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U.S., Russian Convicts Forge Ties Over The Chessboard

Twenty prisoners from the United States and Russia will face off against each other in an online tournament. (file photo)
Twenty prisoners from the United States and Russia will face off against each other in an online tournament. (file photo)
MOSCOW -- Forget bewigged "spies" and the impasse over Syria. Could chess and convicts take the sting out of U.S.-Russia ties?

On May 15, 20 prisoners from the United States and Russia are scheduled to clash over the chessboard in an online tournament. It is the first of its kind.

Russia has drafted a 10-man team from prisons in Krasnodar Krai and the oblasts of Astrakhan, Samara, Saratov, and Sverdlovsk. They will come face to face with 10 convicts from Chicago online via Skype.

The fixture is not quite redolent of the ideological face-offs between the Soviet Union and United States that featured chess greats Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer, and Garry Kasparov.

But the tournament certainly comes at a difficult time for the old Cold War foes. Disagreement over missile defense, adoptions, and human rights has seen mutual trust plummet. The United States and Russia have also failed to agree on how to resolve the civil war raging in Syria that has claimed some 70,000 lives.

The glimmer of closer security cooperation that emerged after last month's Boston Marathon bombings also looks in jeopardy. On May 14, Russia said it had intercepted a CIA agent using diplomatic cover to lure a Russian spy to work for the United States in return for a huge financial reward.

Moscow said the American was apprehended with Inspector Clouseau-esque spy accoutrements including wigs, a compass, a map of Moscow, and a flashlight. It certainly wasn’t the sinister spy craft of John le Carre, but it once again signaled how Washington and Moscow are far from bridging the gap in trust.

The series of chess matches -- which presumably required high-level clearance -- is unlikely to offer a way out of the stalemate.

Plans for the tournament were set in motion after Russian chess legend Anatoly Karpov last year made a trip to Chicago where he met the head of Cook County Jail.

The meeting was held in April – the month before President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin and ushered in a frostier relationship with Washington.

Karpov, a State Duma deputy, will present winners of the tournament with certificates. Interfax cited a spokesperson for the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) as saying that the event will be attended by Karpov and the FSIN management as well as counterparts from Chicago.

The "Rossiiskaya gazeta" government newspaper notes that prisoners who take part do not qualify for early release. But it reports that “taking part in the chess event, in the eyes of the FSIN, is evidence of a desire to set out on the road to correction.”

-- Tom Balmforth

UPDATE: "The Chicago Sun Times" reports that the final score in the match was Russia: 14, United States: 5

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