NEW YORK CITY — Twin sophomores at Stuyvesant High School have a gambit to help the children of New York City’s asylum seekers achieve the American dream: chess.
Kaleb and Kyle Lancman, 15, are founders of the Times Square Migrant Chess Center that meets about four days a week in the theater space beneath St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Hell’s Kitchen.
“It’s not just a chess program,” Kaleb said. “But also a family that we’re trying to build.”
In just three months, the club has become a popular meeting place for families to learn a new skill, make friends, and feel at home.
Most of the children never touched a chess piece before they joined the club, and now some of them are competing in statewide competitions.
And parents who took great risks to bring their families into the U.S. have found their first inklings of community, a new home.
The twins, whose family hails from Argentina, said they were inspired by the struggles of the upwards of 50,000 asylum seekers who have been bussed to New York City from southern states to face a litany of new challenges.
“We thought it would be a good opportunity to help them get a sense of community,” Kyle said. “Help them meet new people and help them learn English.”
Said Kaleb, “What better to do, we thought, than to create a chess program?”
Lorna Myers, the twins’ mom, said Kyle and Kaleb learned chess at the tender age of 3 from their father.
“It’s amazing to see that they took chess, and that they applied it to the Hispanic community and the migrant community,” said Myers. “Some people would not think that one goes with the other.”
Over the years, Myers, a psychologist, has watched chess teach her sons how to cope with difficulty and to empathize with others.
“To become a great chess player, you have to be able to put yourself in the opponent’s mind,” Myers explained.
Myers said she was floored by her sons’ impulse to help others by tapping into two key part of themselves — chess and their Hispanic heritage.
“That’s something that we instilled in them,” she said. “They are from New York, but they are Hispanic.”
The club began in January with help from the boys’ mentor Russell Makofsky, founder of the nonprofit The Gift of Chess.
For 15 years, Makofsky and his nonprofit have given that gift to people across the five boroughs by distributing thousands of chess sets, organizing virtual games during the pandemic, as well as doing educational, prison and refugee outreach.
“It works very well as a tool for opportunity,” Makofsky said. Chess, he said, is a “universal language.
“A simple game, like the game of chess, has helped so many people in this community.”
Makofsky signed on to help, namely by finding a club meeting space and training kids who come to learn his favorite game.
He knows his stuff.
Makofsky’s helped the Lancman twins become accomplished chess players. Kaleb has achieved an 1800 Chess Rating and Kyle is a National Master.
“Grand Master is a bit in the future,” Kyle said with a modest smile. “The ultimate goal.”
The program started slow in January, with only two people showing up for the first meeting, but quickly grew.
Some meetings see about 25 kids aged between 3 and 12, Kaleb said. “Sometimes,” he noted, “we even have babies.”
Over the chess boards, the twins learned the sometimes harrowing stories of the migrant families’ journeys. Some have traveled for years, and one has been moving since 2015, Kyle said.
Kyle has never experienced the turmoil that brought many migrant families here, but he knows how hard it can be to learn a second language in kindergarten, because that’s when he learned English.
“It’s a good way to make friends, to meet new people, to speak English,” Kyle said of the club. “[To] just get more accustomed to American culture now that they’re here.”
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Luis Felipe Escobar, 40, and his 11-year-old son Samuel are two asylum seekers who found a haven in the chess club.
Escobar took his family from Colombia in hopes of reaching Washington, D.C., he told Patch through translators. Circumstances didn’t work out, so they ended up staying in New York City.
“They discovered that their child liked chess,” Myers translated Escobar from Spanish.
Samuel had just returned from the Saratoga chess tournament, where he performed quite well for a child who never played chess before 40 days ago, Escobar said.
He chuckled as he recounted how Samuel’s chess playing allows him to pursue another passion: Fortnite.
Every time Samuel wins at chess, he gets a gift card to save up for a Nintendo Switch, Escobar explained.
The program first focused on the kids, but it quickly became clear it could also help their parents connect, learn English and share tips about job opportunities and support, said Makofsky.
One family involved in the chess club almost left the city as they searched in vain for help, but their son cried and begged to stay because the club meant so much to him.
Through their friends at the chess club, the family found a way to stay.
“They said, ‘We’re able to stay in New York because this chess community,” Makofsky said. “‘We were able to find jobs through networking here in this club.’”
Kaleb and Kyle say stories such as those are why they founded their club.
“There’s a lot of bad things that can happen. We’re giving them this chance, not only to learn chess and improve their academics, but also keep them off the streets,” Kaleb said.
“I want this program to be a vehicle for them to have an equal chance to American kids to succeed in the American dream.”
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