Ukraine’s ‘chess capital’ ponders Russia’s next move

A delighted and noisy audience, a group of chess fanatics watch a fierce game on a park bench.

Rook takes Knight, a flurry of moves, and then the game is over in an instant. The loser returns a Ukrainian currency note and the coins are reset for another game on the beaten board.

In the western city of Lviv, Ukraine’s chess capital, local players are keen to maintain the local tradition of street games, despite the cold March and the war raging in the east.

“Chess is a very difficult game,” sighs Andrei Volokitin, the defending champion from Ukraine.

Chess grandmaster Andrei Volokitin and Ukrainian champion says he won’t play against Russians as long as the war continues Photo: AFP / Alexei Filippov

“It takes memory, calculation, strategy, positional thinking,” says the 35-year-old grandmaster.

But he’s smart enough to know that his foresight on the board doesn’t extend to international affairs. He offers no predictions regarding the Russian invasion wreaking havoc in the east of his country.

“I’m afraid it could last a few months, maybe more, I don’t know,” he says. “This is the new reality for all Ukrainians.”

Lviv – just 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the Polish border – has so far been largely untouched since Russia launched its invasion on February 24.

Lviv, the Lviv, Ukraine’s ‘chess capital’, has so far escaped the worst of war Photo: AFP / Alexei Filippov

The city considers itself the cultural epicenter of Ukraine.

Its cobbled streets are lined with neon-lit cafes, shops and restaurants, though its nightlife is curbed by martial law curfews.

But Lviv is also known as the chess capital of Ukraine.

As war rages in the east, Lviv chess fans carry on the city's tradition of street games As war rages in the east, Lviv chess fans carry on the city’s tradition of street games Photo: AFP / Alexei Filippov

The former Soviet Union to which Ukraine belonged until 1991 has invested heavily in developing chess talent, cherishing the USSR’s longstanding dominance in the game. chess is a legacy of that time.

Along the central promenade, crowds of mostly men gather to watch amateur gamblers play their games in the chilly March weather.

Volokitin estimates that there are between 20 and 30 active Grand Masters among the 700,000 inhabitants of Lviv. “It’s a traditional chess town,” he says.

But the chess world was divided by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to invade Ukraine.

Chess grandmaster and reigning Ukrainian champion Andrei Volokitin (R), plays against an amateur in the western city of Lviv, the Chess grandmaster and reigning Ukrainian champion Andrei Volokitin (R), plays against an amateur in the western city of Lviv, Ukraine’s ‘chess capital’ Photo: AFP / Alexei Filippov

FIDE – the International Chess Federation – has already canceled tournaments in Russia, where the game is also hugely popular, and banned its flag from flying at events.

But the Ukrainian Chess Federation wants more.

He is pushing for a total ban on Russian players “under any flag or without a flag”. Volokitin himself signed an open letter pledging not to play against the Russians.

“During the slaughter of our civilians, our women and our children, and the destruction of our cities, I think it makes sense,” he said.

Lviv chess fans young and old still gather to play on public benches along the promenade Lviv chess fans young and old still gather to play on public benches along the promenade Photo: AFP / Alexei Filippov

Last week, FIDE banned teams from Russia and Belarus from its tournaments.

On Monday, he banned Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin from his tournaments for six months for his outspoken support for the invasion.

But for now, other Russian players can still play.

So, next week, Volokitin will travel to the European Individual Chess Championship in Slovenia next week to make the case for extending the ban by Ukraine.

He received a special waiver from the government order prohibiting men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, he said.

His wife and daughter are already staying in Poland, and Volokitin spent two weeks sheltering “chess friends” as they fled the conflict zone.

“We should do everything we can,” he said.

Military analysts suggest that Putin’s “special military operation” has stalled after heavy casualties and unexpected resistance from understaffed but highly motivated Ukrainian forces.

However, on Friday, a Russian airstrike hit an aircraft repair factory next to Lviv airport.

Although no one was killed, it was a clear sign that war was approaching the city, after three weeks of emerging relatively unscathed.

Nonetheless, the city’s chess fans still congregate along the promenade for their games, with some offering their predictions on the dispute as the one-month marker approaches.

Oleh Chernobayev, 52, lasted just 10 minutes in his match with Volokitin – but he was more optimistic about Ukraine’s chances in the war.

“We will definitely win,” he said.

“We have good people, unarmed people stopping the tanks. They can’t take kyiv. Our guys are very brave.”

Nearby, Oleksander, a self-proclaimed stalwart of the city’s chess benches, holds court as he plays.

“It’s a difficult game, a mind game,” he says.

A young challenger wearing a baseball cap locked him in a grueling match.

But the pauses between his moves get longer and longer, until finally the young suitor gives up.

“We have to compete for Ukraine the same way we compete in chess,” he remarks sardonically.

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