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A liberating game

The Chess For Freedom project is about much more than prison and online play, writes Salomėja Zaksaitė.

Chess keeps “The Royal Game” protagonist Bartok (Oliver Masucci) sane during his imprisonment and torture.
Chess keeps “The Royal Game” protagonist Bartok (Oliver Masucci) sane during his imprisonment and torture. (photo: picture alliance/​Studiocanal/​Walker + Worm Film)

FIDE recently launched an intriguing project called Chess for Freedom. Using sport to prevent crime isn’t new. There are a lot of projects as well as criminological research about them. In this context, we can talk about tertiary prevention or recidivism prevention, which is likely to succeed if the prosocial skills gained through sport can be applied and maintained in real life. The selection of chess for these purposes has an archetypal and philosophical dimension that this essay seeks to delve a little deeper.

In his cell, where he had no one to talk to and was banned from reading or writing, Sharansky played games in his thoughts, having to move for both sides, white and black – and he emphasizes that chess kept him sane

Chess to keep sane while in prison and under mental torture is the theme of Stefan Zweig’s “The Royal Game”. The well-known novel has recently been adapted to the big screen for a second time. Its ending is sad: the game eventually drives the protagonist mad. Real-life stories have happier outcomes – one example is human rights activist Natan Sharansky. In his gloomy punishment cell, where he had no one to talk to and was banned from reading or writing, he played games in his thoughts, having to move for both sides, white and black – and he emphasizes that chess kept him sane. This dialectical paradox is not restricted to chess: sport can be regarded as both a means of liberation or a source of oppression. In terms of the latter, Jean-Marie Brohm decribed sport as a prison of measured time.

Inmates in various countries during the recent Chess for Freedom online tournament.
Inmates in various countries during the recent Chess for Freedom online tournament. (photos: FIDE)

Sport as a means of liberation on the opposite is an age-old notion that has found resonance from antiquity to the present day. Liberation is variously understood: it can refer to freedom from oppression, poverty, or stereotype of gender, race or occupation. Liberation through sport in such a broad way is the theme of the documentary “The Sunshine Olympics 1912”. One of the documentary’s overarching themes is the liberation of sports from oppressive feudal, colonial, and patriarchal structures. It’s a journey from darkness to light, from the old class society to the modern democratic society with meritocratic ideals – Finland’s struggle for freedom and independence is a part of this theme. The film also explores more personal aspects of liberation on the example of a real-life athlete. The Swedish diver and swimmer Greta Johansson aspires to be more than a maid or a factory worker. Jens Lind, the film’s director, says about her: “The way to another life passes through sport. She is a working-class child with many obstacles to overcome.

Moreover, many people are dismissive of women’s sports. According to doctors, competition stress might cause women to become hysterical. Greta Johansson, on the other hand, seems unconcerned about what others say.” As sports historian Peter Dahlén put it, Johansson is just as determined as Finland to struggle for freedom and independence. Finland’s struggle for independence and Johansson’s struggle for emancipation are therefore rendered analogous — one fight takes place at the national level, the other at the individual level, but the goal remains the same: freedom. The historical linkages between sport and liberation are particularly strong here.

Chess is a suitable medium to liberate the spirit, because thinking stimulates independent decision-making and self-responsibility.

Liberation through chess in a unique setting – the prison – has its own philosophical foundations. According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, a modern prison imprisons the spirit rather than the body. Foucault shows how severe discipline and morals have shifted the agency of punishment from the corporeal to the spiritual. Chess is a suitable medium to liberate the spirit in this regard, because thinking stimulates independent decision-making and self-responsibility. It might be stated even more forcefully: a person is free as long as they think with their own head. This concept can be applied both literally and figuratively. When a person ceases to think, they imprisons himself, and thus find themselves in the prison of imposed thoughts, collapsing as an authentic individual.

Another director, Ingmar Bergman, did an excellent job in “The Seventh Seal”: As long as you play chess, you’re alive. The film follows the wanderings of a medieval knight who is playing a game of chess with the personification of Death, who has come to claim his life. The knight believes he will be able to survive as long as he can keep the game going.

Salomėja Zaksaitė is a legal scholar and chairwoman of the FIDE Fair Play Commission.
Salomėja Zaksaitė is a legal scholar and chairwoman of the FIDE Fair Play Commission. (photo: private)

The message that chess delivers in the context of a prison is especially powerful during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when sport is frequently losing its physical character, there is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the spiritual and ideological components of sport. It goes without saying that chess is one of the handiest activities on such a spiritual journey, and it is likely that many enlighteners, artists, and sports leaders would welcome it with open arms. By this approach, chess overcomes what Jean-Marie Brohm has warned us of: sport no longer is a prison of a measured time; rather, it becomes a process during which repressive features of sport are transformed into unhindered self-expression.