The first Intercontinental Online Chess Championship for Prisoners is scheduled for October 13-14, 2021, on the International Day of Education in Prison. Although the registration deadline is two weeks ahead, teams from 16 countries have already joined the event. Such an interest can be explained by the successful introduction of chess in prisons through different educative programs across the world.
Hector Guifarro is one of those proving by personal example that the game has a positive impact on the lives of people who have ended up in jail after making a wrong choice. A former convict picked up chess while serving his sentence and, in his telling, it saved his life in prison and is saving it now. FIDE Managing Director Dana Reizniece-Ozola talked to Hector to find out how the game helps people to find another chance in life.
- Hector, you've been in prison for seven years, and you have confessed that chess saved your life. What is it about chess that makes it so special to you?
- Chess helped me in so many ways. It made me more patient, accountable cause in chess, you can't blame anybody but you. It helped me to look at the points of view of other people. It became my outlet. Whenever I had a lot on my mind, I would play chess and I always felt better afterwards. But first of all, chess built my self-esteem through education. I really feel that is important. When you first go to prison, you have to take a test to see where you are education-wise. When I first took it, I scored really low. Before prison, I've never really taken education seriously, never did my homework. Five or four years later, in order to enter college, I had to take the same test, and my results were much higher. I am not trying to say that chess taught me math or improved my reading, but playing chess for all these years improved my memory and focus.
- When in prison, did you have a coach, or you played with your fellow inmates, or read chess books? What was it like?
- I didn't have a chess coach. It was just all free will; it was just so common. At first, I was just killing time playing chess. But after a certain point, I realized that my approach was more like take-to-take; it didn't have any strategy. So I started thinking more, seeing pieces flow together, and then it just became beautiful to me. I started reading books on chess, learning chess theory.
- Did you like playing against the opponents, or reading the books and learning the theory?
- All of it. I love playing, I love winning, whenever I checkmate – I smile. Whenever I lose – I couldn't wait to play back again. For a long period of time, all I was thinking of was chess. I love everything about it, but chess theory is what made me realize how deep it was. I wanted to read all I could. There are so many openings, so many variations, inmates are in the perfect place to learn chess theory, as they have a lot of free time.
- What was the first chess book that you read?
- I really don't remember its name. It was a book that I borrowed from a catalogue. It was for beginners. But now, when I came out of prison, I have more access to the theory, more videos. It all makes me a better player. I started looking at the game differently. Since the last time we spoke in May, I participated in two tournaments and, let me tell you, playing on a clock is really different. It makes my heart beat faster.
- Was it a few weeks ago when you played your first tournament?
- Yes. I didn't win my session, but I won a few games and met so many new people. At the end of the day, just being in this environment, seeing other people who love chess was great.
- How is your training going on now? Do you have a coach?
- No, I don't have a coach. I use apps. I am on chess.com, I am on Lichess. I use Chessable, which is a great app. It makes it easier to remember the lines, and it's very simple. I play chess on my phone all the time.
- You've been released almost a year ago. How is your life now?
- Chess is really a part of my life now. Other than chess, I am a personal trainer. I have my day job, and then I am with the family. Other than that, I am studying or playing chess. That's pretty much what it is.
- What is your chess goal?
- I love playing chess, I am participating in some tournaments, I master the theory and I know that I will get better, wherever that takes me… who knows. I like playing chess and I really like to see kids and the community involved in it. I just want everybody to play chess. It really hurts me that not so many people are playing chess in my community; I want to do something about that. I actually ended up having a meeting with Javier Martinez, recreation specialist of Waukegan Park District, south to Waukegan, Illinois. I told him the benefits of having chess in the community, and he loved the idea. They weren't able to go forward with me due to my background, but they went forward with the program! So now we have a chess program in the community which starts at the beginning of September. Kids will be playing now, and I just hope that whoever teaches the program brings this passion to them. It is especially important with kids to make it fun for them, otherwise, it will be like any other game. I just want to thank Javier for pushing this idea through.
- Are you still in contact with your former inmates?
- Absolutely! One of my friends got out of jail last Friday. He reached out to me, and it feels so good to hear his voice. We are both out now, and he already has a job. In prison, he was kind of my nemesis when it came to a chessboard. We were always playing chess and were huge friends. I also stay in contact with some other people that I met in there. Sometimes I play chess with them.
- What would you say to those people who think that life is too short to play chess?
- It's still worth it! To be honest, I can't imagine my life without chess. It helps me to stay out. I know I will never return to prison because every move I make has consequences. Now I know that it's all on me. I have to set an example to my little brother, to my family. I am so grateful that I have another chance in life because not everybody has a second chance. I made a mistake, and I took the responsibility, but now I have to put that behind me and just live my life the right way.
Watch a full interview with Hector Guifarro on FIDE's Youtube channel.