The First Prison World Chess Championships in Wandsworth Prison!

The First Prison World Chess Championships in Wandsworth Prison!


I currently volunteer for a charity called chess in schools and communities. They are a charity with the mission to provide chess tuition and equipment for schools and communities across the UK. If you wish to support this venture please visit this page: Without them, this experience would not be possible. 

On a sunny Tuesday morning I began my journey towards the South of London. I normally get a little nervous before competing in chess events but today I felt an emotion that was unlike anything I had previously experienced. The whole night before was very sleepless. I tossed and turned contemplating my mortality. What if something happens to me? What if I get seriously hurt today? Nonetheless I was excited at the opportunity to be part of one of the most ambitious projects I have ever been associated with. Volunteering at the first (ever) World Prison Chess Championships!

A poster created by the inmates to advertise that they were competing in the world prison chess championships!

That day I was travelling to Wandsworth Prison, a prison for male inmates in England. The prison stood like as historic monument to a bygone age of prison architecture and reform. First built in 1851, its clinical Victorian cream coloured corridors and brightly coloured blue doors, which housed its inmates, previously were resident to some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK. Notable alumni included; Charles Bronson, one of Britain's most notorious (and voilent) prisoners of all time, Ronnie Kray (one of the Kray twins) a criminal kingpin for one of the biggest East London gangs and Ronnie Biggs (who ended up escaping the prison till he was captured in 2001) one of the members of "The Great Train Robbery" to name but a few people... Wandsworth is one of the largest prisons in the UK, and remains an iconic traditional archetype for the British prison system. Footage from the prison was used for the infamous British sitcom "Porridge" and it also had a cameo in the Stanley Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange" (the prison also featured in the book). The prison has the dubious reputation of being the site of 135 executions in its old Gallows (the last hanging taking place in 1961) and being the national holding stock of cat o' nine tails, a type of corporal punishment which involved a whip dishing out plenty of pain to inmates - thankfully banned in 1954.

An aerial view of Wandsworth Prison

Each cell was tiny and claustrophobic with pure white walls entrapping its inhabitants. Communication between prison guards and prisoners were carried out by moving a small flap at the front of the door, no bigger than a4 piece of paper. Their windows, small, gated up, provide a dreadful view of the other wings and the colossal fences that deterred any would be escapees. According to the main prison chess organiser, whom I was helping, depending on circumstances, prisoners could spend up to 22 hours inside cells.

A harrowing view of the prison from a BBC mini documentary

The five of us, the volunteers, stood in the centre of the prison. The prison had a Panopticon design, an idea first fronted by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The idea of the prison is that each wing is observed by a central control area where a prison guard will be able to observe all inmates with ease - Thus deterring inmates from committing any offences. A few minutes pass and the anticipation for meeting our chess team to represent England grew. One the volunteers was none other than Carl Portman, the manager of Chess in Prisons in England and author of the acclaimed book: "Chess behind Bars" which discussed his experiences of teaching chess in prisons.

A must read book before entering into prisons

Even for Carl, Wandsworth prison was a surreal experience. "I couldn't imagine being locked up in this prison" he said, "I think I would go stir crazy." Carl claimed to have worked in around 34 prisons across the UK. If he was getting goosebumps, what chance did I have!

A view of a corridor in Wandsworth

Finally, the prisoners began to trickle down the stairs. I fully expected to see 4 guys with fully shaved heads, scars and tattoos all over their faces and bodies, and large bulging muscled arms capable of snapping you like a twig. Instead I was surprised. On first appearances, it looked like 4 regular blokes (chessplayers even!). To avoid awkwardness, I immediately went to shake each of their hands and introduced myself. Immediately, the tension that I had built up over the course of the day had evaporated. These were just four very keen chess enthusiasts who just so happened to be entombed in prison.

As we walked to the library, one of the players was asking questions about getting certain chess literature on chess opening traps. In his hand, he carried a very tattered and tired chess tactics book, clearly a book which had seen a high demand amongst the prison population. Although I was unsure about what resources these prisoners had in this particular prison, I could imagine their ability to get hold of chess literature, apart from the monthly English Chess Federation magazine, being rather difficult. I was informed (although could be wrong) although volunteers could bring books in, they were not allowed to donate books as they were contraband to the UK prison system due to the potential of containing detrimental language:

One example of a chess opening book too dangerous for prisoners!

We arrived at the library where the event was being run. The library, although quite small and space restrictive, had a small meeting area with 6 computers surrounding the perimeter of the room. We set up our boards and our computers to play. The matches were a four board match with 15 minutes for each player (no increment). Unfortunately for our inmates, the prisoners were not allowed to access the internet at all. This was due to safety concerns around prisoners potentially contacting their victims over a social media platform. Each player had their own account, special accounts where all chat functions had been disabled. Unlike other prisons, it was us, the volunteers, who had to manually input all their moves. This put us at an immense disadvantage compared to other teams. In the 15 minute time control, there would always be a delay of around five seconds for us to play their desired moves. Pre-moves were impossible to do. This meant if the game reached an endgame, which happened quite frequently as prison players liked to play till a checkmate was reached, we could potentially end up flagging games where we may have been in a totally winning position.

A rough diagram of how we had to play the games online

Despite this set-up, in a 5 minute practice game with a random 1200 rated player, my board (board 4) would quickly dismantle his opponent delivering a checkmate in only 25 moves. I was excited by this prospect. My player had a highly aggressive attacking style, unphased and unnerved by complicated positions. However, in a practice game with myself he struggled against my solid QGD pawn structure, got flustered, and ended up blundering in the middle-game. He was great at getting his pieces out to good squares in the opening. However, if there was no clear attacking chances, struggled to formulate a robust middle-game plan (a problem shared by most players at around 1400 ELO).

In our warm-up before the match, I gave him a quick lesson on making plans in the middle-game but before I could show him anything, it was time to play our first opponent, Italy! 

Italy had a well structured chess program in their prison. Each of their classes was run by an italian FIDE master Mirko Trasciatti. Like us however, they weren't performing too well in this particular tournament and were sat near the bottom of the table. 

Despite this loss, the rest of our team were performing well. Our top board player, an intuitive chess genius with an estimated 2000 FIDE rating, crushed his Italian opposition. Although his record was not brilliant this tournament he had been winning all his games but losing due to flagging against his opposition. On board 3, there was a tight queen and pawn ending. Soon however our player's position deteriorated and he was having to make desperate moves to avoid checkmate and hopefully flag his opponent. Despite our player managing to time-out his opponent, because he did not have any sufficient mating material, the game was a declared a draw. Our board 2 unfortunately lost relatively quickly bringing our score to a disappointing 2.5-1.5 loss. 
We now had a 30 minute break. A nice amount of time to quickly analyse the game and prepare for our next opponent, Russia! Russia had been dominating the tournament so far. It was suspected that all their players were ex-soviet exiled chess grand-masters! According to my friend, who was helping organise the event, on a skype call to all other nations, the Russian team had their moves all watched by fully armed Russian Soldiers. In the background of the Skype call was a big gold framed picture of Vladmir Putin. Truly an intimidating sight and an even more pressurising condition for the prisoners to perform in. It was likely that the Russian team had six weeks of playing chess non-stop instead of their normal activities to practice for this rare occasion.
We had managed to get the moves that the Russian team played in their other games. For my board, he played an e4 opening and went for the Italian game. I hastily went through a few moves in the two knights defence and quickly showed him a potential complicated variation called the fried liver attack!
We started playing:
Sadly my player had lost every game in this tournament. Nevertheless I congratulated him. "You played brilliantly" I said. "What a fun game to watch! You played very sharp chess and was unafraid of the Russian player." My player, although disappointed, cracked a smile and we promptly analysed the position in depth.
As we were having fun playing the position, and looking at the defence I told him to play, it suddenly dawned on me. We were sat in a very miserable environment that was this prison, yet I was having the best fun of my entire life! Inside this cramped library we had created our own chess bubble, oblivious to the outside world and for them the struggles of prison life.
Prison guards began to flock to our bubble, excited at the commotion on our top board.  On the top board our secret weapon was making mince meat of his Russian counterpart. At one point he was an exchange up with a very strong endgame position. The Russian was in full retreat, making the occasional jab whilst cornered like a frightened mouse. However, the reoccurring nightmare that was the time control began to creep up on him. Although up 30 secs going into the endgame, the speed of his opponent began to quicken. Suddenly, our player's advantage diminished as his blundered back the exchange. In a rook and pawn endgame, with drawing chances for both sides, our top board's time slowly ran out. After a 65 move game our player's clock ran out. 
What should have been a crushing 4-0 defeat was in fact a triumphant success for our team. "We know what to expect now, and what level we need to play at" said one inmate. Already talks about the playing in next year's competition were in the air. "Perhaps we can play other prisons in a 10 on 10 match" suggested the same inmate "We could include our whole club then!." The wondrous imagination of these players began to shine through. The limitless possibilities that was prison chess gave them hope and something to look forward to. At the end of the event, one prisoner stood up and announced: "I would like to thank all the organisers for today, today has been the best two days of my prison life here, I have thoroughly enjoyed."  
This was my first time in a prison playing chess with other chess players. It was an amazing experience and something I would encourage anyone with any chess skill to do! Sadly in order for these limitless ideas of playing in inter-prison competitions, loads of organisation, volunteers and planning are required. If you wish to support this venture please go to this page
There you will find all of the work that we do with communities across the UK. If you live near Wandsworth prison and would like to volunteer, please contact Peter Sullivan He is always looking for new recruits to help him play chess with the inmates