"Chess Queens" by Jennifer Shahade - A review

by Tatiana Flores
9/2/2022 – Two-time US Women's Champion Jennifer Shahade has often championed women's chess in the past. After "Chess Bitch" she has now published another book on women's chess, "Chess Queens". Tatiana Flores has taken a look at it. | Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Shahade

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The history of the world's best women chess players has often been ignored or considered secondary. WGM Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Women's Chess Champion, poker pro and author, has decided to change that by presenting in-depth profiles of the women who have dedicated their lives and careers to chess, despite the shocking sexism they've had to fight with every single move they've made.

The cover of Chess Queens shines in deep charcoal black and garish pumpkin orange – inside the book are remarkable stories of the best women players in history – from the first Women World Champion Vera Menchik and her opponents to the women who break the 2600-Elo barrier today.

These stories are interwoven with Jennifer Shahade's own chess career and her experiences as a professional player. This makes the book an inspiring work that reminds us of the unequal and misogynistic treatment of women in the chess world.

Shahade's third book is well thought out and written in chronological order. After a shockingly honest but compelling introduction, she takes us on a backstage journey through the lives of such chess heroines as war-torn pioneers Vera Menchik and Sonja Graf, Holocaust survivor Isabelle Choko, and postwar champions Lyudmila Rudenko, Elizabeta Bykova, and Olga Rubtsova.

She talks in detail about the Georgian women's chess dynasty, which brought about players such as Nona Gaprindashvili, Women's World Champion form 1962 to 1978, and the first woman ever to become a Grandmaster, or Maia Chiburdanidze, World Champion from 1978 to 1991 and the second woman ever to become a Grandmaster.

Beginning with the chapter introducing the Polgar sisters to the reader, Shahade offers intimate first-hand insights, quotes from her own encounters, conversations, and interviews with the players she portrays.

The book continues with the rise of Chinese women's chess and stories about the European chess divas who jet around the world to play their games. Thoughts about the development of women's chess in America and portraits of unique and strong players conclude the book.

On the very last pages we find a carefully compiled glossary explaining the chess terms used in Chess Queens that might need explanation for non-chess players, as well as an appendix with all the games that appear in the book. A QR code provides easy access to an online library where these games are available for study and analysis.

A typical photo from the book. Here we see Vera Menchik playing in London 1932. To her left is Alexander Alekhine, his opponent is Sultan Khan. | Photo courtesy of Jennifer Shahade

Chess Queens is brutally honest – that is, sometimes shocking and revealing – well researched, and highly entertaining. It is at times glamourous but overall it is an instructive work that confronts the reader with the darker sides of a chess player's complex reality. It does so with a generous dose of sarcasm and good humor to balance the occasional feelings of disgust and unease that might arise at the sight of the truth.

In my opinion, Chess Queens can be an excellent advertisement for chess itself, as it is portrayed as exciting, complex, and at the same time attractive for women and men alike. I encourage chess players (of all levels and ages) and people interested in inspirational life stories to read the book, as it provides an enormously valuable insight into the chess world, the minds of players, and the benefits of being a professional chess player.

Moreover, I consider Chess Queens an ideal gift for anyone who wants to know more about the past and current situation of women in chess. But it might also be an eye-opener for those who believe that there is nothing left to improve for women in chess.

Fabi Shahade is in love with his mother's new book Chess Queens | Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Shahade


Interview with Jennifer Shahade

Tatiana Flores was born in Andorra in 1998 and moved to Germany with her family when she was 14. She works as a chess journalist, poet and multilingual author. Besides chess, she is also passionate about literature and music. See also her website under tatianaflores.de/.