He stopped in Palo Alto on March 26-27 to lead camps at Foothills Tennis & Swimming Club and Eichler Swim and Tennis Club after Palo Alto High School student Kyle Cromwell invited the chess champ to share his expertise with local players. Cromwell, who has been taking lessons from Shtembuliak online since last December, invited his teacher to Palo Alto prior to the Russian invasion. Shtembuliak decided to turn the camps into fundraisers. He donated half of the registration proceeds to World Central Kitchen, which has been distributing food in Ukraine and its neighboring countries.
Shtembuliak, who had been living in the United States and studying at Texas Tech University, had returned to Kyiv for an extended visit when Russian forces invaded the city on Feb. 24.
"It was very scary because everything (was) very chaotic. You don't really know what's going on," he said about that night, when he 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. To leave the country, Shtembuliak 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 successfully made it 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 said.
With his green card, Shtembuliak was able to return to the United States and launched his fundraising chess camps.
Shtembuliak said he started teaching chess when the pandemic disrupted his tournament schedule. He decided to try instructing and recruited a couple of students. When Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" and pandemic-related restrictions inspired a rise in chess's popularity, Shtembuliak started building a more formal business with other coaches and his own signature method of teaching.
Shtembuliak said he enjoys teaching chess more than playing. When competing, Shtembuliak would have to spend most of his time studying openings and strategy in front of the computer to break into the top 50 players. His life was entirely consumed by the game, he said.
Now, Shtembuliak said 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 said.
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 said that chess gives them foresight and the ability to plot out paths toward their life goals.
When asked if he ever considered canceling the camps, Shtembuliak said 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 said. "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 said.
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