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Chess Queen

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

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Chess’s popularity extends well beyond the celebrity set. Membership in the 64-year-old United States Chess Federation, the organization that sanctions tournaments and ranks players, has swelled to a record high of 98,700. Colleges such as the University of Maryland, BaltimoreCounty, and the University of Texas at Dallas and at Brownsville now award chess scholarships, and grade schools throughout the country include chess classes in their curricula. In New York City alone, 36,000 children in 160 elementary and junior high schools are learning the fine points of the game from teachers paid by a nonprofit organization called Chess-in-the- Schools. Parents on Manhattan’s Upper East Side have been known to pay $200 per hour to hire private chess tutors for their children.

Today more girls than ever before are learning the rules of chess, but male players are still the norm at the highest levels. Of the roughly 1,200 members of the United States Chess Federation who are currently ranked as national masters or higher, only 14, including Shahade and Krush, are women. On the international chess circuit, top-ranked female players are also rare; of the 100 best players in the world, only one is a woman: 27-year-old Judit Polgar of Hungary, who is ranked number ten.

Even if the world of tournament chess is no longer an exclusive male club, there are obstacles for females. For one, world champions have not always put out the welcome mat. Bobby Fischer dismissed female players as “weakies,” and Garry Kasparov, in a recent interview in the London Times, said that females are not generally capable of excelling at the game. “[Chess is] a mixture of sport, psychological warfare, science and art,” he said. “When you look at all these components, man dominates. Every single component of chess belongs to the areas of male domination.”

But Kasparov prides himself on being provocative. “You have to laugh,” said Shahade. “You don’t know whether he really believes what he is saying, or is doing his usual thing of trying to get people riled up. And in a sense, who cares? All I know is that the chess world has accepted and encouraged me. I’ve never personally experienced any kind of discrimination or roadblock because I was a woman.”

Irina Krush feels the same way. “If anything, being a woman is an advantage,” she told me. “You get more invitations to exclusive tournaments because you’re considered to be something of a novelty. Male players have sometimes claimed that I also have an advantage because they are distracted by how I look. I don’t buy that, though. When chess players lose, they always come up with excuses.”

“If you find someone attractive,” Shahade said, “you don’t play worse. You buckle down and try to play better because you want to impress them with your brilliance.”

The chief impediment to more women playing tournament chess seems to be cultural. “If you’re going to become very good at chess,” Shahade told me, “you have to pour yourself into it. In our society, we consider it weird if a boy is obsessed with chess, if he spends the bulk of his waking hours playing and studying the game. Now if a girl does that, it’s not just weird, it’s downright unacceptable. Women are usually discouraged from pursuing chess and other intellectual activities that require time-consuming devotion. I was fortunate to have a mother who succeeded in the traditionally male field of chemistry. She’s a chemistry professor at DrexelUniversity and an avid games player—blackjack, poker, chess. There were periods in my life when chess was the most important thing to me. It’s not that I did chess all day—I took time to be with my friends or to exercise—but I justified the time with my friends and the exercise as being good for my chess. Today my life is pretty balanced. I admire Antoaneta Stefanova. She’s a Bulgarian grandmaster who is only a couple of years older than me. She’s the number two woman player in the world. She’s dedicated to the game but also has an active life away from the board. She likes to party and to go out at night between rounds at a tournament.”

On a sunday afternoon early this past January, I joined Shahade in the offices of Chess-in-the-Schools for a program called GirlsAcademy. Once a month, a couple of dozen girls, ages 9 through 13, come together from across New York City for six hours of intensive instruction from Shahade and Krush. The two champions know that they are role models for girls who dream of reaching the higher echelons of chess. Shahade spent the first couple of hours showing the class moves from well-known games that strong women played against each other or, better yet, in which they defeated male grandmasters; her charge to the students was “Play like girls!” She is particularly fond of Judit Polgar’s games. The Hungarian’s sharp, take-no-prisoners style has claimed the scalps of the world’s leading men, including, this past September, Garry Kasparov’s—sweet revenge considering that Kasparov had once described Polgar as a “circus puppet.” “I love her uncompromising approach,” Shahade said. “Just when you think the position is sterile, she stirs up complications by sacrificing a piece and launching a blistering attack. It’s awesome.”

Shahade favors bold, tactical play herself. She grew up in Philadelphia, where she learned chess at the age of 6 from her father, Michael, a four-time champion of Pennsylvania. She was also inspired by her brother,Greg, who became a national master when he was 14 and six years later earned the prestigious Samford fellowship for the country’s most promising chess player under 25. Jennifer’s big break came in 1996 at the so-called Insanity Tournament at the venerable Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “It’s a crazy event,” she said. “You play, I think, nine games. You play all night with the rounds starting at odd times like 2:11 a.m. and 4:23 a.m. I was about to turn 16 and I managed to get it together and do well with no sleep.” She came in first and joined her father and brother as a certified national master.

Of the three, Jennifer is the most aggressive player, something you wouldn’t guess from her soft voice and the balletic way she carries herself when she is not huddled over a chessboard. “By comparison, I play like a real wuss,” her father told me later. “My style is more positional, accumulating tiny advantages until I win in the endgame. She goes for the jugular immediately and reaches positions that are so complicated they give me a headache to look at. I don’t know how she does it. Even Greg, whose play is much sharper than mine, doesn’t take the kinds of risks Jen does.”

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