NM Juan Sena, New York Chess Coach, Fights Fatal Disease
Juan Sena at the Marshall Chess Club. Photo: Ken Kubo.

NM Juan Sena, New York Chess Coach, Fights Fatal Disease

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While driving NM Juan Sena to the train station one day, already knowing he was fatally ill, a student of his asked:

At the end of the road, what matters more? What we achieved or what we gave?

Years later, Juan is lying in a hospital bed with almost his entire body paralyzed. He was diagnosed in 2019 with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—often called Lou Gehrig's disease), a fatal disease that degenerates the nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. In 2022, he reiterated this question to me, answering with firm conviction: "It must be the second."

Juan watches a game at the Marshall Chess Club many years ago. Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

Juan started playing chess at the age of 17 in the Dominican Republic. A quick learner, his first national rating was already above 2000, and he reached his peak FIDE rating of 2209 in the year 2005. He represented the DR in five World Youth U26 Team Chess Championships (1981-'86) before moving to New York.

He came to the United States in 1986 in his mid-twenties. An ardent chess lover, he told me: "I came to America to play chess." To support his dream, he worked seven days a week at a grocery store. Nearly 40 years later, he has worked in various with just about any big name you can think of in NY—GM Irina Krush, GM Giorgi Kacheshvili, NM Bruce Pandolfini, WIM Shernaz Kennedy, and others. He is a beloved teacher, formidable player, generous mentor, and loving father, grandfather, and husband. This is a tribute to his legacy, known well by New Yorkers.

Almost four years after the diagnosis, he is still with us. His chess story is one of grit and passion—his life story, nearing its end, is one of dignity, humor, authenticity, and compassion.

 Downy the cat started sitting at his feet as the disease progressed. Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

Asked to share two of his favorite games, Juan immediately recommended looking at his wins over FM Dmitri Kedyk and IM Jay Bonin. Included below, they showcase his sound opening preparation (in the pre-computer era), competence in sharp middlegames, and proper endgame technique.

 Compassion, A Ripple In The Pond

Juan was not a world-class chess player. But NM Eric Balck, a tournament director at the Marshall Chess Club, spoke about his relevance:

"You read these Wikipedia articles about these famous chess players . . . most of the articles are a list of the tournaments they won, where they were born, his best performance was, etc. . . . but there’s a whole person there. Juan’s chess achievements were substantial. [He was] definitely a successful chess player, but it doesn't do any justice to the true, the real person that he is and was all those years. 

"They make as big a splash, the ripple in the pond is felt just as strong as a strong player. We live in a culture where our statuses are measured by our success metrics, and it's just an incomplete picture."

By reading this article, perhaps you too can feel the ripples and gain an appreciation for a figure that has had an immeasurable impact. I also hope that it validates, for you, the importance of those lesser-known figures, perhaps those who frequent your local chess club, who are less widely known and no less deserving.

On one of my visits to the rehabilitation center. Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

Anyone who has known Juan is familiar with the warm atmosphere of laughter in his presence. Over the years, he's used humor to teach children, to cheer someone up, to establish a sense of community in the least likely of places, and lighten the mood in difficult times. 

Kennedy, who worked with Juan since the '80s at the Browning and Trinity private schools, recalls Juan having a good voice and singing while crossing the street with his students decades ago. She laughingly told of his knack for distracting players during Bughouse and meanwhile adding two or three pieces to the board while they were not looking.

When attending a national championship with the Browning School, Kennedy asked him to say something inspirational to the kids before their first round. They were nervous, jittery, and under pressure before their big game. He said some general words of encouragement but continued: "The most important part of playing chess is memory and—what was I saying?" The kids and their parents laughed and he finished the impromptu speech with "Go get them!"

On one occasion, he silently shook GM Kacheshvili's hand in a tournament to conclude a game where he was completely lost. He wordlessly wrote ½-½ on his scoresheet and, without looking, the grandmaster signed off on it.  Moments later, Kacheshvili was shocked to find that Juan recorded a draw on the wall chart! (He corrected the score right after achieving the desired effect, and he roars with laughter every time he retells this story.)

On another occasion, an IM checkmated his king on the e1-square, and instead of shaking hands Juan moved his king to c4 without breaking a smile. When the flabbergasted IM asked him what he was doing he said: "You don't know what your king can do, but I know what I can do with mine!"

Another story Juan told me: Kacheshvili was teaching a Carlsen-Anand game to a group of u1000-rated kids. He tells the class, "Here he thought for 25 minutes to come up with a plan. Can anyone tell me the plan?" Juan shouted from the back of the room: "I don't think so!" and the class erupted in laughter. 

Pandolfini remembers "charming little narratives, meaty little one-liners: 'Rooks need to look at each other or 'Knights will be in the garbage can' or 'Bishops will be imprisoned or in jail.' He won't just say develop the pieces, he'll say, 'DEEEEEVELOP!'" 

Juan told me: "When you teach chess, it's not so much about the Najdorf or the talent of the kid. It's about teaching the principles of life." He added: "You don't teach kids how to play better; you teach them how to be a better person."

Juan with his stepdaughter, Nura, a former student of his. Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

What many find surprising is that his humor is as lively as it ever was, even after he has lost most of his ability to move. His wife, Ketty, told me he did not complain about his condition and mostly worried about its effect on others. His mental fortitude is reflected in something his stepdaughter Nura told me:

"Although Juan's disease has been such a heartbreaking experience to endure these four years, it has also made me stronger than I ever have been. Not only has Juan's positivity kept me going, but it's also made me enjoy our limited time together which he and I will never forget despite his conditions."

Kennedy recalls him telling other coaches: "I'm still in charge. Don't you forget it!" When they sent a wheelchair van, he'd say: "The limousine is waiting for me." 

Authenticity And Generosity

The people I've talked to had another common line: Juan is always authentic, always real with you, and always generous with his time. He has been a giving person for as long as people have known him.

Pandolfini: "If a student loses or goes through a difficult time, he doesn't go through some platitude. He establishes a sense of identification.... He comes up with some story that relates to his own life that bears on this situation or the student's condition or circumstances. That's something you have or you don't; that's something that makes him particularly special as a teacher."

When my chess rating went down, he told me: "You're not going to do what you don't set your mind to do." He is full of these short, authoritative statements accompanied by lengthy explanations.

Gregory Keener, also a tournament director at the Marshall Chess Club where Juan was a frequent competitor, remembers his generosity: "On a chess level, he was extremely giving. I could show him a position, and he would immediately start analyzing, suggesting whole opening systems. He was like that with everyone. Very open, free with chess analysis and chess history."

Juan himself told me recently: "Advice is something you give, not something that has to be done."

Keener nicely adds: "He's been in New York for so long and played for such a long time. He has this personal connection with everyone because he's played almost everyone in some critical game. And you know he was a wealth of anecdotes about players; he was someone who knew everything about everyone. The club is not the same without him. It’s a huge absence that’s felt. He was one of the most consistent characters who was there, who was very strong, who would play all the time."

Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

Balck recalled a time when the manager of the chess club at the time was angry at Juan for whatever reason. Just as he was about to "go off" on Juan, the response came chilling and true: "I'm not your friend. I'm family."

Balck added: "He'd give me free lessons. This was when I was a much weaker player than him. I was kind of new to the chess scene. He'd come in, he was a master . . . He'd set up a chessboard in the office and pick up an Informant and flip to a random page and just start playing out the moves. I probably got hundreds of hours' worth of free lessons, which was sort of us analyzing, but he was the much stronger player . . . He's not a money-driven person at all."

"One time, he gave me underwear. I don't know why. He was just like, 'Would you like these?' I just said sure."

Grief And Dignity

If you ask Juan how he's doing, he might answer: "I'm really doing well because everyone else is dying around me." (This is a joke multiple interviewees have relayed.) Michael Propper, who directs Chess NYC, a program for which Juan worked, says: "He's about the happiest human being I've met in my life, and even as a Mets fan."

Jokes aside, this debilitating disease has been a cause for heartbreak. His wife took care of him at home while also balancing her full-time job, and he now lives in a rehabilitation center. Every time I visited I saw treats she left behind—and he'd mention how she would surprise him by bringing dinner at times. When asked for help with raising money for medical expenses, Propper said: "I get the feeling it's the only time he's ever asked for a favor from anybody." It has been expensive, and a few GoFundMe pages (linked at bottom) have helped with the cost.

The several conversations with Ketty were difficult. She explained that she's been in the grieving process for years now, even while he is still alive—preparing for the inevitable end. She has also done everything she could to prepare, sadly but truly stating: "The greatest piece of mind I have is that if I die tomorrow, if I leave first, Juan will not be homeless or abandoned."

As a chess player, I could not help but understand on a personal level this comment by Ketty: "You live with it, you cope, you develop different strategies, different strengths, you become better at identifying your own weaknesses and accepting them, and it's a constant lesson in humanity in yourself."

Nura, Ketty, and Juan. Photo: Ketty Sena-Nazario.

His stepdaughter, Tiffany, from his previous marriage with Josephine Sena, brought him a Christmas tree to the rehabilitation center this year. Josephine said: "This has impacted us greatly, seeing how he deteriorated. He was a strong guy, a happy guy. To see that change in him is really hard . . . he was always my friend."

Juan has a stepdaughter, Nura, with his wife, Ketty. He also has a son, Joey, and two stepchildren, Nicky and Tiffany, from his previous marriage with Josephine. He has two grandchildren, Caleb and Liam. 

Please share any memories or thoughts about Juan in the comments below. Please consider also donating this GoFundMe page.