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His Next Move: A Ukrainian Boy Starts a New Life Through Chess

YORK, England — Pints in hand, a group of men sat hunched over chessboards under the sloping ceiling beams of the Eagle and Child pub in York, in northern England.

Among them sat Maksym Kryshtafor, an 8-year-old Ukrainian boy with freckles and an impish smile, who navigated his pieces across the board with intense focus.

The group had moved its weekly meeting to an earlier time to accommodate its young guest’s bedtime, and he was soon impressing these chess aficionados with decades more experience.

“He’s really good for his age; there’s no question about that,” said Paul Townsend, 62, an avid chess player and member of England’s chess federation. “And he clearly has a talent.”

Mr. Townsend and his family are hosting Maksym and his mother after the federation essentially played matchmaker and asked if they would be willing to sponsor the pair.

More than six million refugees have left Ukraine for Europe, according to the United Nations, each facing the challenges of a life ripped apart by war: a strange land, an unfamiliar language and tenuous ties to support systems like education and health care — if they have any ties all. Finding a pursuit that provides focus and stability can help exiles navigate the anxieties and upheaval of restarting life far from home.

For Maksym, it was chess.

Maksym staring down his opponent before winning a game of speed chess in the Delancey U.K. Schools Chess Challenge in June.

Maksym and Helen Townsend playing with Lego pieces in June. She has also enjoyed showing him how to cook and taking him on nature walks.

Just four days after arriving in Britain, Maksym drew the attention of the local news media when he won a tournament in County Durham, about 45 minutes north of York by train. He quickly became known on the local chess circuit.

“Chess is all his life, and now it’s all my life,” said Maksym’s mother, Iryna Kryshtafor. “It’s like air for him because all the time he is playing.”

Chess has helped Maksym deal with the complex emotions of leaving his home and adjusting to life in Britain, which has not always been easy. Without a good grasp of English, he was placed with younger students for some of his lessons in school, and it has been hard for him to connect with other children, his mother said. He misses his grandparents, who lived with them in the Ukrainian city of Odesa and who stayed behind. Ms. Kryshtafor is estranged from Maksym’s father, who has not been a part of the boy’s life.

When the war broke out in February, Ms. Kryshtafor, 45, had scrambled to throw her and Maksym’s most essential belongings into a rucksack as they fled for the border.

Countless mothers across Ukraine were focused on how to save their children while maintaining a sense of stability, and Ms. Kryshtafor was no different.

Iryna Kryshtafor packed her son’s lucky outfit before fleeing Ukraine.
A book on chess and a physics textbook that Ms. Kryshtafor brought with her.
Maksym’s lucky outfit now hangs alongside his new school uniform.

While she forgot to bring a proper winter coat for herself, she packed the things she knew were the most important to Maksym: a chess book, a laptop for him to practice his games on, and the white polo shirt and red fleece that he wears for every competition.

They went first to Romania, where they stayed for weeks. Then Ms. Kryshtafor reached out to the English Chess Federation to see if someone would host her and Maksym so he could continue playing and return to school.

Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War

  • On the Ground: A series of explosions that Ukraine took credit for rocked a key Russian air base in Kremlin-occupied Crimea. Russia played down the extent of the damage, but the evidence available told a different story.
  • Heavy Losses: The staggeringly high rate of Russian casualties in the war means that Moscow may not be able to achieve one of his key objectives: seizing the entire eastern region of Ukraine.
  • Nuclear Shelter: The Russian military is using а nuclear power station in southern Ukraine as a fortress, as fighting intensifies in the region. The risk of a catastrophic nuclear accident has led the United Nations to sound the alarm and plead for access to the site to assess the situation.
  • Starting Over: Ukrainians forced from their hometowns by Russia’s invasion find some solace, and success setting up businesses in new cities.

She was eventually connected with Mr. Townsend and his wife, Helen, who offered them an annex in their spacious house near York, under a program that allowed British families to host Ukrainians fleeing the war for six months. So far, despite procedural difficulties, more than 65,000 people have headed to Britain from Ukraine under the program.

Maksym has been enrolled in school, where he is beginning to make friends and is enjoying math, Ms. Kryshtafor said, because even without a strong grasp of English, he can understand it.

Even with hospitable hosts like the Townsends and the security of life far from war, Ms. Kryshtafor said she had found it difficult to adjust to humbling circumstances. She had spent most of her life in Odesa, and despite having two college degrees and a career as a journalist, she is now working as a hotel cleaner.

Maksym before taking part in a chess tournament in June in York.
Maksym showing other children how he practices chess on an iPad.

“It’s not so simple,” Ms. Kryshtafor said as she described the anxieties of living in someone else’s home and having to rely on them for her and her son’s needs.

“I feel comfortable here,” she said, “but all the time I am thinking about what will happen in six months.”

Under British policy, families agree to host Ukrainians for six months, and their visas last for up to three years. The Kryshtafors will need to find a place of their own unless the sponsors allow them to stay beyond the initial agreement.

To ease the anxiety, mother and son have thrown themselves into chess, a focus of much of Maksym’s young life.

He began playing at 4 and has showed early promise.

Both have expressed hope that he can become a grandmaster before turning 12, eager to unseat the world’s youngest person to reach the prestigious ranking.

Maksym began playing chess at age 4.
“He’s really good for his age, there’s no question about that,” said Paul Townsend, who sponsored Maksym and his mother for the British visa.

But Mr. Townsend and other chess ‌‌aficionados say that goal is a long shot. Still, Maksym is clearly skilled, Mr. Townsend said.

“Does that mean he’s going to become a grandmaster ever, let alone at the age of 12? Not necessarily,” he said.

Still, Maksym is nothing if not determined. He wakes at 5 a.m. each day to practice online before school and until recently had regular online training sessions with a Ukrainian chess grandmaster through the Ukrainian Chess Federation.

So far, his lucky outfit and his hours of training have served him well as he wins competition after competition in England. In late July, he and his mother traveled to Greece for the European Youth Chess Championship, where he won in two categories — rapid and blitz — in his age group.

Like many former Soviet nations, Ukraine has a long tradition of strong chess grandmasters, Mr. Townsend explained, but often the expectation is of total dedication to the game from a young age.

Maksym, exhausted, with his mother after a weekend of chess tournaments in June against adults in Leicester, in central England, and against children at Bootham School in York.
Players watching a game of chess with Maksym.

“You would see it as a place where chess is taken a lot more seriously than it is here,” Mr. Townsend said. Parents put young children into rigorous training programs, and school is often second to chess.

“It’s such a massive, culturally different approach to chess playing,” Ms. Townsend said. As a diversion from chess, she has enjoyed showing Maksym how to cook, taking him on nature walks, and building with Lego pieces.

But much of Maksym’s time is still dedicated to chess, and Mr. Townsend has been keen to help him get involved in local tournaments.

On a recent Saturday morning, he took Maksym and Ms. Kryshtafor to a Quaker school in York for a competition involving 120 youths ages 7 to 18. Boards were lined up on tables in a gym, filled with row after row of children tapping clocks and moving pieces.

Some of the children were so small that when seated, their feet swung above the floor. Maksym’s sneakers barely touched it.

Maksym playing with other children after a day of chess in June in York.
In June, 120 youths ages 7 to 18 competed at the tournament in York.

He sat, fidgeting slightly, while the organizers rattled off the rules in English. He did not understand much of what was being said, but he knows how to play. His first match was over in under a minute.

He ran into the hall where Ms. Kryshtafor was waiting and embraced her. After the next match, Maksym again went running out to his mother.

“Too easy,” he said with a smile. “I made a checkmate.”

Before the fifth match, Maksym pressed his forehead against his mother’s and she whispered some words of encouragement. His opponent, an older boy, arrived just before play began.

Maksym playing with Bramble the dog at the home of his sponsors.
Maksym playing chess with Mr. Townsend in May.

Maksym rested his chin on his hand and smiled until, suddenly, he realized he had made a mistake. He pulled at tufts of his hair, twisting them around his fingers. He eventually lost to the boy, and after they shook hands, he wiped tears from his eyes.

Maksym eventually placed second in the competition. By the end, he seemed more interested in chatting with a group of children who had organized a game of tag outside.

His long hair flew behind him as one of the children chased him.

“He’s just a child,” his mother said as she watched him frolic. “He works so hard with chess that sometimes you forget he’s just a child.”

Mother and son have thrown themselves into chess, which has been a focus of much of Maksym’s young life.

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