Chess and Rehabilitation

Chess is a game (although devotees will tell you it’s more than just a game) enjoyed by young and old alike. It knows no racial, social, sexual or religious boundaries. It’s inexpensive to invest in the needed equipment to play it and with plenty of free, online sources, one can learn and improve at no cost. However, it can serve a greater cause, changing the future of those who have made bad decisions in their lives. Chess can help to rehabilitate those individuals who have difficultly solving problems in their lives, problems that range from criminality to substance abuse to scattered thinking. Let me explain this idea and give you some real examples of the positive changes chess has brought to a number of individuals.

We’ll start by looking at what chess can do for those individuals with scattered or disorganized thought patterns. We all known someone (maybe even ourselves) who seems to deal with life’s numerous problems in a roundabout way, often going from point “a” to point “b” in an illogical if not haphazard manner. Try as they may, they never seem to have an easy time of solving even the simplest of problems. Chess is a game that requires the ability to create a logical plan and execute it in a straight forward manner. Problem solving in chess comes down to coming up with a series of steps that resolves the issue at hand (a given position on the chessboard) in the most expedient manner possible. In chess, you cannot afford to take the scenic route, instead taking the most direct path to resolution available. This is a learned skill which is developed through both theory (studying the game) and practice (actually playing the game). The organized problem solving methods learned when studying chess can be applied to real life situations. The logic, reasoning and planning required to be a successful chess player can be employed when tackling the many problems we face in our day to day lives. After playing and studying chess, the once scattered thinker can now solve problems using an organized system of thought. Does this mean that chess will make you more intelligent? Sadly no! You’re born with the brain you’re born with but studying chess will hep you to make the best of what lies within your cranial cavity!

In the many schools I teach chess in, I present real life analogies played out on the chessboard and vice versa. I do this so students can more easily apply what they learn from chess to their lives. My students range from prep school children to hardened juveniles and adults who are locked up in jails. When teaching in jails and prisons, the one common thread all the men, both young and old) share is a series of extremely bad decisions they made during the course of their lives. While I’ve never spent time behind the hard iron bars of the prisons I teach in, I’ve made some truly bad decisions in my life that nearly cost me everything. The old adage “there but by the grace of God go I” rattles through my thoughts every time I enter a jail or prison. The only difference between the men I work with in prison/jail and myself is that I was fortunate enough to have found the game of chess before I ended up behind bars and learned a bit about making good decisions and the consequences of bad decisions. You know that other old adage, “sex, drugs and rock and roll?” Lets just say that in my youth I lived that lifestyle to its fullest and that kind of lifestyle is ripe with bad decisions. Because ,for whatever reason, I escaped ending up either dead or locked up in a jail somewhere, I work extremely hard to help incarcerated individuals learn how to stop making the type of bad decisions that landed them in leg irons. I say leg irons because I tend to only work with the worst offenders, many of whom committed murder and are actually moved around the prison in leg irons. On a side note, I will not allow prison guards to be in the room with me when I’m working with one to five of these men. It’s not that I’m some sort of tough guy who can take on five men at once. I simply need to show these guys a certain level of trust and in prison, trusting someone with your life is the highest form of trust there is. Since I’m still here writing this, I may be on to something! In actuality prisoners tend to be on their best behavior with outsiders.

With my incarcerated students, we learn, through the game of chess, how good decisions can make our lives on the chessboard easier and how bad decisions can spiral out of control and leave us in a hopeless situation or position. We apply this idea to their lives. We look to the future because the bad decisions of their past cannot be undone. We learn how, from the moment they start using chess to aid them with solving life problems, their lives can change for the better. The tools used to succeed on the chessboard can be used to succeed in life. Chess is also a way these men can challenge one another without anyone getting physically hurt. As I often say, “chess is the one way you can get into a fight that won’t land you back in jail.” I’ve paired rival gang members against one another on the chessboard and, while there might be a bruise or two to the loser’s ego, no blood is shed. In fact, often, these rivals will become playing partners and even respect one another in the end. Chess has a way of bringing these men closer together.

Then there’s the drug addicts and alcoholics I’ve taught chess to. For someone with a drug or alcohol problem, spending time alone with their thoughts can lead to further substance abuse. Being alone with one’s self can have deadly consequences. The hardest dilemma for the addict is having too much time on their hands when first in recovery because they start thinking (negative thoughts) and early in recovery, those thoughts are as poisonous as the substances they ingest. The addict, early in their recovery, has trouble focusing and when they do, their thoughts are extremely painful, with the addict dwelling on all they’ve lost. They also lack logic and reasoning skills because addiction is an illogical and scattered lifestyle. Therefore, chess is a valuable tool for keeping the addict’s mind occupied and for teaching them to problem solve without the use of drugs or alcohol. Addicts tend to avoid their problems, many deeply rooted within their psyche and extremely painful to relive, by indulging in the drug their choice. They avoid the pain that lives within them, remaining chemically numb because they don’t know how to deal with their pain. They don’t have a point of reference, only scattered thoughts. They’ve lost their ability to function in the world due to the substance abuse. They have no focus. Chess can provide a way in which to learn how to develop focus and concentration as well as how to make sound, logical decisions. However, one of the most important aspects of chess as it related to recovery is the game’s ability to help addicts avoid becoming trapped in their own dark thoughts. Chess keeps the occupied. It keeps the dark thoughts at bay because they’re trying to concentrate on playing. I’ve had good results with many addicts simply by teaching them this game that helps them make better decisions. In closing, chess can be extremely therapeutic as well. When I was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive cancer in 2007, it was chess that kept me from losing my mind. Every moment spent playing chess was a moment I didn’t think about possibly dying. Well, that was a rather grim article anc I thank you for suffering through it. Here’s a game to enjoy until week when I promise the subject matter will be a bit more upbeat!

Hugh Patterson


Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).