Legal Moves: Melekhina on Chess & Law (Part one)

by Alisa Melekhina
9/2/2014 – “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 that Alisa Melekhina, one of the top US female players, has been hearing since she began at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "In a way it’s a compliment," she says, "but in more ways it’s prognosticating defeat." Read her inspiring story.

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Legal Moves: Melekhina on Chess & Law School

Alisa Melekhina

This article orginally appeared in Chess Life Online

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.

Alisa at seven – during her first tournament at the 1998 World Open

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.

Alisa has been classically trained in ballet since she learned 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.

Soon enough – my dad, shown with me on the left at the 2000 Nationals in Dallas – 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 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.

[Event "10th North American FIDE Invitational"] [Site "Chicago"] [Date "2008.04.19"] [Round "2"] [White "Melekhina, Alisa"] [Black "Amanov, Mesgen"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B26"] [WhiteElo "2208"] [BlackElo "2396"] [PlyCount "83"] [EventDate "2008.??.??"] [SourceDate "2003.09.03"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3 Nf6 7. h3 O-O 8. Nge2 Rb8 9. f4 Bd7 10. g4 b5 11. Ng3 b4 12. Nce2 Ne8 13. Qc1 Nd4 14. c3 bxc3 15. bxc3 Nxe2 16. Nxe2 Qa5 17. O-O Nc7 18. f5 Nb5 19. Bd2 Qa3 20. Qe1 Qa6 21. g5 Nc7 22. f6 exf6 23. gxf6 Bh8 24. c4 Rb2 25. Nc3 Bc6 26. a4 Ne6 27. Nb5 Nd4 28. Bc3 Ne2+ 29. Kh2 Nxc3 30. Qxc3 Re2 31. Rf3 Re8 32. Nc7 Qb6 33. Nxe8 Bxe8 34. Kg1 a5 35. h4 Bd7 36. Rg3 d5 37. Rf1 d4 38. Qc1 Bxa4 39. h5 Be8 40. hxg6 hxg6 41. Qg5 Qd6 42. Rh3 1-0

Playing in so many tournaments – the picture on the right is from the 2008 North American FIDE Invitational in Chicago – 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.

[Event "20th Annual North American Open"] [Site "Las Vegas"] [Date "2010.12.28"] [Round "5"] [White "Krush, Irina"] [Black "Melekhina, Alisa"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E91"] [WhiteElo "2546"] [BlackElo "2350"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "2010.??.??"] [SourceDate "2003.09.03"] [BlackTeam "USA"] [BlackTeamCountry "USA"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Be2 O-O 6. Nf3 Bg4 7. Be3 Nfd7 8. Nd2 Bxe2 9. Nxe2 c5 10. O-O Nc6 11. d5 Nd4 12. Nxd4 cxd4 13. Bg5 Re8 14. f4 Qb6 15. Rb1 e6 16. Kh1 exd5 17. cxd5 Nc5 18. Qf3 f6 19. Bh4 Qb4 20. Be1 f5 21. Qh3 fxe4 22. Nxe4 Qc4 23. Ng3 Qxa2 24. Rd1 Qxb2 25. f5 Qc2 26. Bd2 Nd3 27. Qg4 Nb2 28. Rc1 Qxd2 29. fxg6 Nd3 30. Rc7 Qh6 31. gxh7+ Kh8 32. h3 Re1 33. Qf5 Rxf1+ 34. Qxf1 Qg6 35. Nf5 Rf8 36. g4 Ne5 37. Qb1 Qxh7 38. Kg2 Nf7 39. Qxb7 Be5 40. Qxa7 Qg6 0-1

Since I began UPenn Law in fall of that year, my rating took a steep spiral downward. It’s easy to attribute that to “law school.” But what does that really mean? In fact, the law school system is more laissez faire than undergrad.

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.

One of the many multi-colored highlighted and margin-filled notes in the my first-year Contracts casebook

Ultimately, landing a 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.

Upon transitioning from the chess world into the law school world, Alisa noticed her chess results declining.
In Part 2, which
will follow soon, she attempts to identify the unexpected cause of her descent,
and describes her unique solution to remaining competitive and balancing her many pursuits.

Video by Alisa Melekhina: How to win in the c3 Sicilian in 21 moves or less


The United States Chess Federation (USCF) is the official, not-for-profit 501 US membership organization for chess players and chess supporters of all ages and strengths, from beginners to grandmasters. The mission is to empower people through chess, to enrich the lives of all persons and communities through increasing the play, study, and appreciation of the game of chess. Founded in 1939 with the merger of the American Chess Federation and the National Chess Federation to promote the, USCF has grown to over 80,000 members and 2,000+ affiliated chess clubs and organizations today.

Alisa Melekhina is a FIDE master and one of the top female players in the United States. She won a gold medal at the 2009 Women’s World Team Championships in Ningbo, China. Alisa has competed in the United States Women’s Championships eight times, finishing third in 2009 and fifth in 2014. She is currently an attorney in New York City, practicing in the fields of intellectual property and commercial litigation. She is author of “Reality Check,” a book that discusses successful competitive strategy on and off the chess board. Her Web site is


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