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Thursday, 15 Apr 2021 13:14
Chess in prisons: The Cook County case


Photo: Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune

This article was originally published on the FIDE Newsletter #29 (April 12, 2021). If you want to receive this biweekly publication directly in your inbox, please subscribe here.

In the coming weeks, we will share here some case studies from different parts of the world, like Anatoly Karpov’s continued support of chess in prison initiatives (for more than two decades already!), or Carl Portman’s phenomenal book “Chess Behind Bars”. For now, we will start with the case of Cook County, in Chicago. 

Mikhail Korenman needs no introduction for our readers in the US, where he is one of the most respected chess personalities. Originally from Voronezh, in Russia, where he graduated a Master of Science, he went to the states as a student – this time getting a degree in Philosophy. After settling in his country of adoption, he soon got engaged in chess activities, founding the Karpov School of Chess in Lindsborg, Kansas, and initiating the internationally acclaimed “Chess for Peace” program, supported by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, and chess stars like Karpov, Onischuk, Polgar, Krush and Zatonskih. 

Nine years ago, in 2012, he was approached by Sheriff Thomas Dart, whose kids were taking chess classes from him. “Sheriff Dart had a clear vision”, recalls Korenman, and the two agreed to start a ’chess in jail’ program together. "We see it day-in and day-out that people want instant gratification and that often individuals do not think before they act," explained Dart when the program was first launched. "Thoughtless actions will hurt you while playing chess and hurt you more on the street." 

One year later, about 600 inmates had already taken part in the jail’s chess program. "The participants are excited and this is the most rewarding program we've ever had," Dart said. "This is something positive for the detainees to do and studies show it has a positive impact on people's lives”. 

“The inmates seem to enjoy that 'we are here to learn', and always compare chess to the game of life,” Korenman says. “You explain that you have to castle to be safe, and you can see that the idea of taking measures to protect yourself and not get in trouble really gets into them”.  

Mikhail was already a seasoned teacher when he started the program, but he was caught by surprise by some characteristics of his new pupils. For instance, he soon realized that they would hardly agree to a draw. While they don’t care that much about losing, “for them winning is a really big deal,” he explains. “Winning by themselves, following the rules - many of them haven’t had chances to experience this before.” Either they didn’t enjoy many opportunities, or they used to cut corners; so a fair victory is something that makes them feel really good, and gives a big boost to their confidence and self-esteem. 

Mikhail speaks fondly about his work in the Cook County jail in general, but there is one particular activity that seems to bring him joy – and very understandably so. Once per month, they arrange that some of the inmates can play chess online with their kids. “It is not allowed for everyone. It requires clearance. We gather the children in one location and, using Skype and Chess.com, they can play with their parents in jail”. 

FIDE first signed a cooperation agreement with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in March 2020. However, the Covid-19 outbreak had a severe impact on prisons and their normal functioning, so many of the planned projects for last year had to wait until better times. We are very happy that we are finally able to continue where we left off and partner with Sheriff Dart and Mikhail Korenman on this project.