Chess queen Jennifer Shahade takes on Eph pawns

Jennifer Shahade has a serious game face – when she’s playing chess, that is. But don’t roll your eyes simply because her calling is often portrayed as a lazy day, park pastime for the elderly. There’s nothing laughable about Shahade’s resume. After all, not everyone can claim to be a two-time American Women’s Chess Champion.

However, Shahade is surprisingly modest about her accomplishments; she never goes out of her way to relate her expertise. At first it is almost hard to imagine how she can be known as one of the most aggressive players on the chess circuit. But as soon as Shahade began a game last Sunday, her skills instantly became evident.

Shahade came to Williamstown to give a lecture and play an 18-simultaneous game against chess enthusiasts. Students, professors and community members anxiously, yet eagerly, set up their chessboards in preparation for playing against this grandmaster.

Pretty soon, everyone was fidgeting – tapping their feet, biting their lips and absentmindedly moving their fingers above the pieces on the board – everyone except for Shahade, who continued to confidently move around the circle of challengers, barely stopping before making a move and progressing to the next game.

“She’s moving so fast!” Vicki Sheng ’11 said about Shahade’s technique. “She never stays for more than a minute at each game. It’s like she’s not even thinking about the moves she’s making.”

This is where years of training begin to pay off. Despite juggling 18 matches concurrently, Shahade was still able to focus on each game. It’s her key to success in chess. “The main thing to playing chess well is concentration and focus at critical moments of the game,” Shahade said. “You have to be able to block everything else out and solely focus on what is happening on the board.”

In order to compete at such a high level, Shahade devotes hours each day training for tournaments. While it seems that chess is an exclusively intellectual game, it demands a surprisingly great amount of physical stamina and endurance, according to her.

“Chess takes up so much energy that I definitely think it is a sport,” Shahade said. “Some of the best chess players work out for over two hours everyday because it is so important to be in a good physical state. I have even known some to lose 20 to 25 pounds after one intense game at tournaments.”

Aside from maintaining peak physical condition, Shahade also trains by reading chess theory books and examining past games through replay. This preparation for competition is intense, constantly demanding her full attention.

“It’s so hard to study chess when a lot of other things are going on,” Shahade said. “But if you don’t focus, then you don’t get much out of [your readings] because everything you’ve read is just superficial . . . You always have to study past games and try to compare moves. It’s really hard because in chess, your possibilities multiply exponentially with every move.”

But it wasn’t always easy for Shahade to concentrate strictly on chess. Growing up, many influences directed her away from the game. But somehow Shahade always found herself back at the chessboard.

“My father and brother were both strong players and we used to always play together,” Shahade said. “But my brother, who is two years older, became a master at a really young [age], and I always found that really intimidating. I stopped in junior high, but by high school I was able to get over it and just enjoy the game. I think that is the biggest thing for me – to not always compare myself against others because it just made me miserable and held me back.”

These days, Shahade hardly feels intimidated against most players, as she is internationally recognized for her achievements. But Shahade isn’t content at just being celebrated for her chess abilities. She not only travels abroad to give lectures and demonstrate games for audience members, but she also gives training sessions to young upcoming female chess players. It’s Shahade’s way of giving back and correcting the game’s gender imbalance.

“Chess is very male dominated,” Shahade said. “Only around 10 percent of the chess players are women, and I’ve been trying to change that. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to an all girls’ school in South Africa and talk about chess and women’s issues. I think it’s important for girls to get the message that they can do anything.”

It is this will to empower more women into the world of chess that led Shahade to write her critically acclaimed book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. The book confronts significant controversies in chess and questions what it really takes to “play like a girl.” After all, when it comes to chess, the queen has all the power.

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