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“Game of Kings” Has Large Following, Long History Behind Bars

by Matt Clarke 

For centuries, chess has been known as the “Game of Kings” for its ability to teach participants focus, planning and tactics. But kings are not the only people who can benefit from the strategic instruction offered by the ancient game. Chess has long been enjoyed by prisoners, too. 

At the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, prisoners have played against student chess club members from Princeton University in a semi-annual “Ivies v. Inmates” tournament since 2001. At the January 2019 meet, five students played 49 prisoners in a game setup called a simul, in which one student played multiple opponents – eight or nine in this case – simultaneously. Each group of players complimented the other on their chess skills.

“All of the players were very polite and sportsmanlike,” said Princeton student Jacob Berman, who started playing chess at age two. “They’ve expressed excitement and gratitude for the opportunity to compete with us and to get to know us.” 

In Chicago, Russian grandmaster Anatoly Karpov helped Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart start a chess program for prisoners in 2012. Karpov was the world chess champion for 16 years and worked with the program’s facilitator, Dr. Mikhail Korenman, to arrange tournaments between Cook County Jail prisoners and Russian prisoners starting in May 2013. The Russian prisoners from five facilities, including one in Siberia, beat the U.S. players during the initial competition. [See: PLN, July 2012, p.50]. Since its inception, over 600 prisoners have participated in the jail’s chess program. 

Karpov visited the Cook County Jail again in 2016 for one of the tournaments. Sheriff Dart noted the prisoners at his jail were at a disadvantage because most had not been exposed to chess before they were incarcerated, while in Russia chess is a national obsession that even young children participate in. The outcome of the 7-against-7 match, which took place over Skype, was an expected 12-2 win by the Russians. Regardless, Dart praised the prisoners in the jail chess program for their improving skills. 

More recently, Sheriff Dart’s 17-year-old son, Tommy, suggested a program that allows prisoners to play chess with their own children via Skype. The unique program has the children scheduling time at Mount Carmel High School for matches with their parents in the jail’s library. The program has receive accolades for helping incarcerated parents stay connected with their children. 

The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City held its first official chess tournament in 2017. The final round of the two-month, 800-player competition was overseen by Maurice Ashley, a U.S. Chess Federation 2003 Grandmaster of the Year, who played a simul against six prisoners, defeating all but one. That game, a draw with prisoner Carmilo Arcelay, meant Arcelay won the title of tournament champion and a commissary voucher worth $150.

“Society wastes so much when we don’t channel the energy and capabilities of those who have been incarcerated,” he said. 

The Rikers Island chess tournament grew from an initiative started by jail guard Gregory Lamb, who first brought a chess set to the facility to play with 16- and 17-year-old prisoners in 2015. Noting the success of the game at helping those prisoners learn focus, planning and healthy competition, the jail administration soon asked Lamb to organize twice-weekly chess matches for adult prisoners.

Ohio’s Belmont Correctional Institution (BCI) held a competition with the Ohio Chess Association in January 2017, during which 24 rated association players competed against the 20 best prisoners. The incarcerated players earned ratings during the tournament. Guard David Cannon first introduced tournament chess matches to BCI prisoners in 2014; he had played since he was 12, including during his service with the Marine Corps overseas.

“I played chess with a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures,” said Cannon. “... We didn’t have the same culture or even speak the same language, but chess has a common denominator between us.”

He added that since the BCI chess program began, only one member has had to be disciplined.

“The club gives these guys focus,” Cannon said. “The club gives them a positive outlet for that mental energy they build up. It gives them a quiet place to come.” 

Prison officials in the United Kingdom have also praised chess for its positive effects on prisoners. In two of the UK’s best-known prisons, maximum-security HMP Wands­worth and HMP Isis, a juvenile facility, chess clubs were established in 2018 as part of a pilot program that eventually hopes to expand to all 50 prisons in the UK.

“It’s a game that trains you to think before­­­­ acting, and that’s a really useful skill for a lot of offenders,” noted Malcolm Pein, CEO of Chess in Schools and Communities, who added he had also witnessed the transformative effect of introducing the game into some of the nation’s worst schools. “The benefits of teaching chess to children – in building skills, resilience and self-esteem – are directly transferable to a prison environment.”

Pein said that when the prison chess program is fully expanded it will rely on better players to tutor fellow prisoners. It should also help the participants bond with their children during visits. A tutor for Chess in Schools and Communities, Peter Sullivan, said he has already seen how prisoners treat the game as an “unconventional form of escape.”

“While they’re thinking, ‘Should I take the knight or the bishop?’ they’re not thinking about the situation they’re in,” he observed. “They’re not thinking about the bars on the windows and all the rules of prison life.”

“Lots of prisoners like to go to the gym and work out,” stated Carl Portman, who founded another British charity called Chess in Prison and wrote a book by the same name. “But you’ve got to have a fit mind as well as a fit body.”

Portman has been teaching chess to British prisoners since 2015. Though limited by funding to just seven training sessions annually – he’s visited about half the UK’s prisons thus far – he is convinced that chess teaches prisoners to stop blaming others for their problems and how to lose gracefully.

“I’ve seen gangs that hate each other come together over a chess game, and get along,” he said. 

Cannon, the guard at BCI in Ohio, reported similar results.

“In prison, there’s a racial divide between the Hispanics, the blacks, the whites,” he stated. “If you were to come in tonight, you would see white Aryan Brothers playing with black Gangster Disciples. You’d see Latin Kings playing Crips. The minute this board comes out, all of those differences, all of those things that we want to fight each other for, all those things we hate each other for, it’s gone. This board is magic, and it’s a shame somewhere along the line we’ve lost what this board can give us.” 



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