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What drives Jennifer Shahade, and Where’s She Heading?

She is a  two-time American women Chess Champion. She is also a professional poker player. She is as brilliant as she is striking. Allow us to introduce: Jennifer Shahade.

Jennnifer Dhehade (Photo: Daniel Meirom)

Jennifer Shahade (Photo: BJ Nemeth )

By Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak 

She is only 31, the daughter of a Jewish mother, the late Sally Solomon, who was a chemistry professor at Drexel University. Her father is a Christian from Lebanon. She has been twice the women’s chess champion of the U.S.and she is an uninhibited poker player. She write books, and appears on TV, she puts together artistic performances and is getting ready to write a play. So where is this energetic young woman from Philadelphia heading?

“Forget those nerdy chess players, with thick, Coke-bottle glasses, ” declares Shahade, who is not afraid to use gimmicks and provocative moves to promote her business agenda.  Her attractive looks may be misleading. The beautiful redhead, considered the best U.S.-born woman chess player, does not put on a poker face and, rest assured, does not take prisoners.  ”Chess has long ago crossed the boundaries of that dry game which is reserved exclusively for intellectuals, ” states Shahade, “chess and poker, can be pure business, ” she adds.

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The world of chess is men’s world, only three percent of U.S. competitive chess players are women.  “If you do not consistently rank among the top ten players in the world, you’d find it hard to make a living just from chess, ” explains Shahade, who in business and at the board prefers quick and aggressive blitz chess.  “I understood that rather quickly and then transplanted my chess achievements in the U.S. into practical dimensions.” True to her words, she divides her time among a wide range of activities: training, simultaneous chess playing, lectures, radio television and Internet commentary, writing books and articles, producing artistic performances and, of course, involvement in highly publicized poker games. As a ‘provocation junkie, ‘ she represents that she has no problem to presenting the gifts she’s endowed with on magazine covers, television and the Internet, thus making the game of chess more attractive than ever.

And if we are at the provocative aspect of things, then, as is her usual manner, it would be the farthest, most daring, most brilliant.  It is in fact so clever, it is easy to believe her that these are not provocations at all, but art; her form of artistic expression.  Take for example, the project “Naked Chess.”  If your mind’s eye now presents you with a pleasurable strip poker fantasy, well, you are wrong!  The idea came from Duchamp’s (Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)) photograph depicting a man observing two naked women playing chess.  Duchamp, himself a chess master, considered the game a transcendent artistic activity, and his work constitutes a protest against the movement that opposed nude painting.

Shahade transformed Duchamp’s protest into performance art, a simulation game, while adding a feminist statement by reversing the roles: Now she is the observer and the men are playing naked before her. another favorite artistic project is Hula Chess.  “Two female chess players, I am one of them, are playing chess while rotating hoops on various parts of their bodies. The video presentation of the game was shown at the Francis Naumann Gallery in the 1st Guggenheim YouTube Play biennial, next to Yoko Ono’s work.”  ( watch?v=SSonAJTM18Q&feature=player_embedded#!)

Shahade achieved her first breakthrough at the age of 13, and in her early teens managed to defeat expert-level players.  Just before her 16th birthday she was awarded the rank of master. “For me, the secret to unlocking the magic of chess was actually the tactical aspect of the game, ” says Shahade, who was born in Philadelphia and learned to play from her father, Michael (a FIDE master and four times Pennsylvania’s champion), to play chess at the tender age of six. “I love the game of chess; this matter of age is of little consequence.  Skin color, race, your social status or who you know, are all irrelevant.  Only one’s rating matters.  It’s a wonderful opportunity for children to meet others from different socioeconomic strata, countries and cultures.”  The highlight of her career, so far, was twice winning the U.S. Chess Championship.  “For me, the championship in 2002 was much more challenging, for it was protracted and involved both men and women, while in 2004 I played only against women in New York, and it definitely gave me an advantage.”

Poker improves business skills


“People often ask me if playing chess is fun.  Fun is not the right word.  Quite to the contrary, it’s very stressful and requires high level of concentration and mental strength … Poker is more of a fun activity.  It has the element of luck alongside that of skill, ” explains Shahade — who won 17th place in the women poker championship of 2007 — in her website, which is dedicated to the analysis and interpretation of games and competitions.  “Poker improves business skills and helps with social ones.  Chess, however, is an abstract thinking game that requires maximum concentration and analytical ability … I love poker but I am against gambling because I like to be in control.  There are those who get a high from it.  Not me. I maintain a balance between safety and risk. And that’s how it should be in life. ”

Despite being secular, Judaism is not unfamiliar to Shahade, who for the past five years has been attached to Daniel Merom, an Israeli director and film producer and her creative partner.  “Daniel and I are not religious but we celebrate Passover seder every year and invited my mother and guests, both Jews and non-Jews.  I even learned to make kneidlach soup.”

Her Mediterranean origin and last name often causes her difficulties when travelling to Israel, “Yeah, it’s not pleasant to be detained at the airport before boarding a plane to Israel, and being interrogated for a long time regarding my origins is embarrassing.  I understand the compulsion but still it’s not too pleasant …” says Shahade who, despite it all, has already visited Israel several times, including two occasions within the framework of the Taglit program.

Jennnifer Dhehade (Photo: Daniel Meirom)

Jennifer shahade (Photo: Betsy Dynako )

Chess in the digital era, is it sexier nowadays?

“Yes. It is more accessible and there are many attractive cum brilliant women that play the game.  Just recently the fashion magazine Vogue dedicated a whole article with fashion pictures to a former world chess champion from Russia, the gorgeous Alexandra Kosteniuk.  In recent years, the image has been changing.  This pushed me to make a pilot for a TV show where several actors/actresses will play short games of chess.”

There are more men than women in chess. Why?

“True, there are more men because women do not tend to focus on one thing only.  Women are more practical regarding a future career.  There is also pressure on women to look good, which is time consuming!  There are more women in poker since it is not an individual game, you have to communicate with partners in the game.”

An attractive Girl, is it an advantage or a disadvantage in chess or poker?

“In poker it is an advantage, since most men tend to reveal their cards to you (if you are attractive that is) …. in Chess it is more difficult.  If your opponent has a killer instinct mentality of the experienced chess player, it actually increases his motivation to play at a higher level and try and beat you.  On the other hand, women are not particularly welcome in poker.  The guys think women are too rigid, not sufficiently creative and not daring enough.”

Surely, you had the opportunity to compare the two games?

“In either poker or chess you cannot always predict the outcome even if make the effort.  Poker has a greater component of luck in addition to skill …. in chess it is almost immediately possible to identify the level of your opponent’s game as opposed to poker, where it’s hard to tell.  There are a lot of tricks, body language and tactics of deception, poker has a lot of psychological warfare in it and it is crucial to get your opponent off balance by deception.  I love the tension that it produces in my belly. “

Stress, gambling, addiction?

When I write a TV program, a script for a video or a book, I can predict the outcome.  I actually like that.  Business ideation flows inside and I’m not counting on luck or taking a gamble.  I have won (in both chess and poker) and I do not have a tendency to become addicted, so I’m not afraid to seriously play poker and thus improve. “

Do you make a living from playing these games?

“As for me, chess as a revenue source is due more to teaching or personal training than from competition.  As to the game of poker, I have incorporated it into my business agenda and not only because of the money. I just find the combination of the two more interesting from the intellectual and creative aspects.  Besides, the poker sub-culture provides a great place for networking.  Even when the chess world was my priority, I found every once in a while time to participate in poker tournaments.”

What is your opinion of Boris Gelfand, the successful Israeli player?

“It’s a great honor and a great achievement for the Israeli Gelfand to compete for the title of World Champion.  I found it more exciting that my Israeli friends, not all of whom are chess players, have intently followed the games. I admit, though I provided commentary on the games for a chess Website, I did not study his games in any depth.  I admit that though I provided commentary to a chess website on the games, I did not seriously study his games.   I confess that it was not the most fascinating battle among the world championships I have ever followed.  Gelfand is known as a positional player, who is well prepared for openings.  Both players, Gelfand and the Indian Annan are not known as players who take risks, usually they play a pretty closed game, thus the games are rather dry.”

Jennnifer Dhehade (Photo: Daniel Meirom)

Jennifer shahade (Photo: Daniel Merom)

You seem to have a thirst for thrills and the provocative?

“Yes, I constantly consume new stimuli for the intellect.  My analytic talent gets well integrated with keen business senses and a love for the arts. I am in constant physical and intellectual motion.  I must fathom new ideas, it motivates me: What will my next article be, what new projects are on my horizon.”

Chess Bitch?

“Till I wrote the book in 2005, no books were written about women who play chess, except one, which is very general and superficial.  I incorporated in the book my personal history with interviews of leading female chess players in which I seek to understand their styles and how they made their way to the top.”

Play Like a Girl?

“The association with the statement: “You play like a girl, ” has in it an overly passive connotation or an overly aggressive one.  Usually, it is intended as an insult to women who still are a minority in the world of chess.  They constitute only about 10% of those participating in competitions.  Such statements from other players might impede women from further participation.”  (The back came out in 2011)

What are your expectations for the next five years?

“I would like to see more opportunities for making presentations about my rich experience as a woman in the worlds of chess and poker.  Likewise, I’d like to continue to pursue artistic endeavors, such as in or media projects like Extreme Chess, that will serve as inspiration for creativity.  I think that chess is at a turning point in the U.S. and that a shift would, in fact, take place; I then would become a very busy woman, one of the leaders and innovators (in the field).  I also intend to write another book or movie script and win live poker competitions.

And on a personal level?

“On a personal level, though I’m doing well financially, on an annual basis, my income is not always stable and I would prefer solid economic security and to start raising a family in about 3-4 years.


Jennifer shahade (Photo: Daniel Merom)



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