by Jennifer Shahade
Siles Press, Ca. Sept. 2005
| In the
spirit of full-disclosure I feel I should mention two things
before proceeding with this review:
One, is the fact that she and I exchanged a few emails prior to the
book's release that originated after the author stumbled onto my
Lisa Lane page and wrote me on July, 27, 2004:
"Great job on your reports on Lisa Lane. I have written a section on her in
my book on women in chess (coming out this winter) and chanced by your story
when fact-checking some info on Sonja Graf. I also think that the history of
American women's chess is rich and am glad you are exploring it on your
web-page, which I will become a regular visitor to!" After such an
introduction, I was predisposed to not just to buy, but to like her book.
Second, is that the book I do have is an "uncorrected review
galley" - a white, soft-covered draft version in which the photos are of low
quality and in which there are many typos, errors and omissions. A good
friend of mine has a finished version and helped me compare the differences
You can buy Chess Bitch at
You can visit Jennifer Shahade's
You can see her entry at
While a prologue to a book review might seem a bit pretentious, I
wanted to express a few thoughts that don't fit into a book review proper.
Before even reading this book, I had determined to review it, something
I've never done. I had read other reviews and
commentaries and was struck by the extremes into which each of these leaped.
There was very little middle-ground.
From a sampling of reviews at Amazon one can see that....
Much of the hoopla was about the title, or
at least about the word "Bitch" which is in the title:
"Chess Bitch is
a very offensive title....I definitely will not let my children read this
"I think this title is not a good
example for young players especially young female players."
Some was about its feminist leanings:
"the feminist identity politics and girlish materialistic
hype doesn't belong in chess. "
Some about Shahade's perceived motives:
"I see the personal jealousy and hatred coming out through
the author's words. The author
gave bogus opinions about her close friends such as Krush, Vicary and
Some were good:
"...she isn't afraid to pull any punches. I don't
think she has set out to demean or defame anyone. She tries to tell it as
"she sees it" - how could anyone be asked to do better. Some writers try
to be over complimentary, but this wouldn't fit in will with the entire
objective of the book. "
"In "Chess Bitch" you will find a dynamic and
authoritative masterpiece on the inner world of women's chess as seen
through the eyes of one the to top women players in the United States."
Reviews from other sources were generally more balanced. For instance
"...Shahade's manifesto for chess queens remains a contradictory
mishmash of identification and exceptionalism, working to make these
players not just girls while maintaining a gossipy "we're all just girls"
voice. In fact, it's Shahade's gossipy voice that saves the book. Where
Chess Bitch fails as a manifesto, it succeeds as a first-person memoir of
women's competitive chess ..."
While Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow of
Village Voice writes: "Chess Bitch also debunks theories about
menstruation-induced incompetence and the pseudo-Freudian male chess
Elites TV expresses the opinion: "Through her own personal
experiences and those of other top women players, Shahade traces the
evolution of female masters past and present who have struggled to achieve
a threshold in the upper echelons of chess, often to the outspoken
displeasure of ranking males ... 'Chess Bitch' candidly captures the often
harsh and inbred bias against women masters as a microcosm of the
perennial battle of the sexes, opening an avenue of accessibility to a
universe long unapproachable to outsiders."
Jennifer Shahade gave us a bargain by writing three books in one.
Chess Bitch is the title of her maiden book that chronicles the
relationship between women and chess on historical, cultural and personal
levels. Each one of these levels is a triumph on its own.
Shadade gives a brief history of women's chess through the lives of
world champion women
players, from Vera Menchik to Antoaneta Stefanova. She
also briefly takes the reader through
the history of women's chess in America.
The author delves into some of the issues, real or
supposed, that are exclusive to women in
chess. She presents a moderate feminist viewpoint
sympathetically without alienating the reader.
Ms. Shahade offers her own experiences and insight into
how she dealt with chess as a female
while expounding on her own philosophies and ideas.
When I initially read the book my focus was on
the historical information. Much of what Ms. Shahade presents,
particularly in the section on American players, had been totally
neglected by chess authors in the past. The biographical information on
some players is sparse, but on others is quite detailed. The glimpse into
Sonja Graf was basically a repeat of Shahade's fine New in Chess
Magazine article from July, 2004. The biographies of Women World
Champions, particularly from Menchik to Chimburdanidze, were fairly
routine and handled equally well by John Graham in his
Women in Chess: Players of the Modern Age. But the author shines
when looking at the post-Georgian champions. Her treatment of the American
players is a delight and alone worth the price of the book.
The biographies aren't limited to world champions or US
champion, but extends to many other players who are noteworthy for their
potential or for their uniqueness. The tie-that-binds is their gender more
than their talent. While I won't list them all here, the number of players
who are profiled is astonishingly large.
The author's main technique seemed to be to
introduce personalities that either followed a logical historical path or
who fit under the topic of the chapter and intersperse the biographical
information with tidbits of peripheral information as well as applicable
cultural arguments. The result was akin to walking towards some
destination, but taking time along the way to wander into some alleys or
to peek inside some dimly lit alcoves that had little to do with the journey except
to provide a more interesting trip. The main problem I found was that the
destination was never always clear in my mind, leaving me confused at times about
which was the path and which was the alley. The upside is that the journey
was enjoyable enough to be an end in itself.
Ms. Shahade, rather than being the extreme feminist
that many reviewers seemed to imply, appeared to me to be more a rational
feminist. She questioned everything from a feminist perspective without
prejudice or any hint of close-mindedness. The most obvious case in point
is her handling of Alexandra Kosteniuk. While not agreeing that any
publicity is good publicity, Shahade doesn't seem to condemn Kosteniuk's
mixing of sex and chess. If she showed her feminist teeth at all, I would
say it was most apparent in writing about Fredric Friedel, founder of
Chessbase and editor of Chessbase.com and his disingenuous sexist
attitudes. The implication to me being that Kosteniuk doesn't give up her
integrity and separates her modeling aspirations from her chess career,
while Freidel wallows in his lack of integrity and purposely integrates
chess with unrelated prurient sideshows.
Some reviewers wrote this book off as a fluff piece. I
don't know why. In
my first reading, my focus was on certain areas that interest me most. I
was able to open my mind more during my second reading and look at things
more from the author's point-of-view. I was surprised and intrigued by several
ideas Shahade introduced along the way. For example, one such idea led me
to think back to the 19th century when chess began its change
from an amateur pastime into a professional sport, a change that ignited a
remarkable improvement in the quality of play and raised the bar
significantly for its serious practitioners. Women's chess has only
improved as the motivation for improvement became evident and only to the
level that the motivation inspired. Women's chess will only rise to men's
level when women are equally motivated, the way men were back in the late
1800's. The problem lies with the lack of realization that women and men
are motivated differently.
I enjoyed her introspection which
struck me as honest as it was insightful. What some reviewers passed off
as "gossipy," I believe most readers would take to be an
exclusive insider's view. For instance, I
don't know Antoaneta Stefanova personally, so it's intriguing to learn
what someone who does know her has to say about her. Beyond the insider's
look at chess personalities, we also get a personal view into Shahade's
mind as she played for the US Women's Chess Championship and what it meant
to be a member of Susan Polgár's Olympiad Dream Team.
What is the value of a book? What makes one
book great and another one mediocre?
Chess Bitch never reaches the level of Great. As a history book, it
pales when compared to other books covering similar territories, such as
Andy Soltis' The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996 which
covers the men's chess championship in the U. S. On a cultural
level, it doesn't live up to Richard Eales' Chess: The History of a
Game or, as a personal account, to Mikhail Tal's Life & Games of
Mikhail Tal. But Chess Bitch doesn't seem to aspire to
such select greatness. By choosing to tackle the issue of women's chess in
a manner that's both objective and subjective - sometimes personal,
sometimes journalistic, sometimes scholarly - Shahade never attains
the full effectiveness of any.
Does this mean, then, that the book is mediocre?
No, not in the least. Because Jennifer Shahade tackles topics against
which there has been little written in comparison, because much of the
subject matter has been ignored by chess writers to date, because the
book, for whatever it's failings, is highly readable and ultimately
satisfying and mostly because her writing caused me to think and
re-evaluate my own positions on certain issues, I would put it in a
class all to itself.
I noted several errors worth mentioning but not worth fretting over:
1. page 25. Vera Menchik's husband,
Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson, is called "Rudolf."
2. page 144. Philidor is called "the great French
player from the 19th century."
- Philidor (1726-1795) didn't lived to see the 19th century.
3. page 154. "...Morphy had already gone mad when
he was found drowned in his bathtub
- Paul Morphy neither was "mad"
nor did he die from drowning,
4. page 238. "Soon after this the Queen's Pawn
closed and Lisa Lane disappeared from chess."
- However, the Queen's Pawn closed in 1964. Lisa Lane was the 1966 co-US
Women's Chess Champion.
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