A chess queen goes mainstream

9/7/2003 – Name the last former US chess champion to be the subject of a lengthy article in a national monthly magazine with eight million readers. If you are thinking of Bobby Fischer in The Atlantic you are wrong. The answer is Jennifer Shahade, who had eight pages in the August, 2003, issue of the prestigious Smithsonian magazine. The author of that article deserves an article himself, so read on

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The Lady and the Writer

The Smithsonian article “Chess Queen” profiled 2002 US women’s champion Jennifer Shahade from learning to play at age six to her teaching activities to losing her title in a nerve-wracking playoff in Seattle this year. (There is a link to the full text of the article at the bottom of that page.)

The article was by Paul Hoffman, a popular non-fiction author who also writes on chess for the New York Times. This is definitely a case of the writer being as interesting as his subject and we spent some time with both to talk about this big-time appearance of chess in the American mass media.

First we asked Jennifer if she was happy with article and having her life and likeness on millions of coffee tables across the country.

“I’m very happy with it. Sometimes you get a lot of attention and feel guilty about it, but the article really concentrates on things I’m proud of doing. The match with Irina in the art gallery, for example. I was proud of organizing that and that my effort paid off. The article was positive without being hokey, which isn’t always easy to do. It wasn’t rah-rah.

I’d like to clear up one thing, about the photo of me in pink at the end. It was just a funny shot from a “pink party” we had, not a series of portraits or anything like that.”

Jen recently graduated from New York University with a degree in comparative literature. She isn’t worried about long-term plans and is currently busy with chess and a book on women in chess.

“I don’t have any specific chess goals right now. I have a lot of interests and I’m trying to get focused on this book. There were definitely times when I was less interested than now, like when I finished college. With the support the women’s Olympiad training team is getting I feel obligated to study and work on my game right now. I might need to speed up and get this book finished so I can concentrate on study.

Titles don’t mean so much to me anymore. It would be nice to get the International Master title because it might help with chess writing and lessons, but I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. To me it’s more about how often you play, and about playing good chess.

I’d like to play some new openings, some new stuff. It doesn’t make sense for me to play the same things now, I’m a different person and it would help me to understand a wider variety of positions. I get a lot of enjoyment from writing and teaching and it’s frustrating if I have no idea when I come to something.”

In her first serious play since the US Championship in January, Shahade had a poor result in a norm tournament in Budapest last July.

“I wasn’t prepared in the openings or psychologically. I needed to focus on chess before playing again. It’s more exciting when you are bringing something new to the board. Most of the things I play now I’ve been playing for many years.”

We asked Jennifer if she could envision a life without chess, and what direction her own life might take.

“I absolutely understand why some people have walked away from chess. It's not because they don't love the game, but it's like breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, it can just end. It doesn't mean there wasn't love.

I can imagine reaching a point where I wanted to concentrate on something else and chess would suck too much energy out of me. Maybe at some point something like that would come along. But at the same time I have so many great friends in chess I can't imagine letting it go forever at any point. It's not such a bad life, it's interesting and there are a lot of great people in chess.

Non-chess work? Reading a lot, despite having studied literature. In chess I have good and bad qualities, but I always feel good when I'm writing.

In the future I could see maybe going back to school. I loved school. I’m interested in literature, cultural theory, feminist theory, American studies. Art theory also. But I'm focused on the book now. It would be nice to have health insurance some day, I suppose! But I discovered I really like to write and teach, so looking far ahead a teaching job after graduate school is a definite possibility.”

We thank Jen for her time, wish her the best of luck, and move to her Boswell. The “Chess Queen” article was written by Paul Hoffman, a writer who specializes in “biographies of incredibly obscure personalities.” Those are his own words, but the books that come out are incredibly interesting.

His latest is “Wings of Madness”, a remarkable history of one of the currently overlooked heroes of early-20th-century aviation. Almost unknown today except in his native Brazil, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) was an eccentric genius whose inherited wealth allowed him to live in luxury in fin-de-siecle Paris.

Obsessed with the idea of flight, Santos-Dumont designed small, cigar-shaped, engine-powered vehicles, which he used for everything from traveling around Paris to circling the Eiffel Tower. Alberto wanted to be the first to build and fly an airplane. However, Wilbur and Orville Wright beat him to it.

Paul has written for the New York Times during all major Man vs Machine events. Recently he played in the Playchess.com ZMD internet simul against Garry Kasparov. (The game was annotated by Paul and Mig in Mig’s “Black Belt” newsletter #17. Replay it here.) He is a true chess junkie who will jeopardize important projects for a quick game of blitz. But Paul makes up for this weakness by being a thoroughly nice guy and a spectacularly entertaining dinner guest.

Paul’s involvement with chess will increase as he takes to the stage in November as a commentator for the Kasparov – X3D PC Fritz match. ESPN will be carrying all four games live so Paul may have to give up the t-shirts that pass for high fashion in his home of Woodstock, NY. He is currently working on a book about his obsession with the game.

Photos of Jennifer Shahade by John Henderson. All rights reserved.


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