“Chess saved my life,” Kamila said.
There was mischief in her eyes as she moved her queen in a penetrating diagonal, opening up my crumbling defenses. Checkmate is just a move, a formality.
Once a rising chess star in the East UkraineKamila Hryshchenko was forced to leave her home in Kramatorsk when bombs began falling around her.
Just 21 years old, she is now living in Hull after a network of international chess players helped get her and her mother to safety.
After switching to England in a show of appreciation, Kamila Hryshchenko is now one of the highest-ranked players in the country. Top position? Currently occupied by Russians.
As Nikita Vitiugov makes his England debut at the European Team Chess Championship today, we dive into the enchanting world of professional chess…
‘We know the world chess family will help us’
When Vladimir Putin launched the war with Ukraine in February 2022, the city of Kramatorsk was regularly attacked with missiles and bombs.
The first days of the invasion were marked by chaos, confusion, and immeasurable danger.
“I want to leave but we don’t know what’s going on or where the Russian soldiers are,” Kamila told Sky News.
They contacted Andrei Ciuravin, a Ukrainian living in the UK, who had piloted Kamila’s long journey from Ukraine.
“Chess is a family, especially in these difficult times. We know the world chess family will help us.”
Kamila and her mother left through the busy Kramatorsk train station, which in the early days of the war was regularly packed with thousands of people trying to flee west to relative safety.
A few days later, a Russian missile attack hit the railway center killing more than 30 people and injuring more than 100 others.
Their hair-raising rail journey from Kramatorsk in the east to Chernivtsi on the western border with Romania saw their train repeatedly stop as the train driver received warnings from the Ukrainian military about bombs and routes were blocked.
“Everything is related to chess,” Kamila said, explaining how the Romanian Chess Federation and friends in the chess world helped them rent hotels and get visas to the UK.
On April 24, 2022, they arrived in England and were taken in by a chess-playing family in Chichester – a month after leaving Kramatorsk.
Kamila and her mother eventually moved to Hull where they now live. Kamila studied computer science at Hull University – and of course continued to play chess.
Play chess in the trenches
“It’s interesting,” Kamila said. She was looking at our board – we were now playing the second game – and considering her next move.
My king was under pressure and I did my best to surround it with my remaining pieces. Have I avoided attacks from her rooks?
“Am I going to lose? I don’t like that,” she quipped. Maybe I have some hope, I wondered.
“Ah, I like it,” she added, suddenly smiling. “Check.” Soon, once again, it will be checkmated.
With many famous players from Ukraine and Russia – after decades of Soviet domination of chess – it was no surprise that the war shocked the chess world.
Like countless other Ukrainians, Kamila had to leave her home because it was no longer safe.
For men, leaving the country was largely illegal and many were drafted into the armed forces. Chess players are no exception.
Grandmaster Igor Kovalenko, ranked 60th in the world, did not know how to shoot a rifle before joining the army.
This 34-year-old man was deployed to Ukraine’s fiercely contested Donetsk region. While his chess game was largely paused, he was pictured playing an online event from the trenches in a quiet moment.
In East Yorkshire, Kamila and her mother spend much of their free time doing everything they can to raise money for Ukraine.
The decision to change her chess federation from Ukraine to England – and thus compete under the British flag – was a difficult one, she said.
“It was a very difficult decision for me. It was personal because of Ukraine and the war, and I wanted to support my country.
“When I changed federations, I thought it would be better for my chess career and I could repay the support of so many British people here, supporting my chess.”
“We still support Ukraine,” she added. “For me, helping materially by fundraising and volunteering is better than just having a flag next to my name.”
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Russian Vitiugov is currently England’s top player
As Russian tanks entered the Ukrainian capital in the first days of the invasion, an emergency meeting of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) council was held.
It voted to condemn the use of military force and banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing under their national flags.
Two months later, 44 of Russia’s top chess players, including many grandmasters, signed an open letter to Vladimir Putin criticizing the war and calling for a ceasefire.
“We share the pain of our Ukrainian colleagues and call for peace,” the letter said.
Since then, a series of high-ranking Russian officials have defected to other countries to protest what the Kremlin is doing in Ukraine.
They include Nikita Vitiugov, 36, who swapped St Petersburg for East Anglia.
Ranked 31 in the world, he is currently the highest-rated player in Britain and is expected to make his debut under the new flag today at the European Team Chess Championship in Montenegro.
Changing countries was a quick decision for Grigoriy Oparin, a grandmaster who grew up in Moscow and started playing chess when he was 4 years old.
“It was a real shock to me,” he said of the February 2022 invasion. “I couldn’t believe it happened.
“It’s a shame that my homeland started this war.”
Grigoriy, 26, told Sky News that he immediately began the transition from the Russian Chess Federation to the American Chess Federation.
And although he can switch his chess to the stars and stripes, he still cannot compete in official events for two years unless he agrees to pay a release fee of 35,000 euros ( £30,400) to the Russian Chess Federation.
“It’s unfortunate that I can’t play, but I think it’s just a small problem considering everything that’s going on in the world.”
Karjakin supported the war and imposed a self-imposed ban from world chess
But not all Russian chess players opposed the war.
Sergey Karjakin has sparked anger and criticism for speaking out in support of Vladimir Putin’s bid to annex Ukraine.
The world number 9 tennis player, who was born in Ukraine, posted an open letter to the Russian president on social media just days after the invasion.
He discussed “the demilitarization and denationalization of Ukraine and its ruling regime”.
“I express to you, our commander-in-chief, my full support in protecting the interests of Russia, our multinational Russian people, eliminating threats and establishing peace! ”, he told Mr. Putin.
Karjakin was handed a six-month ban by FIDE and still refuses to compete in any tournament where he cannot compete under the Russian flag.
Since then, he has caused further controversy with visits to occupied regions of Ukraine, including posing for photos with Russian soldiers.
Among the questions about her dangerous journey to the UK and her love for Ukraine, I asked Kamila if she still enjoys playing chess after all these years and so many other things going on. out in her life.
“Every chess player has times when they want to give up,” she said.
“I still love it. I really can’t imagine myself without chess.”