Chess champ finds refuge in city after fleeing Ukraine

In a tumultuous two years since Russia invaded Alex Nedyhalov’s home country, the one constant in his life has been chess.

After finding refuge in Dunedin, the Ukrainian national has won six Otago seasonal rapid open tournaments.

He is now classed as an international master with a 2400 rating.

The Otago Chess Club in Maitland St became his "second home", he said.

He spent nearly seven days a week there.

"If you’re going to do something you have to do better than others.

"You don’t want to play chess for losing — everybody wants to win."

He started playing chess seriously when he was 7.

He played competitively until he was 16 but stopped to get a "real job" in advertising because he was not playing at a competitive level by Ukrainian standards.

Mr Nedyhalov has lived in Dunedin for a little over two years and was initially counting down the days until he could return home.

However, he was not sure when that would be now.

He wanted to return to Ukraine because it was his home, and he wanted to die in his apartment in Kherson.

Ukrainian refugee and six-time Otago rapid open champion Alex Nedyhalov at the Otago Chess Club...
Ukrainian refugee and six-time Otago rapid open champion Alex Nedyhalov at the Otago Chess Club in Dunedin is supporting Ukraine’s war effort from Dunedin. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
"When it’s finished I will help to rebuild because someone has to do it."

Mr Nedyhalov’s journey to Dunedin, where his mother has lived since 2008, was not an easy one.

When Russia invaded in February 2022, Kherson quickly became a battleground.

"My town was occupied by [the] fifth day ... [of the war].

"[There] was no food around, all shops closed.

"You don’t know what to do, you have money but you can’t spend it.

"Russians were trying to bring in free food but nobody would take it and I didn’t want to take it because I don’t want to be part of Russia."

He remembered once queuing eight hours in the middle of winter to buy a piece of meat.

Two months into the war, Mr Nedyhalov began running out of money and realised he needed to "risk it and get out" of Ukraine.

He had two options for his escape: either to leave through Mykolaiv, which had also become a battleground, or go through the Republic of Crimea where he ran the risk of being imprisoned by Russia if he was caught with anti-Russian or pro-Ukrainian propaganda.

He could have died going through Mykolaiv so he decided to risk being sent to a Russian prison by going through Crimea.

Having people close to him including a former boss and classmates killed by Russians had become a new normal two years into the war.

The aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Mr Nedyhalov’s hometown Kherson. PHOTO: GETTY...
The aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Mr Nedyhalov’s hometown Kherson. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
"One of my bosses was trying to help people to get out from an occupied city to the Ukraine side and one of the armoured cars came in and just started to shoot everyone."

About 40 people who were standing in the queue to get across to the Ukrainian side were killed that day, Mr Nedyhalov said.

His way of dealing with the deaths was by sending money back home for more Ukrainian drones.

"More drones, less Ukrainian deaths."

After moving to Dunedin in May 2022 he began working as soon as he could.

He joined Allied Security and sent about $200 from his pay back home to help with the war effort.

He learned how to speak English by reading and watching the Harry Potter books and films.

He now had dreams of taking his chess to the next level and becoming a grand master with a 2500 rating.

To help achieve this he recently began training online with grandmaster Iuri Shkuro, who is also from Ukraine but now resides in England.

After beating the competition in Otago, he wanted to take on the best players in New Zealand from the North Island.

Mr Nedyhalov was looking for a local business to sponsor him for flights and accommodation to go to Auckland when tournaments were on.