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Squirrel Hill woman hopes ability, competitive spirit lead to chess win

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 2:52 p.m.
Women International Master chess player and Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering doctoral student Iryna Zenyuk at her Squirrel Hill home Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

For Iryna Zenyuk, it started as just a game that she and her grandfather bonded over years ago, back in their native Ukraine.

Now, the 25-year-old Squirrel Hill resident is mixing it up with the nation's best players at this year's U.S. Women's Chess Championships.

Zenyuk, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, received one of 10 invitations to the round-robin tournament, which began Tuesday in St. Louis.

"We're all friendly and know each other, but we're also fierce competitors," she says. "I definitely am going there with the intention of trying to win."

The tournament runs through May 22.

Zenyuk, a Woman International Master, is ranked 11th in the nation by the U.S. Chess Federation. The overall winner gets the lion's share of a $64,000 championship purse, says Tony Rich, executive director for the St. Louis Chess Club, which hosts the tournament.

Zenyuk is one of those kind of students. You know the kind -- the kind who becomes determined to master a game or sport after trying it once and getting hooked.

Such was the case with Zenyuk and chess.

She was introduced to the game when she was 5. Her grandfather played the game with her and her older brother, Taras, at their childhood home in the Ukraine. By the time she was 6, Zenyuk was playing at a local chess club and already showing signs of greatness.

"(Taras) was a good sparring partner for me," says Zenyuk, who finished seventh in last year's championship. "I competed against boys a lot ... but, ultimately, I'd end up beating them."

Zenyk was 8 when her father died and her mother moved to the United States; she and Taras stayed behind with other family members. When Zenyuk was 15, she and her brother rejoined their mother in the United States.

"The experience taught me that you have to be independent," Zenyuk says.

Just as football and basketball players comb through hours of videos of their opponents before a big game, chess players size up their competition using databases and special computer software that replicates moves from previous tournaments.

In her high-school years, Zenyuk had the time to pore through those chess board Cliffnotes while also practicing up to five hours a day.

That hasn't been the case lately. Hours of studying for exams, lab time and the occasional pick-up game of intramural volleyball have forced her to scale back her chess time to primarily weekends.

She's studying for a master's degree and hopes to get a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Much of her study focuses on fuel-cell technology, with a goal of devising a way to make high-dollar cells cheaper to mass produce.

"There's so much potential out there for it. Renewable energy has a great future. It's just expensive," Zenyuk says. "My way of helping the environment is by making (cells) more affordable."

Zenyuk is coached by international chess master Oleksandr Germanov. He lives in the Ukraine and coaches her by Skype.

Zenyuk also stays sharp playing on the Carnegie Mellon Chess Club. She often mixes it up with Ruan Lufei, a 24-year-old graduate student who was a 2010 Women's World Championship finalist representing China.

She will have her work cut out for her. Only two women -- Anna Zatonskih of Long Island, N.Y., and Irina Krush of Brooklyn, N.Y., both international masters -- have been crowned women's champion in the past six years. Both women are entered in this year's tournament.

Zenyuk says she's prepared for the tournament, even with the reduced training schedule.

"(Chess) is as much hard work as any other thing you do," she says. "Having a competitive spirit is important. I've always had that kind of spirit."

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