005 and 2006, I spent a year in federal prison for the alleged crime of “illicit sale of archaeological artifacts.” It’s not my case that I want to write about but the people I met while serving time. I was sentenced to a prison in northern Ohio on the Pennsylvania border near Youngstown, a one-time crime family capital of the state where a once strong steel industry gave way to corruption and gangs. It was, I suppose, a suitable location for a prison.
The unit where I was housed was over an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) block that contained mostly Hispanic inmates but also black, Dominican and Mexican prisoners along with a smattering of Europeans. It was from this unit I made my best friends. There was Andrew from Poland and Thomas from Germany and there were, of course, the Russians. Most of the latter were from Uzbekistan.
As one who had a passion for reading and writing, I spent most of my free time doing so. It doesn’t take much to earn a reputation in lock-up and I was soon dubbed the “Professor.”
Damn Professor, you reading another book? Haven’t you read every book by now?
I was often the deciding vote on many a prison debate. Hey Professor, is the moon a planet or a star? And even (this was a serious question, I swear), do brown cows give chocolate milk?
Still, these were not stupid people behind bars. It was simply a case of many having different priorities other than higher education. “I coulda had an education,” one guy told me as I helped him study English for his GED, “it’s just that I was too busy chasing drugs and pussy.”
So it came to pass that when the Russians were looking for new chess partners, they eventually came knocking on my cell door. Now I am no chess player and had a vague memory of how some of the pieces moved but still, I was after all, the Professor and it was my destiny to play. To play badly.
There were two new Russians in the INS unit, Yuri and Mikail. Yuri was the poster boy for the Soviet worker, massive and strong, in his 50s with a big mustache. He was a man of few words, especially English words. Yuri had hands the size of my head and I’m sure he could have squeezed the gray matter out of my ears without much effort. He was polite and kind to me however and I eventually taught him to say “shut up” as he was fond of saying “no talkink!”
Mikail was younger and more street savvy. He spoke a good bit of English and we got along well though I suspect he would have had little remorse if I gave him reason to shank my throat. “Nothing personal comrade,” I could imagine him saying of my blood drained body, “it is jist biz ee ness.”
Mikail told me how a friend of his had his ears cut off after being apprehended while driving a “shipment” across a border back in the homeland. That was the kind of crowd he ran with I suppose. He told me of high rollers, parties where nude woman served as human coffee tables for glasses of fine potato vodka and whose bare backs served as ash trays.
Maybe Mikail was just playing with my head but I was never in the mood to press him. He was an earnest young man. And besides, his tales always kept my interest, regardless of their reliability and depravity.
Greg, another inmate from the Soviet Union, was different. He was a Russian immigrant who lived in Cleveland and was a concert pianist. What his crime was I never knew. I never asked. Greg was about my age, in his mid 40s with curly black hair and halting English. His younger brother was a teenage chess champion back in Russia but quit forever when he was defeated by a girl his own age. Russians have their own vision of honor I learned.
Greg played though. He was never a serious practitioner of the game as his younger brother once was, Perhaps the fear of being defeated by a woman terrified him into paroxysm of pure anxiety. I don’t know. The Russians were enigmatic to me, too hard to read. I could never tell what they were thinking. But Greg made it clear that he wanted me to play chess. He wanted to play the Professor.
I would be honored to play you, I said. I hold your country in high esteem and would love to visit your home someday.
Greg nodded as if this was natural. I would love to play everyone in your country a game of chess, I told him and again he nodded. He seemed pleased. I felt I was doing more for US/Russian relations than any American President. We agreed to play the following weekend as to allow a few days of hype and psychological tuning. The die was cast. The Ruskie/American die.
I asked around the next couple of days, if any of my friends remembered how to play chess. I found a guy who’d spent time in Soviet Georgia and he knew the moves. I quickly committed them to memory. By the time Saturday came, I could move everything, Bishops, Pawns, Knights. I just didn’t know where to move them too.
We played in an empty classroom, over in the building that housed a couple of pool tables, the prison church and the very small leisure library. We signed out the chess game from the game room that also had jump ropes and basket balls. I chose white, the color of American Capitalism, or so I imagined and Greg was stuck with black, representing the brooding nature of his people (or so he thought). We set up the board and got down to business.
I am a slow mover. Greg began to tell me about himself as he waited for my pieces to move. There was the time he had his appendix removed back in Russia, he told me as I scooted my men into certain death. They had no anesthesia so they took it out using only Novocain. They gave him a local and began to cut. It must have been an emergency to resort to such tactics but all went well until they ran out of Novocain midway through the operation. At this point, Greg said his breathing became short and he started to pass out but they revived him with some smelling salts and kept him alive as they finally yanked the offending organ from his body. He asked me if I wanted to see his scar but I passed. It was hard to move my knights after hearing that story.
We both continued to move our armies. Every time I moved a piece Greg would nod sternly and say “interestink,” as if there were some unforeseen brilliance on my part in the move. Certainly, my moves were so bad that Greg must have thought I had some brilliant master plan behind it because surely, no one would make such naïve and hopeless meandering trails. But I didn’t and in time, I think he saw me for the idiot I was though he never said as much to me.
I think I beat Greg once. But after every match he would thank me and shake my hand as if I’d just given him some heavy mental massage that he was still recovering from. My brain, cleansed of any Alzheimer residue, would reel for hours afterwards.
Chess brought us together, the Russians and I that is. I grew up in a time when the word Communist was as bad as calling someone a dumb shit, even worse maybe, it was an unspeakable thing to be. And Russians were all dark and evil people constantly plotting against us, itching to paint the White House red. Now I learned they were busy doing other things, like having budget operations and kicking chess ass as soon as they could walk. I liked these guys. I hope we never have to bomb each other.
I think of them often, the Russians of my prison, and hope they are out by now, returned to whatever or wherever they were before, thriving and telling of the dumb ass American whose ass they kicked at chess. Maybe we will cross paths again some day in some obscure country and have time to sit for a quick game. I hope so. Maybe I will be a better player by then.