10: Jennifer Shahade
Jennifer Shahade is a chess player, poker player, commentator and writer. She is a two-time United States Women's Champion and has the FIDE (World Chess Federation) title of Woman Grandmaster. Jennifer is the author of the books Chess Bitch and Play Like a Girl and co-author of Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess. She is also the online editor at uschess.org, MindSports Ambassador for PokerStars and a board member of the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis.
Hannah Lee Davis is a photographer and content creator living in Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on October 2, 2016, in Jennifer's Philadelphia home. Hannah Lee Davis photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
JENNIFER: I was made fun of a lot between eleven and thirteen. I was just unlucky in that I was always the youngest one in my grade —often almost a full year younger than some of my classmates, and I think in terms of style and experience I was a little bit behind. I was maybe a little sloppy in my dress, and a lot of people decided to bully me, so I didn’t have a lot of friends. It’s funny cause we didn’t have online bullying networks back then, so it was more long-form stuff? I remember it was like this book that was passed around where everyone would write things about each person in the class, so it was just like a written version of a Facebook wall. It got passed around to me and all the things written about me were really mean. [But] there was one girl who wrote really nice things, [and] I really remember that, cause looking back it’s funny that somebody had this advanced sense of kindness at such a young age.
SOPHIA: That was before you started getting really into chess.
JENNIFER: Yes, it was.
SOPHIA: So what did you spend your time doing before you did that? I know your dad and your brother were probably playing prettily heavily at that time.
JENNIFER: Yeah my dad and my brother were playing pretty heavily and I was more dabbling. I started getting serious about chess again in ninth grade, [while] the height of the bullying had to be sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I was moderately talented with acting, but it wasn’t the perfect fit for me. I had a really negative experience at [an acting] summer camp —a similar kind of bullying experience. Immediately after that summer camp, I played a chess tournament. It was like, the exact opposite experience. I was like really popular and had all sorts of friends, and I started to do much better in chess. Something just kind of clicked. It was just kind of a perfect storm in which I decided to go full-fledged into chess.
SOPHIA: In Chess Bitch, you wrote that as a teenager, “[you] found chess players sexy, but more than having crushes on them, [you] wanted to crush them.” You were just starting to get really good in your mid-teens, and of course that’s when a girl who spent all day playing chess was not considered to be the coolest thing. What was that like? How did you think about your life at that time?
JENNIFER: I think now, being geeky is cooler than it was at the time, but already, even at that point, I think there was some [social value.] For one thing I was constantly traveling abroad, so a lot of my classmates thought that was really cool. So it was really a confidence booster. And the thing about sexuality, attraction, and skill…I think that I’m really lucky that I [became aware of their interconnectivity] at such a young age, ‘cause I think it can be confusing for a lot of people. [There was] this attraction and like, desire to be really successful, and to be with really successful people. I think it’s good to [have realized] that early on, because if I didn’t, then it would’ve been more confusing for me.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the role chess has played in your erotic imagination, if any? Like for me, the idea that the transmission of knowledge is an erotic act transformed the way I approach my intellectual and sexual life, and I know there’s a lot of literature about the sexual dynamics in chess games. And that’s something you talked about having realized, maybe not entirely consciously, at a young age.
JENNIFER: Chess has been a shortcut for erotic experience for a really long time. Before it became the game it is now, where it’s competitive and the queen is the most powerful piece, it was a slower-paced game, and in some contexts, it would be a way for a woman and a man to see each other. It was kind of like a very early form of a date. There’s a really good book called The Birth of The Chess Queen, which explores that in a lot of depth. It’s interesting, ‘cause we will use it as a metaphor now and people think it’s really cutting-edge, and like, ridiculous and absurd that a chess game would be a date, but it’s actually a part of history.
It’s really fascinating. Even today, now that I’m really serious about poker…there’s a podcast I’ve been on which is really popular and really bro-heavy? Sometimes the host will interview women, and then he has a more feminist slant, but usually he interviews bros about like, you know, fat chicks and fucking and stuff. And he likes to say “chess” as a code for sex. Like “Did you play chess with her?” So when I got onto the show and we started talking about this, I was like "You do realize this is not something you invented, and has been around for hundreds of years?"
JENNIFER: He’s really surprised. This is not a new thing. But that’s the great thing about chess: it’s been around for so long that you realize that so many of the openings that you played —in this case the jokes that are made— are hundreds of years old. Chess can be a way to get to know somebody, get really close to them, physically and mentally, without really touching them. So I think that there’s kind of a tantalizing quality to it.
In terms of power dynamics…people often say that women chess players have an advantage if they’re attractive, because men will get distracted. But my impression of sexual dynamics, especially among people who are talented, is actually the exact opposite. That a guy, if he’s attracted to a woman or vice versa, will probably sit up straighter and try even harder to bring his A-game and get zoned in cause he doesn’t want to look foolish in front of somebody he’s trying to impress. The idea that a guy would lose on purpose seems so absurd to me. I would think that he’d be afraid that; if he were to lose, you’d lose respect for him.
SOPHIA: That awareness probably made you more conscious of your active role as a woman in your sexual relationships than others might’ve been, at least early on.
JENNIFER: Yeah. I say it’s like a hundred to one the amount of times people say the one thing —that “Oh, your boobs and your looks must distract chess players.” And even more offensive things, like “It must add a hundred rating points to you.”
SOPHIA: Oh my god, that's awful.
SOPHIA: In Chess Bitch, you wrote that "we need more positive but equally enticing and complex portrayals of females in competition with one another." As someone who has intensely thought about and competed in women’s tournaments, and as a woman who has served as a chess tutor for young girls, what do you feel are the benefits of females in competition with one another, not only in chess, but also in society at large?
JENNIFER: I think it’s really important for women to compete with each other openly, because if it’s not open, then it just becomes more negative and passive-aggressive, so that’s why stuff like chess is so great for young girls, because they’re just trying to crush each other. [But unfortunately] what happens a lot of times in chess, is that people will compare girls to one another constantly, and it [continues to] happen in all the subcultures —poker, too, even if they’re not competing directly. I find that kind of annoying because I think it damages the potential for a relationship if people are constantly comparing [women] to one another. But I think the actual battles are really great, and there should be more of them. When I wrote Chess Bitch, there were fewer tournaments in the U.S. that were exclusive to women —the Women’s Championship or the All-Girls’ National, two or three on the calendar. Now it’s gotten way more popular, and I think it’s a bit too much now. I feel like there should be women’s tournaments and girl’s tournaments occasionally, so the girls can meet, bond, provide role models to girls who are less experienced…all that’s great, but I still think it should be between ten and twenty five percent of the tournaments they play.
SOPHIA: Do they play a lot more than that?
JENNIFER: It’s getting a little bit higher. Obviously every girl is different, but there are a lot of prestigious women’s competitions now. There’s the U.S. Women’s Championship, there’s the U.S. Junior Girl’s Championship, there’s the All-Girls’ Nationals, there’s the Susan Polgar Tournament, National Girl’s Invitational, which is a really good one. They’re all great in isolation, but I don’t want to see them not play men, cause that’s obviously one of the great things about chess —that men and women can play on the same playing field in the same tournament. It’s an example of a good idea that, if it gets blown out of proportion, can suddenly become a bad idea. I think you have to have women play against men if you want chess to become more popular, because people like seeing that. People like seeing the young girl play the older man, the older man play the little boy…That’s something chess has symbolically that’s unique to sports played on that level; you can have the mixture of genders and ages all across the board.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about your experience doing [your chess nonprofit] 9 Queens?
JENNIFER: Creating 9 Queens was kind of formalizing my work [with women in chess.] There’s a book [I wrote] called Play Like a Girl, which is kind of like a 9 Queens project and a prequel to Chess Bitch, in which all the tactical positions are from the world's best female chess players. I said earlier that I think it’s possible to have too many girl’s tournaments, but I think it’s hard to have too much women’s training, because that’s just bringing women together. As you know, sometimes women don’t speak up in class as much when they’re with men and boy. They have to be more certain that their answer’s right, and all of those things. I don’t think they’re negatives; it’s just not great if they’re combined with men in that context, because then they just don’t get to speak as much. You could just say [women] should stop [behaving that way] and teach them not to do it, but I’m not so sure I agree with that, so that’s why I really like women’s training ideas.
As for Play Like a Girl, a friend of mine sent me a picture of her son reading it. A couple people have [shared similar anecdotes.] I said, “Of course, that’s great, because it’s not just about teaching girls that women can be just as aggressive and intelligent as men, but it’s also about teaching boys the same thing. It’s equally important, really.”
SOPHIA: Of the 80,000 members of the US Chess Federation in 2003, some 1,000 had earned the rank of national master, but then only 15 American women, one of whom was you. Did people start reacting to you differently after that? Were you aware of beginning to carry yourself differently?
JENNIFER: It’s really a tough one, because it’s still a lingering problem, that women get judged more on how they look, and therefore have to spend more time on how they look if they want to be successful. I feel really conflicted about it, because as a feminist, I feel that it’s really bad that women get judged by their looks, but as an artist, as somebody who is interested in style and fashion, it’s like, I’m interested in it, too, you know?
SOPHIA: I’ve found it quite cool that you’ve always dressed creatively and had interesting hair, despite the reality that, as a woman in the chess world, people are going to freak out about however you look. It seems as though you’ve felt cool enough with your preferences that you just [execute them] anyway.
JENNIFER: I think the best solution is to start with yourself, and not be nicer, pay more attention to, or be kinder to people who are good-looking all the time. There’s one thing to be interested [in appearance] as an artist, but it’s another to treat people differently because of it.
One time I noticed that I was playing with all these really beautiful, stylish women in a poker tournament, and tweeted about it, because it was so dazzling. And then I noticed there were a couple of older women who didn’t really fit that mold, and I thought, “Is this really the kind of person I want to become? The one that’s really focusing so much on this?” It’s fine, to some extent, to be impressed by it, because I see it’s hard work. It’s fashion and it’s fitness. But there’s plenty of really interesting people who don’t put as much effort into that, so you should also be open to learning things from them as well, even if you’re never going to be good friends. [Making these types of judgments] is still something that women do; it’s not just something that men do to women. Women are also just so much nicer to girls and other women who are fashionable and pretty, you know? So it’s starting with yourself. And then it always will spread out from that.
SOPHIA: It was really compelling for me to read about the variety of relationships to womanhood you witnessed across equally excellent female chess players. Did any of your theories about womanhood or feminism alter during the process of interviewing a ton of women about womanhood in chess?
JENNIFER: I definitely think my attitude towards sexualization in chess has changed. I’m a bit more ruthless now. I think if women want to use their looks and sexuality to promote their brand and become more successful, I don’t have as much of an issue with it as I used to because it’s so hard for anyone to make it that you just kind of have to use the tools at your disposal. And there’s a lot of things that are going against women, so I don’t think you should [blame] somebody for using something to their advantage that’s going to be used against them anyway. With Instagram and everything, we have become a more visual culture anyways, where people are a little bit more intelligent about the way that they present themselves —sexually as well. It’s almost like the quality has gone up when people do try to do that, which is nice.
Also with these grueling competitions, everyone says there’s no disadvantage to being a female as opposed to a male, and while I completely agree with that, the one exception would be the travel and competition of chess. If [a chess player is] peaking in his/her early twenties to early thirties, women who want to start a family might have to take more breaks, which, now that chess is becoming hyper-competitive and everybody is so good, that could be considered —I don’t want to say a disadvantage because [motherhood is] very mind-expanding— but it could give them less time to accomplish the same thing. I think that’s a blind side that a lot of young feminists have.
SOPHIA: What are your anxieties about your own motherhood interfering with your chess and professional life?
JENNIFER: I think it’s such a great time for me. There are so many positives of becoming a mom in that it expands your mind and connects you to so many women throughout history who have had the same experience. So as a writer and a creative person, I think it’s just the best experience. I feel really creative. Practically speaking, like having to play a little less poker or do less chess events next year, that does concern me a little bit. You realize you have to be a lot more efficient. When I played at the World Series in poker this summer, there were certain activities and people that I would cut out, just because I wanted to be as efficient as possible, try to do well in the tournaments, hang out with the people I cared about, and be healthy. And I think I was only three or four months pregnant at the time. You’re trying to squeeze as much as you can out of an hour as possible. Without trying, it just kind of happens.
So that’s encouraging, but unfortunately there’s a lot of negative rhetoric about motherhood, especially among feminists and liberals. I’ve heard so many complaints about it. Honestly, I’m kind of upset [because] I was expecting it to be worse than it was. I feel like I was a little bit fooled. I think I heard so much about negative things like throwing up, feeling tired, and pregnancy brain that I hardly heard about any of the amazing things about it. It’s a great time to have a kid, so I’m fine with it, but it upsets me that feminist discourse has flipped so far that instead of celebrating this amazing experience, people want to talk about the negatives because they don’t want it to feel like every woman’s main mission in life is to be a mom.
SOPHIA: In Paul Hoffman’s King’s Gambit, he says that you got impatient when asked to discuss theoretical reasons why more women don’t play chess, responding that you’re more interested in doing something about it. Does that pragmatism apply to all aspects of feminism in your life, and can you talk about what that approach means to you?
JENNIFER: Absolutely, I still agree with that. I agree with that in poker, too. If you want to start talking about biological reasons why women don’t play as much chess and poker, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where you’re basically just talking about how inept women are in those fields. And then you’re going to create more of that, because suddenly you have the most successful and interesting people talking about [female deficiency] all the time, and I find it very annoying. Another thing that irritates me…to be fair, sometimes I just have trouble sleeping and I google stuff, and I know that it’s partly my fault for not seeking out more high-quality-material…
JENNIFER: But a lot of times I’ll read something, and they’ll be like “When you’re pregnant, you have pregnancy-brain, and your brain gets dulled because you’re distracted by the future baby crying.” Stuff like that.
So that’s one of the reasons I did this blindfold chess exhibition recently. I was trying to get more into it anyway, but then I thought it was really important for me to work on it when I was pregnant, because it’s this really [compelling] visual of a pregnant woman playing blindfold chess. I think it’s really powerful, because first of all, you don’t know what’s coming when you’re pregnant, but on the deeper level, people don’t tend to emphasize the intellectual things that are happening to a woman when she’s pregnant. I decided it was a good time to challenge myself intellectually, and physically too. I’ve been continuing to go to CrossFit. If it is true that’s it’s harder to play blindfold chess when you’re pregnant, and obviously it’s harder to squat, or do a pull-up when you’re pregnant, that just means it’s more important to do it.
They always talk about this nesting instinct, and I feel like that’s very sexist as well. I guess there are some studies on it, but I found that both [my partner] and I obviously want to make the house more prepared for a baby…so we cleaned that room that we’re going to use for the baby. That’s kind of normal. It’s not some deep, biological thing.
JENNIFER: But I also want to go out and do well in poker and my chess events, because it’d be great to have more money and security for the baby. They focus on the domestic, but really, it’s larger than that. You just want your life, your house, and everything to be better, so that when the baby comes and there’s some chaos that’s introduced to your life, you’re ready for it.
The final thing is the sexual part. It’s written about a little, but at least in my experience, the sex drive is so high during pregnancy. I think it hasn’t been written about as much because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can’t say “Her sex drive is really high, because she wants to propagate the species.” I mean, I think not every woman experiences it, but I’ve done some reading on it, and for the women who do experience it, it’s very extreme. If there is a biological explanation for it, one might argue that it gives you such a positive memory of motherhood that you might want to do it again…
SOPHIA: What do you feel women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JENNIFER: Maybe I can take that to one of my fields. I think that taking more time with a woman who’s just getting started and giving good and thoughtful advice —sometimes being even aggressive about it, even if she’s not coming to you and asking— is a really good place to start. Because it can be really hard to ask for help, you know? I started to become much more successful when I realized, when you see positions and opportunities, how important it is to advocate for women and people who are underrepresented and really be aggressive about doing that, even if it’s someone that you’re jealous of or competitive with. Even if it may not seem to your best advantage. People talk about affirmative action and how that really helps, but a lot of it is who you know, whether it’s your family or connections in school. If there are people who don’t have connections, it’s kind of your job to bring them up.
SOPHIA: I feel like in chess, that’s probably exacerbated because your rankings are so clear-cut, and how important you’re considered to be or the power-dynamic in matches is reflected on this very literal, stratified scale. So assisting someone of a “lower rank than you” is always less ambiguous, and maybe harder to do.
JENNIFER: I’m a big fan of this writer, James Altucher, who writes a lot about [the benefits of connecting others professionally.] It’s kind of like a mitzvah for the person that you’re doing it for, but it also generally comes back to you in some way. It’s also good because jealousy and competitiveness is good in isolation, like in a chess game, but it can easily take over your life. I’ve seen it happen to women. They get so consumed by jealousy. If you start [performing acts of generosity], you’ll realize that it’s like a healing process if you have those issues.
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