by Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak
The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s TV drama of a fictional story about a female chess prodigy competing in a male-dominated sport with the most famous players of all time, is the story of our chess champion, Jennifer Shahade.
The two-time US women’s chess champion Jennifer Shahade, 41, just published her fourth book titled “Chess Queens.”
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Her story exposes readers to the fascinating universe of chess. A crazy voyage through the lives of women competing and winning on the international scene. A deep dive into their dynamic inner lives exposes what it truly takes to win in a male-dominated field.
The Sunday Times described it convincingly in its book review: “Like the film, Queen’s Gambit, it isn’t really about chess, but power… Shahade wants to provoke discussion and show how chess is just a starting point for wider liberation.”
Yoko Ono (A chess fan) in “Chess Queens” book review wrote: “All women should take up the challenge and pick up aboard!.”
I interviewed her when she just returned from a Passover trip to Israel.
Jennifer was introduced to me many years ago. I see in front of me a woman with a strong presence, sexy, who wears showy clothes and has flashy red hair. She was not the stereotypical nerdy female who enjoys chess. She possessed an exceptional, bright, talkative, and outgoing personality.
In her adolescence and early twenties, she was already traveling the world to cope with players from Zambia to China. She was exposed to sexism and a lengthy history of top female players who have often been ignored in a challenging masculine environment believing women are weaker players. However, she also found friendships, feminism, and hope.
Shahade has not only used her logical reasoning to win aggressive games, but she has also been studying comparative literature at NYU. She has already written three books “Chess Bitch”; “Play Like a Girl,” and she was a co-author of Marcel Duchamp’s “The Art of Chess.”
Born in Philadelphia and currently residing there, Shahades is the daughter of a Christian-Arab father, a FIDE Master, Mike Shahade, and a Jewish mother Sally Solomon, a chemistry professor at Drexel University and novelist.
She is married for 14 years to Daniel Merom, an Israeli director, and film producer. They have a son, Fabian (5).
Besides using her artistic cooperation with her husband, Daniel in video art and some provocative exhibitions, she is the Women’s Program Director at US Chess, MindSports Ambassador for PokerStars, and a board member of the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis.
Shahade is the host of the poker podcast, the GRID, which she produces with her husband. In 2019, the GRID won the Global Poker Award for Podcast of the Year. She also hosts the chess podcast Ladies Knight.
How do you find working with your husband?
“I am working with him quite a lot. Nowadays we operate a broadcast “The booker game”, the idea how to play poker. We interview different players. It is actually storytelling but also some math to comprehend the game”.
Poker is a more fun
The American Women Chess Queen is an avid poker player. In an interview for Jewish Business News in February 2013, Shahade said, “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 a high level of concentration and mental strength … Poker is more of a fun activity. It has the element of luck alongside that of skill.”
Do you see a correlation between chess and poker?
“Oh yeah. Chess becomes more glamorous. In fact, chess becomes poker and poker becomes more like chess…”
Maybe because there is more money in poker?
“I am not sure so. I think because it is more social so people are more attracted. People look at chess and more intense game, a binary – lose or win. In poker, you could have a great time even if you lose. In chess the experience is different. It is trickier. You have to have a positive experience to keep going and it is quite difficult.”
Jennifer acknowledges that men continue to dominate the game. She emphasizes that while there are few women in childhood and adolescence, there is a growing attraction for more mature women later in life. “Women still play more poker than chess,” she explains.
What is the most annoying stereotype of women playing chess? Has the #MeToo movement positively impacted men perceiving women playing chess?
“The most annoying stereotype of women playing chess is that we are boring and dull. Luckily the Queen’s Gambit helped flip it. The MeToo movement has been very positive in our culture overall- I wouldn’t say it has infiltrated chess as much as I’d like to see it. However, there is some progress. For instance, there are now Safe Play Guidelines and a reporting form for abuse and misconduct in the US.”
What kind of future do you see for the women’s chess world?
“I’d love to see far more women and girls in the game, and for those girls to be more welcome.”
It isn’t about chess but power
Jennifer introduces us to the competitive world of chess through her own experience and extensive research on game pioneers. She portrays rivalry and camaraderie, spectacular victories and painful failures, glamour as well as hard work.
She recalls the coach who told her that her period would have an impact on her game, as well as the matches that made history.
In your book, you mentioned that men playing chess think about sex every 15 minutes or less…
“Right. It was kind of a joke. Most likely, men think about sex more than women, but I am not sure it is entirely true. Maybe…there are more factors as men are watching more porn…”
Is it possible that thinking about sex harms their focus in the game?
“I think that people come up with some stories and theories about gender and sex issues, and I mentioned it because I want to demonstrate that if you wish to make up a story, you can always come up with something to make your point. Some men say that beautiful women playing chess have an advantage over men, and some men say they would have liked to play better against women in order to impress them. It seems it works both ways.”
A wider liberation
Jennifer’s tale is intertwined with the stories of the world’s top female players. The vibrant jet setters who party their way around the world, as well as the players who fled war-torn countries to become champions against all odds. And of course the famed Polgar sisters, the three Hungarian-Jewish girls who were all child prodigies. The girls were part of an educational experiment conducted by their father. Laszlo Polgar attempt to show that children could achieve outstanding results if mentored from a young age.
Mention one anecdote you love the most in your book…
“Well, I have so many…but I liked a lot the story of the famous Polgar sisters. Susan Polgar wasn’t allowed to play in the World Championship even though she was qualified due to a gender issue. Only men were allowed to play. She was successful in changing the rule and eventually, her talented young sister, Judit Polgar did play.”.
You are an aggressive chess player. Is it typical for women in chess? Playing like a man?
“It is quite a cultural factor. When you start playing, you play more aggressively, and when time goes by, the girls become even more aggressive than boys! There are a lot of reasons I mentioned in my book. In fact, it is like in the business world. You wish to comply with the image of the boss. In business, it has some negative reactions due to the cultural organizational factors when people portray a woman who acts like that as a bitch… which seems normal for a man who is the boss. “
So, your latest book has had great timing or intentionally was deliberated?
“I am sure that was the reason it was published by a leading British publisher.”
What kind of impact did the TV series “The Queen Gambit” have on the chess world?
“First, many chess sets were sold out everywhere. The chess sites (on the internet), like Chess.com and “Playing Magnus” spike, and YouTubers were flourishing. Definitely more people came into the game, especially the young ones. Unfortunately, not enough women though as I would have liked.”
Did the film present the reality? Could you identify with the leading actress?
“I loved the movie, and I definitely identified with many things that the lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy evoked. She really nailed the “flow experience” that chess can bring you into, and the glamour and social scene of chess, with top players hopping from city to city as they battle their friends and foes.
“Men were the main creators of the film (the author of the book, the Queens’ Gambit, was a man- as were the director, writer, and producer of the Netflix drama) That caused a few blind spots. For instance, the games in the movie were all based on real games, but none of them featured games by women”.
Will digital chess minimize the gender and stereotypes gap between men and women?
“It is an interesting aspect to explore. I might think so. It leads me to my next book I am going to publish, “Thinking Sideways- Using your Chess to Improve your life.”
Is it still true that boys/men don’t like to lose to girls/women in chess?
“It is still not empirically researched. I am not sure it is so. There might be a bias subconscious.”
How do you define yourself, as a Mom, a writer, or a chess/poker player?
“Honestly, I see myself as a creator, an artist. It is what I am. Anything that I do, poker, chess, or girls’ empowerment, I always do it in a creative way, slightly on a different path than other people have done before.”
But you are not a typical chess player…
“It is true, but there are quite a lot of women chess players who are very creative and involved in other fields like law, the financial world, the internet (Youtube, streaming), and academics.”
Chess becomes Poker and Poker Becomes Chess
Is there money laying in playing chess?
“Actually, there is a lot of money in the chess world today! Even the chess creators make good money. You don’t have to be on the top 100 rated players list to make money. There are sponsors as well. It also depends on what country you come from, and whether you are good at self-promotion.
“It is true that sponsors won’t be interested only if you are exclusively a chess champion but a multi-talented with an extra edge, like the Botez sisters, who manage YouTube channels, which have a total of more than 1,750,000 followers.
Anna Han, a four-time U.S. Champion. Besides she competed in an underwater battle on a big board while wearing dive gear. The game couldn’t go more than 50 minutes, so she had to settle for a tie.
Anna Rudolph, the world chess champion, is also a frequent chess commentator at high-profile tournaments. She was the World Chess Championship’s official commentator.
Hoei Ifan, the second highest-rated female player of all time, who became a professor at a Chinese university following her studies at Oxford University”.
How do you juggle your many activities?
“I am working a lot and I try to figure out how to manage. It is still a work in progress. I need to get better at delegating. I would like to have more time for my young son Fabian, the best of light.”