Chess Grandmaster and PokerStars pro says The Queen's Gambit shows "the poker side of chess"

Jon Pill
Posted on: November 15, 2020 10:20 PST

Jennifer Shahade has the title of Woman Grandmaster and a FIDE Elo of 2322. She also has $346,241 in live poker tourney winnings and a PokerStars sponsorship deal.

Those poker wins include a $122k first-place finish at an Open Face Chinese Pineapple High-Roller event in Prague. Which might be one of the weirdest tournaments ever put on in poker.

She bridges the world of the two games quite neatly.

So when she describes Netflix's new show The Queen's Gambit as displaying the "poker side of chess" she knows what she's talking about.

The Queen's Gambit

The show is based on the Walter Tevis novel of the same name.

Fans of gambling on the screen will be familiar with Tevis as the novelist who gave us "Fast Eddie" Felson, the eponymous lead of The Hustler.

The movie version of that is a masterpiece starring Paul Newman. Newman came back for the rather less brilliant sequel The Color of Money (based on another Tevis novel). This time opposite Tom Cruise.

When you add The Man Who Fell To Earth  to the mix, you start to realize that Tevis has a thread he's teasing out. Be it alcohol or winning or both, his books are all about addiction. In The Queen's Gambit, Beth Harmon (played mesmerically by Anya Taylor-Joy) is a chess prodigy and is addicted to both alcohol and winning. Also, sex and tranquilizers.

The seven-part mini-series adapts the book, to tell the story of Beth's troubled rise through the chess world.

It's a narrative that works equally well for the viewer who is a chess player as for the chess illiterate.

“If you are a chess person, or even if you’re just interested in learning more about it, you can kind of watch The Queen’s Gambit twice," Shahade says. "Once for the story, and second to look at all the games. [...] The main thing is that they nailed the emotion and the intensity of the intellectual struggle [...] that also has some correlation with poker as well, especially heads up poker.”

"The poker side of chess"

"It’s kind of like the poker side of chess," she says of the show's focus. "It’s the travel, the glamour, the relationships between the people that you meet on the tour. The individualistic side of it."

She praised the show's accuracy, both to the game of chess itself, but also the processes that create great players.

“I think the approach to the game, to getting better, is very similar," she says. "No matter what amount of time you have to put into poker or chess, there’s a strategy to improving. And it’s similar for both games."

She points out that, like Beth, you have to target the most common variations first. "You look at what types of situations are going to come up most frequently, like in the Sicilian Defense, or the Queen’s Gambit opening [...] Well in poker, there’re corollaries to that." She compares studying opening theory to working on hand selection and pre-flop play. Endgame moves are like late tournament ICM and shoving ranges to her.

"That’s the kind of thing you’re also looking for in chess,” she says.

Like chess, really good poker films are few and far between. But if Brian Koppelman and David Levien are still working on that Rounders 2 script, giving this a show a couple of watches should put them on the right track.

Women in chess

Shahade also recognizes the strangeness of being young and thrust into the adult world of competition that is shown on the show, and the difficulties of dealing with harassment.

“It really privileges a personality type that’s strong and likes positive attention and is able to withstand negative attention," Shahade says, describing in one sentence both poker, chess, and the world of The Queen's Gambit. "And that’s great because the women you meet from chess and poker are usually really tough and strong people. That said [...] people who are a little bit shyer and more sensitive, we want them too. You want that diversity of personality. And so that’s what I struggled with in both games."

Shahade combats this in chess with her work with The Madwoman's Book Club ("the madwoman" was an old name for the queen on a chessboard) and as the Woman's Program Director at U.S. Chess. Would that we had folks doing similar for poker.

Featured image source: Twitter