Roman Sheremeta

5 questions with… former chess prodigy, behavioral economist Roman Sheremeta

Roman Sheremeta doesn’t get anxious often. But when he was watching the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals just a few weeks ago, he recognized a feeling he hadn’t had in quite some time.

“I teach hundreds of students every year. Several times I spoke to thousands of people in large auditoriums. I’m used to a lot of pressure,” Sheremeta, assistant professor of economics, said, “but as I was sitting in front of the TV screen, I was getting so anxious.”

The feeling brought him back to the final rounds of a state chess competition many years ago, where he was faced with winning the championship or settling for second place.

He won that championship.

As a young chess prodigy in Ukraine, Sheremeta was always trying to figure out what his opponents were thinking and how he could outwit them.

Beginning at age 6, Sheremeta worked eight hours a day to become an elite chess player, joining the ranks of a “candidate to master” by the time he was 11. At that time he also started to play professionally and winning state championships.

“Eventually, by the age of 13, it was kind of the breaking point,” Sheremeta said. “Before going to high school, I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue chess as my career or to go into more of an academic pursuit.”

He opted to focus on his education, attending a school with an emphasis on mathematics and physics.

As he moved through his academic career, his days of playing chess stuck with him. But Sheremeta’s role in competition has changed. He’s no longer the one looking for a win, instead he’s studying individuals who are to understand what makes them so competitive.

His research focuses on game theory, conflict and conflict resolution and other aspects of behavioral economics. In 2015, Forbes recognized him as a “Top Economic Thinker of Ukrainian descent.”

Though not competitively, Sheremeta does still play chess.

“There’s a funny joke going on in my family here in Cleveland—we have a very big Ukrainian family here, which is probably more than 100 people: They’re still trying to find people to beat me, but it hasn’t worked so far,” he said. “But saying that is not to brag; they’re not professional players.”

Think you could challenge Sheremeta to a game of chess? Before you do, get to know him better with this week’s five questions.

1. What’s the best way to spend a summer day in Cleveland?

In the morning, I’d have oatmeal for breakfast, have a devotional time, and then go biking with my wife through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. After that, I’d get lunch at one of Cleveland’s many restaurants. That’s what I love about Cleveland—it’s the city of foodies. People know how to make food here and how to enjoy it.

Then—this probably would not go well with all men—but I actually wouldn’t mind going to the mall with my wife. I don’t buy much, but I just like to spend time with her. After that, I’d probably catch up on one of the movies for which I never have time; I have a list that’s just building up. Then at the end, for dinner, we would probably go to The Cheesecake Factory and finish up with a Godiva chocolate cheesecake and nothing else.

2. What motivates you to work hard?

I think two things. First, is my faith; I was raised as a Christian. One thing I’ve been taught is that whatever you do, work at it with all your heart. That’s Colossians 3:23.

The other thing is the desire to make an impact on society and individual people. I always felt there is more to life than just having fun.

3. Who is your favorite character from a book, TV show or movie?

There is this book series called Mark of the Lion in which the main character is Hadassah. She’s a Jewish young girl who was taken into captivity when Rome conquered Jerusalem. Her parents were killed and she was taken into captivity as a slave. This book spins around her and how she holds on to her faith and who she is despite the difficult circumstances that she goes through. She overcomes adversities with such grace; she’s an example of how to live life. I admire her character.

4. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?

Last year I went skydiving and, to be honest, it was a pretty scary thing, especially when you’re already in the air and you realize that, “hey, this can actually go wrong.”

But to be honest, that probably wasn’t as daring as when I decided to move to the United States. I was pretty well off. My dad is a businessman and my mom is a doctor. I had a nice career planned out for me in Ukraine. My parents had good connections and everything was kind of set for me. People were very surprised to learn I was planning to move to the United States—no parents, no relatives, no connections. As a 21-year-old kid moving to a foreign country, not knowing what to expect—a lot of uncertainties—I think that was probably the most daring thing.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The students. Some of the best I’ve met in my life are here at Case Western Reserve. They’re sharp. They can do things that I cannot do. I really admire them.

Also my colleagues—of my department, of the school and of the university. There’s a lot of intellectual drive here on this campus and I love it.