Chess gets sexy with "The Mating Game"

by Sabrina Chevannes
1/3/2017 – Jovanka Houska is the British Women’s Chess Champion, but there is certainly more to her than meets the eye. She has co-authored a “sexy chess book” called The Mating Game, which is available to buy now! Find out more in this exclusive interview.

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Cover of Jovanka Houska's recently released book "The Mating Game"

I have been lucky enough to play on the same team as Jovanka Houska since 2007, and I am proud to call her my friend. I am even more proud to see that she has brought chess into the mainstream with her new book, The Mating Game. It has been a project in the pipeline for several years, and it is finally published and proving very popular already. Here is a sneak peek into what the book is about and an interview with Jovanka on chess, sex and strong females.

Sabrina: The Mating Game is being talked about all over the world, with speculations about what it’s actually like. Tell us what The Mating Game is really about.
Jovanka: Chess is the background/the setting of this book, but it’s really about this young woman who is trying to achieve her ambition of becoming a Grandmaster. It follows her adventures and her romantic injuries and just sees her having a lot of fun along the way.

OK, so this main character, Vanny, is actually based on you. Just how closely related to you is she?
Well, she definitely has certain aspects of me, certain little quirks that I have. What I really liked when developing the character with James (Jovanka’s co-author) was that things didn’t go all that smoothly for her and she had to work really hard to overcome a lot of boundaries. To me, it was really important that she wasn’t immediately successful, as everyone struggles to reach goals, as I even did.

Here's what James said: "I had the idea of a beautiful and passionate heroine who had the basic problem that she was only attracted to guys who could beat her at chess. And so Vanny was born. She's more mischievous and naughtier than Jovanka - at least I think so - but Vanny still has, I hope, Jovanka's great charm and love of life.”

Do you approach women’s chess issues in the book?
No, I tried to avoid that; to me, it’s empowering enough that she gets there and she makes it to where she wants to be. Of course, there are some parts where some men make sexist or negative comments, but I didn’t want it to be the main focus of the book. It is very real though; you do get men crowding around your game, because you’re the only female in the tournament, or people saying she’s good for a girl. However, I didn’t want it to be the main focus.

So, what would you say is the main focus of the book?
Vanny’s main goal is to become a Grandmaster, but the focus is on her trying to find out who she is. She’s 26 years old and she’s trying to figure out what to do for a living, where she fits into the chess world and along the way, she has all these romantic entanglements.

Jovanka Houska at the Isle of Man tournament 2015 (Photo: Alina l'Ami)

The reason this book has been getting a lot of attention is because of all the “sex” in the book, but would you say it is more romantic than erotic?
I can imagine that for many chess players, this is probably a really racy book! However, in the mainstream…not so much. One of my favourite quotes from James was: “Some people just completely forget that they have anything past their mid-riff!”

I really like that quote, because the chess world does need to embrace all parts of the community. It is easy to get bogged down in the intellectual aspect, but the social side should be embraced too!

Well, I would say that this is something that goes on at chess tournaments; there is often quite a lot of action off the chessboard too!
(laughs) Exactly! It is who we are – it’s simply human nature! There’s nothing wrong with having it out there in the open and exploring different parts.

How do you think chess players will react to the book?
That’s the most interesting part for me! So far, I’ve had a lot of funny comments from people I’ve not really expected them from – they’ve all been really supportive. I hope that people will realise that it is not just about sex, or chess, but a powerful, romantic story too. I would definitely not recommend that any children read this book, though!

“This is definitely not a young person’s manual for how to get better at chess!”
But Grandmaster Stuart Conquest seems to like what he reads.

Say if someone bought the book and wanted to delve straight into the action, which would you recommend as the raunchiest chapter for them?
Chapter 19 is pretty raunchy! Vanny goes to visit Tom and it’s pretty racy stuff! However, it is also quite funny at the end too! But I think a nice introductory chapter to the characters and the chess is chapter 4.

How would you say this book compares to 50 Shades of Grey?
It’s completely different!! For starters, what I didn’t like about 50 Shades was that Anastasia was portrayed as very submissive. If someone came up to Vanny and asked her to be in a relationship but she had to sign a contract first, she would show them the door! Things are done on her terms… she decides if she wants to get into a relationship or not. This was what bugged me about 50 shades; I wasn’t bothered so much by what they were doing, but the fact that Christian was very controlling and Vanny would not accept that at all.

So, if you weren’t inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, what gave you the idea of the book?
I met James in around 2004/2005 and he was besotted by the world of chess, thinking it was really quite glamorous. He’s an amateur chess player, but an author and runs his own PR firm. We were out for Chinese and he expressed that he thought it was a shame that chess players had to struggle so much for money all the time. So, we discussed ways of trying to get chess into the mainstream. We came up with ideas of a Mind Sports quiz show; TV companies were interested, but things sort of fizzled out. Then, we wanted to develop a non-fiction book based on the chemistry of chess players. I believe it is quite an intimate game – you sit opposite them and you have this intimate connection with them. However, that idea fizzled out too.

James Essinger

Then, in 2009, when I was getting married to my now husband, Arne, James told me he wanted to write a novel. So, we decided to embark on this exciting adventure together. We’ve been exchanging daily emails ever since.

That’s 7 years ago! What has taken so long for you to finally publish it?
There’s been a lot of ups and downs and going backwards and forwards with the story. We’ve made so many edits to the book and changes to characters and story. However, we’ve finally made it and it’s definitely been worth it. At the end of the book there's a short essay entitled 'How The Mating Game came to be' which tells the full story of its origins.

So, what other characters are we going to recognise as real chess players? Vanny is you… but who joins you?
I’ve definitely name-dropped some GMs directly, so you can enjoy the fun where they are mentioned. James did get inspired by some people and actually he thought you were rather glamorous, so Jasmine in the book is based on you!

Oh gosh!! Well, I will definitely have to read it now! Plus, I can find out what Jasmine gets up to and perhaps get some tips!! Who else is there?
Well, Sven is loosely based on my husband, Arne, and Charlotte is based on James’ ex. So, they are not so well-known to the chess world.

So, I take it that Vanny and Sven end up together at the end of the book?
Ahhhh, you’re going to have to read it to find that out!

The events in this book are, of course, not all based on true stories. But how much of what Vanny does is what you wish you had done when you were her age?
I love her fire – I like the fact that she gets there. I really do wish that I had her confidence in my 20s; I feel like I have it in my 30s though, but definitely wish I had it back then. She has so much ease and she just goes and grabs what she wants from people, from relationships – that… I wish I had. She’s definitely the type of person I wish I was at her age. I really admire people who are not restricted and has the confidence to acknowledge their pleasure. I met Arne at 22 and have been with him ever since, so I’ve missed all those dramas.

You were blessed to have met “the one” so early on, but perhaps you wish you got to have your own adventures first too?
I look at my youngest sister, and she is travelling the world and is carefree – Vanny has that too! She has her plans to be a Grandmaster, but she is doing her own thing too. When love hits her, she is not afraid to go out there and explore it!

So, who would you say this book is for? Would you want it to be more for chess players, or the average audience?
I hope it can be liked by both! Of course, it is heavily about chess, so I hope that chess players will enjoy this aspect of it. But, it is a creative and romantic story that can be enjoyed by anyone. I hope that a non-chess player will pick up this book, and then be interested in the world of chess! The book is very easy to read – it was important that it wasn’t pretentious or anything. I think that anyone who is interested in chess or romance should go and buy this book.

Jovanka Houska

If a non-chess player read the book and was inspired to then start playing the game, do you think they would then be disappointed to find that all these shenanigans didn’t quite happen in this way at tournaments?
I think that international tournaments are not that dissimilar to The Mating Game! However, if they were to pop down to their local club in the UK…well…(laughs).

Do you envisage this book becoming a film?
Ohhhhh yesssss… that would be so amazing – it would be the dream.

Who would you envisage playing the role of Vanny in the film?
It would definitely have to be someone really ballsy! I have a soft spot for Scarlett Johansson – I think she’s really great.

Well, I think that should inspire some men to read the book – they can just imagine Scarlett Johansson in the role of Vanny!
I hope so! If people are interested, they can also download the first 10 chapters on Amazon, as a taster to the book. I hope people enjoy it!

Born in 1986 in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, England, Sabrina now lives in London where she is managing director of the London Academy of Chess and Education. With over 300 members of the academy, she has one of the largest following of students in the UK. Sabrina is a Women International Master and an active chess player.


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