Dressed in the orange and navy blue jumpsuit issued to juveniles at the Prince George’s County jail, 16-year-old Joshua McFadden may not look like an accomplished chess player at first glance.
But when he sits down at a board, McFadden plays like a pro, never taking more than one or two seconds each turn to expertly navigate his plastic pawns, bishops, knights and other pieces around the board.
“It’s a thinking game, it [is not] like checkers where you just jump all over the place,” said McFadden, who has been at the jail for about a year. “[Just] like you can make a wrong move in life, you can make a wrong move in chess. Your opponent might be two steps ahead of you.”
It’s a lesson math teacher Matthew Winston hopes will stick with his students, juveniles facing criminal charges who are being held at the Prince George’s County Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro.
Winston started teaching his students to play chess in 2006, when he joined the jail’s staff after 14 years teaching in traditional Prince George’s County public schools. Winston, a lifelong chess player, would bring a chess set from home and teach his students the history and fundamentals of the game.
Winston pushed his students to see similarities in how chess is played and how they make decisions after they leave the jail, either because they’re released or found guilty and sent to a juvenile detention center.
“It lets them know that if they make a mistake in chess, there [are] repercussions, as in life,” he said.
Unbeknownst to him, the director of the jail at the time, Barry L. Stanton, was watching via cameras installed throughout the facility and called Winston into his office one day to say he was impressed.
“He noticed what a calming effect it had,” Winston said, adding that Stanton made sure the jail purchased chess sets so more students could practice.
Winston estimates at least 18 tournaments have taken place every couple of months since 2006, with participants receiving a certificate, recognition from jail and school system officials and pizza and hamburgers for lunch.
Juveniles being held at the facility at the time of each tournament are expected to participate Â— Winston teaches math to youths while they are held and makes chess a required part of his curriculum Â— but because most juveniles don’t stay for more than a few weeks, the tournaments rarely feature the same competitors.
Last Friday, McFadden was honored for his second-place finish in the master’s division of the most recent tournament. He was one of 16 incarcerated youths to compete in matches held Nov. 3 at the novice, mid-level and master’s levels.
Between 45 and 60 youths younger than 18 typically come through the jail each month, according to Cecile Kahan, who oversees instructional programs in alternative environments, such as the jail, for the Prince George’s County Public Schools system. Juveniles are typically held at the county jail while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated.
Charde Walls, 17, had never played chess before she arrived at the jail earlier this year.
“I wasn’t all that interested in it since I didn’t know how [to play],” she said. But after a few weeks of learning the game during math class at the Upper Marlboro jail, she said, “I felt like I could play and beat someone. … That’s when the confidence came in.”
Gloria Gray teaches English at the jail and said she has noticed a change in how many of the students who learn chess from Winston approach other subjects.
“They haven’t had a lot of success in school, so for them to find something they’re great at, it gives them that confidence,” she said. “If you can get success in one area, it’s just a matter of working a little harder to find out how we connect that success across the board.”