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Legal Moves: Melekhina on Chess & Law School Print E-mail
By FM Alisa Melekhina   
March 16, 2014
Alisa400.jpg"Sorry you're having a tough tournament, but you're in law school now - it must be difficult to balance." That's essentially the mantra I've been hearing for the past 2.5 years since I began at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In a way it's a compliment, and I know that most mean for it to be comforting. But in more ways it's prognosticating defeat.

Depending on one's definition of law school success, I succeeded within the formulaic law school model. Despite enrolling as the youngest student in my class at age 20, I got hired by my dream NYC BigLaw firm at the beginning of my third and final year. I am set to start in the fall of 2014 in intellectual property and white-collar litigation. That's as much as anyone could want, and I am certainly not complaining. But now that the dust has settled, it has given me a chance to reflect on what this cost my chess.

I want to use this introspective article to candidly trace how my work ethic has informed my decisions about goals in life, dispel misconceptions about law school, discuss its role with chess in my life and future goals, and suggest overlapping skill-sets. I am including several games that I see as exemplary of my chess level throughout critical stages in my career outside of chess.

Growing up, my life revolved around chess. Since I played in my first major tournament when I was seven, almost every weekend was reserved for a competition. Any free weekend was occupied by ballet lessons. Eventually, I earned the privilege of representing the US in the World Youth Championships. I was used to taking weeks off to travel internationally.

No matter how small, every achievement was worth that much more because I felt it was achieved as a result of personal hard work and dedication. As a child of immigrant parents, I had a strong work ethic instilled very early on. My parents were accomplished dentists in Crimea, Ukraine when they fled to the US as refugees after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when I was two months old. They had to take out hundreds of thousands in student loans to attend dental school to get re-accredited. Initially, we lived off of welfare in Brooklyn. Looking back at early childhood pictures, I was adorned in boys' clothing because we couldn't afford anything beyond the necessities, and took donations from the local JCC.

Alisa with her Dad at the 2000 Nationals in Dallas
Soon enough, my dad completed his DDS degree and opened his own successful dental practice in Philadelphia. He was able to provide for a comfortable living, but never enough to hire a full-time chess coach. We learned the game together. Our only resources were a combination of key chess books, basic chess software, and a system-based approach to openings. Even to this day, I've had temporary seconds for specific tournaments, but never a long-term chess coach other than my dad. Persistence made all the difference.

That persistence piqued in the middle of my first year of high school. Usually, that's the time when most teenagers begin to lose interest in chess. However, I instead became weary with the inefficiencies of the school system. The assignments were time-consuming, and in-class instruction was redundant.

Convinced that I could teach myself better, I enrolled in distance-learning for 10th and 11th grades. This provided me with amazing flexibility to travel and play in major Swiss and round-robin tournaments.

In fact, I had my best tournament performance during that time - scoring triple WIM, WGM, and IM norms in one of the Chicago North American Invitational RR series. I had a narrow opening repertoire, but knew it on a level high enough to score a crucial win against future GM Mesgen Amanov.


Alisa at the North American Invitational
Playing in so many tournaments instilled a fierce competitiveness in me, especially when it came to academic achievements. Soon, the time came to begin thinking about colleges. During 12th grade, I took the opportunity to dually enroll in a local college to complete my senior year requirements.

Originally set on majoring in science, I fell in love with philosophy after taking the intro course. After weighing the option of attending a university on a chess scholarship or a higher-ranked university, I decided on the middle-ground option of taking a full scholarship to Philadelphia's Drexel University that I won from placing into the International Science and Engineering Fair.

It was a tough choice, but in retrospect, absolutely the right one. I had the flexibility to tailor my bachelor's degree to my lifestyle. With the transfer of my dual enrollment credits and numerous placement exams, I calculated I could complete the degree in only two years. I would need to overload on the maximum of 20 credits each quarter, but could still keep summers open to compete.

In keeping with my means-end mindset, I began preparing for the LSAT at the end of my first year at Drexel. By my second quarter of my second year, I already had enough credits to officially be a "senior." Looking back at my tournament history throughout this time period, curiously my performances kept rising. I matured as a player and reached a peak of 2379 USCF in March of 2011.


AlisaPennLaw.jpg Significantly, the grade one receives for a law school course is solely based on the final exam. Unlike in undergrad when I was writing philosophy papers on the "big questions" every week, law school was instead full of 50-page reading assignments of raw cases every night.

Other than a trivial "tiebreaker" bonus for class participation that may swing someone up to a higher letter grade if they are on the border, there are no measures of performance throughout the course. As the majority of the students worked for a few years before entering law school (only about 1/3 come "straight-through), it is not the job of the professors to enforce attendance or ensure the assignments were fully read.

Many people (including myself before I began law school) have the misconception that one must memorize a "book of law." Nothing could be further from the truth. At least in the United States where we are in a common law system of legal precedents interpreting statutes, the legal education system is designed to encourage a way of thinking that could be adopted to any jurisdiction. Mostly all of the final exams are open-book.

We are tested on our understanding of the material, and the ability to analogize fact patterns to new ones. It's similar to how we learn strategy in chess for the purpose of applying it to new over-the-board situations. Likewise, an attention to detail will go a long way in uncovering a key fact. The best lawyers are the ones who can problem-solve by anticipating the opponent's arguments and coming up with an acceptable solution to convince the judge or the opposing negotiator in a corporate transaction.

So why does anyone bother to do the readings over a 15-week period for one final exam that will be open book anyway? The dreaded Socratic method serves as an excellent motivator. While no one is checking whether you've done the readings, the risk of being "called-on" by the professor that day and making a fool out of yourself had everyone on their toes.

Ultimately, landing good job becomes more important than anything else. It's not just for your own future's sake; it's also for your standing within the law school community. In an annual class of around 275 students, the students become very tight-knit. Just like during a tournament when everyone is discussing their previous games and future pairings, it becomes difficult to avoid the dominant conversations revolving around firm recruiting and offers.

If grades are one part of the formula for law school success, then the other part is certainly networking. In retrospect, this is what really threw off my balance between law school and academics that I had always managed to maintain.

At Drexel, I went to class, did my assignments, went home, and continued with ballet and chess in the remaining time. Throughout law school, I covered all of my bases by attending all of the firm and alumni networking events, as well as becoming heavily involved in three on-campus groups and helping organize speaking events.

Fortunately, Penn lives up to its mantra of being the most "collegial" law school. I've met lifelong friends and have encountered nothing but the utmost support and respect from my fellow classmates. I love working with teams of students as President of the Penn Intellectual Property Group, Penn Law in the Arts, and Eastern European Law Students Association (EELSA). My favorite part of being involved in extra-curriculars is mentoring first and second-year students.
With law school friends 

It's not that juggling studies and event-planning completely depleted any time I could devote to chess. Rather, it warped my sense of priorities. Why practice an opening or play on ICC when there is always more reading that can be done?

I continued to play in tournaments whenever I had a holiday break. However, I noticed that I cut out the small weekend quads I grew up with. I followed tournaments, but could rarely keep up with live theoretical developments. My understanding of chess culture and knowledge broadened, but the systematic approach I once commanded was shattered. Whereas the chess board used to feel like home, my first round of a tournament game felt foreign. The game below represents a depressing trend as of late: failing to convert advantages.


My results became very volatile. I could hold off a GM for a draw, but fall prey to a talented youngster in the same tournament. Even my favorite opening couldn't help me out here:


When I was playing close to full-time during high school, I devoted about 4 hours a day to chess. In law school, I'd be lucky if I could devote 4 hours a week. I was playing in advanced 9-round tournaments without having properly trained. I could outplay stronger opponents up to a certain point in the game, but struggled to convert. It's not that my chess skill was declining. It was growing, but it was a mutated growth without the proper nourishment of sustained study. What was missing was that glue that held everything together.

Also missing was that passion I had for chess. Throughout law school, chess quickly became part of my identity among the student body. I continued to compete in tournaments more out of inertia, than genuine enjoyment. It took a while of being outside of the chess bubble to begin to truly appreciate the game again. I also now have a renewed respect for how complex it is to master the game, and for players who devote their livelihood toward that mastery. I'd like to find a way to continue being a part of that community throughout my career. Fortunately, there are now new ways for me to remain involved by making chess videos (currently done through onlinechesslessons.net) and writing articles.

My only regret is becoming complacent with the law school à career system. By enrolling in high school distance-learning and finding a way to begin law school at age 20, I was able to meet my goals by challenging convention. Typical routes for success are defaults. There is always an opportunity to customize them. To lead a fulfilling lifestyle where your time is truly your own, one must question convention and look outside his or her comfort zone.

After much grappling with the definition of success, I've come to the conclusion that flexibility holds the key. It's the ability to structure your life according to your own strengths and pursuits, and not to a cookie-cutter lifestyle model.

Where does this leave me now? I recently had the revelation that entrepreneurship can provide that long-term flexibility. It's invigorating to solve problems not only on a theoretical level, but to create an impact. Drawing from my troubles in finding summer housing for internships, and planning group outings, I've come up with two separate web-based ideas for a portal for verified student summer sublet listings and an online marketplace for group tickets. With a dear chess friend as my partner, Yuanling Yuan, we are applying all of the lessons we learned from chess, business, and law to lead our own business. We've discovered that if you know where to look, universities offer a wide array of mentorship and funding - so it's now or never.

I'm still looking forward to beginning a new chapter in my life as I begin legal practice in NYC in October. However, working on a major side project gives me the peace of mind that I can still retain control. Entrepreneurship also involves a systematic approach. But this time I have more perspective - it's all for the sake of having the flexibility to pursue my enduring passion of chess on my own terms.

Alisa Melekhina is a FIDE master with one International Master Norm. She currently contributes chess videos on http://www.youtube.com/user/OnlineChessLessons. Alisa is in her third and final year of law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and will take the NY State Bar in July.

You can "follow" Alisa on facebook and linkedin.