THE BALEARIC EXPERIENCE by Dr Jose Francisco Suarez Roa[1]

[1] Affiliation: Jose Francisco Suarez Roa, Menorca Hospital.  PhD in Psychology, Master in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Specialist in Clinical Hypnosis, FST, FIDE Master, FIDE Arbiter, FIDE Lecturer CEL.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for offenders targets ‘criminal thinking’ as a factor which contributes towards criminal behaviour. By assuming that this ‘criminal thinking’ is a cognitive deficit which has been learned, CBT focuses on teaching offenders to understand the thinking processes and choices that precede criminal behaviour[1]. I would like to explain my experience as project manager and educational investigator in the use of chess for cognitive behaviour therapy in the prisons of the Balearic Islands, Spain.



This project was conducted at the prison of Palma de Mallorca in conjunction with the University of Distance Education (UNED). It consisted of an introductory course in chess for prisoners, with special emphasis on empathetic thinking through the game of chess. To this end, we designed various didactic modules both at an initial chess level and within the field of psychology. The main theme was decision-making taking into account its consequences. We first played on a chess board working reviewing the moves and mistakes and then transferring this knowledge in group sessions where we discussed in general about the decisions they made and their consequences. Chess lends itself to this form of reasoning because chess players have to take personal responsibility for the consequences of their moves.

One of the fundamental outcomes of this course was that the students had to write a report on their own lives bringing an objective assessment. They were asked to recognise the major decisions they had made and the consequences whether positive or negative. They were asked to address the issue of whether it is desirable or possible to rectify a poor decision. In the context of a game of chess, we could see how some decisions do not mean the end of the game and therefore give us the possibility to continue playing and learning. Some mistakes are irremediable for that game leading to inevitable loss. However, it is possible to start a new game.  When we work on behaviour, we use these examples to fix with the prisoners that even a serious mistake in a person’s life does not mean that life is over, but rather that it gives us the opportunity to learn and make new decisions.

The course was attended by a total of 23 students, 18 of whom were men and 5 women. One year after the end of the course they were given an empathic perception test as well as a data collection of their behaviour during the past year. 75% of the respondents said that the chess and decision making course had helped them to think about the other before carrying out behaviours; the remaining 25% saw the course as a learning game but appreciated that in real life it was more difficult to make reflective decisions either because of drugs, anxiety, etc.


In 2008, Miguel Angel Vazquez of UNED commissioned another chess-related project for the inmates of the prison of Palma. The seminars took place during the first semester of 2009, on Saturday mornings. The sessions lasted 2 hours and were attended by a total of 16 inmates from different countries.

The theme was again to use chess as a tool for reflection and decision making at critical moments.  The seminar programme began by explaining the basic elements of the game, although many inmates already knew the basic rules. Once all the inmates knew the movement of the pieces, as well as some basic concepts such as checkmate, we started with the pedagogical part. We created resignable positions on the board and the objective was to find a way to fight against the inevitable. After the games, the group discussed the positions and reflected on their reactions. We then turned to real situations in their lives.

A focus point was to show the importance of the “critical moment” – whether to make a decision at a moment in time. Decisions can be taken now or deferred until later allowing for a period of reflection. We discussed how this could lead to a completely different timeline without evaluating whether it was better or worse. Some sessions consisted of watching films either related to chess (In Search of Bobby Fischer) or that could form the reference to reflect and discuss decision making (The Family Man).

The overall experience was successful.  Some of the inmates, when they completed their sentence, either joined a chess club or wrote to me thanking me for what chess had done for them as a tool for reflection and thinking before acting.


In 2013, the prison chess project was revived due to the interest of an inmate: Vicente Navarro, who – taking a temporary leave from Palma prison – went to the chess club of the Cercle Artístic de Ciutadella, currently the most important in Menorca, where he explained his condition and asked for help to bring chess to the Penitentiary Centre of Menorca (CPM).

Vicente, a tough and gruff man, who – during the course of this activity – won his freedom, told us about his long career as a promoter of penitentiary chess in many centres all over Spain. We never knew what he had done to deserve such long sentences – it was our protocol not to enquire about the details of criminal convictions. 

The response of the chess players of Ciutadella was encouraging. On 29 June 2013, chess master David Pons gave a simultaneous display at CPM and the following 20 July, a strong team from the Cercle chess club visited CPM to play a friendly match. Given the interest in chess amongst the inmates of the CPM, the Menorcan Delegation of the Balearic Chess Federation organised fortnightly training sessions that began on 1 November 2013 and continue to date thanks to the voluntary contribution of a coterie of chess aficionados. Credit must be given to the indefatigable trainers. All of whom have been champions of Menorca and all of whom carry out their work altruistically and enthusiastically. In addition to the aforementioned training sessions, we have periodically organised competitions (normally of a friendly nature) at the CPM or nearby, with an underlying therapeutic purpose.


After this brief overview, a few brief notes on the effectiveness of cognitive behaviour therapy in prison are required to evaluate this activity with a view to its possible introduction in other places.

Menorca is a small Mediterranean island, mainly dedicated to tourism, which enjoys an acceptable standard of living and has an active collective spirit that is evident in everyday activity. Despite having a penitentiary tradition (the military prison of Sa Mola operated until late in the 20th century) or precisely because of this, the islanders did not welcome the announcement of the establishment of a penitentiary centre near Maó (the administrative capital), as there was a risk that it would disturb our insular tranquillity. The local assumption was that dangerous prisoners would be kept by others. The need for society to deal with miscreants was not a priority but this perception was about to change partly due to the therapeutic activities of the chess players.

The penitentiary centre in Menorca is small, functional, modern (established 2011), strictly run, but not excessively unfriendly. Fortunately, chess can be played anywhere. The inmates in that centre (our potential clients), without having accessed their prison records and based on the observations made, are largely male, relatively young, imprisoned not for serious crimes but mainly for drug trafficking.  Some of them have family roots on the island, although they come from all nationalities, races and beliefs (in the last training session, a Menorcan, a South American and a Moroccan took part).  They form a group that may be receptive to the practice of chess (although we will refer later to some logical limitations). They are invariably welcoming and friendly.

The chess intervention is clearly structured: fortnightly classes each lasting 2 hours and we scrupulously comply with these conditions. The aim is to introduce competitive chess, highlighting its values of respect for the rules, social etiquette in dealing with the opponent, and time for reflection and self-criticism. Chess provides a capacity of abstraction which is very convenient in a penitentiary centre not least because the inmates have a lot of time to fill. 

The chess trainers develop game scenarios adapted to all the levels which vital to maintain the interest of the inmates which might otherwise be diluted. As a result, the inmates develop game playing skills beyond the level of a beginner. Note that the local chess clubs lack a programme for adult beginners. The aim is that the participants can learn to play chess and, for those who already know how to play, improve their level. This would enable many of them to integrate smoothly into a chess club. This rehabilitation is important as they need to be able to participate in sports and social activities once they regain their freedom.

The objective of integrating some former prisoners into the federated chess clubs of the island has already been achieved. We have already recruited a former member who had to spend some time in the CPM and it is possible that two or three more inmates will be integrated as federated chess players.

The chess literacy of the prison community is generally at a low level. Chess as a mind sport is not very well known in Spain, so it does not arouse much interest.  Some inmates refuse to play chess for various social reasons. Some do not see the benefits of greater integration in recreational activities. Others cannot grasp the purpose of competition on an abstract game.  It should be pointed out that we have worked with some inmates who had a significant difficulty in understanding any game, perhaps derived from a previous abusive consumption of narcotics or alcohol. There is also a category of inmate who is unwilling to take instructions from those perceived to be in authority. However, chess is often able to pass this hurdle because games are treated differently from a psychological perspective. Until now, playing chess is a daily activity for a number of inmates at the prison no doubt encouraged by the participants in our training sessions.

In those activities in which inmates and lay society are combined, there has never been any sense of rejection from the chess community towards the prisoners. There is a general acknowledgement that incarceration often arises due to conflicting views on personal behaviour (oversimplifying: for someone to sell drugs others must buy them …) and that no one can be sure that they will not find themselves at the wrong side of the law (traffic accidents, economic problems, excessive political or gender passion …). Hence, these mixed encounters may be regarded as opportunities for moral reconciliation.

It should also be noted that the behaviour of the inmates has always been exemplary even when the game is lost and they are obliged to return to their cells. Those participating in the chess activities walk along civilised paths. 

The first therapeutic outing of the CPM chess players was at the 58th Menorcan Chess Congress on 12 April 2014, an annual festival with a team rapid chess competition. Five inmates of from CPM participated – young men who were granted temporary release to pursue rehabilitation. Since then, these activities have taken place continually. The inmates have participated in various chess events including the Day of the Balearic Islands and the Maó Festival. The CPM team has visited and received league teams and always obtained worthy results.  They have also organised chess tournaments, one of them of official character, played in January 2015, with the participation of 4 federated players and 4 inmates[1].  

As small aside, to highlight the good atmosphere that was experienced in the meetings between inmates and retirees (with an average age of over 75 years), a relationship that should be encouraged, it should help the inmates to see that there can be a long life and that from a distance things can be seen in a different way.

For the future direction, subject to the necessary rigidities of the penitentiary regime, it would be desirable to form a CPM team to participate in the Menorcan league which would mean hosting the federated teams of Menorca for ten weeks a year.  The prison team should represent a cohesive aspiration of those serving time. It would be a way to connect with society that should not forego its responsibility to rehabilitate people who have been deprived of their liberty.

[1]  Results may be seen at