14-year-old math, chess prodigy enrolls at UCLA
Become a member of the highly competitive United States of America Junior Mathematical Olympiad team? Check.
Become America's top-ranked chess player under the age of 15? Check.
Become the youngest person ever to take for-credit classes at Boise State University? Check.
And now, how about — at age 14 — earning a full four-year scholarship and enrolling at UCLA? Yep, Luke Vellotti has done it. Check and checkmate.
The youngster from Boise, Idaho, who also plays piano and swam competitively, is ready to take his place as a member of UCLA's Class of 2017. When classes begin Sept. 26, he’ll be joined by his 18-year-old brother, Carl, and more than 5,700 other first-year students, and more than 22,000 transfer and returning undergraduates.
Luke, a chess international master and National Advanced Placement Scholar, is one of about 20 younger-than-usual students who have enrolled at UCLA over the past decade.
"I'm probably most excited to be at such a challenging school with such great professors in such a great city," said Vellotti, whose ambitions include becoming a doctor and earning the title of chess grandmaster. "I know that at UCLA I'll be able to push myself harder than I've been able to in Boise."
Vellotti, who has earned a Stamps Leadership Scholarship from the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation and plans to study math and computer science, has had a fascination for numbers since he was a toddler, when he would light up watching the numbers flash across the screen as his family's computer was booting up.
"He would look and try to quickly add the numbers together," said his father, Daniel Vellotti. "He loves to learn."
By the time he was three, he could double numbers into the millions and perform multiplication in his head; at five, he was already finishing high school math workbooks, with complete precision, in a matter of hours.
At 10, he completed an introductory engineering course at Boise State. In 2011 and 2012, he won both the Idaho math championship and the state’s science bowl competition.
He also has racked up a host of chess championships: national titles for third graders, K-6 and quick chess; and a state high school championship at age 9. Vellotti has written a book about his chess exploits, "How I Became an Expert," and by the time he was 12, he had earned the U.S. Chess Federation's National Master designation. He is the highest-rated player under the age of 15 according to chess's international governing body, and he will be awarded the International Master title on Sept. 30. (For more information about Vellotti’s achievements, visit his website.)
"Everyone has a certain gift," Vellotti said. "My gift has just shown through in this particular way, but I think that everyone has a gift that can shine through."
Vellotti said chess has provided life lessons — patience, strategy, grace in defeat and creativity — that he’ll apply to his studies at UCLA. "Often in chess, you have to think of a creative way to break through the position or win the game. When you're solving a math problem, often the solution is not something you initially thought of and you need to find a creative way to solve it."
A family affair
Daniel Vellotti and his wife, Ava Harmon-Vellotti, have moved to Los Angeles to be close to their sons and expand the chess school they run. The elder Vellottis believe that UCLA is the perfect environment for Luke to grow and reach his potential as a thinker and as a leader.
"I feel comfortable because I know he's mature for his age, he's accelerated socially, and he can handle himself quite well," Daniel said. "I'm optimistic and I'm very excited for him. UCLA is an incredible campus and the staff and faculty have been so helpful, so I'm sure it's going to work out really well."
It also helps that Luke will have his big brother’s ready support. Carl, who will study bioengineering and also aspires to become a doctor, said attending the same university has long been the brothers' plan.
"I honestly consider myself to be Luke's biggest fan," said Carl, who is also a chess dynamo with two state championships under his belt and has been ranked among the Top 100 under-18 players in the U.S. "He's just an amazing person."
Using chess for good
The brothers have worked together to use chess as a platform for community service, something they plan to continue at UCLA. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Luke raised money to support relief efforts by simultaneously playing 20 games on 20 different boards. Each opponent pledged a fee to compete against the youngster, helping him to take in more than $1,500 for the American Red Cross.
They also taught chess to residents of Cherry Gulch, a boarding school in Emmett, Idaho, for adolescent boys struggling with depression, family conflict and violence. Under their tutelage, the school's chess team won Idaho’s novice state championship four years in a row.
For his part, Carl organized a program called Checkmate Hunger for each of the past three years, inviting people to donate canned food for each of his victories during the Idaho state chess championship tournament. The endeavor brought in roughly 2,300 pounds of food for the Idaho Food Bank. Carl’s chess students from his parent’s school plan to continue to support the cause now that he is at UCLA.