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Chess Queen

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

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That afternoon at GirlsAcademy, Shahade shared with her students one of her own disappointments at the chessboard. It is a game from the final round of last year’s Olympiad in Bled, where teams from 89 countries competed in the women’s division, and the United States was in medal contention until the final rounds. “You can always learn a lot from your losses,” she told the students. She set up the key position from her match with Ukrainian Inna Gaponenko and explained what went wrong. “I had a choice of two ways to capture. I could have taken with the pawn or the rook. If I took with the rook, it would lead to a draw. I took with the pawn and quickly lost. Taking with the pawn was a radical misjudgment. Why did I do it? There was probably a psychological reason. Earlier, I thought I had stood better in the game, so I didn’t want to settle for a draw and admit that I hadn’t been able to press my advantage.

“I also learned from Bled that I didn’t have enough stamina,” she said to the students, a curious confession from a woman who made her mark in the Insanity Tournament. “I won five of my first six games, but then, sadly, I had a big slump so that I ended up with six wins and five losses. I’m used to American weekend tournaments in which four or five rounds are crammed into two or three days. The Olympiad lasted two weeks. I can play chess 12 hours a day for a weekend on sheer adrenaline and then crash, but I can’t sit at the board with peak concentration for days at a time.” She told me later that she is running, lifting weights and shooting baskets to build up her stamina. Most of the world’s top players have strenuous exercise routines to balance their sedentary chess playing. Bobby Fischer jogged regularly long before it was fashionable to do so, and Garry Kasparov pumps iron, swims and rows as part of his chess training.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Shahade’s and Krush’s students came together for joint instruction. Krush had set up a position on an oversize demonstration board in front of the room. She asked the girls to study it and then pair off and play the position out, with chess clocks ticking as if this were a tournament. Later the girls would compare their moves with those of the chess titans who had played the original game. Shahade glanced at the demonstration board and, feigning indignation, exclaimed, “That position was never reached by a woman!”

The position that Krush had chosen showed the board after the 16th move of a famous 1895 game between Wilhelm Steinitz and a German master named Curt von Bardeleben. On White’s 17th move—which the girls were asked to find— Steinitz boldly sacrificed his queen pawn so that a path would be cleared for his knight to join in the hunt for the Black king. Eight moves later, von Bardeleben was so disgusted with the position of his exposed monarch that he simply disappeared from the Hastings, England, tournament hall and never returned. Steinitz then awed the spectators who had gathered around with an elegant continuation in which he forced checkmate in ten moves.

When Krush showed the class the actual game, the girls marveled at the depth and beauty of Steinitz’s mating attack. What Krush didn’t tell the students was the fate of the two men. Steinitz eventually went mad, claiming that he had played chess with God over an invisible phone line and beaten him. And von Bardeleben, in 1924, leaped to his death from a window. His self-defenestration was emulated by the most famous fictional chess player, Luzhin, in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Defense.

That chess has a long history of association with obsession and eccentricity is not part of the Chess-in-the-Schools curriculum. When a student in one of Shahade’s other classes asked her whatever became of Bobby Fischer, she responded, “Never mind! Let’s just appreciate his games!” (A fugitive from American justice because he violated economic sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by playing a 1992 tournament there, Fischer reportedly lives in Japan. He condones the violence of September 11 and rants on talk radio about the “world Jewish conspiracy.”)

During a break at GirlsAcademy, Shahade put aside the remains of a large tossed salad. She had eaten none of the sun-dried tomatoes, which were scattered across the bowl. Krush eyed the salad dregs, and Shahade offered them to her. “Why didn’t you eat the tomatoes?” Krush asked. “Are you trying to poison me?”

“You never know,” Shahade playfully responded.

“It would be a good trick,” said Krush. “I wonder if anyone has ever tried it—making their opponent sick just before an important match.”

Later that week, Shahade and Krush joined 56 other chess players in Seattle for the 2003 U.S. Chess Championship. Shahade was the defending women’s champion, and Krush wanted a shot at the title, which she had earned once before, in 1998. When Shahade won in 2002, it was the first time women and men had played together in the 157-yearold national tournament. No female player had ever qualified to enter the championship, and in 1937 a separate women’s division was created, in which female players competed among themselves for the title of U.S. Women’s Champion. In 2002, the women’s division was dissolved, though the title remained. Shahade, who did not face any women in the tournament, nonetheless became U.S. Women’s Champion by achieving the highest score of all the women. At the players’ meeting before the 2002 tournament, some men had complained that the participation of women would degrade the quality of the play, but Shahade proved them wrong. In the very first round, she disposed of Gennady Sagalchik, a Brooklyn-based grandmaster who had been particularly vocal in objecting to the inclusion of women.

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