Monday, July 9, 2007

Jennifer Shahade Simultaneous Game

Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade
In October 2005, I went to Philadelphia to attend a lecture and book signing by International Master Jennifer Shahade.

Jennifer is two-time US Women's Chess Champion and her latest book Chess Bitch is a look at a pursuit dominated by men. As well as profiling female chess pioneers throughout history it poses the question: "Why don't more girls play chess?"

As part of the promotion, forty lucky people who bought her book were able to play a game against her. I signed up and prepared to get my ass whooped.

By a girl.

I'd never even played a titled Fide Master before, let alone an International Master (the one rank below the coveted and glorious Grand Master title).

I was super-keen!

All I prayed for was that I wouldn't be eliminated first.

The cast of characters that show up to play chess at tournaments is so varied and peculiar that it probably warrants its own dedicated story, but let me tell you about Al who cornered me before the book reading.

Al and I began with some small talk. For chess players that inevitably concerns your official chess rating.

Your chess rating is your badge, your identity, your rank and your status in the chess world.

Every social group has a phrase to determine pecking order and how to act.

Kids in a playground ask "How old are you?"
Prisoners ask "What're you in for?"
Republicans ask "What does your father do for a living?"

Tournament chess players ask "What's your rating?".

"My rating is in the basement at the moment I'm afraid," I ventured.

Al's response was to tell me he was reading Dostoyevsky and that I should try reading him for inspiration. It wasn't until later that I realized he thought I said my writing was in the basement.

Fortunately the conversation was over as quickly as it started when Al produced the second non-sequitur in as many minutes: "OK - there are such things as a full bladder" and left.

The lecture was interesting. Jennifer read from a portion of her book where she discussed Reuben Fine's provocative theories of gender in chess from his book The Psychology of the Chess Player.

"The profuse phallic symbolism of chess provides some fantasy gratification of the homosexual wish, particularly the desire for mutual masturbation. This is, of course, completely repressed."

Um yeah. Completely repressed. Thanks Reuben. Pretty racy stuff for 1956 though.

Fine had reduced the game of chess to an oedipal struggle between a boy and his father. The psycho-sexual symbolism of "mating" the king, the most impotent (yet important) piece on the board was not lost on him.

Fine even ventured to suggest that even the rule about not touching your piece until you're ready to move was a veiled warning against *ahem* self-abuse.

Or maybe he just had a dirty mind.

Listening to Jennifer expound on this topic fraught with sexual overtones and double entendres was made only the more fascinating by the presence of about half a dozen pre-teen children in the audience.

I was sitting next to eight-year-old Odette Moolten (and before you ask: yes I've played her before and yes she has beaten me) and I don't know what was more priceless - the confused glances she shot her father or the squirming he did in his chair.

Jennifer signs her books
After the Q&A I waited in line to get my book signed and said when it was my turn to approach the author's official book signing chair and book signing desk:

"Jen - thanks for coming out!"

I cringed at my unoriginality.

Star struck, I had just blurted out the first thing that came into my head. Even worse, after her gender defying choice of career and explicitly Freudian book reading, the phrase "coming out" was even more inappropriate.

Jennifer asked my name then autographed my copy of Chess Bitch: "Phil - thanks for coming out! Jen"

Wait a second. That was my line to you! And that's what you wrote in my copy of your book?

I was at least expecting a droll chess witticism, such as:
  • "Castle early, castle often!"
  • "Chess players do it with queens!"
  • "Future pawn star!"

  • Bitch indeed!

    Almost game time and even the flagrantly Freudian Fine knows: You can't play chess on an empty stomach. I went downstairs to the Temple University cafeteria for a hoagie.

    The charming lady behind the sandwich bar loaded half a pound of ham onto a long roll and asked without apparent irony, "Is that enough sweetie?". I tried not to laugh and said that was plenty.

    She asked if I was from Philly.

    "Not originally. I'm from Australia, but I've been living here for four years."

    "I thought so! I could tell by your accent. Plus, you look like a cowboy."

    It's moments like these that make me love this country so much.

    Game time! The tables were corralled in a circle and the exhibition match began.

    The rules for this simultaneous match were:
  • Jennifer would play the white pieces on all the boards
  • When Jen arrived at your board, you would make your move in front of her, then she would make her move
  • If you are not ready to move when Jennifer reaches your table, you may pass - but you can only pass twice in the game

  • Handshakes were exchanged. The games started.

    What struck me was how Jennifer was demonstrably delighted with the whole process. She was beaming.

    She had good-hearted giggles at some of the more bizarre opening moves people played. I honestly don't think Jen was laughing at the players but genuinely finding humor in the board itself.

    The more you play, the more you see. It might sound strange but chess games can be beautiful, aggressive, funny, chaotic or even poetic.

    To see someone at the top of their game truly enjoying what they did for a living was an absolute treat.

    Jennifer plays chess with kids

    She was generous to the kids. To the little African-American kid who seemed only interested in moving his pawns she spun the board around and told him it was mate in one, but that he should try to find the winning move by the time she came back.

    To his credit he found the killer move, but then Jen added: "Good job! But that still counts as a win for me!" She grinned and kept moving. At least I wasn't the first person eliminated.

    "Are those for me?" Jen pointed at the open packet of M&Ms I'd laid out on the table.

    "Sure," I said, but how do you know I haven't poisoned them? Bwa hah hah haaah!

    Jen grabbed a handful, made a move and scurried to the next table. So far I'd survived the first ten moves but I thought it wouldn't be long before I'd join the ranks of the vanquished.

    Now 35 people are left.
    Now 30 people are left.
    Now 20 people are left.

    Novices and club champions alike are one-by-one being defeated by this International Master who is not spending any more than about five seconds per move at each board.

    Now 15 people are left.

    A wild rumor goes around the room that Jennifer has agreed to a draw with a player. So she's not invincible!

    A little while later, twelve-year-old
    Matthew Slesinski (and before you ask: yes I've played him before and yes he has beaten me) shakes Jennifer's hand. He quietly smiles, asks Jen to sign his scorepad and starts calmly packing up his pieces.

    He beat her! For the first time in the game I can see that Jen is not a god. She's a human being. I can win this game!

    Now 10 people are left.

    It's 11pm and even though I'm up a pawn my greatest concern is whether I'll make the last Amtrak train back to Washington DC. I'm thinking of options: maybe I can go to a pub until closing time, then sleep at the train station with the other homeless people until the first train of the morning.

    Three hours sleeping on a bench next to a toothless, homeless black guy named Leo (and before you ask: yes I've played him before and yes he has beaten me) seemed like a small price to pay if I had a chance to beat Jennifer Shahade.

    Now 5 people are left.

    I'm up two pawns, my king is in great position and my rook completely locks Jennifer out of the game. Jen reaches over the board, shakes my hand and resigns.

    I actually won!

    Jen's record that night was 36 wins, 1 draw and 3 losses. An incredible result for playing forty people at the same time.

    Since it was an exhibition match, nobody's rating is affected. Pity. That would really have launched mine out of the basement. No Dostoyevsky inspiration required.

    I managed to catch a train that would get me in DC at 3am. I was exhausted but couldn't sleep. I had just beaten an International Master. I had beaten the two-time US Women's Chess Champion. I felt on top of the world.

    Okay. To be fair - I gave the game my undivided attention for nearly four hours while Jen was playing thirty-nine other people at the same time, but a win is a win.

    my rating, you have to take what you can get.

    On the train back to Washington DC, I opened my copy of Chess Bitch and re-read Jennifer's crummy autograph "Phil - Thanks for coming out. Jen."

    Underneath I wrote my own reply:

    "Who's your daddy now, bitch?! Phil".


    Blue Devil Knight said...

    Great story. That must have been a blast.

    Phil Willis said...

    Yeah - it was a ton of fun.

    It was incredible to watch Jen in action. As I said - watching someone at the top of their game was like watching your favourite rock star belting out an amazing guitar solo.

    One interesting point that I didn't add in the original article was that there was a few older African-American men who were critical of the word "bitch" in Jen's book title.

    I guess from their point of view, in their communities the words "bitch" and "ho" are so ridiculously overused and abused that they'd prefer to set a good example and not use it.

    Particularly in a field such as chess which they see as a ways for young black kids to express themselves in a positive way.

    Anyway - it was an interesting night.