Check: Mates Win Prison Award

Two members of the Bury St Edmunds Chess Club have received a Community Partner Award for setting up and running a chess club at HMP Highpoint, Stradishall.

Steve Ruthen, and Laurie Pott, who both live locally, started the club just six months ago and have seen it go from strength-to-strength.  The club is part of a national programme run by the charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC).

CSC run weekly chess clubs in 16 prisons nationwide with several others on a waiting list. The scheme has been approved by the Ministry of Justice as the cognitive benefits of playing chess are particularly suited to the prison environment. Prisoners learn how to concentrate, plan ahead and think about the consequences of their next move.

The chess club also helps prisoners to form relationships and gives them a life skill for the outside. As the charity distributes chess sets in the prison, the game also helps to relieve boredom and prisoners’ general mental health.

Steve and Laurie were nominated for the award by the prison’s Head of Learning & Skills Nicola Gibbins, and presented with it by the Governor, Nigel Smith, at the monthly Amends Peoples Awards

In her nomination Nicola said: “Since coming on board Steve and Laurie have gone above and beyond in their delivery.  Participants talked about how chess had impacted around wider issues such as mental health, a sense of belonging and humility.  Prisoners seem to be drawing wider lessons from what they are learning on the chessboard.  Politeness and courtesy are displayed every week.”

Steve and Laurie met more than 50 years ago – over a game of chess, naturally – and, having both just turned 70, have been firm friends ever since.

“The club is full every week, with a waiting list, and every one of the players has shown significant improvement.  We have a couple who are definitely county strength and we could field two or three teams that would not be out of place in our local Bury Area Chess League.” Steve said and, as current captain of the Suffolk County chess team, he should know!

While Laurie added: “What has really impressed us has been the tremendous desire to improve the men have shown and the amount of hard work and study they are prepared to put in to achieve that.  In addition, they say they really appreciate the opportunity to have social contact with people they may not otherwise get to see during the week.”

One truly amazing highlight came back in October when HMP Highpoint provided three out of four players for an England team competing in an on-line International Prisons Competition.  In a time-zoned group that included both Europe and Africa they just missed out on qualifying for the knock-out stages by a single half-point . . . with everything coming down to the result of the last game in the final round.

More than a year ago CSC sent out a round-robin email to local clubs in the area saying there appeared to a demand for a club at HMP Highpoint and asking if anyone was prepared to make it happen.

Steve and Laurie both felt they really wanted to be involved and, with chess being one of the oldest games in the world, the rest – as they say – is history.

Steve Lovell

Steve is the Communications Officer for the Bury St Edmunds Chess Club. He is also the Internet Officer for the Bury Area Chess League and the Suffolk County Chess Association. Since 2015, Steve has been the organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Chess Congress. Outside of chess, if there is such a thing, Steve works in IT at Greene King.

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