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Chess Wars: 20 Inmates, 5 Weeks, 1 Champion

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Chess players score a game at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional facility in Berlin, N.H.

In a prison hidden in the woods of Berlin, N.H., a group of 20 players are ready to compete for a chess tournament. They will sit in a windowless room engaged in a battle of the mind every Wednesday for five weeks — and one will be crowned the best player.

There are no prizes or trophies, merely a paper certificate for the winner, but for the inmates in this relatively isolated facility, the championship is a big deal.

The prison can be found deep in the woods, down back roads warning drivers to be wary of moose. So far north, actually, and so close to the Canadian border, that some inmates in Berlin have never received a visitor behind these walls and locked doors.

Every Wednesday evening, almost without fail, one man shows up right on time.

Albert French is a volunteer who teaches chess in the prison and the one in charge of the championship. He is a big guy: stout and wide, bald and wearing a bushy gray goatee. He's 60 years old and he has a day job.

"I'm a postal employee, a clerk, a guy who sells you stamps over the counter when you come in. So my days are pretty long. I go in at 6 a.m. and I get out at 5:30 p.m.," he says. "And then on Wednesday nights I come up here."

In prisons across the country, chess is a popular pastime — an easy way to while away the hours, when you've got hours to give. But French is an A-level chess player, with a rating of 1,921 — that puts him in the 94th percentile in the nation, in the top 20 players in the state. And from the moment he arrived at the prison eight years ago, he set out to do things a bit differently, working with the inmates.

Every winter, the men in his chess club would square off to determine who was best: 20 inmates, five weeks, one champion — a title that each man hopes could be his.

"Every beginning of the tournament everyone is so pumped to say: 'I'm going to win this time, I'm going to win this time,' "says Severine Wamala, the reigning champion for seven years running.

Wamala is nine years into a 20-to-40-year sentence for sexual assault. He has kept his certificates from all his championship wins.

"Why is it a big deal? Well, you're a champion. It's as simple as that. It's the word champion: It's a big deal," Wamala says. "Don't you see that? 2015 champion? That's it. That's all you get. Yeah, you don't get anything else."

But Wamala is not without competitors. Inmate Michael Beverly says Wamala has lost before.

"And people remember," Beverly says. "I've beaten him and I was only a 1,600 player at the time."

The tournament, however, wouldn't exist without Sue Young, the director of programs for the prison. From the start, she saw the value in making French's club — and even his tournament — available to inmates who stayed discipline-free.

"Chess is all about rules, right? And that's one of the big things that they learn while they're involved in this, is how important it is to follow rules," Young says.

The pieces can only move a certain way, and if you move one too quickly or if you're rash, you'll lose it. The consequences for your decisions are immediate. But if you think, you focus and take your time — who knows?

In chess, like life, anything can happen.

The tournament participants know it doesn't really matter who prevails.

It's a privilege, they say, just to be in the room, staring at a board in silence, thinking.

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