Veronika Zilajeva, our new National Girls Tournament of Champions winner, talks to Jennifer Shahade about her victory in Madison, the links between basketball and chess, and why she finds chess relaxing.
Jennifer Shahade- (JS) When and why did you move to Oklahoma?
Veronika Zilajeva (VZ) My father’s mom (my grandmother) married in 1999 a military person who lived in Oklahoma so we moved to her. I was 13 at the time.
We moved on June 28, 2013—the month after a big tornado hit. Oklahoma is a tornado state and that year was one of the biggest tornadoes that hit Oklahoma. So when we came we could see all the damage that hit.
JS– What were your first impressions?
VZ– It was very very different. At first the school year hadn’t started yet and it felt like you’re going on a big vacation. When school started it was very very tough because of the language barrier. About the first semester of my eighth grade year (I felt more comfortable). I played basketball and the basketball scene started around November, so I was part of something. Before that, I just went to school.
VZ– I started playing chess when I was 7. I went to a chess club meeting because my friend Margarita went. I wasn’t intended on playing chess. After she started, me being competitive, I started too. She still lives in Latvia, we were around the same age and best friends. When she reached a certain level, I had to reach a certain level. So we were competiting with each other. That’s how we progressed faster than the others.
JS– That’s so great. I always say that. That’s why it’s so important that the girls make friends with each other at events like the NGTOC and at girls’ chess camps.
VZ– Yes, I think so yes. For me it’s like friends, but friends who like compete against each other.
JS– Like fremenies?
VZ– (Laughs) No….not like frenemies. You’re still friends off the board, but and really bump heads with other during the game.
JS-Like a respectful friendship, where you still want to beat each other (maybe even more than normally)
I see that with boys and girls but it does seem that with the same gender seems to happen more often and allows players of same gender/similar age to rise together.
JS-Are you still friends with Margarita?
VZ– Yes, but it’s hard to talk as much with an eight hour difference.
JS-Are you still around the same level?
JS– You were ranked 11th going into the tournament, so competitive but not a clear favorite. How did you feel going into it?
VZ– Well it was my last year, so as my dad told me before I left, it’s now or never, so you got to go all in.
JS– Who’s your coach?
VZ– I don’t really have a coach. Tony (my boyfriend) helped prepare the openings for each round.
JS– You also won your State Championship so you could have chosen to play the Denker or the NGTOC. Was it a tough choice?
VZ– No, because I thought for Team Oklahoma it would be best if I went for the girls tournament and for Advi, who I’m sure is going to be a Grandmaster, and someday soon at that, to play in the Denker.
JS– Were you the first girl to win the Oklahoma State HS Championship title?
VZ– Yes, I actually placed second but the person who finished first was from Texas so he couldn’t get the title.
JS– Sounds like you won to me! Was that a tough tournament too?
VZ- Yes, it was in Tulsa, which is two hours from where I live. Thankfully my dad drove me back and forth and he was my tough love talk person back and forth.
JS- What was your toughest game here in Madison?
VZ– Probably the round game five vs. Marissa Li. She’s very strong and I was trying an opening I never played before. I knew she played the Grunfeld, and there’s a tricky move 3. F3, so I played that, which I never played before. It was home prep, I guess you could say.
JS– Yeah, the Grunfeld is a tough opening to play because of that, because you can be like an open target.
VZ-I don’t like playing against the Grunfeld as White personally. I don’t play it as Black, so it’s just not comfortable for me.
JS– Even now you don’t like it?
VZ– Well, now it’s a bit better.
JS– And in the last round, that was the drama- you needed to win the title to get it clear.
VZ– Yes, last year I had a similar situation and last year I made a mistake because I was too nervous before the round and it didn’t go well. This year I didn’t make as a big deal of it. OK, What’s the worst you can happen? Well you can lose but if that happens, who cares, because it already happened. There is nothing to lose.
JS– That mentality is so important- you don’t want to be too hyped up, but you also want to be hyped enough to play well. Sounds like you found the perfect balance and got into the zone?
JS– Throughout the whole tourney too?
VZ– Well, to win a tourney you need to play well and you need a little of luck. Without one of those two components, you can’t win.
JS– What was the luck component in this tournament?
VZ– For example in the very last game, it was a draw. And I offered her a draw. And she decided to go for a win. And if she wouldn’t have, if she would have taken a draw (everything would be different).
JS- You would have tied for first and it would have been a big tiebreak situation. You actually tied several years ago! How does the difference between tying for first and winning first?
VZ- I think to win is slighty better (laughs), now I have the whole collection of first second and third places.
JS– Ah, because when you tied for first back in 2015 in Arizona, you didn’t get first place.
VZ– No, because of tiebreaks.
JS– So, I have to get back to basketball. I think it’s rare to hear of chessplaying basketball players. How did you have time for both passions?
VZ– I guess I didn’t do anything but basketball, school and chess. But I always felt like you can’t only focus on one sport because if you get caught up in one thing, you won’t be a well rounded person. My parents always insisted, there should be brain food and physical activity. So I could choose any physical sport I wanted, and then chess, because it’s something that makes your brain work.
JS– Did chess help you in basketball?
VZ– My coach used to joke about it all the time that because I play chess, I can see a few moves ahead. I was the team’s best defender, which requires me to think about what my opponent’s going to. I also feel the other way around, because I was playing basketball, and in shape all the time (not anymore), I was able to play even longer games.
JS– Why used to?
VZ- I’m not going to play basketball anymore. I’m going for a civil engineering major at USC which also requires a lot of time. My goal is not to be an NBA star or anything like that.
JS- But you’ll still be playing those pick up games right?
VZ– Yes, quite possibly yes.
JS- I always wished I had gone for basketball in high school. What about chess? Will you continue with that?
VZ– Yes, I think USC has a chess club, and I enjoy it. It sounds not true, but chess helps me relax, so I pretty sure I’ll keep playing chess (for a while)
JS- Chess helps you relax? Wow, why’s that?
VZ– If you have a certain problem in your real life, you play a game of chess and it takes your mind off that. And then after you can look at the situation from a different angle. It takes your mind off whatever you’re worrying about and gets you into the present moment.
JS– I love this way of looking at things. Regarding your college plans, a lot of people believe chess is great for girls to become more comfortable in fields where we are outnumbered. NGTOC $5000 top prize sponsor Richard Schiffrin believes chess can be a gateway to STEM careers. Thoughts on how chess may help in this way?
VZ– I think chess helps one make decisions. You have to make decisions on the board. And that gives you confidence in real life.
JS– Yes, I totally agree. You may not have all the information or time you’d like to have but the clock is ticking and you have to do your best.
JS-Have you made a lot of friends in NGTOC?
VZ- Oh yes, definitely. This is my fifth NGTOC. I probably have a friend in every state because of it. So if I go to another state for a tournament, I can for sure meet someone for lunch or a cup of coffee.
JS– What’s your most memorable friendship?
VZ- Well right after the NGTOC in Indianapolis, I met my current boyfriend (who lives in California). We played a game in the US Open, and started talking after that. We’ve been dating for two years now.
JS-How do you work on your chess when you’re home?
VZ-I go over my games, whenever I play in a tournament and really dissect them and see what you could have done better and because of those games, look at some lines. I also do a lot of puzzles. You can use chess.com, or books.
JS-It doesn’t matter as long as you do a lot of them.
JS I know Chuck Unruh, also of Oklahoma, on the US Chess board was so thrilled you won. He was smiling almost as much as you at the closing ceremony!
VZ- He is very supportive. The first few years I was a little nervous…he would go over the openings with me, tell me what to play, give me tips before the round.
JS: What is your inspiration to play chess?
VZ: All the different people that make up the chess world inspire me. You know you’re in a chess tournament because the people who play give such a vibe. I think it’s great- no other sport has that. You can meet anyone in a chess tournament.
JS- Any closing words to girls trying to get into the game?
VZ Keep trying consistently. If you keep trying, eventually you will succeed. Never give up.
Find final standings from the National Girls Tournaments of Champions here, and learn more about the US Chess Women Initiative on uschesswomen.org, and on our Twitter and Instagram pages.