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The annual Virginia State Class Championships chess tournament will be held this weekend in Fredericksburg, but Claude Bloodgood, far and away the highest-rated player in the Old Dominion, won’t be showing up. In fact, eight of the 13 highest-rated Virginia players won’t be able to attend.
They’ll all be spending the weekend, and years to come, in check—behind bars.
Even in the oddball realm of chess, Bloodgood’s tale stands tall. Based on the complicated ratings system used by the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF), the game’s premier sanctioning body, Bloodgood is the most accomplished player in Virginia, and the second-highest-rated player in all the U.S. But it’s not his ability to manipulate pawns and rooks that really sets Bloodgood apart from other chessheads; his manipulation of the ratings game is far more impressive. Bloodgood’s criminal history makes him a singular presence on the local chess scene. Among other off-board shenanigans, there was the time he slaughtered his own mother with an ax.
“That little thing about killing his mom always added an intimidation component to Claude Bloodgood’s game,” chuckles former Virginia state champ Macon Shibut. “It’s not every day that you play a match against a death-row murderer.”
Shibut, now an Arlington resident, did in fact play Bloodgood several times back in the mid-’70s, shortly after the matricidal chessman was confined to the state prison in Richmond. At that time, Bloodgood (who is now 59 according to the Virginia Department of Corrections, though chess players familiar with his exploits add at least a decade to that) had just convinced corrections officials that allowing him and other inmates to fraternize with chess players on the outside would be good for their rehabilitation.
First, chess clubs from the area were invited to come to the prisons and play matches against the outlaw tenants. As the venture brought positive press to the corrections department, Bloodgood and some lesser jailbird players were granted weekend traveling privileges to tournaments around the state. They didn’t go alone, however.
“They used to bring him into these tournaments in shackles and unlock him just before every game,” recalls Shibut. “And an armed guard would always be sitting next to him when he played. That gave him a very unapproachable quality, and he tried to use that to psyche out his opponents.”
Not with much success, apparently. Shibut killed, er, defeated Bloodgood in every match, at home or away.
“And I don’t know any player who was any good that the guy ever beat,” he added.
Possibly because of the damage to his self-esteem caused by habitually losing to outsiders, Bloodgood suffered a setback in his rehab: While on a tournament furlough, he and another killer chess player overpowered their assigned armed guardian and fled into the night.
The murderers were eventually recaptured, but not before Bloodgood entered a few tournaments—under his own name, no less—while on the lam. The failed gambit got the furlough program snuffed.
Bloodgood’s affinity for the game, however, remained alive. After settling back in his cell, Bloodgood commenced an extremely effective assault on the ratings system. He began registering other Virginia inmates with the USCF as competitive chess players and then playing them. And beating them. Again and again and again. Since points are accrued for each match victory, Bloodgood’s name was soon mingling with those of the U.S. chess elite on the national rankings, where it remained throughout the 1980s.
The USCF finally decided to take action to limit Bloodgood’s rise after he qualified for entry to the national championship tournament—a competition that was intended to be open only to the top players—simply by virtue of the rating he’d garnered by his nonstop whupping of other jailbirds. Because there was no proof that Bloodgood’s high marks were the result of fraudulent reporting, the federation had to either overhaul the entire ratings system or impose an arbitrary cap on the inmate’s rating. Higher-ups within the USCF opted for the latter. Most of the chess world applauded the group’s decision, feeling the move would put an end to the rather embarrassing Bloodgood saga.
A few years ago, after a change in the USCF hierarchy, those in charge of maintaining player ratings forgot about the Bloodgood clause and again began letting him amass points for his intrapenitentiary triumphs. And boy, did he take advantage of the slip-up.
Last year, Bloodgood, now a resident of the Powhatan Correctional Center in Powhatan, Va., reported approximately 1,800 of his games to the USCF. Which is why he’s again near the top of the U.S. rankings. (For comparison, the reigning Virginia chess champion registered fewer than two dozen scores with the USCF in 1995.)
“You have to figure each match takes an average of at least an hour,” says Mike Atkins, a tournament player living in Fairfax. “So that means the guy spent nearly 2,000 hours playing chess in one year. That’s a full-time job! I often wonder how pleased Virginia’s very conservative governor would be when he heard how one of his inmates spent the equivalent of a full-time job doing nothing but padding his chess rating.”
Bloodgood’s scheme has also padded the scores of other inmates. Another facet in the USCF’s ratings system allows players to elevate their ratings simply by playing matches against highly rated players, win or lose. So Bloodgood’s prolificacy has created a situation where the state’s leader board is now dominated by his serial victims at the Powhatan Correctional Center Chess Club. Couple that with Bloodgood’s failed escape and you’ll understand why so few of the state’s top-rated players will be able to trek to Fredericksburg to play for the class championships.
Understandably, Virginia chess officials are downplaying the criminal influence on the chess scene.
“There’s no truth to the statement that the best chess players in Virginia are all in jail,” rails Helen Hinshaw, president of the Virginia Chess Federation and, coincidentally, a career employee of the Virginia Department of Corrections. “The fact is Claude Bloodgood and other prisoners have an artificially inflated rating. [Bloodgood] wants the highest rating, and to get that he plays an awful lot. But his rating doesn’t mean he’s better than everybody else, it just means he plays more than they do. It’s ridiculous, and I wish the USCF would just reimpose that cap on his rating. Then nobody would have any reason to ever talk about Claude Bloodgood.” (Hinshaw, who describes herself as a player of average ability, might have an ax to grind with Bloodgood: She admits he beat her “several times” years ago.)
Given Bloodgood’s penchant for giving his the correctional knights the slip, you’d think he’d be stuck playing against a captive group of foes, but the passage of time has apparently healed a few wounds. Last month, the Powhatan Correctional Center, swayed by the notoriety of its highly ranked inmates, welcomed the 10-member team from the Huguenot Chess Club inside the barbed-wire confines to play the prisoners. It was the first time in more than a decade that the Corrections Department had sanctioned such a match.
Bloodgood played two games against much lower-rated competitors from Huguenot. He didn’t win either.—Dave McKenna