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'It has been my wish since childhood to play for my country'

Holding Russia in check, Ukrainians look to capture chess glory at Jerusalem tourney

Many of Ukraine’s players in the weeklong World Team Chess Championship come from the front lines or areas hit hard by Putin’s war gambit, and compete with their countrymen in mind

  • The Ukrainian chess team display some national pride at the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Oleksandr Sulypa)
    The Ukrainian chess team display some national pride at the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Oleksandr Sulypa)
  • Chess players play a match as part of the World Teams Chess Championship on November 20, 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)
    Chess players play a match as part of the World Teams Chess Championship on November 20, 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)
  • Igor Kovalenko during his service in the Ukrainian army. (Courtesy of Kovalenko)
    Igor Kovalenko during his service in the Ukrainian army. (Courtesy of Kovalenko)
  • Members of the Ukrainian chess team arrive at the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Oleksandr Sulypa)
    Members of the Ukrainian chess team arrive at the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Oleksandr Sulypa)
  • Igor Kovalenko plays at the World Teams Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)
    Igor Kovalenko plays at the World Teams Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)
  • Flags outside the venue of the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)
    Flags outside the venue of the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)

In the cavernous halls of a five-star hotel in the hills of Jerusalem, immaculately dressed waiters float around quietly, serving plates of sumptuous dishes to well-heeled international guests.

It’s a far cry from the canned food, muddy trenches and hellish war that Igor Kovalenko was living through only a few weeks ago as a soldier in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

“I got so used to sleeping on the ground, now I find beds a bit too soft,” he tells The Times of Israel with a smile.

In peacetime, Kovalenko is a chess teacher and church chaplain studying theology. But it is his primary profession as a chess player that brought him to Jerusalem as part of a team competing in the World Team Chess Championship, which began on Sunday.

A chess grandmaster ranked 68th in the world according to FIDE, the World Chess Federation, Kovalenko learned to fire a gun a few months ago when he was called up to the Ukrainian army.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he confesses, explaining that even though he comes from a military family, he preferred chess and other hobbies growing up.

Igor Kovalenko plays at the World Teams Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kovalenko was living in Kyiv. He began volunteering, gathering supplies for the soldiers and fundraising. In April, he was called up for active duty and deployed to the war-torn Donetsk region in July, where he was based until a few weeks ago.

“We work in very difficult conditions,” he says. “Sometimes we are based in abandoned houses, sometimes under bridges, sometimes in trenches and dugouts.”

“The hardest thing is that there is no rotation,” he says. “I was there 70 days in a row, without a break. Fifty of those days I spent on constant day and night duty. When this psychological and physical exhaustion accumulates, it turns you into a zombie. And this is the scariest part, because you’re just on survival mode, and you get irritated, you get annoyed, you need to hold yourself together. This is the hardest — not having one terrible day, but knowing the fact that tomorrow you cannot rest and recuperate, you just have to keep going.”

Team effort

While Kovalenko is the only one from the group to be in the army, his teammates are involved in the war effort in other ways.

“As soon as the war broke out, I started volunteering,” says team captain Oleksandr Sulypa, describing his time with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer-based military reserves group, with which he patrolled areas of Lviv, manned checkpoints, delivered power generators and worked to help women and children leave the city.

Sulypa left for Latvia earlier this year after he was asked to chaperone a chess delegation, and has in recent months been living in Poland.

Mykhaylo Oleksiyenko says he helped his family leave the western Ukrainian city of Lviv as soon as the war broke out in order to protect his three young children.

Members of the Ukrainian chess team arrive at the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Oleksandr Sulypa)

“In my apartment there’s now a family from Kyiv,” he says. Before leaving for Poland himself, Oleksiyenko helped others flee. “There was a woman with four children leaving Kharkiv under heavy shelling, so we helped her get to Germany where her brother lives.”

Andrei Volokitin, also from Lviv, worked to help refugees from Mariupol and Kyiv secure accommodations, and now regularly sends money to the Ukrainian army.

Kovalenko is currently on medical leave from the army, recovering from a knee operation caused by repeated injuries during his military service. “If it hadn’t been for sick leave, I wouldn’t have come,” he says.

Checkmate in Israel

Playing in Israel is significant, says Kovalenko, since there are such strong personal ties between the two countries.

“Many Israelis and many Jews helped so much with donations to the Ukrainian army,” he says, describing communities that had sent equipment and money he helped deliver.

But everyone on the team agrees that Israel can do much more.

Chess players play a match as part of the World Teams Chess Championship 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)

“I know that Israel is helping with humanitarian aid,” adds teammate Oleksiyenko. “And I know it has its own interests with Russia. But Ukraine would be extremely happy if Israel could help militarily as well. We can win this war — we showed it in the Kharkiv region where we kicked the Russians out, we showed it in the Kherson region where we pushed them out using the help that we got from the West.”

These rockets and Iranian drones are terrorizing our country… And we know that Israel knows how to deal with that effectively, so that could be a great military help

“These rockets and Iranian drones are terrorizing our country. Ten million people were without power a few days ago because of these terrorist attacks. This is apparently Russia’s plan — to terrorize us into submission. This is literally what terrorists do. And we know that Israel knows how to deal with that effectively, so that could be a great military help,” he adds.

Chaplain in the army

Kovalenko emphasizes the extent to which Russia’s invasion and ongoing attacks against his country unite Ukrainians.

Igor Kovalenko in Ukrainian army uniform. (Courtesy of Kovalenko)

“Whatever problems we may have in Ukraine, we know that if Russia makes advances, it will be much much worse. And this feeling of duty, this historical significance and the determination to survive, the necessity to fight for one’s family, this really helps. Had the enemy not been so immoral and evil, it would have been harder,” he says.

Kovalenko serves in the army both as a soldier and, when necessary, as a chaplain — seeing no contradiction between the two roles.

“It’s all about your goal,” he explains. “I’m not in the army to kill Russians, I am there to save Ukrainians.”

As chaplain, Kovalenko helps with religious duties as well as counseling those who are struggling to bear the weight of everything they are going through in wartime.

“Soldiers come to me and ask about death, about the meaning of life, sometimes also about ethical, moral conflicts,” he says. “For example, if someone had to leave a fellow wounded soldier in the field in order to save more lives or simply follow orders. When you don’t manage to save someone’s life, it simply tears people apart afterward.”

Kovalenko tries to get some relief by playing chess whenever he has time.

“I also try to think about the future and make plans,” he says. “For me, my religious faith helps me a lot, but how do others cope? For an ordinary person, it’s extremely difficult.”

I would like to wish everyone to live their lives in such a way that, should ever they find themselves on the front lines, they would have no regrets

“In the army, I understood one thing — life is so short,” Kovalenko says. “I saw soldiers who were there, they regretted something that they didn’t do enough of — maybe one did not spend enough time speaking to his daughter, another did not communicate enough with his parents, his friends — they understood that they may not reach the end of the war and may not be able to change it. So I would like to wish everyone to live their lives in such a way that, should ever they find themselves on the front lines, they would have no regrets.”

A dream amid nightmares

For now, the players are focusing on their games.

“It has been my wish since childhood to play for my country, my motherland,” says Kovalenko. “And look how life has turned out that it’s now that I achieve this, playing on my country’s national team for the very first time. It’s a very difficult time for the country, but it’s also very symbolic for me.”

“It was difficult to assemble the team,” admits team captain Sulypa. Yet, he says, it is important to represent Ukraine in Israel. “If we win something, we will send it to the Ukrainian army.”

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