The dust jacket of Jennifer Shahade's in-your-face Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport features the author in iridescent pink – pink wig, pink scarf, pink lipstick, pink shirt, and fuzzy pink gloves holding a glowing pink chess book. Shahade is a Women's Grandmaster (and likely soon an International Master, with a few more properly-timed victories in the right tournaments) who writes with vigor and insight. Her book, in spite of its title, is a fine report on women in chess and on chess culture in general. She offers thoughts on psychology which one may variously find insightful or impetuous, e.g., from Chapter 4 ("Be Like Judit!"):

There is a wide range of ways for a woman to react to another powerful woman in the same field. The range can span everything from accepting her as a role model to feeling envy or even to feeling attraction. Too often, the admiration of one girl for another is completely displaced by jealousy. A heterosexual woman ought to be able to recognize and embrace the feelings of respect, admiration, and even attraction for a female peer. And the complicated admiration that a woman can have for a man is too often displaced by attraction. It should be possible to be attracted to and competitive with a great man – to want to be with him and to beat him. Judith Butler, gender theorist, says, "Desire and identification can coexist." I would add that they should, and if we are aware of this peaceful coexistence, sexual relations will improve.

Later, in Chapter 6 ("Women Only!") WGM Shahade wrestles with a central social issue:

My own occasional participation in women's tournaments used to make me feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed. I enjoyed the competitions, the traveling, and the prize money, yet I could not reconcile playing in women's events with my feminist views. As I have become involved in writing this book, my attitude has changed. I have stopped thinking about such events as less than the events with men and started to think of them as a way to meet and compete with female colleagues. I reframed the question that I am often confronted with: "If women are as strong as men, why would they ever play separately?" to "Why might women enjoy playing amongst other women?"

Shahade goes on to discuss the positive aspects of women's chess tournaments, and makes some key points that have deep parallels in many areas of gender and race relations.

But Chess Bitch isn't all feminist history and politics; it includes some highly readable and at times near-poetic reports on the author's adventures at international tournaments in her action-packed young life. For example, in Chapter 10 ("Checkmate Around the World") she describes a visit to the Old City in Delhi, where she had come to play in the Women's 2000 World Championships:

The pollution was so severe that my face was covered with soot by the time I reached my relatively unmemorable tourist destination. Later that day, exploring on foot, I crossed an abandoned parking lot, where dozens of homeless were camped out. I was instantly surrounded by bare-footed beggars in rags, who blocked my path back to the street. I was hit on a visceral level by the suffering I was witnessing. I had always known about poverty in India, but to see it up close was unforgettable. I could not think straight, and on the taxi-ride home, I was softly weeping. My driver coolly remarked, "You must have just arrived. You are still so sensitive."

I knew my experience was hardly unique. Travelers who'd also been emotionally devastated in their first experiences in impoverished countries had warned me. My reaction that evening surprised me even more than my afternoon sadness, as I felt more humbled than guilty. I went back to the hotel to take a shower and gratefully re-entered the chess world, its never-ending stream of meaningless variations a great relief.

Jen Shahade concludes her first book with:

... At the chessboard, my mind senses the same kind of familiarity. In such a relaxed state, I can often enter a zone. Not even conscious of my name or how much money I have in the bank, at times of peak performance I just let go. My sense of time relaxes, which can be problematic when the time limit approaches, but is ultimately my favorite aspect of the game. I've often awakened from deep thought wondering, Where was I? Chess thinking at its most pure is a realm where gender is not relevant. This is in sharp contrast to the culture and politics of the chess world, where women are such a minority that gender is extremely visible.

Chess has also given me a gallery of fond memories and an unusually flexible lifestyle. I am twenty-four years old as I write this, and I have never worked in an office. Great chess moves can pierce me with a momentary but intense pleasure like a smile in a dream. Then there are the worldwide travels and connections with people from Russia and China, half or three times my age. Still, I am distraught by how few women enjoy the freedom and pleasures that come with losing oneself in chess. To female readers, I pass the move to you.

( cf. CaissicMetaphors (8 Jan 2000), ChessChow (26 Sep 2001), NunnSoEver (20 Jun 2003), WithoutLimits (12 Feb 2005), MauriceAshley (10 Apr 2005), TeachingZebras (28 Dec 2005), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicRecreation - 2006-02-12

(correlates: TeachingZebras, CaissicUncertaintyPrinciple, AnnotationPunctuation, ...)