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Half a Bitch is Better Than None
by Neil R. Brennen
A review of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport
By Jennifer Shahade. Siles Press, Los Angeles, 2005
(posted 14 February 2006)

One can't judge a book by its cover, they say. However, at least one chess book this year tests the rule. Jennifer Shahade, a two-time United States Woman's Champion and a Woman's International Master, has written a book on women in chess. Unfortunately-except as a marketing ploy designed to draw attention to the book through controversy-the book cover and title are getting almost as much press as the contents. Ms. Shahade poses in the cover photo as, what I gather, is supposed to be what my grandparents might have called a "floozie," dressed in pink, wearing a pink pageboy wig. What's more, she's appropriated the word "bitch" in a gesture at feminist empowerment, wrenching it from its status as a derogatory slur at women, and emblazoning it in her book's title. The staid New York Times refused to print the book title in a recent article written by Ms. Shahade, and the 'scandal' grew again.

Much of the press controversy provoked by the title and cover is silly, and in at least one case, a ridiculous interview with Ms. Shahade at the Chessville website, an assault against grammar: "What do you think of mostly men who say that they would object to the book becoming part of a high school studies course, not because of the history between the covers, but because of the word "Bitch" in the title." Despite my ignorance of what a "mostly men" is, or why the interviewer doesn't know questions end with a question mark, the interviewer does accurately describe some of the criticism leveled at Ms. Shahade's book. He also grasps the shallowness of the criticism. Surely not all chess writing need be a collection of analysis, or tomes geared towards children? There is room for something more thought-provoking in chess literature. While the word "bitch" is hardly polite, it's not a stranger to adult chess circles, as Ms. Shahade points out. As for Ms. Shahade's 'pretty in pink cover' shot, it's mild by most standards. Violinist Lara St. John, for instance, has posed topless, her breasts covered by her instrument, for a CD of unaccompanied Bach. I doubt many fans of Bach's music bought it for the cover. The content, not the cover, is the important matter.

However, in this case the book can, in fact, be judged by the cover - as well as sold by it. One can question the judgment of an author who appears wearing a pink wig on the cover of what is claimed to be a serious work on women in chess. On closer examination of the text, this reviewer finds Chess Bitch to be limited in both its discussion of sociology and its account of the history of women in chess.

Take, for example, the now-infamous discussion of menstruation in the first chapter. Ms. Shahade is shocked that some people - both male and female - discuss "time of the month" as a factor that may influence a woman's chess play. She spends pages quoting feminist authors in an attempt to build an argument that consideration of a chessplayer's cycle when planning play is yet another attempt to belittle women, but she dismisses the simple fact that many women, particularly young women such as are the focus of her book, find having a period painful. There are women who have been in tremendous pain during their period, sometimes requiring bed rest. No philosopher or chessplayer can endure the toothache patiently, to paraphrase Shakespeare, and it is perfectly acceptable for a chessplayer of either gender to not play when not feeling well, or to adapt their play to accommodate their circumstances. How often have we read annotations along the lines of "I was celebrating my victory last night, and in this early morning game I steered for a sharp game since I would not have lasted in a positional struggle"? Why is Susan Polgar's statement that one's period could influence the choice of opening worse than a male grandmaster's admission that a hangover helped form his opening plans? (Ms. Polgar's teacher, Grandmaster Pal Benko, described one such incident in his youth in his book Winning with Chess Psychology.) Ms. Shahade, to judge from her book, thinks women are hindering "the cause" by discussing their reactions to what is, after all, a biological function. Men are allowed medical excuses, but not women? What does that double-standard remind you of?

Ms, Shahade's treatment of rampant sexism in the chess world is equally selective. While she correctly nails the ChessBase.com website for its oink-oink focus on panties and pawns, I'm amazed that Ms. Shahade didn't comment on the sexism that parades through Chess Life on a regular basis. The official magazine of the United States Chess Federation has for years run ads for chess computers and other equipment featuring a stern-faced man seated in front of the machine or at the board and a woman standing behind him gazing on in admiration - the product varies, but the subtext remains the same: chess is a man's game. Also, the recent reign of error of the thankfully-departed Chess Life editor Kalev Pehme saw women continually objectified in the magazine's pages. Ms. Shahade, if she tried, might remember these choice remarks from the August 2004 issue:

  • Page 4: "(Shahade)...bring(s) (the Olympiad) the kind of sass the team needs."
  • Page 8: "The look of the American team certainly has changed. The women are still very attractive..."
  • Page 8: "They are American women in style, attitude and individuality."
  • Page 10: "The women are far more attractive that their male counterparts...and will make for good television one day."

My reaction to the above is "That's nice, Kalev, about those 'girls'. Do they play chess too?" I can't help but wonder if the fact that Ms. Shahade is a writer for Chess Life caused her to spare the magazine criticism. In light of this neglect, her lengthy report on ChessBase.com's sins strikes me as more personal bias than righteous crusade.

But perhaps that's the point. By quoting extensively from feminist literature and sexist tracts (even Reuben Fine's hoary old Freudianism makes an appearance) Ms. Shahade tries to pose as a thinker. Sadly, that's all it is, a pose. There's precious little here in the way of attempting to build an argument or take a stand. Tossing Fine, Freud, and Friedan quotations into a book without taking a position on the quotations tells us nothing. In short, in this book Ms. Shahade is a mere controversialist, as is her publisher, IM Jeremy Silman. Controversy is never a stranger to causes, but it's not the cause. But it does help sell books.

However helpful to feminism, and Ms. Shahade's bank account, this book may be, it turns out to rather less of a gift to chess historians. Unfortunately, when the subject of chess history comes up, the author is as selective in her choice of subjects as she appears to be in her sociology. Ms. Shahade is at her considerable best when dealing with Vera Menchik and Sonja Graf. She spins a fascinatingly detailed account of their lives, well-seasoned with insight from a top female player. But what are we to make of her claim that woman's chess in the United States began in 1934 with Caroline Marshall? No Mrs Ellen Gilbert and her lengthy announced mates, no Mrs Nellie Showalter defeating Lasker at odds of a Knight. If we expand the omissions to an international scale, we find prominent female players are missing such as Mary Rudge, columnists such as Rhoda Bowles, and problemists such as Lillian Baird.

Especially glaring is the absence of correspondence chess players. This is a strange omission from a book on "women in the ultimate intellectual sport", since there is a long history of women playing correspondence chess. Leaving Mrs. Gilbert and her nineteenth century sisters aside, there are many women today who play by correspondence. A good place to look for names is the ICCF Top 50 list, available at this link: http://www.iccf.com/downloads/toplist_20050913_f.htm

If Ms. Shahade didn't feel any of these women on the ICCF list were striking enough figures for a profile in her book, how could she fail to include Helen Warren of American Postal Chess Tournaments? Mrs. Warren, aside from running one of the United States' premier postal groups, is also a former US Woman's Champion of the Correspondence Chess League of America. When she took over APCT she made a point of not holding a "woman's championship", despite the strong odds she would have won it. Helen Warren is, in her own way, as much a pioneer as Susan Polgar. I'll be polite and assume Ms. Shahade excluded Mrs. Warren because she didn't want to call her a "bitch".

But perhaps there's another reason for the exclusion of correspondence chess and the women who play it. At one point in the book Ms. Shahade quotes a comment made by FM Emory Tate from a post-mortem, a reference to a "triple-force postal move!" Ms. Shahade claims there is no such thing, dismissing it as a "rhetorical flourish". To my ears, Tate's phrase is perfectly comprehensible; he's using "force" as a synonym for "exclaim". His remark means that the move in question was the sort of triple exclaim move often found in correspondence play but rarely over the board. Ms. Shahade's blinders regarding forms of chess other than the kind she plays are painfully obvious at this moment.

However, when she does focus on the current-day world of over the board women's chess, the book shines. Ms. Shahade is an engaging interviewer, and her conversations with women in chess are delightful, in a chit-chatty coffeehouse sort of way. Her own personal account of her development as a female chessplayer in a chessplaying family - she's the sister of IM Gregory Shahade, and daughter of Philadelphia master Mike Shahade - sparkles with engaging wit. I wished she had focused more on her personal story. However, even here, there's a problem. It's fair comment to wonder why in a book with an alleged feminist viewpoint so many of the interviews and anecdotes are burdened with fencepost gossip about clothes, food, and what passes for music among the youth of today. For instance, we learn that Jen and Irina lived on vegetables and bread at one tournament, and that Jen (giggle) likes some punk rock band. But, as we know, the feminism of Ms. Shahade, like the pink hair on the cover, is a wig that can be put on at will. In this sense, the book sadly perpetuates the very sexist, woman-as-airhead stereotype it intends to subvert.

Much as I enjoyed reading parts of the book, there are enough errors in the text to disqualify it as a trusted source. There are many little mistakes, such as a wrong year for the infamous Kasparov - Polgar "touch-move" game from Linares (Ms. Shahade thinks it took place in 1993, instead of 1994), a wrong death date for Frank Marshall, and a description of Morphy drowning in the bathtub. Ms. Shahade does spare us the hoary anecdote about the woman's shoes at least. I wish Siles Press didn't spare Chess Bitch a proofreader. Although it's not quite in the same class as an Eric Schiller book, there are typos and misspellings aplenty.

Despite a footnote about the White Collection, the haunt of "a small but zealous group of chess historians", and her claim to have used material from its holdings, it seems some of Ms. Shahade's "facts" come from dubious sources. The most glaring example is her unattributed quotation of a rec.games.chess.politics post calling Susan Polgar and her business partner Paul Truong "Trollgar"; Ms. Shahade Bowdlerizes both word and meaning, quoting it as "Trulgar" and giving an innocuous definition of a word coined to describe the relentless self-promotion of two grasping individuals. Ms. Shahade, needless to say, has benefited from being in good graces with Trollgar. One understands why she wants to keep it that way.

All is not bad in Chess Bitch. The interviews with top female over the board players are interesting, as is Ms. Shahade's personal account of her own rise in the chess world. But this is decidedly a flawed book. It's a shame, because herstory is interesting history, and women in chess is a subject that is overdue for a serious examination. Ms. Shahade was capable of writing such a tome, and with a little more time, effort, and judgment she would have produced it. Instead the book is only partly realized. And unfortunately for the story of women in chess, to borrow a phrase from Ms. Shahade, that's a bitch.

© 2006 Neil R. Brennen. All rights reserved.

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