Alisa Melekhina, a second-year litigation associate at Debevoise, spoke with me recently about her experiences as one of the highest-ranking female chess players in the United States, how she balances a demanding chess competition schedule with being a junior litigation associate, and strategies she has developed over time to succeed in the male-dominated world of chess.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, a little background. The world of chess is cut-throat, competitive, and extremely psychological. It is also male-dominated. There are approximately 90,000 registered U.S. chess players, but only 5% of them are women. Only about 30 women in the U.S. hold the title “National Master” (which requires a chess rating, or “ELO,” of 2200) or above; and there is only one female “Grandmaster” (which is the highest title in chess and requires consistent performance at top levels).
As an accidental chess spectator who is regaled daily by her chess-obsessed husband, I was eager to sit down with Alisa Melekhina and find out what drew her to — and has kept her playing — chess. She shared with me the tools she has developed to succeed in a world where women are a very small minority and how she balances her dedication to chess with the demands placed on a junior litigation associate at a leading international law firm.
After sharing the striking statistics of female chess participation noted above, Alisa pointed out that scholastic chess involvement is nearly 50/50 male to female. When I asked why she thought female participation drops so precipitously, she underscored the chauvinism and specifically the lack of female mentorship in the world of chess.
Though she did not have a female chess mentor, Alisa explained that she benefited from her father being her childhood chess coach, who not only protected her from a lot of the sexism at chess tournaments, but also was able to travel with her. Coaches — the overwhelming majority of whom are men — often travel with their chess pupils, helping them prepare for games and reviewing strategy after each round. Male coaches simply cannot travel with young female chess players as they would with male chess players. And so, Alisa explained, the achievement gap widens very early.
Women who stick with chess face many challenges. Chess is not only male-dominated, the environment can be outwardly hostile to women. English Grandmaster Nigel Short recently wrote in New In Chess magazine that “girls just don’t have the brains to play chess.” Furthermore, high-ranking female chess players often face vulgar comments online in response to posting their games and instructional videos. This is not the reaction when male players of equivalent strength post their games and videos. Alisa, like other female players, has been the recipient of inappropriate comments online, which can be disheartening. However, she also receives comments from fellow chess players reporting that they successfully used one of Alisa’s chess variations to win a game. She is always pleased by these types of comments, but understandably notes that the gender disparity will not disappear until all comments center on the merit of the underlying chess variations rather than the identity of the presenter.
One source of hostility from some male players stems from what certain people have dubbed “affirmative action” for female chess players. They point to the separate rating system for women players used by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (“FIDE”), the governing body of international chess competition, for example. Though women can, and do, play in the same events as men and the ELO ratings represent an overall measure of strength against both genders, the separate FIDE ranking system for women means that the title of International Master roughly corresponds to a rating of 2400, compared to 2200 for the title of Woman International Master. While Alisa acknowledged that it is difficult to justify a separate ranking system for a competition that is purely mental, rather than physical, she is not convinced that there is any unfair advantage given to women in chess. And, in the author’s humble opinion, the miniscule female participation in chess goes a long way to discredit any argument of unfair advantage. Additionally, Alisa — unlike many highly-ranked female players — has chosen not to use her alternate women’s title.
When I asked if Alisa believes her approach to chess is impacted by the fact that she’s a woman, she explained that women are typically, and perhaps ironically, “aggressive” chess players opting to play more “attacking” lines. She posited that this may be because the type of women who tend to persevere in male-dominated fields are ones who happen to have a more assertive attitude. In fact, Alisa currently has two students, one of whom is a top competitive Pokémon player, which is likewise a heavily male-dominated field. While Alisa doesn’t play Pokémon, she works with this student, Sydney Morisoli, specifically to help her develop a competitive spirit in male-dominated competitions.
At 24 years old, Alisa has already led a remarkable life. She immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 2 months old; after her family fled Crimea, Ukraine (then still part of the Soviet Union). Graduated from college at age 19, she enrolled in law school at Penn Law at 20. She is also the youngest associate ever hired by Debevoise. I asked her where she found the inspiration and courage to ignore convention and seek to conform situations to her needs and goals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she put her answer in chess terms. She explained that first you need to know the options that are available — essentially the possible “moves” within the “rules” or parameters of the operating framework. After that, it’s about being resourceful. Her approach is to attempt to see all of the possibilities that are out there and to pick the one that will best satisfy her long-term goals. Interestingly, when I asked Alisa for three adjectives that describe her chess game, she replied: “deviant, resourceful, and psychological.” In other words, in life as in chess, Alisa attempts to see the “whole board” and to set herself up for a winning end-game.
Initially, Alisa’s interest in the law was also influenced by chess. Laws, like the rules of chess, set out the operating parameters for citizens. She explained that her initial interest in the law was in a way “defensive” because she wanted to understand what rights she had to the games she played, especially when those games were posted online. This drew her to legal work and specifically to Debevoise’s Intellectual Property practice group.
I asked Alisa if she ever feels as though her competitive nature prevents her from being able to recognize and enjoy successes as they happen, and if so, how she attempts to combat that tendency. She spoke openly about her journey from a peak chess rating well-above the master level in May 2011, to losing her passion for the game during law school, to regaining her love for the game over the past two years. She explained that, after law school, she became more realistic in assessing the role chess plays in her life, and specifically how it fits with her other life goals. Once she realized that she would not be happy only playing chess, but also would not be satisfied only practicing law, she was able to set out healthy and attainable goals for both. She now competes in approximately one major and one mid-size tournament each year — including most recently the 2016 US Women’s Championship — and works to maintain playing at the strength of her FIDE Master title, which she earned in 2011. Though this is not the highest title available, Alisa has found balance by “knowing where [she] wants to be and being okay with it.”
At the end of our time together, I asked Alisa to share her favorite historic chess match. Without hesitation she replied “Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky, 1972.” Even the chess neophyte is likely familiar with this, the most famous chess match ever played. But Alisa considers it her favorite because of the “external factors” that created heightened drama. The match started with Fischer losing two games straight, but against the odds, Fischer came back to win. Alisa remarked that chess players are extremely self-deprecating because it is a unique game in that if you lose, you have no one to blame but yourself. “For Fischer to recover psychologically and ultimately win after such a difficult start was incredible.”
I think it’s pretty rare to meet someone as accomplished as Alisa whose mantra appears to be more about balance than obsession — more about prioritizing than trying to “have it all.” And though few, if any, of us will ever compete in international chess tournaments, we would all benefit from at least trying to incorporate Alisa’s approach to our careers — knowing where you want to be, and being okay with it.
Jil Simon is an associate in Debevoise’s Washington, D.C. office.
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