In 1997, the second-highest-rated chess player in the United States was a man named Claude Bloodgood. "Wow," you might be saying. "Claude Bloodgood doesn't sound like the name of a chess nerd. That sounds like a killer! Bet he cheated to rise to the top." That's very close-minded of you, and also pretty much correct.

In the '60s, Bloodgood went to prison on multiple offenses, and then right after getting released, he went and murdered his mother. He dumped her body in Virginia's spookily named Dismal Swamp, got caught, and was sentenced to death. While on death row (and after, as his sentence was commuted to life), he played a lot of chess, a game he'd played before too.

Chess players in the United States are ranked, and the system for ranking them is kind of complicated. The country doesn't have a single national chess league, with every single player matched up against every other. But as members of the chess federation play each other and record their results, each player retains a rating, which rises or falls depending on how many matches they win, and depending on their opponents' skill.

Bloodgood played thousands of chess games in prison, mostly against other prisoners and mostly by post. He'd mail his move, his opponent would reply by letter after several days, and the game would slowly progress—many games would slowly progress, as he was playing 1,200 opponents simultaneously at one point. He played so many of these games that his rating shot further and further up.

By 1996, he was ranked in the top 50 in the country. By 1997, he was number 2. He had a score of 2759, putting him among only a handful of people today. Anyone even a few hundred points below that is an international grandmaster. 

People assumed Bloodgood had to have a complicated scheme of manipulating the system, in addition to just playing many games. Perhaps he was coordinating matches among his opponents to inflate their ratings, and to ultimately inflate his own once he beat them. But Bloodgood actually wrote several times to the Chess Federation, pointing out exactly what was happening. He complained about the rating system, noting that his success proved it made no sense.

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For more things people managed in prison, check out:

William Addis Invents the Toothbrush

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Top image: Jose Castillo/Unsplash

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