CHESS on the Inside

Max’s first introduction to the game of Chess in Dublin was most bizarre indeed, to say the least. It was 1977, in Napoleon’s Nite Club, the most notorious speak-easy of it’s era, situated on the north-side inner-city, just off Parnell Square. This was no place for the timid or faint hearted. Every week-end it served as a meeting place for members of the Capital’s criminal underworld. A place where deals were made, old scores often settled. Hookers got their fill up before the nightly business commenced. Fights and riots were commonplace, but this was their way of life, Napoleons their “O.K. Corral”. While Dublin’s illegal drug trade expanded, various crime families were now establishing their own manors into which they would tolerate no intrusion. With violence epidemic, Napoleons often became the scene. Working in the establishment as a bouncer for two years, Max got to know most of the clientele. Unable to use his real name he adopted “Max” as his alias and became known as Max the bouncer to the punters. The name has stuck with him ever since. Many times he had to use his Kung-Fu skills to ensure his own safety, often to preserve life and limb of some beleaguered patron. A player for rough diamonds, respected by the Hard Men of the streets. Napoleon’s, a nite Club where bouncers often only lasted a week-end or just an hour. Some didn’t even wait for their wages, they just disappeared into the night, discovering there was nowhere to hide. Among the many characters to frequent the upstairs wine bar, two of the “oddest” were notorious in their own right, members of the infamous “Bugsy Malone” gang. What made these two stand out was their chosen means of conflict. While other confrontations were taking place on the premises where more basic hand to hand combat was the norm., for these two it was the “Royal Game”. Instead of knives, knuckle-dusters or guns it was Board and Chess set. They would bring their own Chess set to the club every week-end and engage in their chosen battle, the “Battle of Minds”. They never got involved in any of the chaos that surrounded them, they seemed oblivious to it all, their total focus being the fight before them on the table, the Chess game. Small wonder that their corner of calm would attract Max’s attention: the conflict in that area very definitely in the realms of the imagination. Following the closure of Napoleon’s in late ‘79 by that other means of Godly wrath - FIRE!, Max joined the Prison Service, this time tending the felonious in our establishment of a more sombre character. Posted to St. Patrick’s Institution, a detention centre for convicted and remand prisoners between the ages of sixteen and twenty one, Max was soon promoted to Class Officer, whose duty is to take

complete charge of the day to day running of a landing, where for thirty two inmates it was a home from home. Max’s class was D2. Affectionately known as Coronation Street, as it was the only landing in the prison where the walls were not plastered or painted. It still retained the old red and brown bricks, and housed inmates from Dublin city. There was always a waiting list for a cell on D2 landing, the brick walls reminding them of home. “It was here that I met up again with the same two punters who had frequented Napoleons, the two Chess players. Although one did not call a prison officer by his first name, the lads always referred to me as “Max”, that’s who I was to them. I didn’t mind, I understood, even though my colleagues thought it strange at first”. It was Max’s responsibility to delegate the post of class cleaners, a job held by the prisoners themselves and a much sought after position on D2. This job he now gave to the two Chess players, who, having completed their cleaning duties, were allowed to retire to a cell (in secret) where a game of Chess would invariably follow. “The Chess set from the stores was not great, a small plastic set, but it was adequate”. Following a request, Max requisitioned it from Mountjoy stores. With his interest aroused Max decided to improve his own game. “I knew about a little about Chess at the time and could see that it fascinated these two “Wise -Guys”. After buying a Master’s Chess book and set, Max now took the more determined step of joining a Chess club - “Phibsboro Chess Club” was the one he chose, just down the road from St Patrick’s Institution, which is situated beside Mountjoy Prison on the North Circular Road, Dublin 7 District. He could call in on his way home from work after finishing his day shift at 8pm. Playing against established players quickly improved his play. “I discovered that there was more to this game than just pushing pieces around the board”. However owing to the different shifts he worked, found himself unable to attend as much as he would have liked. He was hooked. But on the other hand, he had learned more about the openings, middle game and end game strategies and passed on whatever knowledge he had gained from his reading and playing to the lads. With interest growing, Chess books were proving popular from the Prison Library, while some extra sets were requisitioned from the stores. It was time for the first official tournament to take place, which Max now set about organising. With 20 Prisoners taking part from the population of 230 inmates, an unlikely Chess club was about to start up. A small beginning. After 11 years of being in charge of D2 (A long time for a Class Officer), the landing finally closed down for renovations in 1991

and Max was put in charge of the landing above it, D3. All of the boys from D2 moved up with Max , his faithful followers to their new abode. To them Max was no ordinary “Screw”. He would always listen to their grievances and try to improve their living conditions on the inside. Following a request from an inmate who was keen on learning the game, Max approached the Chief Officer with a view to holding formal chess lessons during evening recreation. Having established there was sufficient interest, permission was granted. 20 sets arrived from the stores and 10 of these were arranged in the (old) Library room, in the main recreation hall for the first introductory lesson. That evening in October 1992, the first official Chess tuition class was held with 12 inmates presenting themselves for the occasion. Within days the room was full to capacity (22 inmates). “It seems to provide an “Oasis” for some kind of rehabilitation. “ Max was not to know the impact this new activity would have on the day to day running of the prison. “All of my landing were now playing, and studying chess books in their cells at night”. Couples walking hand in hand along the canal, beyond the boundary wall, could even hear the inmates shouting out their moves to one another as they played against each other through their cell walls ‘till the early hours. No doubt confused by what they were hearing - “Hey Domo, what was that move again?” “I castled on the Kingside - did you get that Snake”, and so it would go on. A new entertainment that would help the boys get through what would otherwise be an other lonely night locked up in their cold prison cells. There are two officers detailed in charge of chess tuition every evening to cater for the demand. Max was now working on further improving his own game, playing with fellow officers during the lunch hour, having persuaded the officers Social club to invest in some Chess sets for the staff. Also playing a lot of correspondence Chess, where one sends their moves to an opponent by post. Such was the improvement in his own game that he was chosen to play on the Irish International Correspondence team. An officers team was also entered into the British Postal Chess league, Max now the Manager and Captain of his own team. “I was given money by the Governor to purchase some more chess books as the library hadn’t enough in stock to cater for the increasing demand, so on my rest days I would visit every second-hand book shop from Swords to Bray, buying up every Chess book I could get my hands on, if the price was right”. Chess had finally taken off in St Patrick’s with Max now fully committed to his new adventure. After holding another tournament for the boys, Easter 1993, this occasion thirty inmates involved, Max entered the Irish Chess Championships, held in the Teacher’s Club, Parnell Square, winning the Novice’s Section outright. He now became the first and only Prison Officer to hold an Irish Chess title. The hard work had paid off. “I tried my very best to win, to show the lads what was within their grasp, what could be achieved with some effort, and as some of them could beat me

occasionally with the skills they had now acquired, they then realised that they could also be successful at Chess when back on the outside”. The Management fully backed this new and growing pastime of the prisoners and on Max’s request purchased some tournament size Chess sets and Chess clocks. These new additions were an instant hit with the lads and for the first time they felt like real Chess players. He also acquired a television set and video for his chess room where he would show feature films like “Knight Moves”, “Innocent Moves”, “Fresh”, “The Grass Arena” - (where John Healy, a wino and exconvict, takes up Chess in prison and becomes a Master at Chess - a true story) and others where the main plot evolves around Chess. These regular showings have become very popular with the inmates. Two years on, Max decided to organise some outside competition for his young players. Having considered the situation carefully he now felt he had the next move. In August 1995, after making contact with the Leinster Chess Union, he attended a secretaries meeting in Doyle’s Pub, off Trinity College, where he expressed his wish of entering a new team in the forthcoming Leinster League. St Patrick’s Chess club were, in a manner of speaking, trying to come out from behind the high walls. With his proposal well worked out in advance, the idea of a new Chess club was accepted in principle. All that remained was final approval from the Governor. Aware of the effort and commitment of Max and the other officers in establishing chess inside St Patrick’s, the Governor’s decision was positive. But first there were some “friendlies” to be played, an experiment in seeing how things would go. The first visitors to play St Patrick’s were Lucan Chess Club and on Saturday 9th September, 1995 a historical event in the Prison Service took place. “We won many games but most importantly everyone had a great time.”. With the match proving a great success, a small celebratory buffet followed: tea, coffee and biscuits provided, compliments of the Governor. A link had been established with the outside Chess playing world. One month later Ballymun Chess Club arrived and played their “friendly” match, once again another success. The refreshments during the games are now a regular treat, much enjoyed by all. And so, having passed this opening test, St Patrick’s Institution were accepted as a new team playing in the Bodley cup, North Section, of the Leinster Chess League that same year. Max had finally put together an unlikely Chess club with tremendous talent - a club with potential. A team of misfits, those rejected by society but rebuilt by Max, a team that he was extremely proud of. “I have even seen hard core Junkies who have become involved in our Chess programme discover that they easily exchange

one addiction for another once bitten by the bug”. For these prisoners Chess had become their “Noah’s Ark” in St Patrick’s Institution. With time largely on hold for most of these inmates Chess provides an outlet, a pursuit with endless possibilities requiring work and application. “The boys realise that Chess is one game where Lady Luck plays no part in achieving success. the player with the most knowledge of the game wins out. This encourages them to study their Chess books in their cells at night-time, to equip themselves with the knowledge necessary for this success”. As the game manages to transcend time, place and circumstances, it provides a healthy alternative to the desperate tedium and boredom of ordinary prison life. Along with the game and its associated skills, they also learn from their Chess training a renewed sense of confidence and self esteem. It can only help restore some order and balance to these chaotic lives. “ I have seldom visited a place radiating more magic and mystery than our Chess room where twenty two juveniles (joy riders, murderers, junkies, hardmen, winos, bank robbers, thieves and misfits) studying Chess with the discipline of Shaolin Monks, reflecting on the change that has come into their lives in prison, since taking on the challenge of the Master Game”. Most staff were sceptical at first They did not believe that this change was possible, but Max knew from his own disciplined training with his Shaolin Kung-Fu Master that anything was possible with the right teacher. Max is now their teacher, their mentor. As he sits in the room watching over his students he reflects on those hectic nights in that seedy Nite Club up a dimly lit alley, in the heart of the inner city, where he first set eyes on those two “strange” Chess players, (where often he thought he would loose his own life), that could if only for the night, forget the lives they lived but would soon return to, as Napoleon’s closed its doors in the early hours of the morning. “Contrary to popular belief most prisoners are not that interested in watching television, videos, playing pool or cards but they are not given any other meaningful activity to participate in during recreation”. Max has proven that the demand for something worthwhile to learn and do when locked up in prison was always there, lying dormant in the souls of the inmates. Chess has now fulfilled that demand for most in St Patrick’s. With Chess now the principal form of mental recreation for a large proportion of the prisoners in the Institution - during the Summer Tournament of 1996, 107 inmates took part in the programme, run on a daily basis and lasting six weeks - Max is quick to point out, without the co-operation of the Governor, the Prison Management and colleagues, Chess would not be so successful. The work and effort put in by himself and other officers makes it happen. “I think Chess should be promoted in other prisons, as it’s rehabilitative values cannot be over emphasised. Inmates in St Patrick’s have

discovered that absorption in Chess helps them enjoy life regardless of circumstances”. Having witnessed the change that this involvement can bring about in some lives, Max’s great hope is that it would provide a basis for a return to a normal way of life away from the nightmare world of drugs and crime. “I only hope that these lads will make their future moves in life as skilfully as they have manoeuvred on the Chessboard inside the high grey walls of St Patrick’s Institution”. His dream is that Chess activities would be set up in Community centres around Ireland by Welfare Officers and others who care for ex-prisoners, where their new skills and knowledge could be passed on to those kids who otherwise would be on the streets heading for that Nightmare! This involvement would be a real way of giving exprisoners a sense of their own worth as human beings, and show them that they have talents and skills which they can use for the advantage of others”. Max realises that one of the challenges he faces as a Prison Officer is to minimise the damage which prison does to a young offender. His Chess training programme is important for the personal development of the inmates in his charge. It is also important in the interest of society. “Prisoners who come out with a sense that they have something to contribute to their community are less likely to commit further crime than those who leave prison with a sense of bitterness and alienation from the community to which they have returned”. Max clearly sees that the community must play it’s part also in the rehabilitation of released prisoners, that there is an obligation on society to do so, to encourage this rehabilitation. “It is neither difficult or expensive to set up Chess in Community Centres, so these lads could have the opportunity to teach the younger ones the “Art “ of Chess, - a skill, a social game that will stay with them forever”. Max did not overlook the fact that keeping prisoners positively and constructively occupied would lead to an improvement in security. “The nature of the Prison regime itself can contribute greatly to the reduction of the kinds of tensions that turn prisoners minds towards self-mutilation, escape or riotous behaviour. Mental occupation with worthwhile work, as Chess provides, has relieved this tension for many inmates in St Patrick’s Institution”. The Governor, staff, visiting committee, welfare officers and teachers have also realised the value that Chess has brought into the lives of so many, that pass through the gates of the Institution. The traditional public indifference to what goes on inside prisons (except when prisoners are alleged to be pampered) did not deter Max from his next move. He threw caution to the wind. He now went about his next task. Max felt that his boys deserved more recognition for the work and effort they were making while doing their time in prison, so he contacted the director of “Gaisce” - the Presidents Award Scheme based in Dublin Castle. A Youth Improvement Challenge where

achievements are recognised and rewarded. After a meeting it was agreed that Chess activity fitted into the Personal Skills Section of “Gaisce” and furthermore St Patrick’s Institution could participate in this Award - the first Prison to do so in the Republic. The reaction was positive. Max was now a PAL (President’s Award Leader) and enrolled seventy eight prisoners who eagerly set about studying and playing Chess daily. During this time St Patrick’s was visited by many journalists accompanied by photographers, on the “Prison Open Media Day” tour, on Friday 7th February 1997. They were very impressed by what they came across in the Chess room. Inmates packed the room hardly noticing this “foreign” invasion to their “Temple of Hope”. With Joe Duffy reporting on the radio’s Daily Record programme that evening, about the day’s events in the Prison, in reply to Myles Dungan’s (the presenter of the programme) question - “Any success stories”? he had this to say. “On the one hand we’re saying, maybe the lads are stupid or they don’t want to learn, but there’s a Chess club in there and I’ll say it to you honestly Myles, it was one of the busiest places we were in and we’ve been in quite a few prisons, and it was not a set up, there was no set up on these tours, and I have talked to a lot of the young fellows: the Chess team in St. Pat’s, last Saturday they beat the Trinity Chess team and last year they beat the U.C.D. Chess team....... Max thought, at last some media announced recognition for the hard work his boys had put in over the years, although disappointed for them that the newspapers failed to mention the chess programme in their follow up story on St. Patrick’s Institution. But he remembered that this was not the reason he started out on his innovative mission. He pressed on. With their six month course now complete and the presentation of their Award Certificates pending, Max now set about organising the “Big Event”, May 20th, 1997 the day chosen. The Irish resident Russian Chess Grandmaster, Alexander Baburin and his manager Mr Michael Crowe of the Irish Chess Academy offered their services for the big day, to present the “Gaisce” certificates to the boys signed by the President, Mary Robinson. Five members of the President’s Award board were present along with the Governors and Chief Officers of St. Patrick’s, Teachers, Welfare Officers, Prison Officers, Max and his Students. A freelance journalist who writes for the Sunday Tribune was also there to cover the story but to date nothing has appeared in this newspaper. The boys were very excited to meet the Russian Chess Grandmaster and all received their Certificates. A group photograph was taken with the Chess celebrities, and presented to each player a week later. The Award Certificate and photograph now hang proudly on their cell walls.

Mr Michael Crowe has now been signed up by the Governor of St. Patrick’s to run a Chess course of twelve lessons for the month of August. for the young deserving prisoners of this Institution, in preparation for the forthcoming league, the 97/98 season which begins in October and ends in April. Having kept a journal since formal lessons first began in October, 1992, to date more than 1,300 inmates have learned to play the “Master Game” at Max’s Alternative Chess Academy. A record of some distinction. This is the Phoenix which arose out of the ashes of Napoleons on that fateful night in 1979.

Max Brohan
Prison Officer/Chess Tutor. St Patrick’s Institution, N.C.Road, Dublin 7. 1997.

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