“I am 14 years into a 25 year sentence, and I am interested in starting a go club at the prison,” read the letter from K, forwarded to me at the American Go Foundation by Mark Rubenstein at AGA Member Services. Although our main work at the AGF focuses on children, we also offer full support for institutional settings as well. I sent K an information packet and an application for a class room starter set. Noticing the prison was here in Colorado, I also told him I would be willing to do a demonstration at the prison. Rubenstein also donated two playing sets, and a number of go magazines, but the package was refused by the prison, which had very specific guidelines about what they would accept. As K had mentioned wanting to start a program at the prison, I thought I might try contacting the education coordinator at the prison directly. So began the first of what would ultimately be six months worth of phone calls, letters, and requests to the Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood. I had given up on any chance of a program starting at the prison when I finally received a phone call from one of the education coordinators. He said he had a group of over 20 prisoners who kept asking him when the go teacher was going to come, so he finally decided to let me do a demonstration at the prison. I was also able to arrange for the prison to accept multiple playing sets for the program, and I was finally able to hand-deliver Rubenstein’s package of equipment and magazines as well.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally went to the prison. I had briefly worked with youth in a juvenile correctional facility a few years back, but Englewood is an adult prison, and a federal one at that. When I arrived, I was surprised at the size of the place. A guard told me they house 1,000 inmates there. I passed through multiple security screening points, with giant sliding metal grates, and went deep into the heart of the complex, where I was taken to an educational center in the prison and had a few minutes to set up before the 22 prisoners who had signed up for the program arrived. I finally met K in person, who thanked me profusely for arranging the demonstration. He and the other inmates were all polite, friendly, and very attentive. Three of the prisoners knew how to play already, and I was very pleased to see that they had a few volumes of Janice Kim’s Learn to Play series. None of them had ever played a game outside of the prison system though. The other 19 inmates were all first-timers, so I taught them how to play and then had them all play each other on 9×9 boards. I think the Education Coordinator was pleased to see all of the inmates immediately engaged in the game, and laughing as they discovered new things. After they had all played a game or two, I offered to do a simul with any five of them. They were quite excited by this, and everyone else gathered around the table where I was playing. I gave most of them a five stone handicap on the 9×9, and tried to show them some things while we were playing.
One of the men, T, had been playing for many years. He told me he had learned from a Japanese prisoner, at another prison. He had tried to show the others how to play, but hadn’t had too much luck. I played him even on the 9×9, and the other inmates all took immense pleasure in finally seeing T lose a game. After the first simul, I did a second one. This time I played both K and T on the 19×19 with a 9 stone handicap, and three newcomers on the 9×9 boards. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to come back often (or perhaps at all) I wanted very much to see if we could establish a rank for either of them. K thought he might be 17 kyu, T had no idea, but they both knew he was much stronger. T played a good game, and to our mutual delight, was able to force me to resign. Since he was within 9 stones of my rank of 1 kyu, I told him I thought he was about 9 kyu. I explained that each handicap stone was worth roughly ten points, and that from here on out he should try to give handicaps accordingly to the other inmates. If he won a game by 50 points, he should give five stones, and so forth. Hopefully the other players will be able to base their ranks off of his. My experience with many clubs has been that two things are critical for success: first, a group of beginners who are all learning together, and second, a handicap system that allows everyone to play fair games.
At the end of my three hours with the inmates, T surprised me by asking if it was possible to make a donation to the AGF. I told him we were funded entirely by donations, and would welcome one if he had the ability to give. I wasn’t expecting the prisoners to have any money, but one of the guards explained that the inmates work in the prison, and receive wages for it. I don’t know what crimes any of these men had committed, but I do know that a person doesn’t stop living once they are behind bars. I can think of no group that might better benefit from the qualities that go brings to our lives than prisoners. Perhaps learning how to play go will give them a non-violent forum to express themselves in, and they will be able to better themselves by learning how to communicate in this way. I also know that whatever a man’s crime, he should be able to play go if he wants to. They have chess and Scrabble in prison, they should have go too.
– Paul Barchilon is Vice President of the AGF; graphic by Mike Samuel