Chess in Spanish prisons

by Juan Antonio Montero
1/12/2021 – The Club “Magic Extremadura Deportivo-Social” sponsors a social program called “Nuestro ajedrez reinserta” (“Our chess reintegrates”) in Extremadura, Spain. The club works in two prisons, each of them located in the capitals of the two provinces of Extremadura, Badajoz and Cáceres. Juan Antonio Montero, psychologist, director of the program and director of the Club Magic Extremadura Deportivo-Social sent us an illustrated report.

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Chess in prisons

Juan Antonio Montero. Psychologist, director of the program and director of the Club Magic Extremadura Deportivo-Social

The prison in Badajoz being somewhat larger, between the two they guard a little over a thousand prisoners. The immense majority of them are men, a pattern that is repeated in Spain and everywhere else, with slight variations: between 5 and 10% are women, no more. Registration to participate in the two workshops of our program is logically voluntary — only problematic inmates are restricted, otherwise anyone can participate. In our case the percentage of women participants is very high — although there is talk in some forums of discrimination against women in prisons, as far as we know, in workshops of any kind, there has never been any.  

Dos internas del taller

Two interns who participate in the workshop

Realizando movimientos

Our program is being financed by “Fundación Jóvenes y Deporte”. I am not just saying this to advertise this foundation, but to explain how this type of activity is managed in the Spanish prison system: a workshop like this is part of what is known as “prison treatment”, a set of activities aimed at achieving the re-education and social reintegration of prisoners.

The workshops are not financed by the Administration itself. The many kinds of workshops (religious, sports, educational, aimed at overcoming addictions) are mostly financed by foundations, non-profit associations, religious entities, etc. It is common to look for aid, donations or subsidies that help to cover all or part of the activity.

La directora gerente de la fundación, Sonia Bejarano

The managing director of the foundation, Sonia Bejarano, with a poster of the campaign

Our program began in 2009 and runs for nine months each year with a three-month break in the summer. It has even withstood the onslaught of a strange 2020: although the workshops were suspended in March because of Covid, to compensate we resumed them in August. So the workshop has hardly been affected: the average of twenty registered inmates was regained very quickly.

La monitora del taller de Cáceres, Ainoa Jiménez

The monitor of the workshop in Cáceres, Ainoa Jiménez

It is difficult to keep track of the amount of inmates that have participated in “Nuestro ajedrez reinserta”, but they are probably over twelve hundred. Fourteen monitors (including myself) have led the workshops — five of them are women. The incidents have been minimal and not at all important, which is certainly commendable. And the amount of working hours is considerable, as it is not a small class of one hour a week: the workshops consist of two sessions a week of two hours and fifteen minutes in each prison, which amounts to quite a lot of time each year! 

In a conflictive environment, precautions must be taken. So, given these circumstances, I believe that one of the major successes of the program is the “peace of mind” achieved, combined with the satisfaction of those responsible for the prisons, the sponsors, the inmates and the teachers. I think that from the photos of the workshop in Cáceres last December, when we threw a closing “party”, you can tell that there was a good atmosphere in the classroom.

GM Manuel Pérez Candelario giving a simultaneous exhibition

The workshops are not held as a normal course, with a starting date and a closing date. Nothing could be further from the truth, as it is usual for people to register and drop out constantly (that is why we use waiting lists). This instability is a consequence of prisoners leaving on a conditional release, finishing their sentence, being transferred to another prison, being absent for several weeks or even months after being provisionally transferred to another prison (normally because the trial is held in a different province), being sanctioned and momentarily lose the right to participate in workshops, or simply dropping out for unknown reasons...

Many things can happen. And, of course, motivations (for example, some men only want to go to the workshop because there are women there, or vice versa; or couples join in order to be together), interests (some interns are not very interested in chess, but are interested in more general contents which are already well-known in prison), and knowledge levels (some know something about chess, but the majority knows very little or nothing at all) are not very homogeneous.

Manolo Pérez Candelario with two students

There are those who speak very little Spanish. Among those who already know chess, there are those who play with others in their respective modules or with their own “chabolo” (cell) partner. But it is not easy to find very good players — although they play a lot, the lack of technique (knowledge of openings and endgames) makes for very short games. Going for a Sicilian instead of playing e5 against the invariable 1.e4 of prisons, for example, leads almost inevitably to Black gaining the initiative in very few moves. A quick debacle also occurs when a player tries to capture the queen, as many take the Lady out for a walk very early in the game.

Ainoa giving a lesson, while GM Manolo Pérez Candelario listens attentively

Entrenamiento cognitivo

Cognitive training

The context of prisons is very peculiar, and good intentions are not enough to make these initiatives work, or for the workshop to produce passionate chess players among prisoners. If you want to achieve something at a large scale you have to take into account numerous factors. I believe the secret of our success (we received the Silver Medal for Social Merit in Prisons awarded by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior in 2012) is the fact that we work hard on getting to know the environment in which the workshops take place.

Sonia Bejarano

The fact that chess provides benefits at a number of levels (transversally) is a key factor under these circumstances.

Referring specifically to what we do: half of the session is dedicated to “Cognitive training through chess” exercises, an original method we use at my club, which includes exercises designed to improve attention, memory and reasoning abilities, all based on chess, which motivate everyone equally, whether they are very enthusiastic about chess or not.

The second half is dedicated to playing, with personalized teaching (chess problems with individual tasks are provided) and lessons related to strategic chess thinking applied to life. A very successful lesson has to do with the infamous Scholar’s Mate, a very short-sighted trick for those who practice it regularly — similar to a robbery in real life, committed against an unsuspecting person. When we talk about this analogy, the practitioners of this expeditious method tend to look away.

The two main drivers of the project, Juan Antonio Montero and Manuel Pérez Candelario 


Juan Antonio Montero, psychologist and president of the spanish Chess Club "Club de Ajedrez Linex Magic"


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