The Game Gangster Style

We’re going to take a break from tactics to look at one of the many places I teach chess but will return to our tactical studies next week. Teaching chess to children is only part of my chess teaching career. I teach teenagers, adults, coach chess teams and teach chess to extremely hardened criminals, both young and old. Many of my incarcerated students are members of violent street gangs. I put my personal feeling about people who commit crimes aside when I teach the game of chess to these men. My job is not to pass moral judgment on these students but to teach them how to make better life decisions through chess. Imagine being in a room with four to six men, some of whom have committed acts of terrible violence, with the guards standing outside the classroom, close but not close enough to save my life if need be. Surprisingly, I am comfortable there because these men know I’m there for them, working pro bono as their lawyers would say. I don’t charge for my services when working in the jails. I work without pay because if I can get just one of these men to make better life decisions and not end up back in jail, I’ve succeeded and that’s reward enough! When I explain the game of chess, I do so in their terms, terms they can relate too. They don’t need another smart guy in a suit and tie using large words that they don’t understand. They need to hear it in the language of the streets, gang-speak. Here’s how I explain the game of chess:

“The streets are owned by those who take them. Gangs own the streets and the more streets you own, the more power you have. When one gang wants to increase its power they take control of streets belonging to another gang. Of course, the gang losing their hard fought for streets are not going to give them up without a fight. The gang trying to expand their territory sometimes decide to take out the other gang’s leader, their King. Chess is about taking out the other gang’s King, plain and simple. However, you have to play it smart because you only have so many soldiers in your army. Lose those soldiers and you’ve got no one to fight for you and worse yet, no one to protect you. While you might think yourself strong and tough, one man can’t hold back an army.”

When I introduce each player’s army, I do so using street hierarchy, the pecking order within the chain of command. I also introduce them to the word hierarchy, pointing out that you get a lot farther in life when you sound smart because in the end words hold more power than fists. Here’s my introduction of each player’s army:

“In the game of chess, both players start with an equal number of gang members. In other words, you start the fight with the same number of soldiers and firepower. This means you both enter the war with no real advantage.” At this point, someone will yell out “well then, how the #%$# am I going to win?” This is a great question since most of these guys win street wars by going into the fight with a superior force or firepower. It brings up an important point: All things being equal, you win by being smart, knowing where and when to fight your battles, not just jumping in with all guns blazing. We talk about a few historical battles in which the side that one was greatly outnumbered. How did they do it, my students want to know. They become engaged very quickly, often thinking they can use this information on the hard and unforgiving streets. I make a point to remind them that our goal, via chess, is to make better life decisions or life choices and it was bad decision making that landed them behind bars. Now we meet the gang:

“You are the Kingpin and with that title comes power and respect. However, being the Kingpin also means that other Kingpins are out to get you any chance they have. You’re worth more dead than alive to your enemies. This means you have to have protection for if the King falls, so does his empire. On the flip-side, you’re trying to topple your sworn enemy’s empire so your gang needs to divide it’s activities between protecting you and taking down your rival Kingpin! You life as Kingpin is one of constant offense and defense, always carefully balancing the two.”

We then meet the gang or army, starting with the Corner Boys. “The Corner Boy is a loyal soldier who dreams of being the Kingpin’s top lieutenant on day. It’s an entry level position which means he has to do all the dirty work, such as being the first into battle. In chess, we call this soldier the pawn. The pawn is first into the fight and, if he can reach the other side of the board, he is promoted. He’s no coward which is why he can only move forward. However, don’t think that just because you have eight pawns at the games start you can carelessly throw you foot soldiers, the pawns, into the meat grinder of battle. You’re going to need these troops until the bitter end. Those Kingpins who keep more Corner Boys around when the battle winds down will stand a better chance of winning. Remember, every pawn that can cross the board and reach it’s end can promote to the deadliest of assassins, the Queen. We’ll get to her later.”

We talk about a bit about war and how armies work together to win the battle. It’s important to understand that you have to use your army in a coordinated fashion.

“Next we meet the up and comers who are a few rungs up the chain of command ladder. These soldiers, the Knights and Bishops, have their own individual fighting skills and follow closely behind the Corner Boys or pawns. They don’t stand around waiting for the fight to come to them. They get into the fight early on during the opening but pick where they fight very carefully. Their power is strongest when they’re in the thick of the fight, the middle of the board. Bishops are soldiers armed with a sniper rifle, meaning they can attack and do great damage from long distances. When you can’t get a clear shot with your snipers, you bring in the Knights who, because of their ability to jump over other pieces and pawns, can drop into an attack like a special forces soldier parachutes into battle behind enemy lines. We call this special group, the minor pieces and like the army’s special forces, you have a limited number of these highly trained fighters. Use them wisely because they rule the beginning of any fight on the chessboard. Now we’ll look at the game’s big guns, the major pieces the Rooks and the Queen.”

I usually give a pop quiz regarding the pawn, Bishops and Knights as well as the chessboard itself. You’d be surprised at how well my students retain the information I’ve presented them thus far. Their strong retention might come as a surprise though. Most of these students, no matter how bad their criminal activities have been, are not stupid and when you present the game in terms of the street, they get it. I continue:

“Rooks are seasoned warriors. They’ve survived as long as they have because they know just when to come into the fight. They know better than to jump into the fight as soon as it starts. They let the youngsters, the pawns, Knights and Bishops, tear into the enemy and wear them down. The Rooks are like powerful cannons that mow down everything in a straight line. They can blast across the ranks and files of the board so standing in their way can be a deadly affair. They like to have a clear shot, especially at the enemy King so give them a clear line of sight. Remember though, you have to bring your army into battle carefully. The pawns start things off, followed by the Knights and Bishops. Once this part of your army gains control of the board’s center, then you can bring the heavy hitters into the mix. However, you don’t want to throw your Rooks directly into the fight but instead, use them for holding down lines of attack, the ranks and files.”

I introduce the Queen next. In the male dominated culture of gangs, woman are not considered to be equals. However, as I explain, “ The Queen is the deadliest of killers, combining the powers of the Bishop and Rook. She’s the toughest member of the gang. She can destroy all who walk across her path. Yet as powerful as she is, you must take care with her not because she’s a lady but because as dangerous as she is, she will be mercilessly hunted down if she enters the fight too soon. Her power is so strong that she can make a threat and the enemy will stand up and take notice. The queen is often the assassin that goes after the enemy King. However, she often only gets one chance so use her powers wisely.”

That is how I get tough guys interesting in chess. The game not only helps them with making better life decisions but I’ve seen rival gang members form friendships through the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week when we resume our tactical studies. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).