After the Chess Olympiad in 2022 and the Chess World Cup held early this year, it is time now for an online chess championship for prisoners from all over the world. The third Intercontinental Online Chess Championship for Prisoners got underway on Wednesday with 118 teams from 50 countries, including India, participating.

The biggest-ever chess event among correctional facilities, organised by FIDE and the Chicago Cook County Sheriff’s Office, is a part of the Chess for Freedom program and continuation of the international championship first held in 2019 and the Intercontinental Online Chess Championship for Prisoners of 2021 and 2022.

The opening ceremony took place online and featured FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, Cook County Sheriff Tomas J. Dart and Deputy Chair of the FIDE Management Board Dana Reizniece-Ozola, said a statement from FIDE..

Greeting the participants, Dvorkovich said, “We all make mistakes, and we have to live with the consequences. Nevertheless, we all possess the inherent right to a better life and a second chance, another chance. Your participation in this event is proof of that.”

Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, who introduced the chess program to Cook County Jail a decade ago, said chess gives a person many different tools, but particularly to the individuals who are incarcerated. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, an ability to understand the need to think ahead, move by move, not just the immediate.

Changing life

Deputy Chair of the FIDE Management Board Dana Reizniece-Ozola narrated an inspiring story of chess changing a person’s life in prison. Claude Bloodgood in 1970 was sentenced to death for the murder, a sentence later commuted to life in prison. During his time behind bars, Bloodgood became an avid chess player, dedicating thousands of hours to the game by playing with fellow inmates, guards, and even engaging in correspondence chess. His dedication was so remarkable that he qualified for the US Chess Championship, though circumstances prevented him from participating.

Nevertheless, within the prison walls, he taught chess to thousands of inmates, authored a chess book. Bloodgood’s case shows us that chess is more than just a game - it is a tool for rehabilitation and personal growth, even in a seemingly incomprehensible position. Behind the walls, chess can be a source of resilience and self-improvement, Reizniece-Ozola said.

Competing teams

Three separate tournaments started on Wednesday with men (78 teams), women (22 teams) and young inmates (18 teams) competing at the group stage.

Mongolia has been the most successful country in the history of this competition. Its men’s team was a winner of the inaugural event in 2021; a year later, Mongolian female inmates won the women’s section. Since 1956, chess tournaments have been held in all correctional units of the country.

A pleasant surprise was a strong performance by the Zimbabwe women’s team, which debuted in the championship this year. Two years ago, the country’s men’s team, the only representative of the African continent in the inaugural edition of the tournament, made a splash by reaching the final and narrowly losing to Mongolia.

The team of Maula prison, Malawi, also advanced to the next stage in the men’s section. Chess in Prison program at Maula Prison was launched just a year ago as a tool to improve the quality of life for prisoners.