Interview: Jennifer Shahade on her new book — Chess Queens

Jon Pill
Published by:
Posted on March 3, 2022 6:47 pm EST

Woman Grandmaster and professional poker player, Jennifer Shahade’s book Chess Queens launches today. Shahade has around $350k in live tournament cashes and works as an ambassador for both PokerStars and Poker Power (for the latter of which she also sits on the board).

Ahead of the book’s release, I was able to talk to Shahade about the earlier version of the book Chess Bitch, the place for women’s events in chess and poker, and what it was like for her going from chess champion to poker shark.

Chess Queens is a complete reworking of her 2005 book Chess Bitch. It tells the story of women in chess through historical sketches of exceptional players. These accounts are threaded with autobiographical interludes and personal essays on topics ranging from the role of talent in chess genius to whether or not “sex sells” can be a feminist stance.

In Chess Bitch, these three elements — history, essay, and autobiography — are woven together to tell the tale of chess players from the first women’s world champion to Shahade’s second U.S. Women’s Championship title in 2004.

“The idea for the book was simple,” Shahade explains. There were very few books on the history of women in chess, and I have always loved creative nonfiction. I thought a combination of memoir, interview, and history would work really well in bringing the stories of the great women of chess to light, while also giving the real-life example of my own coming of age story.”

Chess Queens expands on the original book and brings the story up to date covering the last fifteen years of great players.

“Since then, the topic of women and chess has blown up due to the incredible success of The Queen’s Gambit,” Shahade says. “A reboot, Chess Queens, was very much in order.”

Updating Chess Queens for 2022

Some fifteen years on from the first edition of the book — there are new stories to tell and aspects of the book that Shahade wanted to bring up to date.

“I revised a lot of opinions,” Shahade says. “For example, on women’s only tournaments, I used to be ambivalent about them. Now I’m quite in favor. I see the opportunity it gives women to meet each other and to have a safe arena in which to play and socialize.

“I also changed my opinions on women using their looks and sexuality to aggressively promote their brand. I used to be somewhat judgmental of this from a feminist perspective, but now I’m firmly in the ‘hate the game, not the player’ category. Also, the chess world itself has changed so much: it’s become so much more glamorous and filled with financial opportunities.

“Poker influenced my worldview quite a lot. I became more open-minded, more understanding of how everyone has to increase their own EV —whatever that means to them — in balancing their own ethical code, family’s needs, financial goals, and passion for the game.”  

She has also added more characters to the book. These included Phiona “Queen of Katwe” Mutesi, the Kampala-born chess player who escaped poverty through chess, and Hou Yifan the highest-rated woman in chess right now and the youngest ever full professor at the University of Shenzen.

Chess Queens by Jennifer Shahade

From chess to poker

The book ends with an account of Shahade’s second U.S. Women’s Championship title win. After that victory, Shahade continued to play competitive chess for a few years, but slowly her focus shifted towards poker. I asked her what it was like to go from a game in which she was among an established elite to pick a new path to excellence through a new field.

“I didn’t really make a ‘clean switch’ but dabbled in poker for a long time,” Shahade says. “I didn’t have much money for a while, as I was combining writing, chess coaching, and living in New York City (a tight squeeze!). So it was a slow process to build a bankroll. Things started to click into place when I started playing online more and moved to Philadelphia, where baseline expenses were lower.

“Much like chess, I didn’t delve into poker right away. I dabbled for many years, particularly between 2006 and 2010, when I just played a couple of times a year. At that time I was also working on various writing and art projects.”

Poker’s attraction wasn’t just the money but a way to feed the travel bug Shahade had cultivated while playing chess internationally. It also presented a challenge and a new subculture to explore.

“I was intrigued to learn the theory of a new game,” Shahade told me. “And to meet a new world of people and personalities. In writing my first book, I learned that I was equally fascinated by the culture and community that forms around the game as well as the game itself.

“I got super into poker around 2011, partly because of an initiative Stars was doing around that time, Poker Stars Women, which allowed me to qualify for tournaments in glamorous destinations all over the world for very little initial buy-in. It also gave me the opportunity to meet female friends from poker, like Jamie Kerstetter and Xuan Liu, both of whom I remain good friends with today.”

Future plans

Having enjoyed reading my review copy of Chess Queens, I was keen to know if Shahade had plans for any further books.

“Yes,” she said. “I have a two book deal with my publisher Hodder & Stoughton/Hatchette Press. The working title is RESET. It’s all about how games like chess and poker can teach us to become the best versions of ourselves. I am reframing what it means to be ‘good’ at a game. So that it reflects both the way your life — and the lives of those are around you — are improved by a game, not just a numerical score.

“Though, I should be clear, having a higher score does make it more likely you’ll get more opportunities, pure flow, and power from winning — I’m not saying winning is not important. It absolutely is. Just that it’s not the only thing.”

Shahade also continues to work on her podcast, The Poker GRID, which she says “should be of great interest to poker players especially those who also like art, solvers and/or chess.”

She adds, “Our latest episode is with Olivier Busquet who is, by the way, a pretty decent chess player himself.”

Shahade coaching kids at chess.

Improving poker for everyone

Shahade continues to work in the worlds of both chess and poker to create more opportunities for women. Although both games suffer from entrenched chauvinism, the two games present very different challenges to anyone who wants to make them more gender-inclusive.

As she explains it: “The large majority of females who play chess are girls. So that has a very different dynamic to poker. We’re trying to retain those players, because many girls who play chess as little kids, drop out in middle school or high school.

“Of course, I’d also love to see more women take up chess, but the attrition from kids to teens is the lower hanging fruit — because there are so many youngsters whose parents teach them chess.

“I do a lot of work with my non-profit US Chess Women to open these doors to girls and young women. I’m also hopeful that Chess Queens will help them see the glamorous side of chess, and to appreciate the history of their incredible predecessors.”

Poker, as a gambling game, has a higher uptake among adults than children and is a much harder sell to parents. So here Shahade’s approach is rather different.

“In poker, my goal is to recruit women and gender minorities who don’t yet see how poker can enhance their social and business lives.

“I think poker can expand its inclusivity by inclusive hiring at all ranks — not just ambassadors. We need to continue to build a culture where racism, sexism, and transphobia aren’t tolerated.

“Poker Power is doing a great job of creating a community of like-minded poker players who want to both improve and enjoy the game — it’s very powerful to have friends, especially when you’re one of the few women in the game. Friends make the game more fun. We just need to be more intentional when forming those communities for women, since there are fewer of us.”

In terms of advice for players who want to make the game more accessible, her main advice is to be welcoming.

“It can be at turns alienating or thrilling to play live poker for the first time,” she says. “A lot of it depends on how a player runs, but also who they run into. Be the person that makes them want to play again, regardless of how many buy-ins they won or lost.”

Chess Queens is now available online and in stores.

Featured image source: Maria Emelianova/chess.com