Why Jail Inmates Are Now Playing In International Chess Tournaments
Two inmates at Cook County Jail in Chicago discuss a potential move. Photo by Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune.

Why Jail Inmates Are Now Playing In International Chess Tournaments

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Do you know that inmates in correctional facilities are now participating in an international round-robin chess tournament? Sponsors who organize chess programs in jails contend that the game we love so much teaches valuable life lessons that are very important for someone incarcerated. Among other benefits, patience and critical thinking skills are touted as being specifically important for inmates to develop.

The first classical chess tournament in an Italian correctional facility was held in 2018 in the library of the maximum-security prison in Spoleto, Italy, where FM Mirko Trasciatti began teaching chess classes in 2015. Photo by FM Mirko Trasciatti.

In what is considered to be the first of its kind, a special two-day chess tournament for only jail inmates was begun today (August 5) and will end tomorrow. Inmates around the world—including countries such as Brazil, England, Italy, Russia, and the United States—are playing in the event. Although the players are separated by culture and language, not to mention thousands of miles, chess is serving as a common ground.

Video conferencing is being used to connect inmates in correctional facilities around the world. Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

The U.S. participants are inmates in Cook County Jail, which is America’s largest single jail site. Located in Chicago, the jail houses about 6,500 prisoners and employs 3,900 law enforcement offices—as well as 7,000 civilian employees. The inmates earned their way to compete in the tournament through internal competition. In addition, their participation has been contingent upon good behavior.

The rounds this week build on the success of earlier tournaments between Chicago inmates and Russian prisoners. In the first match in 2013, 10 prisoners from Russian jails in Astrakhan, Samara, Saratov, the Yekaterinburg region and Krasnodar assembled in Moscow to play 10 Chicago inmates. A similar tournament was held in 2016 when the Russians came out victorious with a score of 12-2 after two rounds of seven versus seven.

Cook County Jail is America's largest jail site. Photo by David Wilson, Wikimedia.

Before the first tournament was held, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office had started a chess program in the previous year, and more than 600 inmates have now participated in it. Many inmates had never played chess until they were introduced to the game in jail. The program was begun when GM Anatoly Karpov visited Cook County Jail in 2012 as a guest of Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. For the 2016 tournament, Karpov returned to the jail to encourage the Cook County detainees who had challenged Russian federal prisoners to another tournament.

For discussing strategy and offering constructive suggestions to the Chicago inmates, Karpov was named an honorary Sheriff’s Deputy. During the tournament, Dart said, “Chess instills qualities such as patience, strategy and critical thinking, which will serve these men well as they re-enter society looking to avoid the triggers that landed them into the criminal justice system.”

The sheriff has begun several programs at Cook County Jail “to give detainees skills to stop the revolving door of incarceration.” In addition to chess, other programs that the sheriff organizes include art, cooking, gardening, parenting, and literacy.

American blues musician B.B. King performs before an audience of 2,117 prisoners at Cook County Jail. The experience led King to establish the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation. Video by Dimitris Koutsiaftis. 

The Cook County Jail also conducts a program known as “Checkmates for Kids,” which allows incarcerated men to play chess virtually with their children. Inmates can see and talk to their kids via Skype as they play against each other online.

King's album "Live in Cook County Jail," which focuses on harsh living conditions at the prison when he visited in 1970, led to several reforms.

Teaching and playing chess in prisons is not that unusual. Perhaps the best example is in the United Kingdom where 86,000 inmates (including 5,000 women) play chess. In the book Chess Behind Bars, Carl Portman writes about his experiences as manager of Chess in Prisons for the English Chess Federation.

Carl Portman discusses the Chess in Prisons program. Swedish Chess Federation (Sveriges Schackförbund).

Similarly, in late 2018, a classical chess tournament—with six inmates who had FIDE ratings—was held in an Italian correctional facility. The event gave them the opportunity to play against someone other than another inmate and to improve their competitive experience. In addition, Italian and Chicago inmates have also competed in an online tournament.

Carl Portman, who claims learning to lose gracefully is a key benefit of playing chess, conducts a chess session in a prison in the United Kingdom. Photo by Carl Portman via The Guardian.

Cook County Jail has been the scene of at least 67 executions carried out by electrocution. Now it is the scene of chess players participating in a tournament. Who know what benefits will be gained from this experience?

Thanks for reading. (If you like this article, please click above to follow my blog.) What are your views? Do you think that playing chess instills useful lessons that inmates can learn while they are in custody and apply when they enter society again?

[Note: For a related post about chess and at-risk kids, see my post “How Chess Helps At-Risk Kids.” In addition, to read a first-person account by Andrew Smith (@thepawnslayer) of Wales about being a volunteer in a U.K. prison during this tournament, see "The First Prison World Chess Championships in Wandsworth Prison!"]