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UCLA

Chess Champ: Our Freshman Prodigy

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By Elliot Park '17

Published Aug 26, 2013 8:00 AM


Fourteen-year-old Luke Harmon-Vellotti will study math and computer science in his first year at UCLA.

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Most 14-year-olds haven't won three national chess championships. Most don't become World Chess Federation International master-elects. Most don't get four-year scholarships to UCLA. In fact, most don't even apply to UCLA.

But Luke Harmon-Vellotti isn't like most 14-year-olds. He's a chess prodigy. This fall, he’s leaving his hometown of Boise, Idaho, for Westwood, along with his 18-year-old brother Carl. Luke will study mathematics and computer science as a first-year student.

"My dad taught me chess,” he says. “We’d play Monopoly chess and he’d always make it fun for me. That’s when I realized I love it. Playing the game is like a big problem to solve, and I love solving all kinds of problems."

On top of playing competitively, Harmon-Vellotti has taught chess at both the Boys and Girls Club and his father's chess school in Idaho.

Luke Velotti Spotlight

A look at Luke's journey to UCLA.

"I love teaching other students, showing them how to play. I try to make it fun [for them] like my dad did for me," he says, describing a student named Isaac at the Boys and Girls Club. “He wasn’t very well behaved, always talking when we tried to teach. But chess was important for him because it taught him to focus on the game. When he was a first-grader, a year after we started teaching him, he won Idaho’s first-grade state chess championship."

At UCLA, Harmon-Vellotti plans to continue playing chess and hopes to breathe new life into the university’s traveling collegiate chess team. "There’s already a UCLA chess club, but it’s not very prestigious," he says. "I want to make the chess team a lot better—hopefully, one of the best in the nation." In fact he hopes to one day take the team to the President's Cup—the Final Four of College Chess.

Although the new freshman is not planning a career as a chess player (he wants to be a doctor), he knows the lessons he's learned will follow him beyond the game.

"Chess taught me a lot of the skills necessary to succeed in academics,” he says. “You have to always be focused, you have to always concentrate, and you have to keep working at things so you can understand them. You have to be very creative in chess, and a lot of the time in math and science you have to find a creative way to solve a problem."

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Luke Harmon-Vellotti, far right, taught at his father's chess school in Idaho.

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