Spotlight: UI senior on the local chess scene


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Maxim Perkhounkov sat in a corner of the Wedge on Feb. 10, a green and white chessboard on the table in front of him.

The Russian-born University of Iowa senior was focused and engaged in a game of speed chess. His eyes never left the board even though buzz of conversations filled the air around him.

The white plastic pieces waited for Perkhounkov’s next move as his opponent, friend and Kirkwood student James Neal, looked on.

“Eventually, somebody will crumble,” Perkhounkov said. “It’s kind of like two pythons trying to squeeze each other to death.”

But the Moscow native calls chess “just another hobby.”

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Perkhounkov, 22, is the president of the Hawkeye Chess Club, and he spends most Tuesdays and Thursdays competing in games of speed chess. He also coaches grade-school chess players, though he’s only been playing for four years.

While studying in his usual spot in the Tobacco Bowl in high school, Perkhounkov said he often saw chess players in heated games and decided one day he wanted in on the action.

“Obviously, I got demolished,” he said.

Now, the physics major devotes 20 hours a week to chess and said he’s developed an attacking style of play.

As he waited for his opponent to move, he sat silently with his left leg shaking uncontrollably as his left hand covered his mouth.

Dressed in a tan sweater vest, crisp white shirt and yellow tie, Perkhounkov’s brow furrowed as he reached to make a move on the board.

“He’s very enthusiastic and also very serious at times,” said Neal, who coaches chess for the UI chess club. “He can be a very aggressive player both physically and psychologically.”

Perkhounkov reached for the knight but swiftly withdrew his hand.

Finally, he settled on sliding forth one of his rooks. After a few quick moves by Neal, Perkhounkov lost the speedy game.

“Aww, man,” he said, knocking over a few pieces on the board. 

Perkhounkov said he rarely saw chess at home.

His father made violins, selling them to local musicians after his family moved from Russia in 1991. His mother was a master’s nursing student at the UI. Perkhounkov said he never felt out of place in Iowa City because of its large Russian population, but he did find some irony in being Russian and a chess player.

“Sometimes, I think he should spend more time doing homework,” said Yelena Perkhounkova, his mother. “But it’s nice that he’s doing something he enjoys.”

He said he’s never had any chess heroes, though he cheered on Magnus Carlsen, a young chess prodigy who is ranked No. 1 in the world.

Perkhounkov said he doesn’t plan on devoting his life to chess and joked about becoming a forest ranger. Still, he said, he knows the game will always be with him.

“There’s something that draws me to the game,” Perkhounkov said. “It’s like writing or math or anything. If you understand it on some personal, deep level, your love of it never really fades away.”

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