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Queen’s Gambit: Ruan Balances Chess, Ph.D. Studies

Lufei Ruan Chess Story Thumbnail 102x83.jpgIn the rarified world of professional chess, doctoral student Lufei Ruan came within just a few moves of being crowned queen.

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

“It was much better than I expected,” says 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.”

Ruan ultimately was bested at the women’s world chess championship held in Hatay, Turkey by 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,” says Ruan.

She was able to combine a few days’ leave with the winter holiday to play in the tournament in December, though the experience offered little relaxation: Ruan enjoyed only one break in 20 straight days of play, and believes fatigue was a factor in her loss. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she made up exams that she had missed while she was in Turkey.

A professional chess player for eight years, Ruan began learning the game 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 final of the 2010 championship in December by winning on tiebreakers in every round, eliminating previous champion Alexandra Kosteniuk, and forced Hou to tiebreakers again before finally losing.

Though she belongs to a chess league in Pittsburgh, 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.”

In addition, she adds, “I save a lot of time with a good memory.”

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 says 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 says. “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.”

So far, she is pleased with the small class size and the relationships she has forged with fellow students and faculty. Now that she has resumed her studies, she has switched her focus away from chess and has yet to decide where her next major competition will be.

“Chess is part of my life,” she says. “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.”

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
Carnegie Mellon University
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