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A Real-Life 'Queen's Gambit'---The Brazilian Maid Who Became a Chess Champ

The Wall Street Journal 2/22/2022 Samantha Pearson, Maria Magdalena Arréllaga for The Wall Street Journal
© Maria Magdalena Arrellaga for The Wall Street Journal

MACAÍBA, Brazil—Cibele Florêncio was just 24 when she was crowned vice-champion at a national chess tournament in Brazil last year, no mean feat given she was spending up to 12 hours a day cleaning houses.

A maid and single mother from Brazil’s poor northeastern scrublands, Ms. Florêncio is competing at the highest level at what is still considered an elitist game in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

“People look at me and wonder what the hell I’m doing there,” she said of the other contenders at tournaments—players she described as mostly nerdy.

“But I use it to my advantage,” said Ms. Florêncio. “They let their guard down.”

Ms. Florêncio’s arms are covered in tattoos of a lion and the initials of her 5-year-old son, Nicollas. She said her friends have likened her to the prodigy from the award-winning Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a young woman who defies the odds to rise to the top of the chess world in 1950s America. Ms. Florêncio watched it three times, she said, but can no longer afford the streaming fee.

She was 9 when she started playing. The town’s then-mayor, an aficionado himself, had introduced chess training to the public school curriculum. She became obsessed. Crouched over a chess board on the dusty floor of her classroom, beating the other children without saying a word, Ms. Florêncio soon drew the attention of her teachers.

“She had such focus, a mathematical ability to calculate and visualize her opponent’s future moves,” said Maximo Macedo, 43, a local chess master who was elected head of Brazil’s Chess Confederation last year. “I put that down to some kind of genetic mutation. Her perseverance, though, now that comes from her upbringing.”

Mr. Macedo was the first confederation chief in four decades elected from the northeast, which is often dismissed by wealthier Brazilians further south as the country’s forgotten backwater.

Ms. Florêncio said her mother, a cook, could barely feed the family—Cibele and her six brothers and sisters—in Rio Grande do Norte state, where 40% of families live in poverty.

She still lives in her family’s home off the main highway to Macaíba, where gold cups now line nooks in the roof and her medals adorn the cracked walls. She has played some of her best games on the plastic table outside, she said, set between chickens and coconut trees.

But she soon ran out of worthy opponents in Macaíba, a town of 83,000 people.

Ms. Florêncio turned to computer-generated opponents instead, her aging Samsung smartphone a portal to another world. She would use apps such as Lichess to play imaginary opponents and watch world champions. Victories followed defeats, and then the internet would cut out.

After leaving school, she started working as a maid in the luxury gated community next to her house.

On the other side of a vast wall topped with barbed wire, more than a hundred pet rheas—South America’s version of the ostrich—strut among the country homes of the region’s superrich where they are cherished for plucking snakes off manicured lawns.

“There were days I was so exhausted I couldn’t even train at night,” said Ms. Florêncio. Sometimes she would lie awake in the cramped room she shares with her son and cousin, replaying the games in her head that she had lost.

With scarce public or private sponsorship for chess in the soccer-obsessed nation, she turned to the owners of one of the houses she cleaned: Ana Lígia Medeiros and her husband, André Borges, an official at the agriculture ministry.

“To be honest, we weren’t sure if she would get very far…I didn’t even know she could play,” said Ms. Medeiros. She gave Ms. Florêncio the $30 entrance fee she needed to compete at the national championships late last year.

The tournament was a bus ride away in the nearby city of Natal. She came second in the categories of women’s rapid and blitz chess, in which players typically have three minutes to finish the game.

“The head of the Brazilian Chess Confederation came to me and said: ‘Look Cibele, it’s probably time you got a passport,’ ” Ms. Florêncio said. Poland was about to hold the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships.

Ms. Medeiros called her cousin, a local radio host, who put out an on-air plea for donations. It was three days before Christmas and two days before Ms. Florêncio needed to be on a plane to Poland.

The multimilliionaire owner of a local hospital, Marcelo Cascudo, was listening in his car on the way to work and, swept up by the festive spirit, offered to help.

“It got to me,” said Mr. Cascudo, 67. “She’s been struggling alone her whole life, I just wanted to show that someone was interested in her, someone was listening.” He pulled over as soon as he heard her name: Cibele, the same as his daughter.

The hospital paid for her flight to Warsaw and her hotel. The doctors got together to lend her coats and boots for the Polish winter.

Ms. Florêncio had never left the northeast before, let alone Brazil. It was the first time she had seen snow.

With no formal training—except watching some 100 chess videos on YouTube—she lost to her first opponent after time ran out. It only made her more determined, she said.

The hospital promised to pay for her to attend other tournaments, and gave her a steady cleaning job in the city until she can make a living from chess. It’s not stardom, she said, but a step up from being a maid. A surgeon, meanwhile, put up the cash for a professional coach.

“It’s like what happens in the game,” said Ms. Florêncio, explaining the rule of “promotion.” That’s where a player can swap the pawn—the weakest chess piece—if it reaches the end of the board.

“Don’t underestimate the pawn,” she said. “You get it to the other side and it can become a queen.”

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com

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