By Ainsley Trunkhill / Staff writer
Tony Ballard found himself in checkmate when he received a 294-month prison sentence for attempted murder. Through a project called The Gift of Chess, however, he learned how to convert his prison cell to a classroom for rehabilitation until he was the one delivering the checkmates.
Ballard grew up on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma, born into an environment seeping with drugs and crime. His mother, wanting to provide her family with the best opportunities, moved them to Hutchinson. Here, Ballard thrived as a standout football player, ultimately playing football for HutchCC, even after having some Division I offers.
Eventually, Ballard wound up back in the circle of crime by selling drugs, which culminated in a shooting, a trial, and a prison sentence.
“For the first four, five, almost six years, I was very angry,” Ballard said, describing the early mental effects of prison. “I tried to take my life.”
Cornered in check, Ballard began viewing his life like a chess board, contemplating each move for the future. He tracked his progress on the board with chess notation, and he tracked his progress in reality with books and journaling.
“I turned my prison cell into a laboratory where I studied myself,” Ballard said. “I studied, I journaled … I became a self-analysis.”
Self-help books lined Ballard’s path to self-discovery. Chess, however, more so than “Chicken Soup” or Dr. Phil contributed to the transformation. In a prison system of routine and institutionalization, chess forced Ballard to think. He practiced metacognition, the same skill taught in public schools across the country, creating an education out of a prison sentence, even furthering this education by taking classes at HutchCC.
“It teaches a person how to think. A lot of guys in prison don’t know how to think. I did not know how to think,” Ballard said.
As he developed skills on the board, he applied those same skills to his own life. He corrected impulsivity with patience and a lack of originality with creativity. Where punitive justice failed Tony Ballard, rehabilitation transformed him into someone even better. Punishment resulted in Ballard’s anger, an anger that he would have taken out on those who don’t deserve it. Rehabilitation educated him on where he went wrong.
“Punitive justice is something that I’m most definitely against,” Ballard said. “Everyone wants to be better than who they currently are … give them the opportunity to do that.”
Troy Robinson, who worked in every correctional facility in Kansas over 33 years and is a current student at HutchCC, shares similar beliefs in a goal of rehabilitation and restoration.
“Roughly speaking, 95% of inmates are gonna get released,” Robinson said. “We are always striving to try to have them leave us better than the way we received them.”
Budget cuts and a lack of priority on rehabilitation from politicians have challenged the ability for prisons to implement rehabilitative programs. Furthermore, modern technological advances resulted in a limitation of the previous programs prisoners participated in. Inmates that learned carpentry and bricklaying as a trade were restricted by the lack of ability to train skilled laborers and replaced by machines. Despite setbacks, rehabilitative programs still exist across Kansas. In one, prisoners learn to get horses saddle-ready, building a one-on-one bond and developing both inmate and horse therapeutically. Tony Ballard hopes to implement another widespread program.
“I commend him,” Robinson said. “We need creativity.”
Ballard collaborated with Russel Makofsky, part of the Impact Coaching Network in New York City to create a non-profit organization, The Gift of Chess, out of his passion. While The Gift of Chess provides outreach to elementary schools, countries across the world, and elderly homes, Ballard heads the prison outreach sector as the director. His collaborations have exceeded just New York City, however; Ballard works with FIDE, the governing body of chess, with CEO’s of million-dollar companies, and with partnerships spreading West to East coast, all from within the Wichita Work Release Facility.
The Gift of Chess has already started its path towards impact, operating in 32 states and over 200 facilities. They distributed 500 chess boards to Rikers Island, one of the most notorious jail complexes in the country.
“When they laid out the chess boards … it turned it from a madhouse, insane asylum, to a library,” Ballard said. “That’s the power of chess.”
Ballard welcomes all to embark on this operation with him, assisting in anything from donations to writing emails.
Bill Gates set out for the Nobel Prize from a garage, but Tony Ballard starts the endeavor from a prison cell. His end-game lies in transforming lives with chess, just as it did with his own.
“My end-game is to win the Nobel Peace Prize because I believe that chess has healing powers,” Ballard said. “Change lives all over the world … make Momma proud.”