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Thomas Maupin
Thomas Maupin

All the Right Moves: Westmoore Senior Excels in Dual Roles

Feb 12, 2018

V is for victory. And at Westmoore High School, V is also for 18-year-old senior Veronika Zilajeva, who values victory on the chess board and the basketball court.

Since 2016, Veronika has been a member of the Oklahoma Chess Hall of Fame as an expert level player. Her rating is more than 2,000 points, which is just shy of the U.S. Chess Federation's master level. How high can the points go? "Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion, has over 2,700," she said.

Veronika, who lives in Oklahoma City, said of her nickname, "Veronika is a long name. So on the basketball court, they started calling me V."

The family moved from their native Latvia to the United States in 2013 when Veronika was 13. They lived in a suburb of Riga, the Latvian capital.

Veronika, her parents and two younger siblings have permanent resident status in the U.S. "This is going to be our fifth year. So, after five years you can apply for citizenship," which they plan to do. "But not quite there yet," she said. The family moved to the Moore-Oklahoma City area to be near Veronika's paternal grandmother, who moved to Oklahoma City in 1999 after marrying an American.  

Veronika started chess by chance at age 7 while in first grade. Her Latvian school had a chess club, and she said her best friend went to the club to play for fun. "So, I tagged along. She started playing, and I thought it was really interesting. ... I thought 'That's a pretty cool sport. I'll play, too.'" She said her friend still remains a chess player and has a similar ranking in Latvia. 

Veronika explained how she studies chess with books and videos. "That's how you practice your openings. You read, you study something and then you go and test it out. That's how you study everything, like any school subject. You first get it explained or read up on the information and then you practice it and you see what works or doesn't work. And then you either go with it or change your opening, or go to some other things."

Besides working on her two favorite sports, she also tutors at Mathnasium on South May Avenue in Oklahoma City. Her math students range in age from kindergartners to fellow 12th-graders. During basketball season, she only works at the math job four hours on Saturdays. When she's not in basketball season, she works after school. 

Veronika is the Number 1 rated female chess player in Oklahoma. That's a distinction that might elevate the ego of some people, but not her. She said ranking is not important to her. "I'm usually not the one who cares a lot about rating. I don't want to focus my individual attention on the rating, just because it's for numbers. And I feel like you should be more focused on the game individually because that's what matters. So usually people actually tell me what my rating is rather than me looking it up or worrying about it. I think the quality of the game is important not what your rating is."

She said chess "relaxes me."

"In any teenager's life, you go to school. 

You have to do homework. You have to worry about your friends being happy with you. And all the other outside stuff. But whenever you go play chess, all you have is a chess board and a task to do: outplay your opponent." Although, she admitted chess can be stressful. "You have to make decisions really fast. But then at the end, you have this very satisfactory feeling."

Scholar is another word that describes Veronika. She is currently taking Advanced Placement English and Composition, AP Government, AP Calculus BC, AP Physics, AP Statistics, and Psychology. She finished her first semester as a senior with all A's. Her overall ACT score was 30, and she received a 34 in the ACT math category. She's always been interested in math. "I guess I just get it."

She speaks Latvian, Russian and English. She has not taken a foreign language in high school. "You either have to have two credits of computers or languages. And computers match with my potential study field."

Senior year means making college plans. She has applied to many schools including Claremont McKenna College in California, the University of Southern California, and Oklahoma State University. The colleges' letters are expected to arrive by the end of March. Veronika lost count of the number of colleges she applied to, and said it was "a ton, way too many. I don't recommend anyone applying to that many colleges."

When dreaming about her post-university life, she said, "I want to be a structural engineer or civil engineer because it's the same thing basically. I want to design cities, houses. Something stable, something that doesn't move." She has even drawn her dream house from various views, "but that's not serious, it's just a sketch," she laughed. What about 10 years from now? "I think that's too far in advance to think about. I still have to get through college, and then go from there."

Besides her love of math, does she prefer chess or basketball? "I prefer both combined. Because basketball gives you the physical exercise you need, the physical challenge." She said chess is a mental game and requires more brain than physical strength. "Basketball helps you play chess because during long games, like power games, you need that endurance that you usually get from physical exercise. But in basketball, because I play chess, I can use my skills to predict what an opponent is going to do on the basketball court. If I kind of only liked one, I'd only play one," she said.

And Veronika does consider chess a sport "because it's pretty complex." In chess she sees strategy, mental challenge and discipline. And those three play into her overall life. "Because you always have to think ahead what you will do, what you will have to achieve, what you want to do. And you have to be organized and create and plan and follow that plan. That's where the discipline comes in." She said mental challenge is important, "because if you tell yourself you can do something, then you probably will be able to do it. It's all in your head."

Girls' head basketball coach Andrea Guziec is one of Veronika's biggest fans. "She is a great kid! I would say this about V:  V is a very hard worker with an easygoing side to her. She is all about doing things right and well.  She has spoken with me about possibly becoming an architect and she has agreed to help me build my dream house! Whatever she does end up doing, I know she will be very successful in what she does."

As for V the basketball player, the coach said, "Veronika is really a defensive specialist but is averaging about 5 points a game. She usually guards the other team's best player!"

Westmoore Athletic Director John Burruss also praised the senior. “V is a very reserved young lady. We don’t speak often, but when we do she always has substance. Her future is unlimited.  She has a quiet confidence that will take her anywhere she wishes to go.

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