A new Portland chapter of The Gift of Chess, a nonprofit, is helping young asylum seekers learn the game of chess and other life skills. Uriel Valenbin, 13, right, shakes hands with Mick Lekulasi, 12, after he won a game on April 15 in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Uriel Valenbin paused and stared, contemplating his next move.

Finally, the 13-year-old moved his black pawn forward.

His opponent, 12-year-old Mick Lekulasi, countered by sliding one of his white pawns.

Valenbin quickly responded, capturing the white pawn.

The two boys, both from Angola, eventually started moving their queens. Soon Valenbin announced: “Checkmate!”

Both boys smiled as they shook hands.


They were among 13 youth players, all from Angola, and three adult coaches gathered around chess boards last weekend in the conference room of the Howard Johnson hotel, where the Portland chapter of international nonprofit The Gift of Chess has organized weekly games.

Francisco Lava, 11, watches as Ben Clement makes a move during a session at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The organization is delivering chess sets and offering lessons to elementary and high school students staying in local hotels that serve as temporary shelters for migrant families that have flowed into the Portland area. Many asylum seekers in Greater Portland have lived in hotels for more than a year.

The Gift of Chess is also planning lessons at other shelters, at residences for older adults, Veterans Affairs homes, Portland’s Root Cellar and the YMCA, according to Katie Moore of Falmouth, whose brother Russ Makofsky is the nonprofit’s founder.

Cefora Kagueluke, 9, watches an opponent make a move during a session at Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


The number of asylum seekers coming to Portland has grown. The city has warned it cannot guarantee asylum seekers a place at shelters because they are now full, and the area is seeing unprecedented numbers in emergency shelters.

At the Howard Johnson, organizers say teaching chess to newcomers to America will help build life skills, help kids adjust to new homes, and connect people across language and cultural divides.


“It gives them the opportunity to be part of the community, as well as being able to learn something new and different,” said Quina Nunes, who immigrated from Angola and is coordinator of the Portland chapter. “It’s very good for them.”

When playing chess, youths are encouraged to speak English instead of their native Portuguese. “They have to learn the name of the pawn, the bishop, the king and queen,” Nunes said.

Mick Lekulasi, 12, ponders a move while playing a game in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Immigrants are fleeing Angola because of government corruption and a lack of human rights, Nunes said, describing people being tortured and forced out of their homes.

“Crime and things going on. People in a certain political party in power means people have no rights at all,” she said. Those in power “decide for no reason to imprison you.”

“That’s why people are coming to the state,” she continued. “People are welcomed here.”

Jacob Holden of New Hampshire quit his job as a bank manager to be a coach and administrator with The Gift of Chess.


Before working for the organization, the 25-year-old headed a chess club in New Hampshire, teaching youths and going into prisons to teach inmates. Makofsky tapped Holden to start the Portland chapter for the children of asylum seekers.

Playing chess helps build critical thinking, language-learning, memory skills and decision making. “But it doesn’t feel like homework,” Holden said, describing chess as a great equalizer for youths coming to America. “For any group of people, thinking before you move … it’s so important with life. If you get a little too caught up in the moment and move too fast, you’ll be punished on the board.”

The Portland chapter of The Gift of Chess is a few months old. “It’s just been absolutely amazing,” Holden said. “The fulfillment has been unmatched compared to any other job I’ve had.”

Several weeks ago, Portland youth players competed in a U.S. Chess Federation tournament. Club members play each Saturday, with other pickup games during the week after school, Nunes said.

Matthew Jablonski watches as youth play chess in South Portland on Saturday. The program started a few months ago. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Valenbin said he likes playing chess because “it uses my mind” and it relaxes him. “It’s fun. Sometimes it helps me with math. It makes me brainstorm … I have to work on my moves.”


While he does often win, winning isn’t the best part, he said. “The most important is to play, not just play to win.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Lekulasi said he didn’t know how to play the game when the program began. “Now I know how to play chess. It gives me peace and happiness,” he said. “Also, I like to be able to compete. I feel really good about that. And I like to play with people who know how to play very well.”

Playing helps with school work, he said. Classmates “all want to talk to me about chess, ask me questions about how is the game,” he said with a broad smile.

At another table last weekend, Miria Elizete quietly considered her next move, having captured her opponent’s two bishops. The 10-year-old said she likes the game, but said little more. When she started the program, she only spoke to her brother, Nunes said. “It’s helped her with her shyness, being able to communicate with others. She’s growing.”

Chess master Majur Juac, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” teaches a lesson to Jeremias Mubobo, 15, center, and Narcisco Deleme, 18, at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland on Wednesday. Juac works with The Gift of Chess in New York and was invited to Maine by the nonprofit’s founder. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Nearby, Isaac Kerner, a 10-year-old from Falmouth, sat across a chess board from Francisco Lava, who is 11 and recently arrived in Maine from Angola.

“It teaches you to use your mind,” Kerner said. He moved a piece and looked at Lava. “It’s your turn.”


Also speaking through an interpreter, Lava said, “even if you don’t win, it’s still fun.” The game helps him with math and writing, he said. When competing at a tournament, players have to write down the moves they make.

Speaking in English, Lava named the pieces while pointing to them. “This is a pawn. This is a bishop,” the child said. “This is a rook, the king, the queen.”

Jeff Cawthorne of Falmouth brought his two sons to play with the new Mainers.

“I’m bringing them here because this is a good opportunity for them to learn more about the world bigger than themselves,” said Cawthorne, Kerner’s father. “I was raised in spirit of volunteering. This is the beginning of them learning that same spirit.”

Portland chapter founder Jacob Holden observes a game by Francisco Lava, 11. Holden describes chess as the great equalizer. “For any group of people, thinking before you move … it’s so important with life,” he said. “If you get a little too caught up in the moment and move too fast, you’ll be punished on the board.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


During the April break from school, the Portland club got a boost by visiting chess master Majur Juac, an internationally known champion who once was one of “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”


Juac fled Sudan during the country’s civil war, walking to Ethopia and Kenya – many people died making the journey. Children had to kill wild animals to eat, went without water and had to cross rivers. Some drowned. Juac spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya where he learned to play chess.

In 2004, he came to the U.S. and worked as a security guard. After winning a chess tournament, he eventually became a master player and now teaches students. He has been profiled in national newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

He now lives in New Jersey. Last week, Juac spent hours coaching young players in Portland area. He works with The Gift of Chess in New York, and he came to Maine at Moore’s invitation.

Uriel Valenbin, 13, center, and Jeremias Mubobo, 15, react to a move Majur Juac made while playing a game Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On Wednesday, Juac played with Jeremias Mubobo, 15, and Narcisco Deleme, 18, both of Angola. Juac showed them how to corner their opponents’ king to win. He stressed that the game should be played slowly, allowing time to think and analyze each move.

“If you’re not thinking, then you’re going to make a mistake,” Juac said. “You have to be serious and concentrate.”

He showed the boys how to move pieces to control the center of the board. Controlling the center will make it easier to find a way, a kind of road, to the opposing king, he said. “Whoever controls the center has easy access to attack.”

He told them to write down each move they make. Recording every move is required in tournaments, and by doing that “you can go back and see your mistake,” Juac said. “Chess is a very disciplined game.”

“There are very few chess masters in Maine,” Moore said. And for young asylum seekers, Moore said that meeting someone like Juac, who also escaped violence, worked hard and changed his life through chess, is “pretty inspirational.”

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