Peter has been an enthusiastic chess player for as long as he can remember. Having taken early retirement, he finds that Chess in Schools and Communities provides a perfect way for him to have fun and give something back to the game.

But why chess in prisons?

Peter: I was inspired to explore chess in prisons by articles about successful experiences in other countries. In particular I remember reading about an internet match between prisons in the US and Russia. A comment from a prisoner in a maximum security prison in Italy stayed with me. He said that before the chess course his problem was too much time – after it his problem was not enough time.

When I had time to pursue my idea, I immediately thought of Chess in Schools and Communities. They have the track record and experience of delivering chess in schools. I love the chaos and joy of a CSC chess class in a school, but I was drawn to the different challenge of bringing chess to adults in prisons. I have learned a huge amount about teaching, about prisons and about myself, and I can honestly say that it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

One of the first challenges is getting used to prison conditions: banging doors, clanking keys, the smells, the wait to get in and out, the rules, the feeling of being an outsider who is so obviously out of their depth. Everything takes an age, resources are scarce and I seem to learn the rules only by breaking them. Prison life is somewhere between Kafka and Alice in Wonderland. I doubt anyone ever gets entirely used to it, but I remind myself that I only experience it for a couple of hours; not for weeks, months and years on end. One of the first things I realised is that chess is an excellent game to introduce in prison. It seduces people to concentrate without them realising it. While people are thinking about whether to take with the knight or the bishop, they are not thinking about the bars on the windows. One of our first sessions lasted for three hours and the prisoners did not want it to end.

It soon became obvious that teaching chess was going to be a real challenge, because of the wide range of chess strength and experience amongst the prisoners. However, I was delighted to find that they were ready and willing to teach
each other. I have seen real improvements in playing strength and can take almost no credit for it. Chess is a wonderful game for encouraging a quiet, thoughtful, respectful atmosphere which is quite uncommon in prison. I try very hard to make sure that nobody is put on the spot or made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate, and I think the prisoners appreciate this. The atmosphere is peaceful. There is enough aggression and violence on the board – it does not need to spread to the room. I sense that people from the outside world treating prisoners with friendship and respect can also have positive impacts. A small amount of praise goes a long way. I remember taking one prisoner through the first five lessons in the CSC curriculum in one session and mentioning that he was a quick learner. He visibly grew in front of me. I suspect he had not received any praise in years.

If there is one experience that sticks in my mind, it is a conversation with a bull of a man with a shaven head, no neck, tattoos and huge muscles. After a few weeks he told me that he has spoken to his dad. He said he had not talked to him in ages, but he wanted to tell him he was playing chess. Wonderfully, his dad responded by sending him in a chess book. I strongly suspect the man cannot fully read, but he can follow the notation. If that man re-establishes contact with his father and can go home when he is released, he may not reoffend. You never know, they may even play chess together. I hope the father is getting some practice in for his son is a tenacious player. For me, this alone makes CSC’s prison initiative worth it.