Pawn to Cellblock 4: US, Russian Inmates to Battle on Chessboard

WASHINGTON, May 2 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – American inmates will be shooting for checkmates against Russian prisoners this month in a first-of-its-kind intercontinental chess match between pawn pushers living behind bars in the two countries.

“They do not accept draws. They go all in: either win or lose,” chess enthusiast, educator and match organizer Mikhail Korneman said of the Chicago inmates who will challenge prisoners from five Russian correctional facilities in the May 15 event.

The match, which will be conducted online, is the brainchild of Korneman, renowned Russian grandmaster and former world champion Anatoly Karpov, and Tom Dart, an Illinois sheriff who launched a chess program last year in Chicago’s Cook County Jail as a way of encouraging inmates to deliberate and exercise caution when making decisions.

Karpov, whose titanic battles for chess supremacy with rival Soviet and Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov captivated the world in the 1980s, has been a driving force in bringing chess to Russian prisons in recent years and was on hand last year when Korneman and Dart announced the program.

“When Karpov was here, we started talking about [the match between prisoners],” Korneman, who moved to the United States from Russia two decades ago, told RIA Novosti Thursday. “He is very excited. It has never been done before.”

Ten inmates from the Cook County Jail, the largest jail in the United States with around 9,000 prisoners, will play two 15-minute games each against their Russian counterparts, Korenman said.

The Russian side will be represented by prisoners from correctional facilities in the Astrakhan, Samara, Saratov, Sverdlovsk and Krasnodar regions, Russia’s Federal Prison Service said in a statement this week.

Dart was not available for comment Thursday, but his spokeswoman, Sophia Ansari, said the match will begin at 9 a.m. CDT (1400GMT) on May 15 and will be played via a secure internet connection established specifically for the event.

Korenman, who brought former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Kansas for a chess event in 2005, said it is difficult to predict which side might emerge victorious.

The Chicago inmates “are not professional chess players, but they do have knowledge, and they like to go on the attack,” he said.

“I think the match will be very interesting,” Korenman said.

Korenman, Karpov and Dart have all advocated chess as a pastime that can help inmates correct the trajectory of their lives.

At an April 2012 news conference announcing the Cook County Jail chess program, Dart said the prisoners’ “lifetime accomplishments could be summarized in about one second – zero.”

“For them to get involved with something like this, where they’re actually learning skills and having goals, and feel amongst themselves that they can accomplish things they set out to – it’s the first time that’s ever happened,” he said.

In a 2011 interview with the Russian website, Karpov said chess can help prisoners “latch on to a normal life after being released.”

“We’re all interested in having as few of these people as possible return to such facilities,” he said.


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