Hundreds of prisoners given the chance to transform their lives, one move at a time. In a game of 5asideCHESS, the 1st move is ‘HELLO’.
It really is that simple. This innovative, condensed down version of chess allows novices to learn the game in a way that breaks down barriers of language, culture, and class.
Over the years, the founders of social enterprise 5asideCHESS have seen just how transformative the game can be to people from all walks of life, so much so that they have now launched a life-changing new initiative designed to introduce the power of the game to hundreds of prisoners.
In the next few weeks, over 130 prison governors across the country will each receive a 5asideCHESS board along with a copy of chess champion and former prisoner John Healy’s classic life story The Grass Arena, which was adapted into a BBC film in 1991. The gift is designed to help both prison staff and prisoners better understand how chess can form an essential part of social activities, not only between prisoners but also as a way to connect with their families at home.
Chess is already popular in prison, so what makes this initiative different is that it is not focused on creating chess champions on the inside; rather it’s about using the simplified version of chess as a tool. “Pawn to A5 is something which can be called between walls, on the phone or via a letter,” explains Ross Smith, co-founder of 5AsideCHESS “It’s a unique way to channel the common ‘addictive behaviour’ seen inside prison into something positive, create new connections, gain new perspectives and understand that the path to success is based on individual choices or moves.”
This gifting initiative has been welcomed by prison professionals and former prisoners alike. After hearing about the social enterprise’s plans, John Healy was keen to offer his support. Now living in North London, Healy said, “Chess transformed my life and my perspective both in prison and after my release. My personal story shows others inside that it is possible to change your life for the better, one move at a time.”
The Grass Arena recounts Healy’s boyhood at the hands of an immigrant father struggling to bring up a family in the post-war un-kindness of London’s no dogs, no blacks no Irish, no work but plenty of comfort-numbing beer. John’s tough upbringing led him into alcoholism living in what he coins “The Grass Arena”, or park, with other winos. After crime and alcoholism took hold, John was imprisoned and it was here that he was taught to play chess by Harry the Fox, working hard to become very skilled in the game.
The book was first published in 1988, but after being out of print for many years it was re-issued in 2008 as a Penguin Classic. Healy’s story evidences the ability for redemption and the power of chess as a vehicle. With these copies distributed to prisons, prisoners and staff can take heed of these learnings and encourage the development of prisoners using this practical self-help tool.
Its potential impact is recognised on the inside too. Gary Newnes, Governor at HMP Hollesley Bay said, “Interactions between prisoners can often be limited to their immediate circles. I’ve seen first-hand how Chess acts as a tool for creating new and positive connections. They gain new perspectives on life and the challenges they face, whilst also developing new skills which cross cultural and language barriers.”
5asideCHESS was set up as a social enterprise in 2015 by co-founders Ross Smith and Ian McKay as they were concerned about the levels of disconnection and inequality that they saw in society. The project has a huge mission – to tackle loneliness, social isolation, and the mental ill-health and depression that these issues can cause. 5asideCHESS has been involved in a number of initiatives over the years including the Battling Suicide Bus Tour which has been on the road since the summer of 2018 visiting towns, cities, universities, supermarkets, and workplaces all around the UK. The company is funded and sponsored by a small kitchen cleaning company Bright Hygiene who want to encourage other companies to take direct community action.