10-Year-Old Ukrainian Drafts Champion Wins Hearts and Money for the Ukrainian Army

She doesn’t have to wait long. The inscription on the table reads: “We help Ukrainian army“and shoppers in this residential area seem happy to toss a few hryvnias – Ukraine’s national currency – into her shoebox, where a stack of bills is rapidly growing.

Most of those who walk by or sit down to play don’t seem to realize that Yezhova hasn’t lost a single game in the 10 days she’s been here. If she wasn’t raising money for a good cause, she could be accused of being a swindler, since the 10-year-old girl is actually the world champion for her age in checkers, having won that title last summer.

“Valeria asked me how she could help the Ukrainian army,” says Yezhova’s mother, Lyubov, who stands aside with Viktor Kovalenko, the man who has been coaching Yezhova in checkers since she was seven. “I asked her what she was best at, she said she was good at checkers. That’s how the idea came about.”

“Playing checkers well” means making short work of her street opponents in minutes, never hesitating as she ruthlessly removes black pieces from the board as her white pieces move forward. Losing bidders – children, women and men of all ages – fall into the box as much as they like and increasingly ask Yezhova for a photo because of her growing national prominence.

“Already a legend”

After spending more than a week outside the mall, Yezhova raised the equivalent of $700. She decided to donate money to the fund of the well-known activist Serhiy Prytula, who is raising funds for the purchase of humanitarian aid and equipment for the Ukrainian military. Online video shows Prytula gasping for breath as Yezhova hands him stacks of bills.

The moment quickly spread across the internet, and very soon people were posting on Yezhova’s mother’s Facebook page, asking where they would be to play the young phenomenon.

“Valeria is already a legend here,” said Dmitro Penzev after the defeat. His wife spotted Yezhov at the mall and called Penzev, who ran in from work. “It’s better for her to lose, she helps the Ukrainian army a lot. It probably touched the whole of Ukraine.”

Rumors have already reached the front lines; the woman who saw Yezhova showed her a photo of her husband’s unit, who thanked Yezhova for what she was doing for them.

“It was a strange feeling,” Yezhova said. “I guess I felt grateful to the military for protecting us, and despite the fact that I do much less than they do, they want to thank me.”

While Yezhova was playing, a store security guard came out and said that air raid sirens were sounding in other parts of the city and they were temporarily closing the doors for safety reasons.

“Of course, I would like to live a normal life, but during the war it is difficult,” she said. “It’s an unpleasant feeling, a lot of negative emotions.”

Yezhova’s family spent the first week of the war in a school basement when Russian troops occupied the area near Kyiv where her grandparents live. They fled to the western city of Lvov as the fighting intensified, but eventually returned to the capital.

“Great example”

Yezhova’s success and rising fame prompted other members of her drafts club to follow her example and take to the streets to raise money for Ukrainian military campaign.

She is European and World Champion in her age group under 10. She will return to Turkey next month for the European Youth Championships, but this time she is not expecting success as she faces under-13s.

On this 10th day, sitting at her folding table, Yezhova finds a moment to count the money after just over an hour and a half of play. This is almost $150, a record catch that will soon go to Sergei Prytula’s fund.

But before leaving for the day, 18-year-old Nikolai Sorokin asks to play. They play two, each as uneventful as all the others that passed that day.

“These children are a great example of how we can help each other, a good example that Russia cannot defeat us,” he says after the defeat. The encounter with Yezhova was “a dream come true,” he adds, and in terms of skill, “I am the earth, she is the sky.”