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Chess Bitch - a review
November 2005

chess bitch
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 (via email).

You can buy Chess Bitch at Amazon
You can visit Jennifer Shahade's Website
You can see her entry at Wikipedia


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 book."
"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 especially Kosteniuk.
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 City Paper writes:
"...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 drive."
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 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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