Jennifer Shahade on poker, chess, sexism, and joining Poker Power

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: December 09, 2021 18:45 PST

Jennifer Shahade has been busy of late. The two-pastime superstar continues to juggle her prominent roles in both the poker and chess worlds, not just playing, but incorporating both into her own life’s goals. Shahade is a huge believer in using strategic games such as chess and poker to help women and other gender minorities learn vital decision-making skills that they can use in all means of life.

Just a week ago, Shahade made headlines by being named to Poker Power’s new advisory council, along with Xuan Liu and Melanie Weisner. One might think that for this PokerStars-sponsored pro, that’d be enough excitement for a few days. But not for Shahade, who then spent the following weekend at a girl’s junior chess conference, where she taught, spoke, and played against dozens of up-and-coming strategic thinkers.

She’s got a book coming out in March as well. Chess Queens: The True Story of a Chess Champion and the Greatest Female Players of All Time, centers on Shahade’s own rise to prominence on the international chess scene, though it also includes the experiences of several dozen other women who have found a way to compete and excel in a pastime that might be even more male-dominated than poker.

Shahade shares beliefs and mission with Poker Power caught up with Shahade this week to gather her thoughts on several interrelated topics, from her joining Poker Power to continuing to represent women’s interests wherever she sees the need. Shahade is one of the biggest poker stars yet to sign with Poker Power. The group, which was founded in 2018, is growing rapidly. Its focus is the use of poker as the means to teach women life-changing skills, including strategy, confidence, budgeting and decision-making.

It’s a natural fit to Shahade’s own views and goals. “Absolutely,” she responded, when asked about her and Poker Power’s shared outlook and mission. “The idea is that the game is not just about playing, but also about empowering women and building connections for women and gender minorities. [It offers] ways for more women to get to know each other and study poker together. That's incredibly important. I think it's really an underrated skill in poker.

“First of all, if you don't have that drive to become a professional poker player, then the connections and friendships you make are really a big part of what you get out of the game. And then if you do become professional, then who you know is incredibly important. Even more so than in chess, though in chess, that's really important too. But it's probably moreso in poker because of those soft skills of, like, having people to hang out with and travel with.

“In poker, it's actually integral to the game itself. Because these are people that can tell you about what to study, what games are good, and what to play. And of course, later on, potentially trade action. So yeah, I just think that the idea that Poker Power is building a community is incredibly important for poker players.”

Poker Power hopes to build a million-women-strong group, though of course that goal lies years down the road. Poker’s widespread popularity likely gives it an edge over chess in that regard. Both pastimes, though, have long suffered from misogyny and sexism. Having climbed through the ranks in both chess and poker, Shahade has experienced a lot of that sexism firsthand. Yet there are important differences as well.

Poker and chess worlds both harbor sexism, but in different ways

“There are a lot of similarities,” Shahade explained, “but I would say that in chess, there's a lot of very, very young people who play chess. That drastically changes the dynamics because people are naturally incredibly interested in the education of everyone, girls and boys both. You know, there's so much interest in youth education.

“So that really colored a lot of the initiatives and chats that I take part in, where they think sometimes that that could be more focused on in poker, like, not for kids but for adults, like adult education. And, like not just becoming good at poker, but using it to become better at life and business. And that's Poker Power’s focus. So I think that's wonderful.

“As for sexism? I mean, there are some in both fields. And are they similar? It's kind of similar, yes, but I would say a lot of the sexism in poker, from my perspective, also comes from the fact that poker is often played in casinos. So a lot of times in that kind of relationship, the fact that you have to go to a casino to play poker creates a dynamic that can be uncomfortable for women. Whereas in chess, it’s just a very, very old game. And that's what some of the beauty of chess is, in its rich history, but it also sometimes creates some traditional values that are not only bad for women, but are really bad for LGBTQ players.

“So both games have their own challenges. I mean, I do think both are getting much better. There's a lot more interest in progressive ideas in both worlds; they can be a metaphor for life, in what's great about life, judging people on how they think and what their brains have [going on], and how good they are at connecting to people. Or it could also be kind of a negative, in that people are overly scrutinized based on their gender and where they come from. I think that both chess and poker are similar in that they have the potential to show both the best and the worst of us.

A lifetime of chess, poker, and outspokenness

Shahade didn’t come up with a specific example or singular incident that helped cement her viewpoints or her outspoken drive to push her life missions. Shahade reflected on that. “You know, I've been outspoken about it for so long. I wrote a book about women in chess when I was 24, and I started writing when I was 22. And I started working in girls and chess events when I was around 19. So it just feels like it's always been a part of my life.”

Chess has truly been a part of Shahade’s existence for her entire life, even more so than poker. She’s played chess since age five, if not even earlier. “There's a picture of me playing when I'm two,” she said, “but I don't think I really knew the rules.” She'd go on to win two United States Women's Chess Championships, securing her status in the game.

Somewhere along the line, in playing chess in its male-dominated scene, it all came together. “I got really serious about chess when I was in high school,” Shahade explained. “And yeah, I think immediately that my mom was a feminist. She was the first female chemistry professor in her department at Drexel University. And I just feel like it was a topic that kind of came up very regularly, in that, you know, there are so few women and girls.”

For Shahade, though, there were plenty or rewarding experiences to counter those sexist moments. “Even though you encounter sexism, you also encounter a lot of support. A lot of people are really excited that you're there. And that's what I mean by ‘the best in the world.’ I think it's important to focus on this because I do want people to realize that if they come to these games, they will get support.

“You know, I feel like from the very beginning, when I was playing chess, I had some really negative experiences. But I also had, like a lot of people who immediately were thrilled that I was there. They were like, “Wow! You're here! We need more people like you here.

“I remember when I went to chess camp, I was always getting awards like Camper of the Year, Player of the Month. People wanted me to stick with the game. So they tried to encourage me and I think that wasn't only because of my gender. I mean, for example, I like nice people and have a good personality and I was very interested in the game. But you know, there was definitely some relationship there as well.”

London calling, and Prague, too

Shahade hasn’t played a lot of live poker lately. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she went over two years before making it to the World Series of Poker. That will change soon, however. She’s planning a trip to London in March, in conjunction with the UK-first publication of Poker Queens, and she’s mulling a trip to the rescheduled EPT Prague stop in March as well.

“That could be a great time to go there,” she said about the rescheduled Prague stop, “because I'll likely be in Europe in March anyway. So yeah, that's, that's more or less my plan. I also plan PokerStars PA, because I live in Philadelphia. I'm lucky that I have this regulated online site to play on as well.

“The reason I haven't been able to play as much live poker is because it is so time-consuming, but I'm so excited. I love it. I mean, I really do love it. I guess I like tournaments that are in a really fun place where I can meet people that I haven't seen. I love Las Vegas and London, and Prague. And I'm really excited to get back out there.”

Featured image source: Haley Hintze