NEW YORK — At a corner table inside one of this city’s most venerable chess clubs, Majur Juac agonizes over the pieces before him, pondering a way to survive.
The Sudanese man is playing Oliver Chernin, a 59-year-old national master, and Juac already has made a mistake. He hasn’t yet identified his lapse, but something lit this fuse a few moves earlier, sending him on the run. He captures Chernin’s bishop but sacrifices his rook, a superior piece; Juac takes a pawn, leaving his king exposed.
The minutes pass. Juac’s two-hour time limit is trickling down, and Chernin stands and stretches his back. Other players in the century-old Marshall Chess Club wander over; a man surveys Juac’s predicament and shakes his head.
But the other players don’t know much about him here, other than the most basic facts: Juac is ranked among America’s top 1,000 chess players, and his dark complexion and thick East African accent set him apart from most everyone else here. He is quiet and pleasant, his slight frame gliding in and out of this Greenwich Village townhouse like a whisper, and even the chess teachers who work alongside Juac and those who consider him a friend know only the broad strokes. The truth is, even Juac — his Virginia driver’s license lists him at 31, though he suspects he is actually in his mid-30s — lacks such fundamental answers as his exact age.
Beneath the surface and the smile, Juac is a man who learned survival not on these 64 squares but on the hopeless trails of his youth, when he watched villages burn and fellow children die of thirst, enduring forced marches and spending years in a desperate refugee camp. He focused only on making it through each day, keeping an eye on where he was going rather than where he had been.
So many years later, he plays with an intensity born of struggle, each game a tiny war of the mind. He is losing this match, the latest casualty in a battle between his ambitions and the need to earn a living. But if the other players have learned one thing about Juac, it is this: Even amid the bleakest circumstance, he is slow to concede.
Late in this game, the final pairing of a five-round tournament, Juac loses a bishop and his second rook. He slides his queen across the squares, capturing a pawn and pressing his clock softly before noting his move in black ink: Qxb2. Chernin, a deliberate player, moves his own queen, one turn from checkmate and a victory in this nearly 21/2-hour match. Juac sits for a long time, saying nothing, eyeing the pieces and the board.
Then he purses his lips, nodding at the disappointment, and extends his hand in resignation.
The quiet of chess
He stood in the corner that first day, saying nothing until someone approached. Michael Propper had organized the chess tournament in Queens in April 2012, and an odd number of players had checked in. Propper, who also runs Chess NYC, a program that matches skilled players with schools to introduce children to the game and develop their play, wanted to meet the quiet stranger. He had been told Juac was an advanced player; there was room for such a player to complete the tournament field.
Juac, a thin man of average height, wore his hair short and his dress shirt tucked into his slacks; he leaned over the board as he won his first match, then his second. In between his victories, Propper asked a few questions. What was he doing in New York? Visiting a friend, Juac said without much elaboration. Where did he live? Arlington, Virginia. And where was he from? Sudan.
Propper would come to learn that if he asked a question, Juac would usually answer it, though the questions rarely tunneled beyond the surface. Most times Juac was happy to keep his memories to himself, moving on to the next game. “One of the first things I loved about chess: You don’t have to say anything,” Juac will say later.
Only when the discussion turned to game strategy did Juac open up; he favored an aggressive style, sacrificing prominent pieces for positioning or a kill shot two or three moves ahead. He remembered sequences and individual moves, replaying games in his mind and identifying when momentum turned for the white or black side. His opponent might have won had he moved his pawn or not moved his bishop; as it was, the mistake initiated a chain reaction that would lead to checkmate.
“Now I have to go here,” Juac says during a casual game, moving the pieces to an earlier, critical moment to share a quick lesson. “Because now when he takes this way, I have another problem because your rook is coming into the game. What I would’ve played not to lose the bishop is to take your bishop, which is not a fair trade for me.”
When the tournament was finished, Propper stood there again with Juac, presenting him the championship trophy and sliding a business card into the quiet man’s hand. If he ever wanted to teach the game, he should call.
The next morning, Juac was waiting at the Greenwich Village storefront Propper used as his office, sliding forward the U.S. Chess Federation’s silver-stamped certificate naming him a national master, saying he was ready to work. But what, Propper asked, about his home in Virginia? It is not home. Didn’t he have a job? Not one that will be missed.
Juac moved to New York with only the possessions he had with him, eventually settling into a modest apartment he shares with a roommate in Jersey City. In October, Juac walked into the crowded ballroom at the Cathedral School on the Upper East Side, where he spends Friday afternoons teaching basic chess to students as young as 5 years old. Ted Kusulas, the head of school and a man who had spent decades teaching social studies, was curious about Juac as soon as he met him and learned of his homeland. Kusulas knew that civil war had raged throughout southern Sudan and had lasted more than two decades. Thousands of children were exiled from their villages, never to return, and forced to walk day after day, bury their brothers and survive on crumbs. A generation would become known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Kusulas approached Juac that day in the ballroom, shook his hand and just asked: “Were you a Lost Boy?” Juac smiled, ready to tell the rest of his story.
Horrors at home
The questions came frequently then, from friends and co-workers and chess players. They asked Juac about where he had been and what he had seen. Where was his village? Paliau, in the south of Sudan and home to the Dinka tribe. What was it like? Lush and green, perfect for raising cattle and watching the stars.
Juac grew up near a river, the youngest of six children, including a brother who died before Juac was born. He spent his childhood playing with cousins, milking and walking and grooming the family cow, which they named Pawill, a gift for Juac’s parents when an elder sister was married. The boys built a shelter for the animal by tying tree branches together and covering the top with grass, and they ventured sometimes into the river, teaching themselves to swim by paddling until they grew tired.
“Growing up,” Juac says, “I was pretty much happy. There’s nothing that I didn’t like.”
He recalls being 7 when they returned home one day and saw smoke. The war had spread and now reached his village; mercenaries were seizing livestock and most anything else of value, torching everything else. Resisting villagers were killed or held captive, and by the time Juac reached the outskirts, his group was intercepted by rebel soldiers, instructing them to walk in the opposite direction.
Eighty boys were in that first group, Juac estimates. Two of his cousins were separated from the pack, never to be seen again, and one of his brothers would go missing for about a month before he and the family were reunited. They kept walking, and the group swelled. One hundred boys and, after a week, Juac says, there were about 300 children traveling together. About 20,000 children would be displaced throughout southern Sudan; many were orphaned, and some would die of starvation or exhaustion along the way.
How far did you go before stopping? Two days’ walk. Where were you going? We did not know.
When his group rested for the first time since leaving the village, the rebel soldiers instructed the barefoot children to sleep where they stood, whether it was soft soil or a bed of jagged pebbles. Many of the boys were injured or dehydrated. Juac watched as the older boys buried one sick child who collapsed, and when it was finished, the survivors kept moving.
They lost sense of time and distance, crossing into Ethiopia and measuring their journey by watching the moon expand and become full; four full moons came and went, Juac says, before they stopped after walking hundreds of miles. Then, when Ethiopia’s government was overthrown in 1991, they were forced, under the threat of being shot, to turn and walk back toward Sudan.
One day Juac’s group approached the Gilo River, which is near the border of the two nations. Ethiopian militia soldiers were shooting stragglers or lonely wanderers, hurrying the boys toward the waterway. Can you swim? a boy asked Juac as they stood on the bank, and Juac knew enough to say no. Few Sudanese children had been exposed to the water, and the rare swimmer was seen as a potential savior; panicked boys would hold on to the swimmer, eventually pulling him under, too. But no matter their ability, the boys had no choice but to try.
“Either die of a gun,” Juac says, “or you die of the water.”
They went in. Juac used the lessons he learned alongside his cousins back in Paliau and paddled his way across. When the group reached the other side, Juac found that half of the group was gone. Those who made it kept walking.
Although Juac says he has no idea how far he actually walked, most of the Lost Boys are estimated to have traveled upward of 1,000 miles. Juac says he saw so much death that, after a while, he was no longer shocked when a boy fell ill or died along the path.
After five years of wandering into and out of war zones, his group settled into the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, weeks turning to months and then years. “Then,” he says, “it becomes home.” The United Nations delivered food rations, about a gallon of corn, every two weeks; in Juac’s group, that amounted to about a cup per person. “The way to survive is to eat once a day,” he says.
On rare occasions the aid workers brought unusual items: wheat flour the group used to make bread or a deck of playing cards. He says he was about 19 when the board games arrived, checkers and dominos and chess. He liked the way the dominos looked, but he was enamored of the chess pieces, each with a personality and a set of limitations, working in concert to protect the king.
During the day Sudanese soldiers played the game, and Juac stood silently and watched, learning the pieces and their movements. At night when the men went dancing, Juac and a friend sneaked into the game room and set up the board; they shook hands before and after each match and said nothing in between. “Talking,” he says, “distracts you from thinking.”
And thinking, he found, distracted him from remembering.
Breaks of the game
He was up a bishop in an Ethiopian teahouse when his friend ran in, telling Juac there was good news on the public message board.
A dozen years had come and gone in the refugee camp, hundreds of chess matches behind him. He had become perhaps the camp’s best player, fast and merciless. Juac had applied in 1999 for resettlement in the United States. His elder brothers, Guot and Dhieu, had been granted entry years earlier and now lived in the Washington area, and a cousin was placed in Australia. A sister and her husband moved back to Sudan after tensions eased, and Juac maintained hope he might rejoin his family. But now it was September 2004, the years passing and red tape and post-9/11 skittishness toward opening America’s borders slowing the process. As time passed and familiar faces spread to far corners of the globe, Juac sometimes felt forgotten.
On this day in Ethiopia, he finished his game — a win, as he recalls — and walked outside to see the list. There it was, finally: his name. Two weeks later, he was on a plane to Washington, moving in with his brothers in Alexandria and, later, Arlington. Because he had no birth certificate, like so many East African immigrants, the State Department assigned him an arbitrary date of birth: Jan. 1, 1984, enough for Virginia to issue him a driver’s license, enough for a grocery store in Northwest Washington to hire him as a security guard.
He patrolled the quiet parking garage and kept watch when crowds streamed through the overflowing produce section, a daily reminder of how different his new home was from Africa; the store threw away more food each day than Juac used to see in months. Sometimes shoppers slipped something into their pockets or purses, and Juac forced himself to confront the shoplifter. Once a man bit him.
Juac passed the mindless hours by deconstructing how old he must really be: If he was 7 when he left Paliau, 12 when he reached Kenya and 24 when he left the camp, his birth year was closer to 1980 than 1984, as his identification suggested. He explored chess matches in his imagination, tinkering with new openings and attacks, and when his shift finished, he carried his board to Dupont Circle to play out his ruminations with strangers. He joined the U.S. Chess Center and the Arlington Chess Club, entering his first rated tournament in April 2005 — which, despite having taught himself the game and never experiencing formal schooling, he won.
The only time he felt at home was in trying to master an impossible game. He found himself in bookstores and libraries, studying magazines that explained strategy and reading books written by legends; he examined their notated games, seeing the letters and numbers like a computer reads binary code, knights and rooks and bishops dancing off the pages and into his mind. He paid particular attention to games’ turning points: that one mistake that pushes a player down a losing path.
In Africa, he had learned to play fast, lest the soldiers discover him and hide the board; at chess’s highest level, players take their time, weighing the repercussions and opportunities of each move. He practiced how to defend and how to attack, when to trade a powerful piece and the value of a certain square. He learned to weaken his opponent’s king, interrupt the strategy of the player across from him, exploit limitations in an inferior player’s game.
A good chess rating is 1500, and America’s top 100 players are beyond 2400. Juac’s rating climbed, from 1616 during that first tournament to past 2000 after three years. By September 2010, he was at 2100, in the country’s 99th percentile; the next summer, he finished 73rd in chess’s U.S. Open, after which the U.S. Chess Federation deemed him a national master.
A few months later, a friend invited him to visit New York. There was a chess tournament scheduled in Queens; maybe he would like to watch. He bought a bus ticket and packed a few things, figuring he had nothing better to do.
‘Always go forward’
Juac sits at a long table in the cafeteria of an uptown public school, a small group of second- and third-graders surrounding him.
“Checkmate,” a boy named Nathan, already an advanced player, proclaims.
“How is that checkmate?” Juac says.
He smiles, shaking his head. It’s late in the lesson, and the young minds are drifting. A boy complains of boredom; another says he would rather be playing a game on his iPad. Juac, teaching students who are about the same age he was when his ordeal began, holds a box of gummy candy, incentive for those who aren’t as enchanted as he would like.
“Go slow,” he tells them, and Nathan jumps up and reaches for a knight. “I said go slow. So you can understand.”
Then the parents come, the kids gather the pieces into bags and Juac walks toward the exit. His workday began nearly 10 hours ago, and he won’t be home for three more hours. He’s on the move again, this perpetual state of transit he knows so well, only this time it’s brown dress shoes pounding concrete instead of bare feet following a trail cut by children. Taxi horns blare as he crosses Lexington Avenue and glides down a staircase to catch the F train for a private lesson in Greenwich Village.
He carries an iPhone now and owns chess pieces carved from rosewood. Propper estimates that Juac makes about $40,000 a year, with the potential to earn much more. He slides his prepaid subway card through the reader and checks his wristwatch to measure how long it will take to reach his stop on West Fourth Street — time and distance so easy to calculate that such wonders are no longer meaningful.
He thinks often of the stillness of the Sudanese countryside, the innocence of the land and the village. He misses the stars and his cow. “So many memories I have,” says Juac, who because of time and old habits still rarely eats more than one meal a day.
Last year, when he accompanied a chess team to Dallas, the kids and most of the instructors spent their downtime at the hotel pool. Juac, though, walked deep into the woods, out of earshot of his busy existence. He thought of his family and how he missed both his parents’ funerals, a decade apart — his reasons among a handful of questions Juac will not answer, saying only that it is personal. He thought of a sister, still in a refugee camp and to whom Juac sends money, and how little she knows about his new life. Then, as his mind drifted toward the day his village was in flames and a brutal journey began, he stopped himself and walked back toward the noise.
“You know, I don’t know if we ever think about those steps,” he says of the Lost Boys. “We kind of just let it go and don’t worry about what happened last time. That’s pretty much the good way to play chess, too: You always go forward.”
Looking too far ahead, though, can be frustrating. Since he began teaching three years ago, his own game has hit a plateau; his rating passed 2200 shortly after he moved to New York and has mostly stayed within 50 points in either direction. The best players dedicate hours to study and practice; Juac simply has no hours to spare.
“ ‘I can’t play chess anymore,’ ” Propper says Juac once told him after he lost a match the previous evening. “ ‘All this teaching is killing my chess, but I’ve got to teach.’ It’s the same motivation we all have: putting food on the table.”
Juac imagines advancing to the title of international master, usually requiring a rating of at least 2400, but he compares the time and effort to earning a doctoral degree. It is a commitment, to say nothing of the cost of hiring a private chess coach. New questions now trail him: Would you rather be a great player or a great teacher? Playing is enjoyable, but teaching lasts longer.
Searching for the next move
On that Thursday night at the Marshall Chess Club, Juac shakes Chernin’s hand and walks into a hallway. He wanders upstairs, into an empty room. He checks his watch, almost 10 p.m., another long day of teaching tomorrow.
He sits at a table, the remains of another finished game before him, and leans his head back. He closes his eyes. He opens them, looking toward the ceiling, and sighs.
Then he leans forward, lifting a king and tapping its base on the table, and quickly he begins resetting the pieces from memory, to a point early in his match against Chernin. He studies the board, set up as it was when he advanced a pawn to capture Chernin’s knight. Then Juac nods — of course! With his 14th move, he should have taken the bishop instead; his mistake initiated a chain reaction, one of those turning points he has studied for years. He tells himself he will not make this mistake the next time, and that is the point. There will be a next time, a next game, another chance to play and live as he has for so long: by looking forward, not back.
Satisfied, he prepares the board for the next game and stands. “It’s time to leave. I’m ready to go,” he says, heading toward a doorway. Then he notices Jeremiah Smith, a 21-year-old player, sitting alone at a chessboard, staring at the pieces.
“You want to play?” Juac says, and the young man nods. He takes the vacant chair, and as Smith advances his pawn, Juac smiles for the first time in hours, making his move and starting the timer.