PITTSBURGH — Lufei Ruan came to Pittsburgh in August with two goals: Work on a doctoral degree in business at Carnegie Mellon University, and find a couple of people willing to play chess.
She thought the latter would be the tougher task.
Pittsburghers, she believed, were like her countrymen in Nanjing, China, who viewed chess as a game “upper level” people played. She quickly learned that even those who bleed black-and-gold appreciate the game.
“I see it now,” she said after returning from the women’s world chess championship in December in Hatay, Turkey, where she placed second. Ranked No. 21 in the world by the World Chess Federation, her climb to the finals gained international recognition for herself and the city, chess enthusiasts here said.
Eleven of the Pennsylvania State Chess Federation’s top 30 players — including top-ranked Alex Shabalov, a grandmaster and four-time U.S. chess champion — live in Pittsburgh. About two dozen chess clubs operate in the region.
“Pittsburgh is not like New York or L.A. with very large programs developing players. … It’s not as intense, but there is sort of a feeder system here,” said Tom Magar, a chess master ranked among the top 25 players in the state for the past two decades who is president of the Pittsburgh Chess League.
That “system” includes the league, which has more than 300 players. About 800 to 1,000 members of the U.S. Chess Federation live in southwestern Pennsylvania, said Magar, who is ranked 21st in the state. The state federation’s rankings are determined by a complex formula that factors in players’ number of rounds, their scores and their opponents.
The Pittsburgh Chess Club traces its roots to the early 1900s, about the time British-born chess prodigy William Ewart Napier moved to Pittsburgh. Napier became chess columnist for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, which folded in 1923.
“Pittsburgh is amazingly relevant to the chess scene,” said Mark Eidemiller, a three-time Pennsylvania state champion and life master.
But more should be done to develop younger players here, said Eidemiller, who was among a group of U.S. masters plowed over by Russian masters who came here to live after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
“Pittsburgh was a very tough place to play,” he said.
While the city was drawing world-class chess players, Carnegie Mellon University was attracting top computer scientists. Before long, the two came together.
Vivek Rao, then a Pittsburgh teenager and top-rated player in the state, beat Carnegie Mellon’s chess-playing computers in 1985.
“They were not invincible like computers today,” said chess master Bruce Leverett of Mount Lebanon, who played against the Carnegie machines in 1985 and wrote a computer-chess program in the 1970s.
“It was pretty awful. It could lose to anyone,” he said.
Ruan, 23, who lost the woman’s world chess championship on Christmas Eve to chess prodigy Hou Yifan, 16, has played in tournaments in Iran, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and India.
“What she did really is phenomenal. It helped put us back on the map,” Eidemiller said.
Many of today’s top players started young. Gabriel Petesch, 19, is ranked 15th in the state.
“Interest (in chess) is growing,” Gabriel Petesch said.