There are new generations of chess champions in the making at the Times Square Migrant Chess Club, where young New Yorkers and immigrants are teaching recent arrivals how to master the game — and a new city.
Housed temporarily in the basement auditorium of Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s among the remnants of the Stranger Things parody set, the Times Square Migrant Chess Club hosts young players for after-school lessons in learning the game, learning English and learning how to navigate New York. When W42ST stopped by one unusually warm spring afternoon, a deeply focused group of young players were gathered to learn from tutor Kyle Lancman, a Stuyvesant High School sophomore and one of the club’s founders. “Chess is my passion,” said Kyle, a ranked National Master of the game. “To be able to teach it to people who are just moving to New York is really nice.”
Kyle’s family, originally from Argentina, understand the challenge of navigating a new country and new city — and realized that chess would be a good way to connect with the many migrant children who have arrived in Midtown Manhattan since last year’s influx of asylum-seekers. “The thing with chess is that you don’t really need to speak a language,” said Kyle’s mother Lorna. “Once you learn the rules and someone’s able to teach you some of the strategies, it bridges the gap.”
Kyle and twin brother Kaleb also understand the power of chess mentorship, having long worked with coach Russ Makofsky, founder of outreach nonprofit The Gift of Chess that organizes bilingual chess coaching and programming at public schools across New York City, including Hell’s Kitchen’s PS 111, home to a weekly weekend chess tournament.
“The twins were talking with Russ to find students to tutor,” said Lorna, “and then suddenly the news started to show buses of people coming in every day.” She added, “We saw that schools were having an issue with not having enough Spanish speaking staff, so the idea fell into place that we could offer children tutoring in English through chess.”
“We figured that these kids were probably sitting in their hotel rooms without much opportunity to create community,” said Russ. “We got in contact with the pastor from St Luke’s and were able to take over this space between shows.”
The four-day-a-week program quickly grew, said Lorna. In addition to chess, the twins tutor children in math — “mostly because that’s what they like!” she laughed — while other volunteers offer workshops in everything from art to English, to wayfinding for new arrivals. “It started with chess,” said Lorna, “and then it became chess and art — and then parents were here, so we’ve been offering English for them too.”
The program is a chance for migrant families not just to connect with longterm residents but also with other recent arrivals navigating their way through the city and the world of chess. Raydily Rosario, an internationally-ranked chess champion from the Dominican Republic moved to Hell’s Kitchen three months ago and has loved teaching other immigrants the game. “I’m so happy to give kids this opportunity,” said Raydily, “because I know what it’s like not to speak any English — and for me to speak Spanish as a chess teacher makes it easier for them.”
Stella Lillig, a New York-based artist and volunteer English tutor for the chess club, said she remembered what it was like when she moved from Colombia to the US in 1996, eventually landing in New York in 2004. Working with kids and their parents to learn English, explaining how Manhattan and Hell’s Kitchen’s grid is set up, how to communicate with New Yorkers — Stella said that her pupils already seem more comfortable in their surroundings. “New York can be really overwhelming,” she said. “But after coming here a lot of the kids and parents tell me they’re able to recognize more words and phrases that they need, and it’s a comfort to them.”
With coaching and tutoring from the Times Square team, some pupils even grew comfortable enough to compete in the New York State Scholastic chess championship in Saratoga Springs earlier this month. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to play against the best players in the state,” said Russ of the six children who competed with the club. “They played a lot better than you would think someone who just learned to play chess would play,” said Kyle. Lorna added: “These kids literally started learning chess 40 days prior, and they were competing well against children who have private coaches and have been studying for years.”
And though the Times Square Migrant Chess Club will soon have to relocate as Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s remounts its popular Stranger Sings parody, additional programming will be held at PS 111, said Russ, who added that the organization is currently seeking funds to formalize a permanent future for the Migrant Chess Club. Kyle plans to continue coaching the students he’s met at the Migrant Chess Club “as long as it’s possible.” Speaking through Kyle as a translator, at least one young chess champion in the making said she was enjoying the experience, telling us that she “really liked it” before going back to the board to plan her next move.