I felt some trepidation when I moved to New York from my small town of Priluki in Ukraine. The clothes, the music, the language and the culture were alien to me, yet had a curious appeal. I must admit it was a struggle to adjust to the abrupt and omnipresent changes that America presented. More than anything, I feel that the game of chess was the key factor in my integration into this great society.
My family came to America with no money, and had no choice but to work laboriously at various jobs to support my brother and me. Realizing that chess is an inexpensive, yet fun and productive pastime, my parents enrolled my brother and me in a chess club. The social part of the club was a tremendous perk. I was not the “Russian kid” anymore but a chess player. For the first time since I had come to America, I was not singled out as different. The euphoric state I felt there compelled me to play more and work hard to improve my game. I began to compete in tournaments. The more I played, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the happier I became with this noble game.
After winning a number of scholastic and adult tournaments, I was selected by the United States Chess Federation as the U.S. representative for the World Under-12 Chess Championship in Spain. I was overwhelmed with pride and honor to represent America, especially after all that it has done (and continues to do) for my family. In Brazil, playing in the Pan-American Youth Championship, I medaled in silver with a second-place finish. I continue to compete in international tournaments representing the United States.
These worldly excursions have provided me with a rich sense of different cultures and have led to wonderful friendships. Some of my fondest memories stem from the times I have spent with players from the Russian and Ecuadorian teams. We would play soccer, go out to dinner, and, of course, chat about life. These memories are precious not only because of what we learned from each other but primarily because I was “the American” in the group.
Recently, I have thought about the countless ways chess has helped me and what I could do to give back to the community. Noticing there were no chess programs for children in my area, I started my own company dedicated to promoting chess. Currently, I teach at four schools and have an array of private students, both children and adults. It is an inexplicably satisfying feeling to see others benefit from what has provided me with so many extraordinary opportunities. With this feeling, I have no doubts that I am an American.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.