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Melekhina Might Be Young, but She's Proving Formidable at U.S. Women's Chess Championship


By Mike Klein
For the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

Past the halfway mark of the 2009 U.S. Women's Championship, two of the three leaders will use their day off to rest and regroup, but one player will not have that luxury. She has homework to do.
Alisa Melekhina, 18, of Philadelphia, is the youngest player in the field as she competes in her second U.S. Women's Championship, an invitation-only event held this year at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. During the only free day from competition, Melekhina, a sophomore at Drexel University, has to spend the morning studying for a test in cognitive psychology.  In 2007, she played in her first championship, and she was again the youngest.

After five rounds of play this year, Melekhina is tied for second place (with a woman more than twice her age) with 3.5 points out of five. She trails only the defending champion, Anna Zatonskih, of Long Island, N.Y., who is 13 years her senior, a virtual extra lifetime in the world of chess experience.
"I'm not that young anymore," she insisted.

Used to traveling with her father to tournaments, this is the first major tournament she traveled to solo. Melekhina traveled to China in September with her father to compete in the Women's World Team Chess Championship. "That may be one of his last tournaments," she said. "He still tries to help me by sending me files."

It was her first experience representing her country. The other four women on the team all played for the U.S. during the Chess Olympiad and were all better known (only Melekhina lacks a Wikipedia entry). Top board Irina Krush, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said she thought Melekhina had the most fun of any of the players. Of course, that can be easy, given how well she performed - Melekhina went undefeated and won an individual gold medal.

She said she liked the format of playing for a team.

"The atmosphere in China was a lot more relaxed than [St. Louis]," she said. But even in St. Louis, she exhibits a calm demeanor and relaxed attitude about her results and her standing in the tournament. Melekhina already has the seasoned sportsman approach of deflecting questions that speculate on future results. The time-honored cliché of "taking each game one at a time" has sprinkled her answers more than once.

"I wasn't expecting to have such a good start," she said. "It's dangerous to think about (winning) this early in the tournament." She did allow that she has begun to modify her expectations for the tournament, saying that the top three was now a realistic goal.

Perhaps she enjoyed China because her talents could for once be understood well. Melekhina said her friends back home "are really supportive" but cannot grasp the level of focus and multitude of minutia required to compete at the chessboard.

For a teenager, she has spent much more time ruminating on the nature of chess that you would think. That should not be a surprise; Melekhina has chosen to major in philosophy.

Melekhina learned the game at the age of 5 and began competing a few years later. She is also an avid ballet dancer, a talent with a skill set more able to be appreciated by non-aficionados. "Dancers are better known than chess players," she said. "But chess is something you can always do, as opposed to dance, when you pretty much have to retire when you are 30."

She said she is equally at home performing for judges and playing a zero-sum game like chess, explaining that they can both be considered displays of art.

In the biggest match of her burgeoning chess career, Melekhina on Saturday will play someone in her 30s, the top-seeded Zatonskih in the sixth round of the championship. She will have the black pieces, considered a small disadvantage, and she will be playing a woman with such a varied repertoire that it is hard to prepare for her. But do not be surprised if the uncompromising Melekhina goes all out for a win anyway.

In her fifth round game on Thursday, Melekhina eschewed a safe drawing variation against the tournament's third seed, Rusudan Goletiani of Hartsdale, N.Y., preferring to keep whatever life remained in her chances to win. Grandmaster commentators were simultaneously surprised and appreciative of her spirituous decision.

After the game, which ended in a draw anyway, Melekhina said the decision was easy - playing for a win was the only variation she considered. "I play better when I get in worse positions," she said.

With the tie, she increased her unbeaten streak to more than a 14 games, quite an achievement considering she was an underdog in about a dozen of those matches.