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Chicago Inmates Compete In Online Chess


This week, prisoners at the Cook County Jail in Chicago participated in the first international chess tournament for inmates online. They competed against teams from Russia, Brazil, Armenia, Belarus, Italy and England, and they learned their moves from instructor Mikhail Korenman, who's with us to talk about the tournament and the jail's chess program. Mikhail, thanks for coming on the program.

MIKHAIL KORENMAN: Thank you. Good afternoon.

PFEIFFER: Could you tell us, why chess? Why do you think they should learn it? Why do you like to teach it to them?

KORENMAN: Well, I think for this population, chess is very important. It's teach - not just a game of chess. It's, teach them life skills. They should try to make decisions based not just on their opinion, but they need to calculate what their opponents will do. They need to actually take time to think. They don't need to rush. And it gives them a chance to win. And when they win a game of chess, they can feel, I'm the winner. I did it, and I did it by myself. I think that is the biggest message. And the tournament we just completed gave them, also, an opportunity to be part of the big world. And even they are in the prison today, but one day they will be out, and they know that they can be connected with any country around the world.

PFEIFFER: This program at the Cook County Jail is actually several years old. Is that right?

KORENMAN: It is correct. We started on April 1, 2012. And now we have daily classes for about 120, 130 inmates every week.

PFEIFFER: Over the years you've been teaching chess at the Cook County Jail, is there one particular inmate that stands out to you or that you remember because of how he or she interacted with chess?

KORENMAN: Well, I remember many of them. (Laughter). I have a good memory. Every time in the class, I've given them an option. You guys, not in the kindergarten class. You're all adults. And I'm giving you the opportunity to learn what people discover playing chess for 1,500 years, and that's your choice to take it or not to take. And I always tell them, do the castle move. This is what people discover that's a good move to do. But you have to really try it. And I had one inmate, he was in the program probably for close to be a year. And one day, he came to the class and tell me, you know, looks like you're right. I tried a few times to do the castle move, and it really works for me. You know, it hit me because this group of people, they really need to try. And when they try and see it works, they start believing. They start trusting you.

PFEIFFER: The tournament this week, what was the outcome? How did your team do?

KORENMAN: Well, we're satisfied. We finished fifth, but we won three matches. We had one tied match. We had a tie with Armenian team. And that is a big deal for us. I had a class yesterday, after we completed the tournament, and one inmate said, you know what? I just played one game and I lost, and I just feel so bad. And I told him, no, you should be proud of yourself that you were selected that you played in the very first tournament. It's never been done before. It's just a hope to have more tournaments like this in the future. And the message we're getting from other countries was very positively received.

PFEIFFER: Congratulations on the project and on the tournament this week.

KORENMAN: Thank you so much.

PFEIFFER: Mikhail Korenman teaches chess at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. Thanks for being with us.

KORENMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.