Chess – it’s a sport, an art form and a game. There are clearly set rules, principles to follow (and, on occasion, break). And for each action, there are consequences – sometimes positive and other times negative.

“Chess has key features that can help individuals learn how to make better decisions, think more carefully about consequences of actions before taking them,” says Dr. Lance Grigg, a researcher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge.

When Grigg read about a Lethbridge judge sentencing a youth to practising basketball, an idea sparked. He connected with the judge, Judge Derek Redman, Assistant Chief Judge Provincial Court of Alberta, to discuss the possibility of learning to play chess as an alternative sentence for youth involved in the criminal justice system. Judge Redman liked the idea and the Chess for Life program began as a trial.

Since early 2018, Grigg and a team including Dr. Monique Sedgwick, an associate professor in nursing, and Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack, assistant professor in education, grad students Josh Markle and Riley Kostek, have been working together to further develop the program.

Each Friday afternoon, nine to 15 youth (ages 12 to 18), who have been referred to the program by the Crown, come to the University, leave their personal difficulties at the door and play chess for two hours. While they learn to play the game, they learn about the importance of making good decisions while connecting with positive adult role models.

In just under a year, the program has already garnered international media attention and expanded. The Chess for Life team is now working with judges in Edmonton, Alta., while a Houston, Texas program is also in the works. Beyond the justice system, the team is also working with a local elementary school, bringing chess into the classroom for children.