Jennifer Shahade is the strongest American-born female chess player of all time. But at 24, already a two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, the Philly native and NYU alum is in semi-retirement from competitive chess. Her new book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, charts the rise of women in the chess scene, from a new generation of Chinese chess goddesses to the well-circulated Internet photos of Alexandra Kosteniuk, the “Anna Kournikova of chess.” Chess Bitch also debunks theories about menstruation-induced incompetence and the pseudo-Freudian male chess drive.
Why are there so few women in chess? I’ll play Larry Summers and ask, is it possible that male brains are just intrinsically more suited to the game?
It’s true that very few women play chess in America. But the 5 percent that play are pretty well-distributed in all levels. And to promote theories about whether women are inherently weaker at certain things can easily turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. When one of the best female chess players in history, Susan Polgar, cites menstruation as a possible obstacle for women, I don’t see that as having anything but a negative effect on women’s chess.
Your first chapter is titled “Playing Like a Girl.” What does that mean in chess? You would think it would mean playing soft. But in the chess circuit, it’s more likely that playing like a woman would mean to play really aggressively, because women have developed over the years, in general, more aggressive styles. My style is very aggressive, meaning that I take a lot of risks—risks of destroying my position in order to destroy my opponent.
Why are women more aggressive? Women’s games are always given a ton of attention. In America, I’m going to be one of only ten women in a tournament with a thousand people. So I can tell you that a large percentage of the spectators will be looking at my game. It’s more theatrical, so you try to play entertaining moves.
There’s been, not surprisingly, a lot of focus on female chess players’ looks. There’s this thing on the Internet now called the World Chess Beauty Contest. The women are being rated, and I found that kind of disgusting because instead of competing over who are the better players, it’s just who’s better-looking. I wouldn’t be upset about it if it was just pictures of beautiful women playing chess.
You, for example—on the cover of your book, you’re wearing a slinky dress and have a come-hither look on your face. So as long as women’s looks are being used in the service of promoting chess, that’s ok?
It can just be fun. It’s fun to dress up and have people take photos of you. If I didn’t have a picture of myself looking like that, I would still be able to write the book.
You worked with Garry Kasparov when you were on the women’s Olympic team. What was that like?
I was like, why is Garry Kasparov working with women, he’s said all these terrible things about women’s chess in the past—that women are biologically programmed to be weaker at chess because they’re worried about babies crying, that he would never lose to a woman or a computer. Really funny, considering that both did happen.
Are most chess players nerds? No. Especially in Europe and China, chess doesn’t have that reputation at all. From a very young age, I was playing internationally, I was going to discos, partying with people much older than I was. So I thought chess was super-cool.
Do you have to be smart to be good at chess? Definitely not. It’s like a language. There’s a misconception that chess is a game of thinking, whereas it’s actually a game of intuition. The most important thing is that you learn chess when you’re young or you’re willing to submit to an immersion.
I had a friend who used to dream about chess. Do you? Yeah, I do, but usually, the positions I’m dreaming about are illegal.