Prisoners in jails are playing chess to manage their anger — and using strategy on the board to learn about the consequences of their actions.
The game is growing in popularity among inmates. Carl Portman, volunteer manager for prisons at the UK Chess Federation, says they even craft DIY sets and call moves after lights out.
Mr Portman donates free sets and establishes clubs in jails including Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Bronzefield women’s prison in Surrey.
He said the game teaches criminals about choice, not chance, and gives them a sense of freedom.
Mr Portman, British captain at this year’s Nato championship, estimates 10 per cent of the UK prison population of about 86,000 inmates play.
The author of Chess Behind Bars was among the guests at Thursday’s event to announce that the world championship would come to London next year.
Guest of honour was reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen.
Mr Portman, 53, said: “I get lots of letters from inmates about chess and what it does for them. It’s quite astonishing — from improved health to social benefits, new friendships and thinking before they move. One guy said he had wanted to commit suicide after abusing his body with drink and drugs, that he had no friends and didn’t get out of his cell. Then he found chess at Christmas, which gradually got him out of his cell and meeting other people.
“He said he started to think in a different way, he felt better in himself.”
Mr Portman said inmates spent their lives being told what to do. On a chessboard, they made their own decisions. “But every move has got consequences, it’s got advantages and drawbacks, like every move we make in life. They really have to focus in and concentrate. Lies and hypocrisy won’t last long on a chessboard and there’s no one else to blame,” he added.
Some inmates play “all the time”, he said, on the wings and in weekly clubs, but “gambling has never been an issue”.
He added: “Inmates will shout moves out when all the lights are out. Some governors will say they haven’t got time for chess, they’ve got real problems to sort out.
But I say, ‘Hold on, when they’re playing chess they’re not attacking each other or members of staff.’”
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
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