Discussion With FM Alisa Melekhina On Her New Book
© Alisa Melekhina

Discussion With FM Alisa Melekhina On Her New Book

IM Anna_Rudolf
Oct 19, 2017, 11:51 AM |

Anna Rudolf: Alisa, the Chess.com community is certainly familiar with your chess work, you are the author of some of the most instructive chess videos on the site, and the readers also see you regularly on the banner of Titled Tuesdays. What probably fewer people know is that you aren't “only” a chess player. Tell us about your career and the fields you are interested in.

Alisa Melekhina: Thank you, Anna, for the kind introduction. I grew up playing chess since my father taught me when I was 5.5 years old. I learned ballet at the same time — I didn’t appreciate how much the discipline instilled by these two Eastern European pastimes really went hand-in-hand until later in life. In particular, the constant self-analysis and self-reflection instilled through chess led me to discover philosophy as the perfect major in college. I focused on logic and philosophy of science, supplemented by legal courses for electives. Eventually, I began leaning towards the pragmatic school of thought and fittingly found my way to law school at UPenn when I was 19.

Since graduating law school in 2014, for the past three years, I have been practicing in commercial, intellectual property, and white-collar litigation at a corporate law firm in New York City. I continue to make chess tournaments a priority and have competed in numerous U.S. Women’s Championships and World Team events since college.

A.R.: That sounds like a very exciting – and very busy – life. Yet you found time to embark on a major project: write a book.

A.M.: Indeed — the book took me about two years to complete. It was a natural offshoot of the articles I had been writing for chess outlets. Since I found that I had less time to compete in tournaments, I took the opportunity to freelance. I covered major tournaments and created instructional content for major chess publications: Chess Life Online and Magazine, New In Chess, ChessBase, Chess.com (of course!), iChess, and the new American Chess Magazine. A good portion of my articles dealt with the crossovers between chess and other careers more broadly.

Chess has served as a tremendous and positive influence on my own academic and career paths through its underlying critical thinking, analysis, and decision-making skills. I wanted to highlight these additional benefits of chess in my writing. Eventually, I realized that my articles shared a common theme, that if fleshed out, could serve as the basis for an entire book.

Alisa presenting her book and lecturing on decision-making in chess at the Westfield Chess Club (NJ) in September.

Alisa presenting her book and lecturing on decision-making in chess at the Westfield Chess Club (NJ) in September.

A.R.: I must admit when I purchased your book – following the recommendation of fellow chess ambassador Jen Shahade – I didn't know what to expect. I found the title mysterious, philosophical, and I thought the topics discussed could be similar to Garry Kasparov's How Life Imitates Chess. I was wrong.

A.M.: The innovative applications of chess beyond chess introduced by Jen and Kasparov had a profound influence on the way I viewed chess. Jen has always championed female and artistic empowerment through chess. Likewise, I remember reading Kasparov’s How Life Imitates Chess when I was 16 or 17 and being inspired by the parallels between chess and life.

My own book carries on with these themes, but uses a different approach. It is partly introspective, but mostly philosophical (I’m glad you brought up the word) in its methodology. I explain how thinking like a chess player helped me —as a young immigrant coming from a family unfamiliar with the current institutional landscape —navigate other competitive endeavors throughout life, such as academic and career paths. While there are concrete examples of parallels between chess and business strategies, they merely serve an illustrative function. The purpose of the book is to distill the thought process of a chess master step-by-step, and come up with a framework for applying this competitive mindset to optimize decision-making and success, while being cognizant of typically subconscious impediments such as external cultural and social biases. If I were to describe the topic of the book in two words, it would be “competitive philosophy.”

Instagram post of two-time US Champion Jennifer Shahade

Instagram post of two-time US Champion Jennifer Shahade.

A.R.: For me, as a semi-professional player, the book was certainly an eye-opener. What do you think chess players will take away from the book?

A.M.: I appreciate you taking the time to read Reality Check! I’ve been fortunate to have similar feedback from other semi-professional, as well as hobby chess players. We all share in common that we love the game of chess, but are often faced with dilemmas about how to fit it into our lives. Not only on a practical level but in terms of how to find meaning in chess among all of our other priorities.

In fact, the book opens with a discussion of placing chess in the context of balancing multiple pursuits and the psychological relinquishment to the pursuit of success that must occur in order to go all the way in the competition. The book ends with a discussion on how to find long-term happiness in short-term successes. Those of us who have devoted a lot of time, effort, and energy into our chess (whether we ended up professional players or not) often experience these swings in terms of our attitudes about chess — e.g. whether it is worth continuing. In philosophical parlance, these could be existential crises of sorts. In other words, they are the “reality checks” that can either keep us grounded, or be completely demotivating, depending on how they are tamed.

A.R.: Who else do you think would benefit from reading the book?

A.M.: On a practical level, young adults and parents interested in the benefits of chess as applied to education and careers would find the book most useful. However, I think that any chess enthusiasts balancing chess with other pursuits would particularly find themes they can resonate with here, that are not covered in other chess or self-help literature. The book is meant to be comprehensible to non-chess players, but for those keen on a more theoretical treatment, there is an appendix of annotated chess games to complement the topics covered.

A.R.: What is your hope for the audience after reading Reality Check?

A.M.: My hope for the readers is not that they will necessarily get results, but that they will come away with a new perspective on what gives them meaning, and how to maintain fulfillment going forward.

To find out more about Alisa's book and order your copy, click here. For those in the NYC area, Alisa will be doing a book signing and lecturing on decision-making in chess at the Marshall Chess Club on Tuesday, October 24 at 7 pm. More information about Alisa and links to her social media pages can be found on her website, www.alisamelekhina.com.

Photo by David Llada from the 2015 Millionaire Chess Open. Quote from Reality Check by Alisa Melekhina.

Photo by David Llada from the 2015 Millionaire Chess Open. Quote from Reality Check by Alisa Melekhina.