Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mile 14 - Behind the Wall

“Don’t you live in Massachusetts? Why go to Kansas?” Martin asked.

“My father is living in the area,” I said, not wanting to reveal his exact location.

Martin Morrison, Executive Director of the U. S. Chess Federation, was on the phone. I called him in response to a press release announcing that President Ford declared October 9, 1976, as “National Chess Day.” For the first time, a sitting president set aside “a day to give special recognition to a game that generates intellectual stimulation and enjoyment for citizens of all ages.”

The objective of the program was to instigate growth in the popularity of chess by staging as many chess events as possible in schools, libraries, prisons and shopping malls around the country. Leavenworth Penitentiary was on the list of venues that expressed interest in hosting an event.

“Well, we still need players and not many others have expressed interest in visiting prisons. If you can make it at 5:30 pm on the 9th, the gig is yours,” he said.

“Playing 15 or 20 simultaneous chess games will be fun,” I said.

My credentials for the assignment were not exactly stellar. I earned my correspondence chess master title the previous year in the old American Postal Chess League and won my section of the most recent New York State Championship. But my over-the-board rating of 1956 was only Class A in the U.S. Chess Federation’s ratings hierarchy, two levels below Master. The thought quickly occurred to me that I could go out there and lose all my games. Still, it seemed like the right thing to do.

I was on hold 45 minutes when a familiar voice came on the line.
“Hello, son, what’s wrong?”
“Hi Dad, nothing is wrong. I’m coming to visit you on October 9th,” I said.
“You will need to get clearance,” he said. “So far, nobody has been allowed to see me.”
“It’s all set up. I’m an invited guest of the Department of Corrections.”
I gave him the details but couldn’t tell whether or not he was pleased.
“I’ll come early so we can talk,” I said. “They told me I can have dinner in the mess hall with the inmates.”
“Okay, we can sit together. I’ll introduce you to some of my new friends.”
“I’ll bring you some cigarettes, Dad. Is there anything else you need?”
“Yes, I would like a bible. I’m taking a course and want to become an ordained minister,” he said.

Thoughts of my dad in a cleric collar pushed aside everything else I had on my mind and, after an uncomfortable pause, I said: “Hey Dad, do me a favor. Please don’t bet any money on me this time.”
“All right, I won’t,” he promised.

The flight was uneventful, but getting from the gate at the Kansas City airport to the hotel was an ordeal. I lugged a box with two dozen chess books and one bible. My intention was to give a book as a prize to anyone who beat me. It was difficult enough walk to with my cane and leg brace, even without the suitcase and the damn books. Now, standing in the rain waiting for a cab to the hotel, I cursed my dad for being 1,500 miles from home.

The prison sent a van to pick me up at the Ramada Inn. Once we arrived at the service gate, the driver carried the books to the gym where 16 sets of pieces were neatly arranged on a row of chessboards. There was a poster on the wall that announced, “New York State Chess Champion to take on all comers.” Underneath someone had written in black magic marker: “He’s Junior’s son!”
I expected to see bars and isolation cells, but the camp was for white collar criminals and resembled a college dormitory. My father, like everyone else, was dressed in a light blue, long sleeve shirt with denim jeans.

“The maximum security prison is behind the wall,” he said. “If anyone misbehaves here, they get shipped over there. Nobody wants that, so things remain calm most of the time.”
“That’s sounds like enough motivation to stay out of trouble,” I said.
“Let me introduce you to my new roommate, David Hall. He was the governor of Oklahoma.”

Mr. Hall was a short man with light hair and a firm handshake. He was a bit overweight, but I wouldn’t describe him as fat. Convicted of bribery and extortion involving the investment of his state’s employee retirement funds, he was transferred to another federal prison in Tucson shortly after I left. According to my father, some associates from his past were brought to Leavenworth. As a result, Governor Hall was moved to a new location to protect his health.

“Good to meet you, Governor,” I said.

The governor smiled pleasantly as he looked me in the eye and said, “Are we fixin’ to play some chess tonight?” It was the first time I ever heard someone use that particular choice of words, but certainly not the last.

My father continued with the introductions. I felt like I was in a receiving line at a shotgun wedding. “Over there is Julio from the Philippines. He murdered two people and stuffed them in his trunk. And here’s my friend, Doc. He works for the Syndicate in Dallas.”

“Hi,” I said feeling uneasy. I pulled out a handkerchief to wipe off my forehead and the back of my neck. “How bizarre,” I whispered to myself.
“My son is a C.P.A.,” Dad said.
“Wonderful,” Doc said. “If you’re ever in Texas, look me up. We can always use someone like you.”
I just nodded.

As I entered the gym the warden announced my name: “This is Frank Niro. He’s here all the way from the east coast.”
“Two peas in a pod,” someone yelled.
“Not really,” I answered, shaking my head vigorously.

The tables were arranged in a semi-circle with my opponents sitting on the same side. I made a move at each board and moved to the next. Two or three of the prisoners jumped from board to board offering advice to the person sitting. It was acceptable for players at a simultaneous exhibition to consult with each other, as long as they made a move when I arrived at their board and didn’t rearrange the pieces while I wasn’t looking.

The first game to end was against the warden. He fell into a standard trap and lost in six moves. When he tipped over his king, the prisoners cheered.
“Let’s play another,” he said quietly.
“Of course. Set up the pieces,” I said.

One by one, the games ended quickly. The exception was against a black man about six-foot-five who weighed more than 350 pounds. He played a known line in the Ruy Lopez twenty moves deep.
“What’s your name, sir?” I asked.
“They call me Piledriver,” he answered.
“Have you played much chess before?”
“Yes, I’m rated about 1900; I’m the prison champ.”
I offered him a draw and he responded with a smile and a handshake.
“Good game,” I said.

It was evident that I was not in danger of losing any games, so I decided to give a chess book to Piledriver. I turned around to locate the box. It was gone. Somebody had stolen my books!
“I’m sorry, but…”
Piledriver waved his hand: “Don’t worry none, man. I’ll get my book.”

A loud bell sounded and the two remaining inmates got up and left the room without saying a word.

“What just happened?” I asked the warden. “Is there some kind of roll call?”
“Nope, that was the bell for the 7 o’clock movie. They don’t actually know how to play chess. They were killing time so they wouldn’t have to go back to their rooms after dinner.”

So, counting the two aborted games as draws, my final record was 14 wins and three draws, all in less than 90 minutes. As I got ready to say goodbye to my dad, he let out a sigh.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Did I say something I shouldn’t have?”
“Shit,” he said. “I didn’t have any money on you. I couldda made a killing,”

Here is my favorite game from the event. I still have the original score sheet signed by my infamous opponent.

Frank Niro vs. David Hall (former governor of Oklahoma) [B96]
Leavenworth Penitentiary, KS (simultaneous exhibition)
October 9, 1976

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qc7 8.Qf3 b5 9.0–0–0 b4 10.e5 Bb7?! 11.Qh3 dxe5 12.Ncb5!? axb5 13.fxe5 Ne4

14.Nxe6! fxe6 15.Qxe6+ Be7 16.Bxb5+ Nc6 17.Bxe7 Qxe7 18.Bxc6+ Kf8 19.Rhf1+ Nf6 20.Qxe7+ Kxe7 21.exf6+ gxf6 22.Rfe1+ Kf7 23.Bxb7 Black resigned 1–0

Subsequent to the adventure in Kansas, my work and family obligations did not provide any time for chess tournaments. So I focused my energies on postal chess, sometimes carrying as many as 140 games at a time by mail. I won the 1973 APCL championship (completed in 1978) and frequently advanced to semi-final rounds of the Golden Knights, the name given to the annual U.S. Correspondence Championship. I competed for the United States against players from Finland, Japan, Russia, Great Britain and the Netherlands. One of my opponents was the World Correspondence Chess Champion, Gert Jan Timmerman. My I.C.C.F. rating peaked at 2376 at a time before the advent of strong chess-playing computers.

My favorite game from this period was against Max DeJong of Rockville, Maryland, then one of the top 25 correspondence players in the U.S.

Max DeJong vs. Frank Niro [B13]
1982 Golden Knights Semi-Finals
Played from 1983 to 1985

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qc2 Qb6 10.Nf3 e6 11.a4 Qb3 12.Nbd2 Qxc2 13.Bxc2 Nh5 14.Be3 Bd6 15.Ne5 Nc6 16.Nxd7 Kxd7 17.0–0 f5 18.f4 Nf6 19.Nf3 Na5 20.Ne5+ Ke8 21.Bd3 Bxe5 22.fxe5 Ne4 23.Rae1 Rc8 24.Re2 Nc4 25.Bf4 Rg8 26.Rc2 g5 27.Bc1 Rc7 28.b3 Na5 29.b4 Nc4 30.Be2 g4 31.Bxc4 Rxc4 32.Bb2 Kd7 33.a5 Rgc8 34.Rfc1 Kc6 35.g3 Kb5 36.Rg2 Ka4 37.Ba1 37...R4c7 38.Kf1 Kb3 39.Rb2+ Kc4 40.Ra2 Rf7 41.a6 b6 42.Kg1 f4 43.gxf4 Rxf4 44.Kg2 h5 45.Kg1 h4 46.Rac2 Rf3 47.Rg2 g3 48.hxg3 hxg3 49.Rf1 Rcf8 50.Rxf3 Rxf3 51.Bb2 Rf2 52.Bc1 Rxg2+ 53.Kxg2 Kxc3 54.Bh6 Kxb4 55.Bf8+ Ka5 0–1

My interest in chess took a strange but rewarding turn in 1984 when I became editor of Chess Horizons, the bi-monthly Massachusetts state chess publication. The magazine won the ‘Best State Magazine’ award both years that I was at the helm and I earned individual awards for writing, layout and photography. In 1986, I received honorable mention from my peers at Chess Journalists of America in the category ‘Chess Journalist of the Year.’

At the 1986 New York Open, International Arbiter Jerry Bibuld introduced me to Boris Spassky as “the editor of the best chess magazine written in the English language.” That was an exaggeration, of course, but I was astounded years later when I met Spassky in Miami and he remembered me as a well respected chess editor.

My friendships with John Curdo, Stephan Gerzadowicz and Harold Dondis blossomed during my time with Chess Horizons. John was many times Massachusetts and New England champion and won the first U.S. Senior Open. He was also my first chess coach. In 1985, John came to work for me in the hospital’s print shop, his first regular job in 15 years. Prior to that he had been able to make a comfortable living playing chess, writing and giving lessons.

Stephan (pronounced Stefan) was a correspondence chess master known to his friends as the Sunchoke Kid. He was given that moniker because of his propensity for growing odd vegetables in his garden and selling them to his chess opponents. I traded chess lessons with Stephan for help with his successful training program for the 1986 Boston Peace Marathon.

Harold was the chess columnist for the Boston Globe and the founder of the U.S. Chess Trust. I was a regular reader of Harold’s columns long before I met him. When business travel would take me away from home on a weekend, my wife would salvage the sports section and the hobbies page before throwing the Sunday paper in the trash. She folded them neatly on the bedside table so that I would have them to read whenever I returned home. Harold and I became colleagues during my editorial tenure, often exchanging information and perspectives about issues in the chess world. He was also a challenging foe across the chess board. We split our three tournament games with one win each and a hard fought draw.

Harold printed a game every week in his column. Sometimes they were local games but, most often, they were sharp duels between well known players. He was not one for publishing games of his friends. The games had to be interesting, logical and crisp. They also had to be short enough to fit into the limited space in the column. When he published the following game from the 1988 U.S. Open, I was quite pleased.

Paul Ascolese (2154) vs. Frank Niro, (1913) [A10]
U.S. Open, Boston, MA (Round 6)
August 12, 1988

1.c4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d6 4.Nc3 g6 5.e3 Bg7 6.d4 0–0 7.Nge2 c6 8.0–0 e5! 9.b3 Nbd7 10.Bb2 Nh5 11.Qd2 f4!? 12.exf4 exf4 13.gxf4 Bh6!³ 14.Qd3 Ndf6 15.Ne4 Nxe4 16.Bxe4 Qh4 17.Bc1 Bh3 18.Bg2 Bxg2! 19.Kxg2 Bxf4 20.Bxf4 Rxf4 21.Qe3 Re4! 0–1

Shortly after the Ascolese game, I defeated young Master David Vigorito (now an International Master) when he overextended his position against my Dutch defense. The game pushed my over-the-board rating past 2000 into the so-called Expert category. It was the top of the mountain for me. With a busy career and growing children I had little time to to play chass and zero time to study. I began my downhill slide.

Once my dad was released from prison he started a trucking company in St.Louis, Missouri. When one of his partners suddenly disappeared, he and his friend Jackie Ward went panning for gold on the Salmon River deep in the woods of Idaho. I laughed at the thought of it and teased my father more than once. “Couldn’t you find a better euphemism than that for going on the lam?” I asked.
“What’s a euphemism?” was his only response.

When Jackie was sentenced to life in prison for murder (the victim was somebody other than the disappeared partner – though I suspect that Jackie made that happen as well), my father moved to Florida and started a cactus growing business. I didn’t have much contact with him during his final years; that is, until he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His 40 years of chain smoking and working with his asbestos caught up to him.

My brother and I flew my dad to Massachusetts and alternated caring for him with our stepsister during the last ten weeks of his life. Despite everything that happened between us, my father died holding my hand in the hospital where I was the Administrator.

After he passed away, we found a folded up deed for land in Idaho among his papers.

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