Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Calitri Interviews Jennifer Shahade

In the April-June 2009 issue of Atlantic Chess News, columnist Ken Calitri interviews Jennifer Shahade.

Marcel Duchamp Meets His Match – An Interview with Jennifer Shahade

by Ken Calitri

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, Marcel Duchamp would be both flattered and tickled pink by Naked Chess, a recent video created by Jennifer Shahade in which she also performs, playing chess against a naked tattooed man. All done to promote the new book Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess. The video turns the table on a famous and controversial performance art exhibition done by Duchamp in 1963 where he played chess with a naked model. It would seem these two exhibitionists have much in common. Both became strong master level chess players, authors, artists in various mediums, and intellectual provocateurs. Both also possess a playful if not humorous approach at times to their artistic endeavors.

Jennifer Shahade is a modern woman with many talents, interests, and pursuits. Since becoming US Women’s Chess Champion (twice!), she has written a book about women in chess, taken up tournament poker, contributed game annotations to the new Duchamp book, started a non-profit foundation promoting chess, became editor for USCF’s Chess Life Online, created several chess videos, recently performed the announcing at the US Chess Championship, and finds time to seriously dabble in art with a penchant for performance art.

If Paul Morphy was the pride and sorrow of American chess, then Jennifer is one of our pride and joys. She is living a vibrant, productive life and is a true role model for all chess players. It was a real pleasure to catch up with Jennifer after the US Championship in St. Louis and chat with her about the new Duchamp book, chess, art, poker and more!

Ken Calitri (KC) - In the new book Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess by Francis Naumann and Bradley Bailey, you contributed analysis to 15 games played by Marcel Duchamp. How strong a player was Duchamp? How would you describe his style, and which game of his did you enjoy most?

Jennifer Shahade (JS) - It's hard to say because the level of play was different in those times. I'd say he was definitely a master level player. He was creative and had a good positional sense. He also really enjoyed attacking play. However, he sometimes faltered in long calculations. I really enjoyed his quick win over Georges Renaud, co-author of The Art of Checkmate. I also liked his game against E.H. Smith, which is re-enacted in the video I created to promote the book - Naked Chess. Naked Chess plays off a famous photograph of Duchamp playing chess against a naked woman - except this time, I was playing against a naked guy!

KC - I believe Duchamp would have been pleased with your Naked Chess video. His exhibition playing chess with a naked model (Eva Babitz) at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963 caused a bit of stir. While it was a tasteful exhibition, some thought it was extremely sexist. Looking back on his exhibition, did it strike you as being sexist?

JS - I do think that in isolation I'd think of it as sexist. But Duchamp's life and art as a whole made me see it in a more humorous way. But it was important to me to reverse it, so there must have been a fiery subconscious reaction!

KC - After giving up painting, Duchamp focused his efforts on glass sculptures, readymades and the amazing piece Etant Donnes. Overall he produced relatively few works and at age thirty-three gave up art for chess. He made a living thereafter on a modest trust and art dealing. Duchamp’s impact was the enormity of his contributions to the dada, surrealism and modern art movements. These contributions seem to have overshadowed the fact that one of the most influential artists of the 20th century quit art to play CHESS! Never prolific and even lazy, Duchamp may have had nothing more to say regarding his art and simply found another passion. What do you think?

JS - Well, Duchamp never really quit art. Even when playing chess, he made significant artistic contributions to the art world, which you can read about in Duchamp: The Art of Chess and, of course, as you mentioned, he later unveiled Etant Donnes.

KC - Your book Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport was not the typical book written by a chess player. The provocative main title of your book Chess Bitch and the colorful cover photo of you raised eyebrows and strong opinions. While I may have preferred a different title and cover, I generally subscribe to the theory "any publicity is good publicity." Others thought it detracted from them wanting to read the book and wasn’t positive for the image of chess. With several years of hindsight, what are your thoughts about the criticism you heard and would you do anything differently?

JS - I love the title even more now and am happy with the cover as well. Of course I'd probably write a slightly different book now, but I think that I showed my best skills at the time, as a writer and an observer.

KC - Some of the eastern European women chess players you interviewed in the book seemed put off by the book title. Their feminist views seemed to be much more conservative. What was the experience like trying to bridge the cultural differences with women from these countries?

JS - Actually, I did not pick the title until the book was mostly finished, and the majority of women I spoke to did like the title. I'm sure some did not like it, but that's partly because "bitch" has a different connotation in eastern Europe than in America. Here it brings to mind, sneaky, aggressive maybe mean, but not "whore." That was an unfortunate fact of cultural translation, but on the other hand, I don't think it was such a difficult point to explain. I am friends with a wide variety of people in both chess and outside the chess world, so it's usually not difficult, at least not emotionally, for me to communicate with people who have different views with me, or who are more or less conservative.

KC - I am still kicking myself for missing your simultaneous exhibition and participation in the symposium at the Noguchi Museum in 2006. I did see the exhibition The Image of Chess Revisited and enjoyed it very much. I loved the Noguchi Museum and sat in the center garden for hours on a sunny day. It is a wonderful oasis in an urban setting. How did you do in your simul?

JS - I do so many simuls that I don't remember my exact record, but I do remember this was unique as it was not a simul exactly. Instead, I played each person who showed up one by one, which was cool, because it allowed each participant to get a lot of personal attention. The downside, of course, was that people had to wait around for their turn. The next unique simul I want to give is a full on hula-hooping chess simul! I started my simul earlier this year in Princeton, NJ, hula-hooping; but to do a full hula-chess simul, the setting would have to be specifically designed with that in mind.

KC - When you give a simultaneous exhibition do you coddle the opposition at all, try to experiment and play creatively or, as Dick Vitale says, "Just win, baby?"

JS - I try to win but also make sure my opponents are having fun. I try to play reasonably fast to make it fair, even if it means increasing my chances to lose a few games.

KC - What was the experience like playing in such a Zen-like setting at the Noguchi Museum?

JS - It was awesome to play at an art museum! I was also involved in some chess and art activities recently in St. Louis. The book The Art of Chess opened at the same time as Duchamp: Chess Master opened at the St. Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA). I participated in a panel discussion at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis with gallery owner and author Francis Naumann, author and curator Larry List, and Dr. Bradley Bailey on Duchamp, art and chess. So it's great to see that this theme of art and chess is something that can deepen through the years.

KC - Did you enjoy The Imagery of Chess Exhibition and do you collect chess sets at all?

JS - I loved The Imagery of Chess Exhibition. I also loved Larry's recent book, 32 Pieces: The Art of Chess, which he co-wrote in conjunction with a recent exhibition of contemporary chess sets in Iceland. I wish I could collect chess sets, but the ones I like are pretty expensive. I did receive a signed House of Staunton chess board from all the participants of the US Championship, as a present for my work as chair there. That was so nice! I also used chess sets borrowed from for my recent chess videos, Naked Chess and Hula Chess, created in conjunction with DimMak Films. So the itch is there.... Probably one of my first purchases would be the au naturelle set from the that we used for Naked Chess.

KC - You have been relatively inactive from competitive chess in the last four years. You have two IM norms and need only one more to receive the IM title. With your many interests, do you see yourself finding the time to make a concerted effort to gain the third norm?

JS - Possibly, if I win the lottery or something, then maybe I'd just travel around and study chess for six months to get my final IM norm. But otherwise, I have too many projects and work to devote myself to it. One thing that is very fulfilling but takes up a lot of time is my work as editor of Chess Life Online. The videos I co-hosted with Macauley Peterson at the 2009 US Chess Championships were so popular that I'll probably try to do something similar on a bi-weekly or weekly basis on Chess Life Online. I also promote women in chess through and participate in organizing committees for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. And I work on other writing, art and video projects. And I think I'd need devotion to get the final norm and the rating points to qualify for the title, so I'd have to give up a large portion of the above activities.

KC - You have been playing competitive poker over the past several years. I play NL Hold’em regularly and enjoy it immensely. To me every hand of poker is like playing a mini chess game except the moves made by you and your opponent are not visible in plain sight. Do you see any parallels in poker and chess?

JS - Sure! Concentration, memory, and discipline; they are all important in both games.

KC - Do you enjoying playing in poker tournaments or cash games or both, and do you play online?

JS - I prefer tournaments 'cause I'm better at them, but cash games are nice 'cause you can dip in and out, whereas tournaments are very awkward to schedule. I play online mostly for practice.

KC - Do you prefer playing opponents in person or in cyberspace?

JS - I prefer playing in person. Sure it's hard to get a good hand when you're only dealt 30 an hour as opposed to hundreds multitabling online. But I figure I spent plenty of time in front a computer - chatting and playing with "real" people is so fun!

KC - You had two good runs deep into the Women’s WSOP Championship the past two years. Which women pro did you enjoy playing against the most and why?

JS - I was at the same table with Kathy Liebert for a while. Otherwise, most of the pros I played with are not household names.

KC - How would you describe your poker style?

JS - I hope it's tight-aggressive but sometimes not tight enough and sometimes not aggressive enough!

KC - Are you going to play in the 2009 WSOP event?

JS - Yes.

KC - You come from a close-knit family that has been very involved in chess. Do you still play as a family in the Amateur Team Championships? Who plays board four?

JS - Not for a while. That'd be fun though. We used to call it 75% Pure Shahade - we have only three serious chess players in the family though my mom is a good games player. She plays chess, but is more into bridge and poker though.

KC - Your father Michael Shahade is a FIDE Master. Is he involved in chess activities other than playing?

JS - He loves to teach strong players or give simuls and he is popular when he does because he is very charismatic, but he doesn't do any of this regularly. My dad also manages the USCL team the Philadelphia Inventors. As a life-long sports fan, he really enjoys that.

KC - Your brother, IM Greg Shahade, founded the US Chess League. The league over the past few years has expanded. How is it flourishing, and can anyone own a chess team franchise?

JS - It's going great. Many of the top players in the country are involved in the league, including Nakamura, Shabalov, Benjamin, Christiansen, etc. Not anyone can own a team franchise. You must apply to join the league, and you have to have a pretty strong team and platform to get in. Maybe one day, someone else will be inspired by Greg's success and develop some minor leagues or youth leagues.

KC - Over the past ten years there has been an explosion of talented women chess players on the international chess scene. "Older" veterans like Stefanova and Kosteniuk are still on top of their game with many other exciting players nipping at their heels (no pun intended). Who among the crop of newer players do you find yourself rooting for, and what do you like about them or their game?

JS - I root for Hou Yifan and other very young talents because I figure they have a chance to break the world elite like Judit Polgar did.

KC - The recent US Championship was held in the new Chess Club and Scholastic Center in St. Louis. The pictures of the club were fantastic. It looks like it would be worth taking a trip to St. Louis just to visit it! Can you describe what it was like being there in person?

JS - It was awesome! When a chess fan goes there, it must feel like a little kid going to Disneyland. Of course, I'm not entirely impartial - I was the chair of the US Championship Committee, and I also coach the founder of the club, Rex Sinquefield. I went to a grand opening of the club in July ‘08, which was also the unveiling of the chess video art by Diana Thater. So there's yet another chess art connection from the past few years.

KC - I enjoyed the updates and interviews Macauley Peterson and you did during the US Championship. The interview with tournament winner, Hikaru Nakamura, raised my eyebrows, and it appeared yours as well, when Nakamura said he hadn’t prepared for the tournament at all. Nakamura is #30 on the FIDE rating list and it is hard to see any player, even one as naturally gifted as he, competing at the World Championship level on gifts alone. Do you see Hikaru wanting to, or being able to, put in the hard work necessary to compete at the very top?

JS - I think he is quite serious about chess and prepares well. His definition of "not preparing at all" might be different than other people. I really enjoyed Hikaru's style at the tournament. I hope it will be a boon to his confidence and ambition and that he will successfully compete with the world elite in his upcoming big events in London and Spain. Go, Hikaru!

Jennifer didn’t win the WSOP Women’s Championship this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her holding up a WSOP bracelet and a wad of cash in the future. If she does, I am sure she will wear that crown with the same grace she has as a chess champion. Go, Jennifer!