25-year-old Jennifer Shahade knows how to shake up the world of chess. Not content to simply play the game she's loved since she was a child, the writer, poker player, and 2004 U.S. Women's Chess Champion authored Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport (Siles Press), which scored a blurb from Yoko Ono and set off debate within the chess world about the need for gender segregation. In the book, which features Shahade clad in a pink wig, scarf, and gloves on the cover, she examines high-profile female chess players from countries as farflung as Zambia, Russia, and China, examining the ways various governments support and nurture budding champions and how chess is or isn't valued, both financially and otherwise. She shares her own experiences studying with the likes of Garry Kasparov, and ultimately argues in favor of more women playing more chess, whether it's in all-female tournaments or mixed ones.
Of late, she's been keeping busy with a full-time job as Editor in Chief of Uschess.org, the official website of the United States Chess Federation, where she also blogs about the game, But the New Yorker has also made it her mission to promote chess, offering some suggestions in a New York Times Op-Ed piece last year, and showing a level of enthusiasm for chess on both a personal and professional level that should help revitalize it and reform its image as nerd central.
You've been playing chess competitively for 15 years. How has your relationship with the game changed over that time? Does playing chess for money detract from your enjoyment of it?
My relationship with the game has changed drastically at least every few years. When I was a kid, I loved tagging along to tournaments with my brother Greg and father Mike (hotels with pools and other kids were like paradise for a 10 year old city kid) but at some point I was self-conscious about being much weaker than them. So I stopped for a couple years, and then came back to it in high school rather suddenly. I was very serious for a few years, became a strong master and went to competitions all over the World, from India to Russia.
My most professional stage was at the ages of 18 - 22. Lately I’ve been focusing more on other things, like promoting my book Chess Bitch and also my new job as web editor of www.uschess.org.
A big dream of mine is to help get chess on TV or featured in a film so I’m also working on that with a few different producers, hoping that if I shoot enough darts we’ll hit a bull’s-eye one day.
What's been the single most exciting moment in your chess career?
Winning my first U.S. women’s Championship title. I was floating.
When did the chess crisis you wrote about in The New York Times begin, and what do you think can be done about it? Is it easier to focus on the upcoming generation of children and get them interested rather than people your age?
A lot of organizations and individuals are working hard on teaching and building confidence in children through chess. It’s structured so that chess is seen as a children’s activity, something to give up on after you become an adult. That means that a world class Grandmaster can only make a living on chess in America by teaching kids, cause that’s where all the money is right now. So to actually support professional level chess, it’s necessary to extend interest into teens and adulthood. Writing about the game and getting it on TV would help a lot with this. That way, even people with jobs and little time for weekend tournaments could keep one foot in the chess world.
Last year, your book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, was published. You focus on various top female chessplayers from around the world—why did you decide to structure the book that way, and what are some of the geographical differences you've found?
I decided a strict chronological structure wouldn’t work for Chess Bitch because it could easily get boring. Also, chess is an international game that you can play all your life, so characters often bump into one another.
I knew I needed to add contemporary analysis and personal anecdotes to string the book together so I placed those elements in every chapter. Then I decided to structure the chapters based on both geography and theme. For example, I focused on Eastern European women’s chess and tied it in with the stories of various Anna Kournikovas of chess who promote chess and themselves in sexy modeling shoots. I have very mixed feelings about this, so I tried my best to weigh both sides in this difficult chapter. Another example is my chapter on China and the question of genius and obsession in chess. I put those two together because the success of the Chinese women’s chess training program supports the theory that training is more relevant to chess success than talent. That explains why there are so few great women chess players. They just don’t get the training.
You write that, contrary to the opinions of renowned chessplayers such as Reuben Fine and Garry Kasparov, women's chess is not intrinsically different from men's. Considering this, why is women's chess still a separate category, and do you see this division ending anytime soon?
Most tournaments are not segregated. The large majority of American tournaments combine men and women or girls and boys into the same section.
If there were a 1:1 ratio of women and men in the chess world I would agree that all tournaments should be integrated. But a lot of women feel alienated at these mixed events, so it’s positive to have occasional “all women’s events.” Separate women’s prize funds also support professional women’s chess.
For the same reasons, I love playing in women’s poker tournaments.
You encourage chess players to think like poker players, and have yourself considered a career in poker. What can chess learn from poker? Will chess ever be as lucrative or "cool" as poker?
The skill sets are similar enough so that lots of chess players who used to be struggling are now raking in six figures from poker.
I too am attracted to poker because it has what chess doesn’t⎯money and wide exposure. My brother, an international master in chess, became a professional poker player a few years ago and after I finished Chess Bitch, he encouraged me to seriously consider a pro poker career. He trained me and I loved it at first.
But it can get really boring to play online poker. Theoretically, poker is fascinating but in practice, you have to wait so long to get an interesting hand, and often my attention is gone by that time especially if I’m playing online. So I’m grateful that I found a job as a web editor. It takes advantage of more of my skills and allows me to play poker for fun once in a while.
Chess can learn a lot from poker. First, chess media and sponsors should emphasize its glamorous aspects: worldwide traveling, parties and escape from real world responsibilities. Poker made it big on the travel channel, after all.
I deeply believe in chess on TV, even for those who don’t know the rules. Chess can learn from poker on making itself telegenic. Elements that could make chess work on TV include lots of graphics demonstrating the basic moves, funny, entertaining commentators and background on the personalities and careers of the players.
In terms of television coverage, will we ever get back to a Bobby Fischer level of interest in chess in the United States? Is that a feasible goal?
Yes, but this time I think it will be more of a bottom-up movement, with lots of amateur chessplayers and children getting excited about the game.
You're known for playing simultaneous chess exhibitions (simuls), where you circle around a room full of players, competing against up to 50 at once. What's the biggest challenge in doing a simul, and why do you enjoy them?
The biggest challenge in a simul is finding the right shoes! I want to look good in front of fifty people, but really sneakers are the best bet. I try to finish a simul as quickly as possible and don’t worry if I lose a game or two along the way. It becomes a manic workout. I’m literally running around playing moves as fast as my fingers and legs will go. My brain usually follows.
The simul is a great chess illusion. It makes the simul-giver seem like a genius, when really they’re just speaking their language. Chessplayers rely so heavily on instincts developed from years of training and practice. Chess is not all about thinking, there’s a lot of feeling involved.
Do you have any goals you'd still like to fulfill in the world of chess?
I want to contribute to a great chess TV program. I also want to get some major sponsors involved in the game, and host and/or play in some unusual matches like an endurance chess challenge.
I’m only interested in playing competitively if there’s serious money on the line. I love playing, but at this point I need a concrete incentive to devote the time necessary to make that happen. If chess was my only love, I’d do it in spite of the financial hurdles. But because I love so many other things, writing and editing in particular, it makes sense to me to focus on that now.
You mention having a day job on your website—what kinds of day jobs have you had, and what are you working on now? If you could make a living simply from playing chess, would you want to?
I’m the web editor of www.uschess.org. It’s an enormous job, too big to finish everything. My job responsibilities include: art direction, photography, managerial work, writing, editing and copy-editing. I work from home too, so it’s easy to work too much. I used to think I was lazy when I was a student/chess professional. Now I have to force myself to stop working!
Do you consider chess a sport, an art, both or neither?
I like to call it a sport because it deserves the respect of a sport, and it’s structured much like a sport. And it definitely makes you sweat. The top champions are almost always in excellent shape.
Speaking of art, you've participated in various art projects at events such as a psycho geography festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and as a juror for a design competition at the Noguchi Museum. Do you consider yourself an artist? How does that creative element play out in your chess, your writing, and your daily life?
Sometimes I consider myself an artist. When I was writing my book, definitely. When I take photos or work with images, yes. Studying beautiful chess positions at home or analyzing games from the past is like art appreciation, though it’s not art making.
Playing chess is more athletic than artistic. Champions are more concerned with victory than beauty: it’s war with occasionally graceful kicks. But so often now, I trap myself into days full of e-mails and business considerations. Then I feel tired and not like an artist at all. I have plans to work on that.
In 2003, you performed as part of a chess game/art exhibit, where you and Irina Krush alternately dressed in all black and all white. What are you trying to accomplish with an event like that?
I wanted our match to highlight the performative aspect of chess. It’s an art gallery, so the game should be interesting to look at both from a expert point of view (the moves of the game) and a purely visual point of view.
On your website, you have photos of various friends and family members modeling the same pink wig you wear on the cover of your book, and you sporting an assortment of other wigs. What's so appealing about wigs, and which one's your favorite?
Well, changing your hair changes your personality. My hair is naturally very curly, but I used to get it straightened a lot. I’d immediately feel like a different person. Neater, more organized, more together and ready to attack life.
Wigs can give you the same kind of feeling, but it’s not permanent and it doesn’t damage your hair like too many blow dries does.
In your bio accompanying your New York Times Op-Ed piece, "All The Right Moves,” the paper declined to print the title of your book, simply saying that you'd written a book about women and chess. What do you think about this decision and have you heard from anyone at the Times since the piece ran? Had you discussed your bio with them before the Op-Ed ran?
It was very surprising because every other paper up to that point had written the title of my book and I thought The New York Times would be the last place to be put off by a little controversy. In fact, the title was the reason The New York Times called me⎯they'd heard I wrote a controversial book.
They did tell me just beforehand, so it wasn’t a surprise. After “All the Right Moves” ran I got a letter from one of the editors admitting that it was an overly cautious decision. In any case, it all worked out well cause my book title was published in many articles about The New York Times not printing the title.
Has the word "bitch" in the title had any other negative repercussions—have bookstores or distributors backed away from it because of the provocativeness?
Some, but I think it’s counter-balanced by vendors and individuals gravitating to it because it’s something fresh. Most chess books only sell a few thousand copies, and a book titled something like “Women in Chess” would sell even fewer. The idea with this title was to spread the book outside the competitive chess world. I’m interested in attracting readers who love chess but play only casually, and feminists interested in male dominated fields.
A lot of critics claim that the title hurt my sales, but I really think that’s a false conclusion. They mention chess moms and their daughters, but right now that demographic adds up to few potential buyers, many of whom bought my book anyway. By the way, not one person who has criticized my title has offered a reasonable alternative.
Your author photo shows you with a chess queen on your shoulder. What are you trying to say with that photo?
Nothing in particular. It was a publicity shot. I like the photo although I generally prefer photos in which I’m smiling.
You're now editing and revamping the United States Chess Federation's website. What are your plans for the site, and how do they tie into your ideas about revitalizing American chess?
My first goal is to create an attractive, interactive website that forms a community of chess lovers. I want to keep it light and keep people coming back⎯heavy on photos, humor, and simple chess tactics and strategies. I want to promote our top players to increase their visibility and their chances to make a living at chess.
I have a blog there, and I want to connect things like what I ate for breakfast, or the movie I just saw to chess. I think that with all the energy being poured into the redesigned magazine, Chess Life, and the website, raising the number of USCF members from 80,000 to 100K+ should happen naturally. Even more exciting is the possibility that these new publications will put a better face on American chess, and attract advertisers and sponsors to the chess world.
Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport is available now. Find out more about Shahade at her website, read her blog at Uschess.org and visit the main Uschess.org site.