Nonprofit organization The Gift of Chess uses a game to offer incarcerated populations new life strategies
At 25 years old, Tony Ballard felt angry and cornered after being sentenced to 294 months in prison for attempted murder.
Nearly two decades later, he is now the co-founder of a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization started from nothing but a vision and a flip phone.
Following Ballard’s incarceration in 2004, he took to the facilities’ library and found a few chess sets available for inmates’ use. Looking to focus on a productive hobby during his imprisonment, Ballard spent his time building chess skills over years with the help of instructionals and how-tos.
Learning and utilizing skills like problem-solving, decision-making, and even patience ended up being a vital part of Ballard’s mental survival during his time behind bars, according to him.
“2010 is when I realized how chess could be applied to my life,” Ballard says. “I started using the critical thinking aspect of chess personally, which became my experiment. I wondered if it really worked. When I saw it did, I started pushing for chess clubs and mentoring other inmates incarcerated with me.”
Ballard’s realization quickly became something he wished to share with others.
Without free rein access to the outside world, Ballard began brainstorming ways to translate his passion into action with limited resources at hand. It was then that Ballard was connected with avid chess player and coach Russell Makofsky of New York City.
“We connected immediately because we had a common love for chess and we would play chess over the phone daily,” Ballard says. “As we would play chess, we shared our ideas.”
This exchange of ideas was the start of The Gift of Chess.
Born in early 2021, The Gift of Chess began distributing chess boards to correctional facilities and jails throughout The United States as a cognitive rehabilitation tool, starting in public schools in New York City. The organization aims to use chess as “a low-cost high-impact catalyst for change.”
Ballard and Makofsky formed the non-profit that focuses on four initiatives: youth education, global outreach, prison outreach, and refugee outreach.
“It was the first time I had something posted on the internet that was speaking positively about me,” Ballard says. “Before, you would Google my name, and a criminal record or something negative would come up. That’s no longer who I was.”
Suddenly, Ballard had gone from spending 23 hours a day in confinement to traveling with security to various prisons, spreading his word.
“We had people wanting to donate based on me sharing my thoughts, goals, visions, and just hearing my voice,” Ballard says. “People were opening their checkbooks and wallets. That was moving to me.”
Fast forward two years to the present day and Ballard is embarking upon a state-wide effort in the state where he spent 25 years incarcerated. Early Mar. 2023, every ward of the state in Kansas gathered to discuss what comes next for the spread of The Gift of Chess, according to Ballard.
Currently, The Gift of Chess has provided access to over 100,000 inmates, reached 32 states, and roughly 202 facilities. The organization has been able to work on its global outreach initiative in countries including Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda.
Along with the chess boards provided by the organization is a curriculum created by Ballard, highlighting the correlations between the skills he learned through the game of chess.
“A lot of people are interested in chess; we just need people who are passionate about others to help us use chess to transform individual’s lives,” Ballard says. “We can only do so much by ourselves, so we must have volunteers, funders, donors, and supporters to help us achieve more.”
As The Gift of Chess has expanded its reach, its initiatives and goals have also grown. By 2030, the organization hopes to distribute one million chess sets. To find ways to support their goal, read this.