The King’s Gambit: Prisoners play chess to transform their lives

5asideCHESS board offers simplified version of game

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ll know The Queen’s Gambit has captured the hearts of Netflix viewers across the globe.

So much so, that the sale of chess sets soared after the show premiered, with one brand Goliath Games reporting a 1,048% increase.

Now, prisoners have been bitten by the chess bug too as the game is being used to rehabilitate people behind bars and transform their lives.

[Credit: The Queen’s Gambit / Netflix]

It’s all thanks to social enterprise team 5asideCHESS, who believe the tactics and strategies involved can improve mental health, maintain interactions and keep the mind focused.

Using a simplified format to make play more accessible amongst inmates, prison staff and families, they hope their revised game can be used to encourage healthy communication.

Adopting the motto, ‘the 1st move is hello’, they also hope to allow novices to learn the game in a way that breaks down barriers of language, culture, and class.

[Credit: Mesh / Unsplash]

To get cellmates started, the 5asideCHESS crew are gifting over 130 governors across the country their own board along with a copy of chess champion and former prisoner John Healy’s classic life story The Grass Arena, which was adapted into a BBC film in 1991.

Speaking about the initiative, company co-founder Ross Smith said he is aware chess is already popular in prison yet he is focused on creating a more contemporary version instead.

Ross explained: “Pawn to A5 is something which can be called between walls, on the phone or via a letter. It’s a unique way to channel the common ‘addictive behaviour’ seen inside prison into something positive, create new connections, gain new perspectives and understand that the path to success is based on individual choices or moves.”

[Credit: Creative Sprites]

Meanwhile, former prisoner John Healy credited chess as transforming his life and perspective – both in prison and after release.

John said: “My personal story shows others inside that it is possible to change your life for the better, one move at a time.”

Ross and his fellow co-founder Ian McKay not only work in prisons, but also prevent social isolation and mental ill health in society. Notably, they tour on their Battling Suicide Bus to towns, cities, universities, supermarkets, and workplaces around the UK to tackle loneliness. 

Their bus is signed with more than 300 messages to those lost to suicide, with many along the theme of, ‘I just wish we had talked’ – triggering their hashtag #CHECKONYAMATE.

For confidential advice, visit Samaritans and/or call 116 123 for free.

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