Checkmate

National Library of Scotland/flickr

According to Dr. Mikhail Korenman’s favorite origin theory, chess was first played in sixth century India by kings and emperors as an alternative to war.

“The whole game of chess was established as a game of peace,” Korenman says, explaining how the movement of knights and pawns stands in for the movement of soldiers and armies. “Before the game they would shake hands, and after the game they would shake hands. It’s peace.”

The question remains as to whether the game can bring peace to the battles of modern life. Last Monday Korenman and Sheriff Tom Dart announced a new chess program at Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the first of its kind in the United States. In the coming months, 150 inmates from the lowest security division of the jail will learn strategy and compete in tournaments.

The program is modeled after similar endeavors in Brazil and Russia affiliated with Anatoly Karpov, the Russian chess grandmaster and former world champion. Korenman and Karpov are old associates–Korenman started the Anatoly Karpov International School of Chess in Lindsborg, Kansas, bringing Russian discipline to a Swedish prairie town. The chess enthusiast approached Sheriff Dart earlier this year with his penal proposal, saying, “If we can have this in São Paulo, why can’t we have this in Chicago?”

Karpov was present alongside Korenman and Dart at the program’s unveiling, lending the send-off a certain gravity and importance. Korenman compares the excitement to a visit from Michael Jordan for a group of amateur basketball players.

Korenman himself–gruff, blue-eyed, with a perpetual grimace–has been interested in chess since his childhood in Voronezh, Russia. He holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Education, and worked as a science teacher until 2008, when he quit his day job to become a self-employed chess enthusiast, philanthropist, and tutor.

Cook County Jail is not the first place Korenman has employed chess as a rehabilitative agent. In 2006 he left a faculty position at Bethany College in Kansas to follow his wife’s career to Chicago. He began teaching at CCA Academy, a school for students taking their second chance at a high school diploma.

The switch wasn’t the easiest for Korenman. “I asked my teaching partner what it would take to adjust, to survive,” he recalls. “He said I needed to get trust from the students.”

Korenman spent a couple months brainstorming, and one day he brought a chess set in for his students. “We started playing, and a few days later a pretty significant group of the male population of the school was staying behind and seeing what it is and how to play,” he says. “The principal asked to purchase ten chess sets, and we decided to do a tournament.” It was a success, and Korenman promised to bring the six winners of that tournament to the national tournament in Kansas City.

At the tournament, his students placed lower than Korenman expected. But he was surprised to see the contrast between his own disappointment and the exaltation of his students. “When we came home to the school, it was like the Rose Parade,” he recalls. “I didn’t realize how big it was for those students to be a winner. That was the main thing: they won something.” The next year chess was incorporated into the school’s curriculum, and the program is still growing.

Korenman dreams of repurposing one of the city’s many abandoned storefronts downtown into a community chess center, where people can play and socialize. It’s a simple operation–not much would be required beyond tables, chairs, and boards–that Korenman hopes could make a real impact, perhaps even as a means of employment and real-world integration for newly released prisoners.

“There are some inmates who get out of jail and are looking for something to do. They could be used for these programs,” he says. “It could help them be good citizens.”

The military origins of chess lend it a certain violence, but it’s a contained violence. Chess can be a way to abstract away aggression, providing a safe arena for conflict resolution as well as the development of patience and decision-making skills. The jail is still a somewhat experimental ground, of course: success would mean expansion, but it risks dissolving into a frivolous use of resources.

Hopefully, though, Korenman’s students walk away with at least this one message from their tutor: “I don’t want to kill on the street. I want to solve all of my problems on this little chess board.”