Wandsworth Prison inmates reach final of international chess tournament

Inmates at Wandsworth Prison made the final stages of an international chess competition in October, after an MOJ decision allowed them to participate.

The Intercontinental Online Championship for Prisoners featured teams from 31 countries and took place from 13-14 October, with the Wandsworth team scoring 23 out of 24 in the preliminary round, but losing out in the final.

The team was trained by the charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), which was founded in 2009 by Malcolm Pein, 61, of Mill Hill.

Pein said: “The benefit of chess to prisoners is just huge. 

“Apart from the general life skills of thinking before you do something, improving concentration and socialising with people, it also reduces isolation in prison and helps to relieve boredom, which feeds into behaviour.

“What was lovely was that after the tournament I had a chat with some of the guys who had taken part in Wandsworth and one of them said ‘well it was just so nice to be able to forget that you were in prison for a day’.”

Malcolm Pein with a chess set
CHESS MASTER: Malcolm Pein. Credit: David Llada

The four-man UK team was made up of prisoners from the category B HM Prison Wandsworth and the category D open prison HM Prison Hollesley Bay.

This was the first official international competition for prisoners run by the World Chess Federation (commonly referred to as FIDE), after a previous trial run. 

Without permission from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to use the computers, the trial run saw Pein relay the prisoners’ moves from his chess set, along with CSC’s Prisons Coordinator Peter Sullivan.

Pein learned to play chess when he was three years old, and became British Junior Champion in 1977, before a successful professional career.

He said that gaining MOJ approval was a long process, as the internet chess server used for the competition,, required alterations to make it secure. 

Pein said: “Now that we’ve made the site secure we actually hope we can roll it out to every prison that’s got terminals in the cells. 

“Once terminals are in the cells in every prison, we then want everyone to be able to play internet chess in a secure way.”

CSC started a chess club in Wandsworth Prison three years ago, and hopes to start one in HM Prison Brixton soon.

Pein said: “Starting up in prisons proved very difficult but once we managed to start one club word spread among prison governors, and we actually got up to seven before lockdown.

“Chess has always been pretty popular in prison in a sort of unofficial, under the radar sort of way, so the first time we ran the club it was completely oversubscribed.

“We would go into the prison once a week to run a club for a couple of hours and give them chess sets to play with during the rest of the week. 

“Chess has spread all over now on some of the wings – there’s always games of chess going on at Wandsworth according to the officers.”

CSC is based on Baker Street and works with state schools across the country, including in South West London boroughs Lambeth, Wandsworth and Richmond.

They also work in libraries, youth clubs and care homes, although the latter is currently not possible due to Covid-19.

A three-day chess festival run by CSC this July, culminated in a day of activities in Trafalgar Square that was open to the public, and saw more than 5,000 people attend.

In the future, Pein hopes that The Intercontinental Online Championship for Prisoners will return annually, noting that FIDE were pleased with this year’s contest.

Meanwhile CSC has recently been asked to start a chess club in their first female prison, and Pein expressed a desire to start the UK’s first national prison chess tournament.

Featured image credit: Martin Kopta via Creative Commons license

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