CLAYTON — The way Lonnell Lewis-Jones sees things, life is a lot like chess.
The 28-year-old used a computer program to learn the game at high schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. He thinks he just may be the best player in his unit at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.
He was good enough to win two of his first three games Tuesday during a chess tournament at the St. Louis County jail.
“I’m a mental person,” Lewis-Jones said. “It’s just helpful with life. It teaches you strategy, pros and cons, and decision-making. Sometimes you can make a mistake … life is more serious, to a certain extent. But you can look at things you could have done differently.”
Lewis-Jones is in jail after being charged in 2018 with a double homicide in Berkeley, though he maintains his innocence. It’s been almost three years since he came to the justice center, and he’s waiting for his day in court, which has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Lewis-Jones said he prefers a fast-paced game of chess. While his opponents study the board, he strategizes his next move based on what he thinks they’ll do.
“It’s not just about winning. I like helping people,” he said. “We hold our own tournaments, but this is the first time they’ve held one for us.”
Lewis-Jones and about 100 other inmates participated in a tournament that continues Wednesday. The winner in each unit will get to play against Justus Williams, who at 12 years old became the youngest African American chess master.
“There’s a lot of things to take away from chess,” said Williams, now 20. “There’s the creativity of it, but most importantly there’s being able to see from someone else’s perspective. In chess you have to think about what your opponent is doing and how they’re going to go about doing it. You’re able to empathize a lot better with people.”
The Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” that premiered last year was seen as reviving an interest in chess across the United States. St. Louis, of course, is home to the World Chess Hall of Fame. HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” recently aired a segment on the rapid growth of the St. Louis Chess Club.
Williams has started a youth program through local nonprofit Dream Builders 4 Equity called the Black Squares, which brings chess to youths 6 to 18 who might not otherwise have an opportunity to play the game. Williams said he hopes to make chess tournaments a regular occurrence at the justice center, as well.
There are about 950 inmates being held at the county jail, and the pandemic has resulted in less recreational time. But many of them know how to play chess. Justice center director Doug Burris organized the tournament as a way to motivate the inmates, he said.
“When people think about prisons, they think about guys lifting weights, but we want to stimulate their minds,” Burris said. “Their minds are what’s going to keep them from coming back.”
Williams helped organize the rules of the tournament, and brackets were set up for the players.
“We’ve got some real serious chess players,” corrections guard Mario Reed said. “It helps them relieve stress, do something positive. They can come show what they can do.”
Gary Greer, 31, a St. Louis native, learned to play as a child from his grandfather, and he grew up playing with his two brothers.
Chess, like life, shows “the weakest and the strongest,” said Greer, who’s been charged with assault. “It’s about how you think through a situation and who is there to protect you.”
Jeffery Gautreaux, who fidgets in his seat and frequently bursts into laughter as he talks to a reporter, said chess helps calm him.
“It really takes you away from yourself,” said Gautreaux, 41. “It’s very therapeutic. There’s lots of balance involved, and lots of camaraderie.”
Gautreaux has been at the justice center for nine months, having been charged with burglary, but things could be worse, he said. He likes that chess teaches him “responsibility.”
Lewis-Jones said he hopes he gets a chance to test his skills against a chess master like Williams. And someday he hopes he can play against his friends more often.
“I’ve played people who I didn’t even stand a chance against,” Lewis-Jones said. “Now I can really play.”