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Cook County sheriff introduces jail chess program

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CHICAGO — Call it the Sheriff's Gambit.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who's made national news for such moves as taking on Craigslist and digging up the remains of young men decades after they were killed by John Wayne Gacy, is now turning to kings, queens and rooks to help teach jail inmates not to behave like pawns.

Dart launched a chess program at the county jail in the hopes that inmates can take what they learn from a game that rewards things like patience and problem-solving and apply it to their own lives.

"We see it day-in and day-out that people want instant gratification and that often individuals do not think before they act," Dart said in a statement Monday. "Thoughtless actions will hurt you while playing chess and hurt you more on the street."

The idea for the program came from a man who runs a chess club whose members include one of the sheriff's children.

"I thought it would be good for any people," said Mikhail Korenman, a member of the United States Chess Federation Council and longtime chess teacher in Chicago.

Korenman, who said he broached the subject with Dart earlier this year, accompanied the sheriff to the jail Monday to watch some inmates play.

"It helps kids and it should help the people in the prisons get back to a normal life, make good decisions," Korenman said, adding that he knows of no other similar jail program in the U.S.

He sees chess as being about making decisions with an eye toward how they will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. "(Players) have to make decisions and analyze their decisions," Korenman said.

Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov also was on hand.

Karpov, who knows something about patience having once famously waited and waited for a match with Bobby Fischer that was never played, praised Dart's effort to bring chess to inmates.

"We started a similar program in Russia 15 years ago, and now we have a championship in Russia for detainees and for people who are rotting in prison," Karpov told Chicago's WBBM-Radio.

Dart's office said 100 inmates are participating now. Ultimately, about 150 are to take part.

The sheriff is known for taking unusual approaches to law enforcement, including suing Craigslist over adult content. He also exhumed eight unidentified murder victims of serial killer Gacy in the hopes that DNA testing that did not exist when the slayings occurred could identify them. That effort has paid off with the identification of one victim.

Dart also has made headlines with the way he's run his jail.

Inmates are trained in horticulture and landscaping at the garden that has grown dramatically under his leadership. And last year he initiated a policy that calls for transgender inmates to be housed, dressed and searched according to the gender they identify with rather than their sex at birth.