In the law library of the Cook County Jail, the chase was on. Detainee Emmanuel Garcia frantically moved his king around a virtual chessboard, losing one piece after another as his opponent closed in.
Just when it seemed all was lost, though, the timer hit zero, ending the game in a draw. A dozen other men dressed in tan jail scrubs applauded: The result helped the team of detainees defeat a band of Brazilian prisoners they were playing over the internet.
Garcia, though, thought he should have done better.
“I made a couple mistakes,” said the 33-year-old from Cicero. “I tried to give him a sacrifice and get an advantage, but he predicted it, so it didn’t work. Because of that, I had to change my whole game.”
So it went in the first international chess tournament for inmates, pitting Cook County against prisoners in six countries, including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Italy and England. The matches will continue until a champion is crowned.
The tournament is the latest development in the jail’s chess program, founded seven years ago with the help of Russian grandmaster Anatoly Karpov. About 120 detainees take classes in the game, and 15 of the best were invited to take on the world in the two-day event conducted under the auspices of FIDE, the governing body of international chess competition.
The games were played on the Chess.com platform with a 15-minute time limit. Antoine Thorne, 29, of Chicago, was playing a close match against a Brazilian opponent when his rival gave him a golden opportunity, neglecting to move his queen out of danger.
Thorn immediately saw the mistake and pounced, capturing the queen and making checkmate inevitable.
“He didn’t have no way out, man,” Thorne said. “It was over with from there.”
Mikhail Korenman, who teaches the jail’s chess classes, said that’s the kind of vision he’s trying to instill in his players.
“The winner of the chess game is not the one who calculates (his own moves) better – it’s the one who calculates what his opponent will do,” he said. “If I can figure that out, I can win. I will be one step ahead.”
Developing that farsightedness, he said, is especially important for detainees. He noted that a study in Brazil found that chess-playing prisoners were less likely than others to return to incarceration, an advantage he said could be related to the game.
“It teaches them a different way of thinking,” he said. “That’s my guess. In a real-life situation, they can predict what will happen if they do something.”
Thorne said that message has been received.
“They always compare chess to the game of life,” he said. “If you make good decisions, it’s ultimately going to lead to a good outcome. You make bad decisions, it’s going to lead to bad position, and you’re going to lose the game.
“The better your decisions in life, the better outlook on life you’re going to have – just like a chess game.”
That said, some members of the jail’s chess team are awaiting trial on charges, such as murder, that could keep them incarcerated for decades. But Sheriff Tom Dart said the game should help them too.
“Anybody will tell you that when you keep people busy, detainees are less likely to be engaged in bad behavior,” he said. “This has that effect of keeping people engaged. … For the ones going (to prison), they now have a skill. There will be other people to play with, or they can play matches by themselves. It will keep their minds on something.”
Gene Lewis, 41, said he has taught the game to his four sons in the hope they will absorb its lessons on thinking ahead and formulating plans for success. But in the heat of the moment, those lessons are not always easy to remember – Lewis said he became overconfident against a Russian opponent and gave away the game.
“I didn’t see a move I should have made and it cost me,” he said. “It was all downhill from there. But I’m gonna catch him next time. Best believe that.”
Matt Luchins, 27, of Chicago, said while he studied chess formally when he was younger, the jail still offers plenty of tough competition. The day before the tournament began, he said, he played against the same opponent for four hours.
“A lot of people play pretty seriously,” he said. “There’s not a lot else to do, to be honest. You play cards, you play chess, you watch TV. That’s about the range of options.”
Luchins took a loss against an Italian opponent but said he still enjoyed the tournament.
“It’s not every day you get asked to represent your country,” he said.
The players sat at tables furnished with laptop computers and small American flags, making their moves electronically as Korenman coordinated with his counterparts over a balky Skype connection.
The detainees ended the first day in fourth place – Russia, unsurprisingly, was first, followed by Belarus and Armenia – a result Korenman described as “a dream.” He was optimistic about moving up the second day, noting that the players immediately went over their results.
“Look how they talk,” he said. “They’re trying to analyze: ‘How did we make a mistake here? How can we do better?’”
Dart said he hoped the international nature of the tournament would expand the horizons of detainees who might not know much about the wider world.
“This is more than just their game against the detainee across the cell from them,” he said. “It’s someone from another country. I think that gives them a sense of pride.”