Inmates at the Boksburg Correctional facility believe that chess possesses a magic that helps them to spend their time on the inside of the high walls more constructively. The Gauteng South Chess Association has now become involved in the development of a group of enthusiastic chess players at the prison east of Johannesburg. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Two men sit on a bench, focused on the board between them. The man on the left, his head shaved, is lost in thought. Suddenly, he acts. A pawn is moved one square forward.

While his opponent, wearing a cap with a visor, considers his position, the bald man adjusts the sleeve of his orange overalls inscribed all over with the word “corrections”.

The man in the cap wears exactly the same thing, as do all the men in front of the boards in this room.

On this Monday morning, bathed in Highveld sunshine, chess is the game, and Boksburg prison, with a 4000-strong population, is the place.

The inmates are marking the admission of the prison’s chess club to the Gauteng South Chess Association (GSCA).

It's an achievement for the prisoners in their search for ways to better themselves. For it to work, outside interaction is vital.

Molave Sivjamdane, 35, was jailed before the fall of apartheid for armed robbery and theft. He was introduced to chess in 2002.

“It has made a lot of change in my life. I have found myself in chess with a peace of mind, so I think chess is great,” he says, with six months to go until his release.

“I think what matters most, I think I should find a job for myself, to do something, to better my life.”

The wheels began turning last year, when the GSCA was contacted via the warders at the prison on the East Rand.

“We are probably the only union within South Africa that have prisoners as part of our union; as part of a club. We are excited about it. It's an amazing feeling for us. It says that everybody can play chess,” says GSCA president Gerri Engelman.

She hands boards, clocks and chess sets to the prison club's chairman, Bright Mpadi, who, in thanking her, explains just how important the day is for inmates who pursue the ancient pastime.

Inmates crowd around GSCA coach Daniel Cawdery as he begins a lesson. Others play games.

Cawdery is expected to visit far more often as the year goes by.

“I think the great thing is, just talking to some of them, was that they want to make a change in their community and I think that would be our ultimate purpose,” says Engelman.

“To make sure that when they leave the prison, they come outside and we, as a chess union, can go into their communities and also provide assistance and guidance. That's what we want to do.”

Thabo Ndlovu, 32, has been here five years, but still has to serve at least 10 years of a 20-year sentence for murder.

He casually leans over the bench as he speaks. “Chess I play for different reasons. Let's say you are in a good mood, you may play good chess, sometimes in a bad mood, bad chess. So it all depends on your mood and everything you know. So for me, it’s more an exploration of myself. You discover a lot of things about yourself playing chess.”

For the prisoners, the GSCA's interest reminds them that they are not forgotten.

“People do need that extra, because we are suffering from rejection. Being in prison is like being rejected from society. It's like you are here, you are there, so interaction with people from the outside I think exposes and re-freshens us, makes us feel more in touch,” Ndlovu says.

Most of the men willing to be interviewed are in prison because of armed robbery. Victor Modise, 28, four years away from release, is one of them.

“When I'm playing chess, I'm relaxed. I forget about most things here, about my problems. I grew up a hard way so I'm just trying to forget those things.

“In prison we get frustrated, and sometimes you get angry with yourself... 'Why did I do that? How did I end up here?'

“When you are playing chess, you get relaxed and go down with it. You start thinking positively, and thinking of changing.”

Benji Vilikazi, 53, claims he is the best player in the prison, bar one of the warders.

Convicted of attempted murder, he has two years until his release, and relaxes by playing chess. He started a chess club in Katlehong before going to prison.

“It relaxes your mind. You do your stuff outside. When you want to relax, you take your board and then pick your opponent. Then, you play, you relax your mind because everything goes smoother.”

Warder Eric Mthenjwa was the person who contacted the GSCA for its expertise and remains its link with the prison, said Boksburg Correctional Services spokesman Patrick Thobejane.

“Having done our part reintegrating these guys back into society, we still have resistance from the public, in terms of stigmatising these offenders, even though we believe they are already changed people.

“So, having partners such as the GSCA, helps us in terms of incorporating these people, helping with public acceptance. We are about second chances,” he says.

He feels the GSCA's involvement with the prison is just the beginning and says the authorities are hoping to recruit more inmates to play the game.

“The next step will be to grow the sport and expose whoever has got talent, who are the best, and expose them to the outside world. I’m optimistic that this is the beginning of great things to come,” Thobejane says.

For prisoner Ndlovu, chess has become one of the little things in life that count.

“That's what you actually get exposed to in prison, because sometimes when you are outside, you just want something big,” he says. – Sapa