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Book Review: Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade

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“Playing like a girl” can mean a lot of things. In the game of chess, the strongest piece is the Queen (often referred to as the “bitch” by rabid chess aficionados), and yet being female has long been considered a major handicap. Chess Bitch, written by 2004 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade, is an exploration of women competing in a cerebral sport still dominated by men.

As Shahade describes her own experiences, it was very interesting to explore the permutations of the simple phrase “playing like a girl.” Shahade documents her overly aggressive early days, and how her father (another chess master) jokingly commented after one of her victories that no one could ever accuse her of doing so. After all, in the mainstream culture the idea still remains that girls might be overly passive or not competitive enough; Shahade acknowledges that she often pushed the boundaries on the other extreme. Yet in time she learned that in the chess subculture, “playing like a girl” often was a shorthand way of suggesting that women players were impatient and easily goaded into aggressive lines of attack. Amazingly, in chess it was almost as if the meaning of the phrase had been inverted somehow.

But the book is not simply about Shahade. Instead, she profiles the lives of great women players from history, beginning with the first women’s world champion, Vera Menchik. She explores the women’s chess dynasties of Georgia and China and talks about the players she’s met during her own adventures playing in tournaments from Reykjavik to Istanbul. She also documents the often wacky and always colorful characters who gladly play chess all day and party most of the night. And she talks quite a bit about chess as a game, a sport, and a passion. Whether it be in dissecting the failure of certain women champions to shake the “nice” label or in almost literally running in terror from contemporary players who suggest that women play more poorly during “that time of the month,” Shahade introduces readers to a bizarre world few of us ever would have expected.

A couple of years ago, I read an article that talked about the wild world of competitive ping pong. To Americans, I think the idea of competitive ping pong seems rather silly – it’s a “sport” in name only, an activity reserved for garages or basements and never taken all that seriously. Chess is often dismissed in rather the same way – the nerds of the chess club are dismissed rather summarily as dull and drab. With Chess Bitch, Shahade shatters many of the myths surrounding chess players – not only gender-based misconceptions, but the overall idea of the “type” of people who play chess, and play it with fire and passion. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and Chess Bitch is an engaging and often provocative exploration of the game and its most capable practitioners.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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