Evgeny Shtembuliak has raised funds for Ukraine by holding chess camps on the Peninsula.
Three years ago, chess player Evgeny Shtembuliak was enjoying the most successful year of his career. He won the World Junior Chess Championship and achieved the title of grandmaster. Now, essentially retired from competitive chess, Shtembuliak has an entirely different focus: reuniting with his family, supporting his war-torn home country and imparting life lessons on young chess players of all levels, including kids who took part in a chess camp in Palo Alto March 26-27.
The 23-year-old Shtembuliak had been living in the United States and studying at Texas Tech University since he turned 18, but found himself extending a trip to Kyiv after enjoying the city. He also hoped to spend more time there with his girlfriend.
Building up an online chess teaching business, Shtembuliak was able to work from Ukraine. That meant that he was in Kyiv when the Russian invasion took place Feb. 24. “It was very scary because everything (was) very chaotic. You don’t really know what’s going on,” he says about that night, which he spent sheltered in his bathroom with his girlfriend and best friend.
Making a plan to get to Ukraine’s western border, Shtembuliak and his friends relied on hearsay and rumblings for intel. Some stories suggested Russian soldiers were firing at civilian cars, and it was unclear what roads were open. In order to leave the country, Shtembuliak also needed documentation of his exemption from military service, which was with his parents in Odesa on the other side of the country. After hearing from a single friend who made it successfully to the border, Shtembuliak piled into a car with his girlfriend and other family members for a 12-hour drive west.
Although Shtembuliak describes the border as an unpleasant scene, he felt inspired by the volunteers helping families once they crossed out of Ukraine and was grateful that his family managed to escape (though his family and girlfriend are still spread out across Europe). He considers himself lucky that his business operates online. “For most people, their lives are fully based in Ukraine. So when they’re fleeing, they have no way to get their income … they left their cars, their apartments and their jobs,” he says.
How a world champion started teaching players of all levels
Shtembuliak started teaching chess when the pandemic disrupted his tournament schedule. He decided to try instructing and recruited a couple of students. When “The Queen’s Gambit” and COVID-related restrictions inspired a rise in chess’ popularity, Shtembuliak started building a more formal business with other coaches and his own signature method of teaching.
Shtembuliak quickly found that he actually enjoyed teaching chess more than playing. In order to break into the top 50 players, Shtembuliak would have to spend most of his time studying openings and strategy in front of the computer. His life would be entirely consumed by chess.
Now, Shtembuliak says the joy he feels when winning a game against a strong player pales in comparison to seeing a child grasp a new concept, improve their rating or checkmate an opponent. “You can even see it in peoples’ eyes when they learn something new … it just feels exciting to them. And It also feels exciting to me,” he says.
Most of Shtembuliak’s students are casual players, and he sees great value in how chess might impact their lives. He constantly sees parallels between the game and his surroundings. Referencing how analysts incorrectly expected the Russian invasion of Ukraine to end within a few days, Shtembuliak compares the Russian military to a player making random, incoherent moves when developing their pieces on the board. Regarding his students, Shtembuliak says that chess gifts them foresight and the ability to plot out paths towards their life goals.
A trip to teach in Palo Alto
One of Shtembuliak’s students is 16-year-old Palo Alto High School student Kyle Cromwell, who had invited his teacher to lead camps in Palo Alto before the Russian invasion. Since he has a green card, Shtembuliak was able to return to the United States.
Shtembuliak taught two chess camps this past weekend in Palo Alto at Foothills Tennis and Swimming Club and Eichler Swim and Tennis Club, and half of the proceeds were donated to World Central Kitchen, which has been distributing food in Ukraine and its neighboring countries. The campers also shared cupcakes with Shtembuliak to celebrate his birthday. The camps are part of a series of fundraisers led by Shtembuliak and chess communities across the world, including charity livestreams and online events.
When asked if he ever considered canceling the camps, Shtembuliak says that after a couple of difficult weeks, he recognized that he had to contribute to the war effort in his own way. “You got to do something for the cause,” he says. “If I’m just gonna be depressed and do nothing, that’s not gonna help. And if I do things, if I raise awareness, if I collect money, that (will) help a lot.”
Shtembuliak’s first priority is reuniting with his family, and then he will keep raising awareness about events in Ukraine through partnerships with YouTubers and chess livestreamers. He especially hopes to support smaller charity organizations like Cash for Refugees, which is giving financial aid directly to Ukrainians crossing the border. He is inspired by even the smallest actions in support of his home country, including social media posts.
“It just feels like one person can’t change anything, but that’s not really true,” he says.