Prison chess has always been seen as a tremendous outlet for inmates. “Life of a King” was a compelling movie that showed how chess could help inmate pass the time and also get a look at their own thoughts for self-analysis. In the inaugural Intercontinental Online Chess Championship for Prisoners, 42 teams from 31 countries participated in the four-player event. Mongolia edged out Zimbabwe in the final 4½-3½.
Countries registered were: Inmates from Armenia, Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, England, Germany, Georgia, India, Iran, Italy, Libya, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Mongolia, Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, USA and Zimbabwe. The historic event was held over October 13th (preliminaries) and October 14th (finals). The initial online conference was held back on May 11th.
Here was the mission as stated by Chess for Freedom program:
“The Intercontinental Chess Championship among the Prisoners is a bridge for freedom for hundreds of men and women across all continents that can be used as an efficient tool for re-integration of prisoners to the normal life”, says the Cook County Jail chess instructor Mikhail Korenman, whose team won the silver medal of the “Chess for Freedom” online tournament held earlier this year. “We got new members of the team after May event. There is a competition to be part of our team; the tournament definitely raised the interest of the inmates in chess. We have weekly chess lessons, and before the championship, we plan to have four days of practice with the computers on Chess.com.”
There have been so many studies citing chess as an activity that could possibly reduce recidivism. Carl Portman wrote an interesting account titled Chess Behind Bars detailing prison chess. Some prisons have an active chess community and may have a liaison with their national federation. Mikhail Korenman has been conducting classes at Chicago Cook County Jail since 2012.
After the preliminaries of six groups, the tournament was split into two “championship” groups with Group 1 (Georgia, Germany, Mongolia, Palestine, Philippines, Russia) and Group 2 (Argentina, Croatia, England, North Macedonia, USA, Zimbabwe) playing a round-robin. Mongolia and Zimbabwe won their respective groups with 10 points and would meet in the final.
In the final, Mongolia took the honors beating Zimbabwe with a higher number of board points in two matches. Zimbabwe won the first match 2.5-1.5 and Mongolia took the second match 3-1.
Mongolia had IM Batchimeg Tuvshintugs who served as an ambassador, teacher and mentor to chess inmates in Mongolia. She is employed at the Court of Decision Making Agency and has organized chess events for a number of institutions. One of the inmates was a three-time champion of Baganuur district and had previously won two silver medals at the national championship.
“Mongolian chess has a great history, especially in correctional units. Since 1956 we started organizing chess tournaments in all our correctional units, so it’s like a traditional tournament for us. The Mongolian amateur chess level is pretty high, I consider, so it’s no wonder our prisoners are doing quite well in this tournament.”
~ Batchimeg Tuvshintugs
Batchimeg Tuvshintugs, coach of Team Mongolia
While the countries represented a number of chess powers, the playing field was level. Zimbabwe had to be the big surprise as the only African nation in the tournament. They beat the USA, England, Croatia, North Macedonia and Argentina. This would be quite a feat if those were Olympiad wins! Nevertheless, this was still a tremendous victory for the African nation.
Photo by Zimbabwe Chess Federation
Thabo Elisha, who manages public relations for the Zimbabwe Chess Federation, states that the chess in the prisons program has been ongoing for the past six years. So it comes as no surprise that they had such a strong result. Elisha adds,
“We are regularly having competitions, and this is the third time we are playing against people outside our continent. We are very satisfied with our performance and results we had against our opponents and touched by their stories. We want to thank organizers for hosting such an event. We will do our best and try to win the event next year. Our success this time will help us to develop chess in the prison program, attract more attention from companies, sponsors, and individuals. We hope to get more chess equipment for our team: chessboard and books, and to organize more chess events for prisoners. We will be looking forward to the next intercontinental event and our team will do its best to get on top!”
Photo by Zimbabwe Chess Federation
FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich called in to congratulate the finalists…
“I want to congratulate Mongolia on winning the event and Zimbabwe on finishing second. These are great achievements and great inspiration for many people who are joining the chess community. I was in Chicago with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart a couple of days before, greeting the US team on site in the prison, and had a lovely conversation about chess and played a game with one of the inmates. For me personally and for FIDE, it is a great inspiration to continue and to expand this project to more and more countries. And I hope that you, as the best teams of this championship, will share your experience and will continue to learn chess and to play chess, passing this love to other people around you.”
There was also a women’s competition with Georgia, Russia, Trinidad & Tobago and Ukraine. Georgia, a nation with a venerable tradition in women’s chess, won the double round-robin with 11 match points (+5-0=1) and 19 board points. Russia was the only team to get a draw against the champions and was runner up with 8 match points (+3-1=2) and 15 board points.
One could imagine that these inmates may have taken on a new sense of patriotism and purpose. It is possible that this may provide a view of how they can contribute to the larger society. Could Chess-in-Prisons take on the same importance as Chess-in-Schools? That would certainly be an interesting development and hopefully, help the inmates see a brighter path in life.