Across the board

Mar 12, 2008 at 12:00 am

Silvio Cunha Pereira rests his forearms on the wobbly brown table and squints at the plastic blue-and-white chessboard in front of him. The clock is ticking. Five seconds. Four. Three.

Whiffs of fresh McDonald's french fries float through the Wayne State University Student Center. Behind Pereira, college students hurry past, their heels clicking on the tile. Sitting across the table, Vester Wilson, hunched over in a super bright, nearly neon-green sweatshirt, watches the 50-year-old Pereira examine the board. The clock blinks: 0:00 0:00. Pereira shakes his head. With one hand, he scoops up the remaining pieces, a king, a few pawns and a castle, and hands them over to Wilson with a grudging smile. The spectators, men in sweatshirts sitting at surrounding tables or leaning against covered garbage bins, chewing hamburgers and gnawing on chicken wings, laugh. There was nothing more Pereira could do with a few seconds on the clock and just a castle to fight with, they agree. Wilson wins the game by default — his clock still has a few seconds left.

The pair, Pereira, with wispy blond hair, dressed in a black-and-red Cosby-style sweater with the sleeves rolled up, and Wilson, wearing a blue stocking cap pulled down over his bald head, black mustache over a pursed lip, set up their pieces and start the clock again: 3:00 each. The two come to WSU's Student Center often to play with an informal chess club that has met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for more than a decade. They play speed games, with just a few minutes on the clock. It's more emotional that way, Pereira says, and, you get more games in. In 30 minutes, Pereira and Wilson play six fast, methodical games.

Portrait of a chess master

Pereira fell in love with chess when he was 13, living in his hometown of Osasco, Brazil, outside of São Paolo. "I went to a club near my school and saw a guy playing 10 to 15 people at the same time," he remembers. Transfixed, Pereira challenged anyone and everyone to a game, studied chess theory and played in tournaments. By the time he was 16, he placed sixth in Brazil's national championship tournament and played professionally after school. He earned a degree in civil engineering, but never used it — chess won out. Now, 37 years later, he's the four-time champion of the Open Games in São Paolo, five-time champion of the Brazilian Team Championship, and second-place winner at the Michigan Quick Championship in December, which is one part of the weekend-long Motor City Open. His World Chess Federation rating is 2286, which puts him just below to the Top 100. (The top rating in 2007 was 2799, held by Vladimir Kramnik from Russia.) All the while, his game has become more aggressive (he'll readily sacrifice pieces to get ahead) and more creative, but calm confidence presides.

Pereira moved to Detroit in August 2007 with wife Lola Aronovich, who is part of Wayne State's student exchange program with Brazil's Federal University of Santa Catarina. Lola, whom Pereira met at a chess tournament 18 years ago, is finishing her doctorate in literature and is spending a year in this country to learn all she can about violence in Shakespeare's plays. Meanwhile, Pereira spends his time taking English classes, teaching Portuguese, reading about chess, teaching classes and working on such hobbies as wood carving and photography, which he admits are not his strengths. He also enjoys walking around the city, strolling from his apartment near Wayne State to the Detroit Institute of Arts and downtown.

He plays as many as three hours each day in preparation for upcoming tournaments. At dinner, he and Lola discuss chess theory, the scene, competitions and, recently, the death of Bobby Fisher. At night, the game haunts his dreams, especially during a tournament, and Lola teases him about it. His dreams, she says, are tedious. "So, did you play chess with death?" She says his laid-back nature only dissipates when he's involved in a cutthroat game of sacrificing too many pieces and tearing across the board.

The life of a chess player isn't cushy. "There's not a lot of money to be made playing chess," Pereira admits — just enough to get by. Traveling costs can quickly eat up any winnings. In 2008, Pereira plans to play two big tournaments, in Chicago and Philadelphia, with prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that money only goes to the winner, not the 500 other players. "Most players are giving it up because of this," he says. "Too many players, too little money."

In the Michigan chess scene, Pereira is one of a select few. The Michigan Chess Association has 1,500 members total, including a growing population of scholastic members, and a decline in population of adult players. Between 1995 and 2006, adult membership decreased from 627 to 261, according to Mike Schulte, head of the organization, though in 2007 it seems to have rebounded a bit. Chess has suffered with the rest of the state — competition has been outsourced by the Internet and computer games, and the struggling economy has reduced the number of people who can take the time to participate.


There's a rhythm to speed chess. Move-move-move, wait, move-move, wait, wait ... waaaaiiiit. Mere seconds can feel like hours, and there are moments when it hurts to watch players analyze the board, searching for a way out or in. Then, suddenly, blastoff: Pieces are grabbed by their tops and flung across the board, slammed down on a new square, tottering as they settle into place. The players are hunched, oblivious to the spectators' whispers and loud chatter from passers-by. Sometimes, the pieces leave the board quickly, creating a forlorn battleground. Other times, the boards stay log-jammed, frustrating the players and slowing action to a standstill.

Pereira can tell what he's up against in the first few moves. Hunched over the board, his eyes scan from A1 to H8 and back again, watching to see where those first pawns will go. It's the theory of openings: He watches for first moves the pros are known to make. The faster and stronger you start — moving your pawns toward the center, creating pathways for other pieces, keeping your knights on the offense, and protecting your king — the more time you'll have later when it counts. It allows Pereira to be contemplative rather than competitive.

Throughout the game, Pereira reads the board like a football field — on defense if he's playing black, trying not to lose the upper hand if he's playing white.

"I know the correct plan versus certain moves," he says. It's a science because, like an experiment, "you can reproduce [games] with the same results." It's an art because there's always some creation; no two games are the same. And it's a sport, as the hundreds of players hunched over boards, competing for $11,000 every winter in the Motor City Open will tell you.

Pereira likes playing at Wayne State's Student Center more than in any tournament. There's a community of like-minded players, students who stop by on their way to class, promising to play a game later. Plus his game might be fast, but not competitive. "Here I can play for fun," he says, "I can test myself and try things." Settling into his chair, Pereira puts his queen in her place and sets the clock: 3:00.

Samantha Cleaver is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]