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Meet Vanessa West: On Chess, Writing & Winning Print E-mail
By Vanessa West   
June 12, 2015
VanessaWest250.gif I’ve played chess since I was nine years old. Because of my competitive nature, I took to the game right away. One aspect of my chess as a child, which is amusing to me now, is that I was downright vicious. I remember one game in particular: My opponent made a move and then forgot to press his clock. I was down a piece, and he had seven minutes left. During the entire seven minutes, I stared at the board, pretending to be in deep thought. I didn’t glance up once. When his flag fell, I immediately claimed the win on time. While today I’d be reluctant to accept an unearned victory, back then I would do anything, within the rules, to win. 

My childhood chess teacher was GM Eduard Gufeld. He instilled in me a deep understanding of Black’s dark-squared bishop: that it should always be fianchettoed on the kingside, that it is the most valuable piece on the board, and that one should be prepared to sacrifice a rook or even more to keep it. 

I had several other coaches as I grew up, each I’m infinitely grateful to. Two in particular are IM Armen Ambartsoumian and NM Nshan Keshishian. The teacher who has influenced my chess the most, however, and who remains a good friend today is IM Jeremy Silman. From him, I learned to solve for what the position really asks for, whether it’s a long-term positional buildup or an immediate grasp of the initiative. He has yet to convince me that the Caro-Kann is an acceptable excuse for an opening, though. 

Competitive chess was a huge part of my life throughout elementary to high school. I participated in the 2003 World Youth Championship when I was fourteen years old. Although my results in the tournament were moderate, the gorgeous Isle of Crete, the breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, and the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the game for two weeks are something I’ll never forget. I participated in the U.S. Invitational Championship in 2005 and 2006, and it gave me a taste of the captivating atmosphere of top level chess in this country. My rating peaked at the high 2100s, but I wasn’t able to cross the threshold of 2200. By the end of high school, I fell into a slump, and my rating dived back into the low 2000s.

 During the first few years of college, my participation decreased. I played in tournaments only once or twice a year, though something always felt unfinished about my chess career. I hadn’t fully reached my potential. In 2010, I decided to focus my summer on the game. During the three weeks before the U.S. Open in Irvine, California that year, I studied for hours every day. My emphasis was on master-level tactical puzzles and Tal-Botvinnik (1960). That book, which is an account of the world championship match by Tal himself, remains my all-time favorite chess book. My study paid off. The 2010 U.S. Open was one of my best tournament performances ever, and I made national master soon after. 

My interest in writing started much later in life than my interest in chess. It was an English class of my junior year in high school that showed me the affect that writing can have. My teacher, Scott Altenberg, had a passion for American fiction and always thought up creative assignments that brought out the layers of deeper meaning in each book.  In his class, I discovered my favorite fiction book, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Once I finished that book, there was no going back; I wanted to write. 

When I attended UCLA, I strove to learn as much as I possibly could about both fiction writing and journalism. I majored in American Literature and was highly involved with UCLA Student Media. Currently, I teach chess as well as SAT Prep, and I try to play in as many tournaments as my schedule affords. I’m looking forward to playing in the National Open in Las Vegas next week, where I’ll be in over my head, competing in the GM-laden open section. 

Vanessa will be posting on CLO as well as on our social media networks,  facebook.com/uschess and twitter.com/uschess