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.”
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 6 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 such as 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.
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. “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. Maksym’s mother is estranged from his father, who has not been a part of the boy’s life.
When the war broke out in February, Iryna 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 Kryshtafor was no different.
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 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.
She was eventually connected with 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 programme.
Maksym has been enrolled in school, where he is beginning to make friends and is enjoying math, Kryshtafor said, because even without a strong grasp of English, he can understand it.
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 started playing at 4 and has shown 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.
But Townsend and other chess aficionados say that goal is a long shot. Still, Maksym is clearly skilled, 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 am 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, Townsend said, but often the expectation is of total dedication to the game from a young age.
“You would see it as a place where chess is taken a lot more seriously than it is here,” 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,” Helen 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 Paul Townsend has been keen to help him get involved in local tournaments.
On a recent Saturday morning, Townsend took Maksym and Kryshtafor to a Quaker school in York for a competition involving 120 youths ages 7-18. 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.
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 less than a minute.
He ran into the hall where 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 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.”