Henner's next move: retire from chess, resume law

Enterprise file photo

Peter Henner, for four years, has written an award-winning chess column for The Altamont Enterprise. He’ll continue to play chess but will no longer write his column — “Chess: the last frontier of the mind” — as he resumes his law practice on his own terms.

NEW SCOTLAND — Peter Henner, at 62, wants to make the most of what is left of his life.

Like Janus, he is looking in two directions — at his past life and at his future — in order to set the best course.

Last year, he quit his solo law practice, based in Clarksville, and devoted himself to playing chess, learning Spanish, running, and writing.

This year, he swept the newspaper awards from the Chess Journalists of America, winning in both categories: Best Newspaper Article of Local Interest, for his story on inmates who play chess, and Best Regular Newspaper Column, on Magnus Carlsen winning his first tournament as world champion.

The awards are given for all facets of chess journalism, from print to online, and include recognition for articles, columns, photojournalism, infograhics, and layout. The first year that Henner entered a chess column for The Altamont Enterprise, in 2012, he won two honorable mentions from the Chess Journalists of America; last year, he won the Best Regular Newspaper Column category.

Henner has now decided to return to his law practice — on his own terms. Although he had become disillusioned with the legal system, he said, he decided the best way to help the struggle for social justice is to work on cases that further those ends.

“Although I was making plenty of money,” he wrote in an email last week announcing his return to the battleground, “I felt that my practice had gotten away from fighting against corporate greed and environmental pollution, and for worker rights and community empowerment.”

Henner was inspired by lawyers in countries like China, “who have continued the fight despite facing an even more unfair and unjust legal system, and despite having to endure risks and punishment for their activities.”

Henner struggles to learn languages but works at Spanish “to get involved in human-rights issues in South America.”

He runs four or five miles a day, and this past Sunday ran in a half-marathon at Thacher Park.

While he’ll no longer write a chess column for The Enterprise, he’ll continue to play chess.

The game transcends normal barriers. Henner plays with inmates he has never met; he played with Mongolians who didn’t speak his language; and he plays online against opponents about whom he knows nothing — not age, not gender, not even a name.

Henner himself uses the name Azdak for online chess; that’s the name of a judge in a play by Bertolt Brecht, Caucasian Chalk Circle. Azdak has to decide if a boy rescued by a kitchen maid named Grusha (which is what Henner named his dog) is her son as she claims or the son of the birth mother who left him and now wants him back only to secure wealth. Azdak follows the course set by Solomon: As Grusha says she will not pull apart her son as he is placed in a chalk circle, Azdak declares her the true mother as she loves her son too much to hurt him.

“Azdak says it’s more important to have the robe without the judge,” rather than the other way around, said Henner, “or the law will be disrespected.”

Henner himself was disillusioned by the practice of law in the United States but has respect for the good that law can do.

Social change through law

“I had come of age in the sixties and seventies,” Henner told The Enterprise, which made him keenly aware of the way courts had reworked society and promoted change.

He summarized a recent essay by Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs who says the United States is unique, fostering change through its legal system rather than through the legislative or executive branches — for example, ending segregation and achieving equal rights for everyone regardless of race, color, or gender.

Henner was active in the anti-war movement as the United States fought in Vietnam. “Society was not living up to the ideals America was founded on,” he said. “We were the bad boy of the world. Law was a way of challenging it.”

So Henner, who had a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Rutgers’ Livingston College, went to law school at Rutgers University in Newark, which he described as a “hotbed of radical lawyers.”

At law school, he worked on school-finance litigation, suing the state to change how schools were financed, which Henner described as “using the law for social change.” “New Jersey has an income tax because of that litigation,” he said of the way schools there are funded.

Henner went directly from taking, and passing, the bar exam to working for the New York State Assembly. He went on to work for Council 82 for prison guards. “You don’t think of corrections officers as the vanguard of the labor movement,” he said, but he had a chance to build a legal department representing “good union people” and working for “morally upright, honorable really principled, good union leaders.”

That changed in 1982, he said, when the director was killed in a car crash and Jack Burke — known as “Killer Burke” because of an incident where an inmate died — took over. “He was probably cheating the KKK out of membership dues,” said Henner, indicating his disgust.

He recalled Burke looking at him during a meeting and saying, “We’ve got all these goddamn liberals in this organization.”

“Get this straight,” Henner replied. “I’m not a liberal. I’m an SDS radical.”

Henner is currently writing a novel, giving a fictional account of that time in his life.

In 1984, Henner decided to “hang out a shingle,” launching his own practice. It was tough going at first since he didn’t have a local network for referrals. “I’ve never joined a golf club or university club or any of that crap,” he said. “I’m not a member of any religious organization.”

He had never drafted a will or tried a personal injury claim. “I’m starting from nowhere,” he said.

Henner learned environmental law on his own. He got involved in looking at monitoring records for companies that were violating discharge limits. “You could force these guys to pay penalties and recover attorney fees,” he said. Those citizen suits became a major source of his income.

Henner developed a specialty handling State Environmental Quality Review cases. “By 1987, I was known as an environmental lawyer…good-guy stuff,” he said. “I still kept doing labor law.”

 In 1995, he and his wife purchased 130 acres in Clarksville where they still live in a house with his office attached. “I was working hard…still fighting for the right kind of principles,” he said. But, as time went on, he said, it was harder to get results and he became disillusioned with “sleazy, dishonest, hyper-aggressive” tactics.

He cited cases where he was “making all this money doing nothing useful.”

He did find it satisfying to defend the Clarksville Post Office when the federal system planned to close it along with a large number of other small, rural post offices.

Henner was also discouraged when in 2008 he published a book on international law that got good reviews but “never panned out,” he said.

He then went to Mongolia to work for a non-government organization but became “disgusted” with what he described as a feel-good project that accomplished nothing.

“I became very disillusioned about the ability of law to change anything,” he said. Henner was still spending 60 hours a week on “a system which doesn’t work,” he said.

He then phased out his practice, closing the office completely in 2013.

Love of the game

Henner’s own experiences playing chess informed his Enterprise columns — in obvious ways as when he chronicled his play in a tournament in Iceland and visited the grave of Bobby Fischer, and in more subtle ways, too.

For instance, he said of his prize-winning column on Magnus Carlsen winning his first tournament as world champion, “When I wrote how Nakamura screwed up against Carlsen, it resonated because of my own recent experience.”

In a chess tournament in Philadelphia, Henner had been winning when he “lost a traumatic game in the last round,” he said.

The American Hikaru Nakamura had believed he was the biggest threat to the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. “He certainly had his chance in this tournament, missing a clear win before losing outright,” wrote Henner.

Henner’s prize-winning front-page story, “Chess in ‘the Box’: Inmates play for stamps,” starts with a description of New York State’s Special Housing Units in which “about 5,000 inmates are locked in cells approximately 100 square feet, 23 hours a day, and are allowed out only for ‘recreation’ in a small pen…Some of the inmates are sent to SHU for months if not years; many of them have serious mental health problems, or develop them as a result of the stress of the solitary confinement.”

Nevertheless, some inmates living in “the Box” play chess for postage stamps as they are not permitted access to money.

Henner played a correspondence game of chess with an inmate he was advising on legal matters who got him to play against another inmate, Damian Coppedge. Coppedge, who goes by the name of Focus, was convicted of manslaughter in 1998 at the age of 21.

Henner describes Focus both as a fellow human being — he has become a committed Buddhist and an accomplished writer and poet – as well as a fellow chess player.

Henner has continued to correspond with Focus and he notes that Focus was the only reader to point out a mistake in Henner’s last column.

Being an exacting person who likes to get things right, Henner has provided a correction of that mistake from his last column. (See related box.)

Focus also sent Henner a game he recently played against an inmate who calls himself “New T,” short for New Testament. Focus described the game as “in the Tartakower Variation of the Queens Gambit Declined [that] followed the first 17 moves of a game between Onischuck [and] Vagarian, Polkovsky 2002 before we deviated into an equal game,” which was drawn.

“Most tournament chess players,” notes Henner, “might recognize the name of the variation, but it is amazing that someone playing with the disadvantages of incarceration recognizes that a game follows the first 17 moves of the game between two relatively obscure Grand masters played 12 years ago.”

After four years of writing about chess for The Enterprise, Henner will now set it aside as he resumes his law practice and continues to write and play chess.

He and his wife have been traveling; they took a two-month sojourn in Alaska in May and June and then hiked in Nepal, returning this month.

The travels gave him space to evaluate. While in Alaska, Henner asked himself, “Do I really not want to do law?”

While he still stands by his criticisms of the current legal system in the United States, Henner said three things compelled him to return to it.

“First, I should get back in the fight for social justice,” he said. “Second, some things are still interesting and challenging. And third, people I’ve helped for years — if they want my help, I should help them.”


Correction: Peter Henner has submitted this correction to his last chess column, noting the mistake was pointed out by Damian Coppedge, known as Focus, an inmate with whom he has played chess.

Henner had described the position pictured here from a 1959 game between two former world champions, Mikhail Tal and Vasily Smyslov, as a mate in four.

He had given the solution as 1. Qxf7! . If 1..Rxf7, then 2. Rxd8 Rf8 3. Rxf8+ Ng8 4. Rxg8# If 1…Rg8, then 2. Qxg8 Nxg8 3. Nf7#  If 1..Re8, then 2. Qg8+ followed by 3. Nf7mate. 

However, Focus pointed out that Black could avoid mate: 1 Qxf7  Qa1+, 2 Kd2 Qxd1+, 3 Rxd1 Rxf7 4 Nxf7+ Kg8 5 Nxd8.

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