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Chess Queen

At 22, Jennifer Shahade is the strongest American-born woman chess player ever

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On the third Thursday of this past March, when many art galleries across Manhattan were holding openings, 75 people milled about the Viewing Gallery on West 17th Street, sipping wine, eating cookies and occasionally glancing at the confetti-like landscapes on the walls. Alittle after 7 p.m., two elegantly dressed young women, one wearing only black and the other all white, from their gloves and their dresses to their flapper wigs, emerged from a unisex rest room and took their places on opposite sides of a chessboard. They planned to play two games, at the brisk pace of 25 minutes a side per game. They shook hands, and the woman in the white wig began by confidently advancing her queen pawn two squares and depressing the chess timer next to the board. The crowd nodded approvingly. “I would not have given up chess,” a disheveled man in his 60s said in a stage whisper, “if my opponents had looked like this.”

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The woman in black was Jennifer Shahade, 22, the 2002 U.S. Women’s Champion and the strongest American-born female chess player in history. Her opponent was 19-year-old Irina Krush, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1988 before she turned 5, the age at which her father taught her the game, and at 14 became the youngest U.S. Women’s Champion ever. Although the two chess stars are friends—they were teammates at the 2002 Chess Olympiad, in Bled, Slovenia, and classmates at New YorkUniversity— they are also fierce competitors, and at the art gallery the gloves came off.

Shahade responded to Krush’s queen-pawn opening with a provocative defense known as the Grünfeld, favored by the legendary 1972 world champion, Bobby Fischer, and current world number one, Garry Kasparov of Russia. Black (Shahade) goads White (Krush) into placing pawns in the center of the board, normally an important goal, but Black figures that she can undermine White’s center with well-placed blows from the flanks. Here the plan failed because Shahade overlooked the fact that Krush could (and did) win a key center pawn. Later, Krush infiltrated Shahade’s position with her knights before launching a decisive mating attack. You could sense Shahade’s desperation as she struggled to shelter her king. While she pondered the position, she leaned over the board, and the women’s heads almost touched. She cradled her face in her hands—a characteristic posture she shares with Kasparov—and squeezed so hard that her fingers left red marks on her cheeks. She squirmed in her seat and twisted her feet in her black boots. There was no defense, and she resigned on the 42nd move.

“This really sucks,” she said to me after she got up from the board. “All your close friends show up to drink wine and enjoy themselves, while you lose in front of them.” Twenty minutes later she had composed herself and sat down for the second game. This time she had the advantage of moving first. She advanced her king pawn two squares, a more aggressive opening than Krush had employed in the first game. Shahade needed to win to even the score, and she planned to press Krush from the onset. Krush did not shy away from the battle, and steered the game into what aficionados recognized as an obscure line of the Richter-Rauzer variation of the Sicilian defense. The two players later positioned their kings in opposite corners of the board and launched all-out assaults on each other’s monarch.

Krush’s attack netted her two pawns, and she could have won immediately by sacrificing a rook, but Shahade set a trap on the 30th move. If Krush misjudged the position and made a seemingly natural choice that offered the exchange of queens, Shahade could win a knight—a decisive material advantage— through four simple moves. At classical tournament chess, where each player can take three hours for a game, Krush would presumably never fall for such a trap, but here, with time running out, it was possible she would go wrong. The strong chess players in the audience, even with wine in them, knew what was happening. “It’s Jennifer’s only chance,” whispered her brother, Greg, two years her senior and a world-class player himself. He turned nervously away from the board, as if staring at it might jinx his sister’s subterfuge. Krush fell for the swindle and, unlike her emotional opponent, sat there poker faced as she lost the knight and, subsequently, the game.

It was almost 10 p.m., and the spectators started chanting “tiebreak! tiebreak!”—hoping that the two cerebral gladiators would play a sudden-death blitz game (five minutes a side) to determine the winner. But Krush had a late-night engagement, and Shahade, who was tired and drained, seemed content to call it a tie.

“People sometimes ask me if chess is fun,” Shahade told me later. “ ‘Fun’ is not the word I’d use. Of course I enjoy it, or I wouldn’t play. But tournament chess is not relaxing. It’s stressful, even if you win. The game demands total concentration. If your mind wanders for a moment, with one bad move you can throw away everything you’ve painstakingly built up.”

Until the 19th century, women were not welcome in chess clubs in Europe and America. In the mid-1880s, a club in Turin, Italy, allowed the wives and daughters of its members to join them at the chessboard, a practice that was applauded by then-world champion Wilhelm Steinitz. “This is as it should be,” Steinitz wrote, “and we hope that this example will be followed by other chess societies, it being evident that, if we engage the queens of our hearts for the queens of our boards and if we can enlist the interest of our connubial mates for our chessical mates, our intellectual pastime will be immensely benefited and will pass into universal favor.” But change was slow: when women played in an international tournament for the first time, in London in 1897, a commentator cautioned that they “would come under great strain lifting the leaded, wooden chess sets.”

When I played chess in scholastic tournaments in the late 1960s and early ’70s, female players were still a rarity, and the flea-infested chess parlors I frequented near New York City’s Times Square were a world away from chic art galleries. Even though playing the game well was regarded as a sign of intelligence, chess had an ancillary reputation as the recreation of social misfits. Bobby Fischer was a national hero for wresting the world championship away from our cold war rivals, the Russians, but he was hardly a model of how to lead a balanced life. When a television talk-show host asked him what his interests were besides chess, Fischer seemed puzzled and replied, “What else is there?” In another interview, he said that he wanted to make a lot of money so that he could live in a house shaped like a rook.

Today, three decades later, the game of kings has unmistakably surged in popularity. Writer Martin Amis, comedian Stephen Fry, magician David Blaine, model Carmen Kass, pugilists Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, actorsWill Smith, Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon and Greta Scacchi, even Madonna and Sting, are all “woodpushers.” “It’s now cool to play chess,” said Jennifer Shahade. “The game is finally shedding its image as a magnet for geeks.” Shahade herself is a model of cool. Stuffed under the black pageboy wig she wore at the gallery match are flowing brown curls streaked blonde and red. She lives in a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, one of the hippest areas of New York City, where Internet cafés and nouveau-Thai restaurants have displaced mustard and girdle factories. She also plays basketball, air hockey and Ms. Pacman.

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