My earliest memory of chess was from when I was around three years old. I remember sitting on the edge of a rug playing with colorful LEGO blocks. When I looked up, I saw my father and my oldest brother playing chess. The board was illuminated so brightly that it looked as if the pieces were shining. I looked back down at my blocks, and they seemed so boring compared to the multitude of pieces and squares and interesting stuff happening on the board above. That was when I was first aware of my desire to play on that board and with those pieces. I would crawl over to where my father and brother were playing, take a few game pieces, and put them on the board too. After “playing” with them a few times in this way, I was henceforth banished from the vicinity of their games. This continued for two years until my mother determined that I had the capacity to understand what was going on. However, nobody believed her, so she taught me the basics herself. It took me about a week to grasp those rudiments of chess, after which I was handed over to my father for further instruction.
My father and I would take a chess set and chess book from our library at home and bike to one of our favorite places. There, my father would set up a position from the book on the board, and we would puzzle it out together. In the beginning, we would actually move the pieces, but after a few weeks my father urged me to work out the entire solution and move the pieces only in my head. We studied tactics, strategy, endgames, etc. I gradually improved to a stage where I could have a “reasonable” game with him (“reasonable” in the sense that I wasn’t losing after the fourth move). A few years later, when I was eight or so, I learned that there was a chess club at a local elementary school, so naturally I went to check it out. There I found good competition with kids my age and with one boy in particular. We were about evenly matched, so when he went to a tournament and won a big trophy, I wanted one too! That’s how I got started with tournaments.
For a few years though, competition took a back seat to other important family events, which had the strange habit of conflicting with tournament schedules. School was also a factor: It would have been difficult to actively study chess and play in tournaments given all the classwork and homework I would have had to make up for the days I missed. Also, tournaments usually run through Sunday, and my Sundays were taken up with IMACS. I loved IMACS so much that I wasn’t willing to skip even one class if I could help it. When I was in third grade, my parents withdrew me from the school I was attending for a variety of reasons, including lack of a challenging curriculum that kept me perpetually bored even though I skipped a grade. I was homeschooled while my parents searched for another school, and I recognized this as an excellent opportunity to have a say in my education. I was on my best behavior for months before I convinced my parents to homeschool me forever! Now that I was homeschooled, I had loads of free time. Also, my IMACS classes were moved to Thursday. So, now that I had the time and was not sacrificing IMACS, I got interested in competitive chess again.
From my friends at tournaments, I found out about the Internet Chess Club (ICC). With my new ICC membership, I played for hours after my studies were done (which at 3rd grade took a grand total of an hour and a half). My parents always encouraged me to play up (i.e., at a higher level), so already in elementary school I was regularly playing up in K-12 events. This wasn’t very good for my rating as I usually lost many games, but as a consolation, from age 8 on, I was Florida’s Top Girl at the K-12 level for several years in a row. At that time, Women’s World Champion Grandmaster, Alexandra Kosteniuk, was handing out the Florida’s Top Girls prize. After a few years of shaking hands with her, my mom asked her to coach me. I improved dramatically under Alexandra’s guidance – I developed an opening repertoire, whereas before I usually made up my own openings (that sometimes didn’t turn out well). As my rating shot up, I made the Susan Polgar’s National Team for Girls and was invited as the representative from Florida to play in her 2009 National Invitational for Girls event. That was my introduction to girls-only events. I took second place, and made new friends. My mom is always checking the Web site for FIDE (the World Chess Federation, or Federation Internationale des Echecs). There she found out about the 2010 North American Youth tournament. The fact that one of my new friends was going to attend helped seal the deal. We were both US representatives, and it felt awesome to tell people that I was representing the United States of America. A series of wins and draws took me to the final round where I ultimately won! And so in my first international tournament I got my first gold medal for the US. As I hadn’t been having great results before that tournament, the win was welcome and kept me studying chess even with my increasing workload. (Studies at my age now aren’t as easy as in 3rd grade!)
My coach, Alexandra, started a family, which meant that she rarely traveled from her home in Russia to the US anymore. Thus, my parents decided to choose a different coach to fill in the gaps – four-time US Champion and Grandmaster Alexander Shabalov. Under his guidance I won the 2011 US Girls Junior (U21) Chess Championship this past August with an undefeated score. Whenever I’m feeling low, there always comes a win to keep me motivated. Chess is an amazing game, and I’m very competitive, so that also always brings me back to competitions. I love playing and seeing how I stand against some of the big names in chess (or more often, those who say they’ve played them). My favorite competitions are the one day tournaments, because I get to go home quickly. The longer 6-7 day tournaments, like the Susan Polgar, North American Youth, and the US Junior Girls leave me homesick toward the end. (For how long can one eat hotel food?) Now I’m in a lull between tournaments, so I practice by playing on ICC and chesscube.com for about an hour each day. My next big tournament will be the World Youth Chess Championship in Caldas Novas, Brazil, this November where I will represent the United States.