Chess Behind Bars

My grandfather spent time in Leicester Gaol. My father was in Feltham Borstal (now Feltham Young Offenders Institution) for several years. I was in Broadmoor (then described as a hospital for the criminally insane, now described as a high security psychiatric hospital) on three occasions in the 1970s. How many of us, I like to ask my friends, were, or are, criminals?

The answer is only one: my grandfather, who was imprisoned for breaking into a church as a teenager. My father taught at Feltham Borstal, while I visited Broadmoor for three chess matches.

Perhaps Tom Harry James would have benefitted from learning chess, and even receiving a chess book written for prisoners. (Come to think of it, perhaps he did. I never found out how my father learnt how the pieces moved.)

A chess book for prisoners might seem a strange idea, but that’s what I have in front of me. Chess Behind Bars, by Carl Portman, published by the excellent folk at Quality Chess: a sturdy and beautifully produced hardback of over 300 pages. Carl is the English Chess Federation’s Manager of Chess in Prisons, and spends much of his spare time voluntarily visiting prisons, giving simuls, delivering equipment and starting chess clubs.

In his preface, Carl Portman writes: “This book is written primarily for prisoners (anywhere in the world), but let me be clear that from a wider perspective this book will be of value to prison staff and officials, governments, chess fans and the general public alike”.

Much of the book comprises a guide to chess for novices: highly enjoyable with an excellent selection of tactics puzzles, but, at least for this chess fan, the first 80 pages are of the most interest and provide much food for thought.

Carl’s first chapter, What Chess Means to Me, must have been very painful to write. He tells of his childhood, spent in some poverty with a violent, alcoholic stepfather. He discovered chess at secondary school and was encouraged by the teacher who ran the school club. He played in inter-school matches and later joined an adult club. Carl believes that, if he hadn’t discovered chess, he may well have ended up in prison himself.

You’ve probably heard of, and perhaps read, a book called The Grass Arena, in which John Healy, a former alcoholic, related how he was taught chess in prison, and, as a result turned his life round. The book was made into a film, which Carl saw in 1992. Carl describes this as an epiphany, and, more than two decades later, when the ECF wanted to appoint someone to promote chess in prisons, he was eager to apply for the post. While writing his book Carl interviewed John: this interview forms part of the second chapter of the book.

In Chapter 3 Carl describes his first prison visit. Following a question and answer session he played a simul against about 20 opponents. Although some of his opponents were novices, others were clearly competent players. Carl, who is a strong club player with a current grade of 164, lost one game and drew two. Sets and boards were donated to the prison so that they could start a chess club, all the players received chess magazines, and there were additional prizes for the best players.

Chapter 4 deals with women’s chess – and chess in women’s prisons. For me, though, the most inspiring part of the book is Chapter 5, which closes the first part of the book. Here, Carl presents testimonies from prisoners about how much they’ve gained from chess. There are several recurring themes. Chess is seen as being an enjoyable and productive way of passing time. It demonstrates how you have to stop and think before making decisions. It can be addictive, but, unlike alcohol and other drugs, it’s not a damaging addiction.

I’d like to quote part of the final testimony in the book. “I’m a relative newcomer to chess. Having Asperger’s Syndrome I love the clear, precise logic of the game. I have two chess books in my cell and a nice chess set. I’m placing out the positions from the books and going through the logic and planning of each move. I’m kinda having some fun with it too. Being autistic I have a lot of trouble understanding and experiencing emotions.”

Should you buy this book? If you have any interest at all in the subject of chess in prisons, yes. If you’re involved in any way with chess administration, again, yes. And anyone who quotes Phil Ochs certainly gets my vote, although I could have done without the dubious claims for chess preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. There’s a whole, very different, book to be written on the subject of chess in prisons (Claude Bloodgood gets a brief mention and a game here, but Norman Whitaker and Raymond Weinstein are conspicuous by their absence) and hospitals (my friend Martin Smith has done a lot of research into chess in Broadmoor). Having said that, though, Chess Behind Bars is far more worthwhile than most chess books, and, I would say, deserves your support.

I have a few questions for you, though.

Whose contribution to chess is more valuable? Carl, who is voluntarily promoting chess in prisons in his spare time, or those of us who make a living from teaching the children of well-heeled and aspirational parents in the most affluent parts of London.

What chances are there of someone from Carl’s background discovering chess today? Or indeed someone from John Healy’s background becoming addicted to chess in his teens rather than alcohol? Children who start chess in primary school will only succeed with supportive parents, while those who start chess in secondary school will be able to teach themselves. Most of the secondary schools playing competitive chess in this country are selective. While some of the comprehensive schools in my area have chess clubs, there is no competition and no enthusiastic member of staff who will encourage them to take the game seriously.

I think the chances are somewhere between remote and zero. As long as chess policy is dictated by market forces rather than by genuine need that will continue to be the case. It’s my view that the social benefits from promoting chess in secondary schools are rather more important than the perceived academic benefits of promoting chess in primary schools, but, sadly, it’s not where we are at the moment.

Richard James


Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy ( or and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities ( as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon.