Popular theory holds that there are more chess moves than atoms in the universe, but for John Marshall, chief actuary of Benecard Services, it's the fact that anyone can learn to play that counts. That's one reason his company sponsors a New Jersey State Prison tournament by donating boards, pieces, clocks, and books and by bringing in Princeton University chess team stars to simultaneously play 60 inmates in a four-hour match twice a year.
Chess is a large part of the culture at Benecard, a Lawrenceville, N.J., company that processes and administers prescription drug and vision programs for health plans. Benecard's 50 employees can take the occasional introductory class over lunch, which includes a free set. Clients were once invited to a reception at which grandmaster Jude Acers took on all comers. Marshall even used to set up a chessboard in the Benecard booth at trade shows; he went undefeated for two years.
"Chess is conducive to a business environment," says Doug Forrester, Benecard's founder and CEO. Forrester wants to further integrate chess into the company personality because, he says, it promotes patience, civility, and intelligence -- qualities noticeably lacking in Forrester's other major pastime, politics. (Running as a Republican, Forrester lost the 2002 New Jersey Senate race to Democrat Frank Lautenberg.) Chess also offers a more level playing field for beginners than softball, doesn't require a formal outing, costs less than golf, and sharpens minds more than happy hour.
Company chess isn't mandatory by any means, but the game is encouraged around the office and the number of regular players is growing, so bishop-to-rook-five moves will continue to be a centerpiece of Benecard's marketing plans, civic engagement (prisoners showed their appreciation last year by making him and the Princeton students handmade pieces and boards), and workday woodpushers. Forrester even drops in to make a move here and there in an ongoing game in Marshall's office. It's a perfect diversion that takes only a few minutes, and, he adds, "we're humiliated at chess a lot less than at golf."