When 12-year-old Mountain View resident Ruiyang Yan narrowly qualified for the U.S. Girls Junior Chess Championship, she set her expectations cautiously low.
However, as the wearying 10-day competition, hosted by the Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri from July 10 to 20, came to a close, Ruiyang faced a surprising result. With five wins, two tied games and two losses, she placed third, taking home a $1,500 prize.
She said the experience taught her "just to have more faith in myself."
Ruiyang first gained exposure to the sport at age 4, when her parents purchased a chess set for her as a gift. Her parents had no knowledge of the game, so she enrolled in a class to meet fellow competitors and get an introduction to the basic strategies and rules of the game.
That initial experience piqued her interest, and Ruiyang said she dove further into the world of chess, studying strategy books to improve her skills and playing against other children through online communities such as ChessKid.com.
"It's fun to beat everyone," Ruiyang said.
In the last five years, she has transformed her hobby into a competitive endeavor. Ruiyang usually spends three hours a day practicing, waking up at 6:30 a.m. to play chess online, and attends local competitions in Northern California three to four times a month, she said.
She also trains with Weilang Li, former head coach of China's national chess team. Even after 40 years involved in the sport, Li said that he still finds every game to be "magical."
At the St. Louis tournament, Ruiyang played one opponent each day of the competition, recalling her shortest game against Maggie Feng in Round 6 lasting two to three hours, with the rest lasting far longer.
Li, who traveled to St. Louis with Ruiyang, said her round 6 game was "perfect," adding that Ruiyang was able to set up her pieces in a winning position just a few moves into the game.
"She played just like a computer," Li said proudly, through a translator.
As the second youngest of her cohort, with most players 15 or older, Ruiyang said she lacked self-confidence throughout many of her games, but sought to "try her best."
"It felt really good," Ruiyang said, describing the moment she learned of her third-place win. "I did way better than I expected."
Li credited much of Ruiyang's success to her self-motivation and genuine interest in chess.
Ruiyang said she wants to save her $1,500 prize to put toward future college tuition, and hopes to maintain a lifelong love for the sport. In a week, she is set to travel to China to take on her next challenge, the World Cadets Chess Championship, before starting seventh grade at Egan Junior High School.