Chess in Prison

Fear not – I’m not here to report the fastest ever transition from newly elected Chief Executive to a life behind bars.  During my weekend playing at the Scarborough congress, I had the chance to meet the ECF’s new Manager of Prisons Chess, Dr Sarah Mirawolski, for the first time.  Sarah was in Scarborough in her capacity as “chess widow”, and we had time for a chat after one of my trademark quick draws in Round 2 on Saturday.

Rarely have I been so impressed by a first encounter with a volunteer: Sarah was clearly knowledgeable, enthusiastic and committed, as well as pragmatic and realistic enough to be aware of the scale of the task and the likely timescale needed to succeed.  It won’t be easy to introduce chess activities into prisons – as you can imagine, you can’t just walk into a prison and set up a chess club – and the initiative will have to be carefully planned, negotiated and piloted before it can be fully launched.  Approval will be required from the Ministry of Justice.

It’s worth the effort, however.  The ECF exists to develop and support the game across the country, and I take this to mean not just the elite game or the league and congress circuit.  As well as being stimulating and fun (and frustrating…), chess can be genuinely beneficial in all sorts of ways.  Chess is widely accepted, for example, as an excellent mental workout which may help older people to resist the development of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.  In the case of prisons, studies in other countries (notably in Scandinavia) suggest that the introduction of chess activities can noticeably reduce recidivism rates among offenders.

To my mind, this is a goal worth striving for, and I’m delighted that, after several years of trying, the ECF has managed to find such a well-qualified person to take on the challenge.

In the early stages, Sarah will be mostly working on establishing the right contacts and shaping her ideas.  As things progress, however, I am sure that there will be a role for anyone who would be interested in volunteering to help with a programme of this kind.  Even now, if you feel that you would like to register your interest, please contact Sarah (see details under ECF Officials).

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