Prisoners gear up for historic debut at chess championships

Inmates at the Port of Spain prison compete for a spot on the national team which will feature, for the first time, at the Inter-Continental Chess Championships in October.  - TTCA
Inmates at the Port of Spain prison compete for a spot on the national team which will feature, for the first time, at the Inter-Continental Chess Championships in October. - TTCA

TWENTY-TWO prisoners from five correctional facilities in Trinidad will be selected to compete in their first-ever virtual Inter-Continental Chess Championship, which gets under way on October 13.

This ground-breaking initiative was introduced to the prisons’ programmes team by Trinidad and Tobago Chess Association (TTCA) president Sonja Johnson in July. It has since received the full backing of the TT Prisons Service.

From September 9-17, the qualifying competitions were held at the Port of Spain Prison, Women’s Prison, Golden Grove Prison, Remand Prison and the Maximum Security Prison (MSP).

These five rounds of competition were contested by 90 participants from the five prisons. The final team (16 men, six women) will be selected by Johnson and other TTCA representatives. The players will then train for the online event in October.

The championship is being hosted by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago, in collaboration with the International Chess Federation, as part of its “Chess for Freedom” project.

Two inmates at the Women's Prison compete at the TT Chess Association's qualifiers for national team selection for the Inter-Continental Chess Championships. - TTCA

Chess is not new to the local prison population. In 2017, the TTCA partnered with the TT Olympic Committee to initiate a chess programme at the MSP. This was done to allow the development of a sustainable chess programme across the prison system.

Commissioner of Prisons Dennis Pulchan endorsed the initiative and said he was pleased with the proposal and the prison service’s involvement in such a milestone event.

He said this programme would expose the brilliance and capabilities of prisoners and hoped that, based on the tremendous response; an ongoing prison chess programme could be implemented.

The event, which is co-ordinated under the Programmes Department of the TT Prison Service, is expected to attract national, regional and international attention and will be recorded and broadcast live online.

Johnson expressed excitement about this initiative.

“This is an opportunity for us to really showcase our commitment to inclusivity and demonstrates the opportunity to work with other areas of the community, government and the society to ensure we improve the lives of citizens. I think the country can really benefit from such a positive story right now.”

She added that countries such as the US, Russia and Brazil have been competing among themselves over the past few years.

TT’s inaugural appearance this year, she says, bodes well for the sport and local prisoners, and “speaks volumes to our openness in TT towards reform and doing things differently.”

In July, she said, Johnson approached the prisons service to resume chess, since all programmes had been cancelled owing to the pandemic.

“Chess was one they felt they should pursue to resume. I met with the programmes team and raised this Inter-Continental competition with them as a way to bring excitement towards chess, while also giving the inmates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an international tournament.

“I must say they also understood the significant impact this could have, and worked within their system to get the necessary approvals. I was thrilled.”


"Prisoners gear up for historic debut at chess championships"

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