I read in the paper in January that the State Correctional Institute of
Pittsburgh (SCIP) closed.  Only then did it finally hit me that the old
Pittsburgh Chess Club prison visit program was no more.  I have strong
memories of participating in this program.

The prison, formerly known as Western Penitentiary, was over 100 years old.
In the early 1960's they had a chess club, called the Walled Knights.  There
must have been a prison visit program then, because the Pittsburgh Chess Club
has pictures from it in an album in our library.  In those pictures I
recognized some guys that I had known as a teenager, such as David Gavin and
Ron Zaffuto.  I also recognized the room where they were playing.

The more recent prison visit program was started in the early 1990's by Bill
Hughes, and later run by Ed Barr.  There was an active chess club in the
prison, which held rated tournaments.  Sometimes we played rated games during
visits, sometimes skittles.  At one time, visits were as often as every other

The strongest player "inside" was Kenneth Davenport, an Expert, whose name you
can regularly find near the top of the lists of the ongoing problem solving
competition in the Keys 'n' Krackers column in Chess Life.  A few years ago
Ken was transferred to SCI Mahanoy, in the eastern part of the state; the
strongest player at SCIP after that was probably Rich Mazzeffa.  Club visitors
included strong players such as former Club champion Don Meigs, former State
co-champion Andy Rea, and myself, as well as many others.  Bobby Dudley
visited, and generously donated books and equipment.  The prison club was
surprisingly strong.  Consider that the prison population was about 2,000.
Imagine a town of that size in which there were an Expert, a couple of A
players, and quite a few B and C players!

A high point in the life of the prison's chess club was when Alex Yermolinsky,
who had recently won the U.S. Championship, gave a simul there in November
1996.  He played 20 opponents, losing two and drawing one.  It was covered
on the front page of the Post-Gazette.  It was truly a historic event; we
could not find a record of any prison simuls by Grandmasters since the
1960's.  Yermolinsky earned the admiration of his audience, not only by his
play, but also by his gracious opening remarks praising amateur chess
players.  Some games from this event can be found in the January 1997 issue
of En Passant.

On my own first visit, in 1993, I was asked to sign autographs!  I had
recently won the Club championship.  Inmates knew about my book on the
Velimirovic' Attack, published by Bob Dudley ten years before.  SCIP became
a hotbed of Velimirovic' activity.  In 1995, Ken Davenport and I, with
analytical assistance by some other prisoners, co-authored a theoretical
article on a variation of that opening, which appeared in the November 1995
issue of En Passant.

The prison building was a huge hulk on the north shore of the Ohio river.
In a typical visit, early on a Sunday afternoon, we would gather in the
parking lot or the lobby.  When we were all present, we would notify the
guards.  We would sign in and proceed through the metal detector, which was
very strong.  A guard would escort us out of the reception building, past
the exercise yard and other buildings, featuring high brick walls and barbed
wire.  In good weather there would usually be many prisoners in the exercise
yard, standing around and talking.  I remember a comment once along the
lines of, "we won't get as many people as we hoped, because of the Steeler
game."  We would be led into the education building, upstairs to some
classrooms around a lobby.  There would be a break for dinner, which we ate
in a prison cafeteria, staffed by some prisoners, including some who were
chess players.  By the time we left for home, it was evening.

On my first or second visit, after leaving the building, I didn't
immediately get in my car, but walked around behind the building, to watch
the river flow by.  I couldn't tell for sure if the windows in the back wall
would allow the prisoners to see the river.  I couldn't help thinking what
it would be like to live so close to the huge river for years, but unable to
come down to it.  A program like this can remind you not to take your freedom
for granted.

Not long after the Yermolinsky exhibition, there was a spectacular escape,
and prison security procedures were tightened, making it a long bureaucratic
process to recruit people for visits.  Everyone had to attend a "training
session", taught by a guard, a lecture of a couple of hours on do's and
don'ts of relating to prisoners.  At these meetings we saw volunteers from
other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and some religious groups.

Prison officials and guards loved visit programs such as ours, because they
had a powerful effect on prison morale and discipline.  I remember attending
a reception for volunteers, and meeting the warden.  Another volunteer group
organized classes taught by faculty of the area colleges.

Prisoners at SCIP usually were in for a long time.  The silver lining was
that a stable population was good for a chess club.  The new County jail on
the Monongahela river downtown is a modern place, but I wouldn't look for a
chess club there.  On two occasions, I met former prisoners on the "outside".
I saw Greg DeMichele at the Pittsburgh Chess Club once.  Later, I saw Morris
"Doodles" Taylor behind a deli counter at a supermarket.  Actually he saw me;
he recognized me and started a conversation about chess.  After visiting that
forbidding fortress a few times, I was almost surprised to see that they
could ever get out.

Our last two visits were in April of 2003; Ed Barr, Belford Boles, and I were
present.  The process of closing the prison had not yet begun, and the chess
club was full and lively.  It's hard to imagine that less than two years
later, that room, and the whole building complex, were just empty shells.
The state prison system no longer has a prison close to Pittsburgh, though
there are prisons in Greensburg and Greene County.  I wonder what the future
holds for prison chess in Pennsylvania.

White: Bruce Leverett
Black: Ken Davenport
SCIP, December 1993, game/25

1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 e3 e6 4 Nc3 d5 5 Nf3 Nc6 6 cxd5 exd5 7 Bb5 Bg4 8 h3 cxd4
9 exd4 Bxf3 10 Qxf3 Be7 11 O-O O-O 12 Be3 Qb6 13 Rfd1 a6 14 Bd3 Rfd8 15 b3 Nb4
16 Na4 Qa7 17 Bf5 g6 18 Bb1 Rac8 19 Bg5 b5 20 Nc5 Kg7 21 a3 Nc6 22 b4 h6
23 Bf4 Ng8 24 Ba2 Bf6 25 Be3 Nce7 26 Rac1 a5 27  bxa5 Nc6 28 a6 Nxd4
29 Bxd4 Bxd4 30 Rxd4 Rxc5 31 Rxc5 Qxc5 32 Rxd5 Rxd5 33 Bxd5 Nf6 34 Bb7 Nd7
35 Qe3 Qc7 36 Qd4+ Kh7 37 Bd5 Nc5 38 Bxf7 Nxa6 39 Qf6 Qc1+ 40 Kh2 Qc7+
41 g3 Qc2 42 Be6 Qc7 43 Qf8 Qg7 44 Qd6 Nc7 45 Bd7 Qf7 46 Kg1 (from this point
on my scoresheet doesn't give Black's moves, so I'm guessing) 46 ... Ne8
47 Qd3 Nc7 48 Bxb5 Nxb5 49 Qxb5 Qa2 50 Qd3, Black resigns.

White: Ken Davenport
Black: Bruce Leverett
SCIP, May 1995, game/25

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 c5 4 c3 cxd4 5 cxd4 dxe4 6 Nxe4 Be7 7 Nf3 Nf6 8 Nc3 O-O
9 Bd3 b6 10 O-O Bb7 11 Be3 Nc6 12 Rc1 Rc8 13 Bb1 Na5 14 Ne5 Nd7 15 Qh5 g6
16 Qe2 Nxe5 17 dxe5 Nc4 18 Bh6 Re8 19 Rfd1 Qc7 20 b3 Na5 21 Nd5 Bxd5
22 Rxc7 Rxc7 23 Rc1 Rec8 24 Rxc7 Rxc7 25 h3 Nc6 26 Be4 Nd4 27 Qd3 Bxe4
28 Qxe4 Nc6 29 g3 Bc5 30 Kg2 a5 31 h4 Ne7 32 g4 Rc8 33 Qf3 Nd5 34 h5 Bd4
35 Qe4 Bb2 36 Bg5 b5 37 Bh6 Rc3 38 Bd2 Rc5 39 Bxa5 Rc1 40 Bd2 Rd1 41 Bh6 b4
42 Qe2, Black's flag fell.