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March 01, 2011

Chess Champ Keeps Game, Studies in Check

By Niki Kapsambelis

In the royal world of professional chess, Lufei Ruan came within just a few moves of being crowned queen.

Not bad for someone who doesn’t even play every day.

Ruan came in second at the women’s world chess championship last December, in Hatay, Turkey, to 16-year-old Hou Yifan. In the past, the two women have been teammates competing for their native China.

“We are both familiar with each other, so we know the strategy to fight against each other,” Ruan said.

She was able to combine a few days’ leave with the winter holiday to play in the tournament, though the experience offered little relaxation. She enjoyed only one break in 20 straight days of play.

“It was much better than I expected,” said Ruan, 24, who is in the midst of her first year pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting at the Tepper School. “Everyone congratulated me when they saw me after I came back, and they even sent an e-mail to all the students to announce my victory.”

A professional chess player for eight years, Ruan started playing when she was 6 years old with the encouragement of her father, Miqing Ruan, an associate professor at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She earned the title of woman grandmaster (WGM) in 2007, and under the tutelage of her coach, Xu Jun, broke into the world’s top 20 female chess players in January 2008.

She reached the 2010 final by winning tiebreakers in every round and eliminating the previous champion, Alexandra Kosteniuk.

Though she belongs to the Pittsburgh Chess League, and practices on a computer, Ruan’s primary focus is now her studies.

“Before I came here, I spent half my time in study and half in chess,” explains Ruan, who attended Tsinghua University in Beijing. “If I am in school, I focus on school study. If I’m in tournaments, I focus on chess. The most important thing is to be efficient and effective. I focus on something and don’t get distracted by other things.”

Although the game has provided some social opportunities — Ruan enjoys sharing her love for chess with others, and teaches friends who ask — her priority is pursuing her doctorate with an eye toward becoming a professor in China. In fact, she credits her coach with encouraging her to continue her studies full time, something she said is a rarity in her homeland.

She arrived at the Tepper School with an interest in corporate finance, but developed an interest in accounting and now thinks she may study the intersection of the two disciplines. Either way, she believes the strategic mindset she has developed as an elite chess player will influence her perspective.

“Chess is about thinking right,” Ruan said. “I can apply the similar math to both fields. For the chess player, we do calculations and judgments in everything. We do it round after round, and it’s helpful for me to do accounting in a similar way.”

Now that she has resumed her studies, she has switched her focus away from chess, but she’ll never give up the game.

“Chess is part of my life,” she said.

“I won’t give it up totally, but I can play it when I want to do so. I just want to enjoy the tournaments.”