Chess Hero Helps Kids from Midtown to Africa

| 04 Feb 2024 | 04:44

Times Square has tourists, Broadway Theaters, loud junkies and Russ Makofsky, a father of three sitting in a quiet room in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church; greeting the pastor as he takes call after call to oversee the distribution of free chess sets by his charity, The Gift of Chess. Thousands of boards are given to refugee kids in Midtown Manhattan, further throughout the entire continent of Africa, and very soon South America. Makofsky has no PR Team, barely enough funding, a life dedicated to chess, and a goal: by 2030 he wants to have gifted one million chess sets.

Russ Makofsky is from Long Island where he started playing chess at six years old. At school he was an athlete. He and his friends found pride in being physically strong, but Makofsky grew more interested in intellectual pursuits. He said he never missed a chance to battle his grandmother, the best chess player in his family. Now he plays about 50 games daily on his phone.

Makofsky was on the way to a career on Wall Street until the financial crash of 2008 left him to play chess in the parks of Manhattan, where he got to know his opponents, eventually meeting parents that wanted him to teach their kids the game of chess.

Not too long after, Russ Makofsky and Adhemar Ahmad founded a chess club on the Upper West Side. It cost $330 to join, but he waived the fee for ten year old Tani Adewumi in 2019 whose family fled the Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria to a homeless shelter in Manhattan. A year later Tani had won seven trophies, one year after that he was a National Master. The story made massive headlines and Tani’s biography was published. So many people donated to his family that they were able to move into a home. While understandably proud, Makofsky chose to stay out of the spotlight.

When the pandemic hit New York he gave 10,000 chess boards to the city’s public schools, worried that being stuck at home would affect children’s education. This story went national and donations poured in which he used to found a charity: the Gift of Chess. With the help of Tyrone Davis: a chess master and his former pupil he shipped his first 500 chess sets to Lagos, Nigeria. This grew to 5,000, then 50,000 spread to over 30 African nations, prisons, schools and orphanages.

“I’ve been doing this everyday for three years with very little financial support, sitting in this church.” Makofsky says. St. Luke’s rents out rooms to charities.

“People and corporations won’t donate on the merits of the project. They want to see data. But I don’t have data. We know that chess educates. It teaches you to think, your brain synapses are firing while you play. I have the stories of these kids whose lives have been changed forever by a five dollar chess set.”

A year ago the scene outside Makofsky’s church headquarters grew revolting. Refugees lined up in front of luxury hotels a block from the world’s most famous square. Their children were put in New York public schools with barely a teacher that spoke their native language.

Makofsky thought they ought to be taught chess, so he set up clubs in their schools and invited the children to his church headquarters. Now, after one year the kids not only learned the game of chess but learned English, and one young lady, Mariangel Vargas, discovered she was a prodigy.

“She’s unbelievably talented. Some kids’ progress has plateaued but she keeps rising,” Makofsky says.

The eleven year old girl went from being threatened by gangs out of her native Colombia, followed by a gruesome walk from Mexico to Texas, a bus to a makeshift shelter at a hotel in Manhattan, to sitting in front of a chessboard in a church with Russ Makofksy. After just a few months of taking up the game, she is already dominating youth tournaments and is ranked 49th in the country for her age group.

Once again, her coach stayed in the background, reassured that the gift of a five dollar chess board has the power to save lives.

Makofsky will continue donating chess boards around the world until he reaches his goal of one million by 2030. You can donate to, and contact The Gift of Chess at, as well as on Twitter and Instagram.

Noah Augustin is a NYC public high school senior.