Pa. chess players are hip to the squares

Friday, 9:01 PM


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 last month 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 grand master 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.

Donald Petesch, a retired University of Pittsburgh literature professor, started playing chess with his grandson, Gabriel Petesch, when he was 3.

“We quickly graduated to losing effectively,” Donald Petesch said of himself.

Gabriel Petesch, 19, is ranked 15th in the state.

“Interest (in chess) is growing,” Gabriel Petesch said. “If you look at the list of the top 10 for the country, there are always people from here on it.”

Henry Friedlander is the top-rated 10-year-old player in Western Pennsylvania and No. 6 in the state. He started playing at age 4.

“I like games with strategy,” said Friedlander, who often finds himself playing people four or five times his age.

At 42, Jeffrey L. Quirke considers himself part of the old guard of chess players and found playing online suits him better than face-to-face matches.

“I play guys from Turkey, Brazil. … They all kick my butt,” said Quirke of Franklin Park, ranked No. 26 in the state.

Chess fever hasn’t reached the entire region, though.

In Duncanville, Blair County, Lois Kaneshiki tried to help establish a chess club there but found a lack of interest.

“I really believe it’s a great way for kids to develop their minds,” she said. “We need thinkers.”


Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,