Chess has many benefits for the human mind, but I had not thought to include among them the rehabilitation of criminals. Yet in Brazil an organisation dedicated to "the recovery and social integration of those condemned to sentences without parole" has been doing exactly that; the Association for Protection and Assistance for the Condemned has, with the help of some of Brazil's best chess players and trainers, organised therapeutic tournaments and lessons "on the inside".
The driving force behind this project, Walter Ferreira, claims: "Our proposed goals have been largely achieved. Today we have proper chess books in our library, while our own pieces and boards are made by the convicts, with plastic and bottle caps." According to Ferreira, an ex-state champion, chess is an "instrument for social inclusion [because] players, by studying chess, learn that study can be a pleasure; it forms a series of positive character traits such as humility, patience, perseverance and discipline."
All that may be so, but the idea of chess as a check to the criminal personality runs entirely counter to popular prejudice, which itself reflects the lamentable libels against our noble game perpetuated by novelists over the centuries, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Sherlock Holmes proves a man called Amberley to be the perpetrator of an especially cunning murder — which the killer, with nefarious cheek, had himself asked Holmes to investigate. When Watson asks Holmes how he spotted that the client was the guilty man, the detective says: "Amberley excelled at chess — one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind."
Conan Doyle's influence might even have played a part in the 1931 conviction of a chess club member called William Wallace for his wife's murder. Relying purely on circumstantial evidence, and a mysterious telephone call to the Liverpool chess club to which Wallace belonged, the prosecution depended on painting him as an especially cunning and devious fellow — an assertion that appeared to have convinced the jury, whose guilty verdict startled the presiding judge. Wallace's clubmates later pointed out that, while very enthusiastic, he was in fact a notably unimpressive player. Perhaps that assisted in his later acquittal, a legal landmark as the first overturning of an English murder conviction on the grounds that the verdict was "unreasonable, or cannot be supported, having regard to the evidence".