New Queens of the Chessboard

A chessboard is a surprisingly feminist terrain. The queen reigns supreme, leading the battle to protect a relatively feeble king. But look to either side of the board, and men are much more likely to be poring over it than women. That imbalance, however, has started to change. Jennifer Shahade, 22, is an example of the growing female presence in the chess world. The strongest U.S.-born female player ever, she is an International Master, and is now writing a book about women in chess.

Shahade played in her first tournament in third grade, with initially lack luster results. “My dad and brother were both chess masters, and I just tagged along. But then I had a couple good tournaments, and got really into it in high school.” Since then, she has won tournaments, beaten grandmasters, and toured the world as a representative of the U.S. Olympiad team and of New York University, where she graduated with a degree in comparative literature.

In a book she’s writing, due out next year, Shahade investigates the paucity of great female chess players. Some theorize that girls are not aggressive enough, “just can’t think that way,” or lack the physiological endurance for exhausting matches. A top female player even cited menstruation as a possible obstacle! More relevant, Shahade says, is the lack of a women’s tradition in chess, or precedents for women’s single minded ambition more generally. “There aren’t as many role models to be passionate or obsessed with anything. It’s weirder to be spending all your time alone doing something.”

Males outnumber females by about 10 to one at chess tournaments, and only one of the top 10 players in the world is female. This one woman, however, Grandmaster Judit Polgar, represents a once-unthinkable wedge into the top ranks. Partly following her inspiration, there has been a surge in female membership in the U.S. Chess Federation, with more young girls playing and succeeding. Jennifer Shahade teaches chess in a girls’ academy in New York, which hosts tournaments where some 100 girls play.

Despite these advances, sexism still crops up routinely in the chess world. Female players’ appearances and attire are discussed in the press as much as their playing style. And in a recent lawsuit in Australia, a defeated male player accused his female opponent of distracting him with low-cut clothing. Shahade’s own astonishing performance at the U.S. chess championship in Seattle in 2002 was dismissively attributed to her being” young, fresh, and female,” and thus paired with “soft players—an accusation that evaporates after you examine her games.

If women historically have been almost absent in chess, Jews seem to have been overrepresented among chess champions. Jennifer Shahade is half-Jewish (her mother is Jewish), and many other up-and-coming female chess players are Jewish, including Judit Poigar and Shahade’s contemporary, fellow New Yorker Irina Krush. One of Jennifer Shahade’s former teachers, Leonid Yudasin, is a grandmaster and Orthodox Jew. After an intense game between them, which ended in a draw, he impulsively shook her hand. She realized later it was the first time he had ever done so, because under his strict adherence to Jewish law he was forbidden to touch a woman not his wife. Afterward, an observer told Shahade, “Your best accomplishment was not the draw, but the handshake.” Apparently, in that moment, her teacher forgot that she was “young, fresh, and female” and responded instead to the fact that she was an authentically worthy chess opponent.