Meet Walter J. Lewis!
I am 61 and have been a prisoner in California’s prison system since 1965. With prison rules fluctuating from facility to facility, I needed a hobby that would keep me interested, busy, and allowable no matter where I happened to be housed. Chess was the perfect solution.
Every prison in California allows chess sets. Even in the highly restrictive security housing units an inmate can make a chess set. You can draw a board on a piece of paper and form pieces out of toilet paper. You use coffee water for the dark pieces.
I became a member of USCF in 1972, primarily for the magazine Chess Life & Review, and began playing in their postal class events in 1973. I continued playing with APCT until its demise about four years ago. My rating normally bounced around 2100-2180 with APCT.
My “claim to fame” is occasionally pulling off a big upset. I have wins over correspondence GM Jason Eckar, TIM Keith Hayward. A fifteen move win over six time APCT George Fawbush. A ten move win over APCT Life Master Fred Bender.
The California prison system has allowed political interest groups to step in and influence programs. Activities like chess clubs, gavel clubs, hobby craft, stamp clubs, weight lifting, boxing programs, etc. have all been eliminated from California’s prisons. When inmates are not engaged in an academic or vocational program, their opportunities for pursuing positive programming have been greatly curtailed.
Prison is like living in a very bad neighborhood; you need to provide positive activities or inmates gravitate towards gangs, drugs, and other damaging outlets. All of the efforts to educate and train inmates have been compromised. This is what I see today in California’s prison system.
A favorite pastime of mine is trying to promote chess within the prison system. Studies have indicated to game strengthens problem-solving skills, encourages reading, memory, language and math abilities. Chess has been linked to raising test scores and improving self-esteem.
Inmates that normally don’t associate with one another will play chess together. With this common ground, chess builds bridges of communication between inmates that would never ordinarily give each other the time of day. I’ve seen some of the most implausible friendships develop because of a shared interest in chess.
Due to Grandmaster Larry Evans publishing my letter a few years ago in Chess Life asking for donations of chess instruction video tapes, we now have a number of tapes and DVD’s that are broadcast over thousands of TV’s throughout three prison facilities here at Soledad. GM Susan Polgar also donated her whole series of DVD’s to us.
In California’s prisons, inmates can only order through a very limited number of catalogs, and until recently, they could only order a very poor quality chess set. I managed to get one company, Walkenhorst’s, to offer the USCF Club Special with a roll-up board in their catalog. Every inmate in all thirty plus prisons in California can now buy a quality tournament standard chess set.
I’ll include three of my upsets. My first game vs. a master was a win in fifteen over six-time APCT champ Fawbush. I have wins over D. White (2421) and Jim Brailsford (2359). I might note that Ted Houser wrote me after the White & Brailsford games were published congratulating me and complementing me on my endgame play. I still have Ted’s card as a memento. Quite a nice acknowledgement from Ted. I wish I could win one from him! (See four of Walter’s games in your KK 274 starting on page 11 and continuing into the Member’s Games section.)
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– GM Susan Polgar