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Chess Queen

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

“I was delighted to beat Sagalchik, but not because he was being sexist,” Shahade said later. “I didn’t think he was. I didn’t think he was speaking about me—I knew I would give the men a fight, and he probably knew that too—but about some of the other, lower-ranked female players. I was glad to beat him because I had a pattern of reaching good positions against grandmasters, getting nervous, and making inaccurate moves to let them slip away.”

Even Shahade is not entirely convinced that having a coed championship is in the best interest of women’s chess. While the top-ranked women are strong enough to give the men a good fight, or even beat them, the lower-ranked qualifying women are weaker than the weakest men. “Is it good for a young woman’s confidence and chess career if she has a horrible result in the U.S. Championship?” asked Shahade. “Maybe it would be better for her to play in an all-women’s event? But I can also argue the reverse—that it is motivating to play in a championship with the country’s best players, and that women will get better as a result.”

The 2003 tournament was more difficult for her. After a slow start and a seventh-round victory, she found herself tied for first among the women and, therefore, in a good position to retain her title. Her brother was also competing in the championship—the first time since 1969 that siblings had played in the competition at the same time—and he, too, had an important victory in the seventh round.

During the tournament, the two Shahades prepared for their opponents in different ways. Each evening at about 10, they learned whom they would face the next afternoon and whether they were going to have white or black. Before going to bed, Jennifer would turn on her notebook PC and search through a database of more than two million chess games for those played by her opponent. She’d scan the relevant games and make a quick decision as to what sequence of opening moves she thought would give her adversary the most trouble. But she would save the bulk of her study for the morning. “I can sleep better,” she told me, “after I select the particular opening. Otherwise, I’ll toss and turn and mull over it during the night.”

Greg’s approach was less disciplined. He routinely went to bed at four in the morning and rose only minutes before the 1:30 p.m. round. He, too, possessed a PC with two million chess games stored on it, but his database apparently got less use than his sister’s. He used his laptop to play kung-fu chess—an Internet action game in which multiple chessmen rush forward as fast as you can move them—at which he is the world’s number one player. He also kept busy with a Sony Playstation, a TV season’s worth of “The Simpsons” on DVD, and a Dance Dance Revolution Pad (an electronic dance mat), all of which he had brought from New York. I happened to occupy the hotel room next to his, and on the night before the final round, when he could have been preparing for one of his toughest opponents—15-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, who a month later would break Bobby Fischer’s 1958 record as the youngest American grandmaster—I awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of Bart Simpson’s voice and Greg laughing loudly.

“How’s the Nakamura preparation going?” I shouted through the wall.

“Not well,” said Greg. “I haven’t started yet.”

After ten days and nine rounds of classical chess, in which some of the games lasted more than five hours, the main tournament had ended. Greg Shahade, who lost to Nakamura, ended with an even score. Alexander Shabalov, a 35- year-old Riga-born grandmaster from Pittsburgh, was the new U.S. Chess Champion, and Jennifer Shahade and Krush found themselves tied with a third woman, Latvian émigré Anna Hahn, for the women’s title. The next day, the three played a round-robin match of speed chess (15 minutes per side per game) to decide the winner. “I departed from my usual, more methodical style of preparation and tried to study every opening under the sun,” Shahade said. “I knew it was a crazy, stupid thing to do—you can’t possibly master numerous opening lines in one evening—but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be prepared for anything they might play, and then all night I dreamed about the possibilities.” Shahade arrived at the board nervous and exhausted, and lost her encounter with Krush. Hahn, 27, whose lower national ranking made her the underdog, managed to beat both of them and walk off with $12,500 and the title. “Anna is one of my friends,” Shahade said, “but losing the play-off was not one of my happiest moments.”

Shahade had graduated from NYU only a month before the championship, and in Seattle she was in a reflective mood about what she was going to do with the rest of her life. “I majored in comparative literature,” she told me. “It’s a toss-up,” she joked, “about whether comparative literature or chess will be more useful in paying the rent. I’m struggling right now with how much I want to make the game the focus of my life. I love chess, but it’s the height of decadence. The positions you reach in a well-played game are beautiful, but the beauty is inaccessible to those who haven’t mastered the game. There are many good reasons to teach kids chess—it helps them learn to concentrate, to think ahead, to see that their actions have consequences, to cope with defeat, and to be gracious in winning—but the game itself doesn’t have a lot of social purpose. You can understand if someone is spending 16 hours a day trying to cure a disease or to write a novel, but to play better chess?” Shahade also remains ambivalent about the game from a feminist perspective: “Chess is patriarchal—I sound like a college student—it’s a war game, a zero-sum game that rewards ruthlessness, not cooperation.” Yet she is drawn to its intensity, and as a charismatic female in a largely male endeavor, she is enough of a novelty that she might be able to make a decent living from the game by giving lessons, exhibitions and motivational speeches; by publishing books and instructional videos; and by endorsing chess-playing computers.

Shahade also likes the arts—photography, painting, writing— and hopes to forge a career that melds them with chess. She has a contract to write a book about women in chess, and she has created a series of campy photographic self-portraits that play with the idea that a woman can be both a sex goddess and an intellectual. In these photographs, Shahade has made herself up to look like a vampish Marilyn Monroe. She wears a pink wig, pink gloves and a slinky pink dress. She appears ready to party, but closer examination reveals she is reading a book with a pink cover called Secrets of Chess Tactics. It’s a classic Russian text that is serious even by the erudite standards of chess literature.

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