Alumni Profile: Jennifer Shahade (CAS ’03)
December 15, 2022
Jennifer Shahade (CAS ’03) is a two-time US Women’s Chess Champion, program director at US Chess Women, speaker, host, author, podcaster, PokerStars Ambassador, and board member of Poker Power. She is the author of Chess B*tch, Play Like a Girl, and most recently, Chess Queens: The True Story of a Chess Champion and the Greatest Female Players of All Time, books that along with her work, aim to bring more women and girls into the games of chess and poker.
Her next book, Thinking Sideways, which delves into the ways that iconic games like chess and poker can make the world a better place, while also allowing us to become the first versions of ourselves, is already underway. She’s also currently collaborating on research around chess, gender, and bias with members of the NYU Psychology and Neural Science departments, including Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Dr. Andrei Cimpian, Sophie Arnold, and Dr. April Bailey.
Below, Shahade shares more about what brought her to NYC and NYU for college, The Queen’s Gambit, and her work making the games she loves more inclusive.
What did you study at NYU?
I started as a philosophy student, then after taking some literature classes I felt that it was the right direction for me. I was also studying Spanish. I took an art history class that I loved, which became really important for me. Both art and literature became a big part of my career.
What were your favorite places at NYU?
During my first year, I lived in a dorm on Third Avenue across from Webster Hall. That was really fun. I spent a lot of time in Caffé Reggio and other coffee shops in the West Village. There were a lot of chess places in the Village, which was one of the reasons I went to NYU. The Marshall Chess Club is on 10th Street and there were two chess shops on Thompson Street—the Chess Forum and The Village Chess Shop. I spent time over there as well. I loved the area. It was an amazing place to study.
I grew up in Philadelphia and I had the chance to visit NYC a lot as a kid. I would take the train and play in tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club. When I visited New York as a high schooler, I realized I had to live there.
In one of my NYU Journalism classes, we read an essay “The Yellow Bus” by Lillian Ross, a New Yorker writer. The piece is about a group of students from the Midwest who visited New York. Everyone on the trip had a good time, but there was a division among the students: some enjoyed NYC but would never want to live there and some were intoxicated by the sights and sounds of NYC and the class trip changed their trajectories. They realized they had to live in New York. It’s a brilliant essay and it describes my experience as a high school student. I only applied to New York colleges.
How did you start playing chess?
My dad taught me when I was five. That’s normally the age when you start teaching kids how to play. I’m teaching my son now at age four.
I started playing in tournaments when I was in second or third grade, but I didn’t get serious about playing chess until junior high or high school. The seeds of becoming a champion were sown for me when I started thinking of it as an art and not just a game and a sport.
While the purely competitive aspect of chess is quite interesting—it’s fun to win—I lean more toward the artistic side, as you can see from what I studied at NYU.
When I started to see that chess was also an art, it made me take it more seriously. It was a combination, I wanted to win and I also felt that it was an artistic endeavor where I could create beautiful games and be connected to people who have played the exact same game for hundreds of years. The history and art of it connected me in a way that was beyond competition.
I grew up in a chess family. My older brother, Greg (an International Master of chess), is an incredibly quick learner. I think if I’d thought of it from a strictly competitive standpoint it would have been demoralizing for me. That artistic injection really hooked me.
You were the first female winner of the US Junior Open. What was that experience like for you?
It was amazing. It was during the summer after my first year at NYU when I was 18. I played in it because I wanted to win a spot into the Junior Championship, and I did, and I also became the first female to win it. I felt really happy with the achievement.
You are also an award-winning poker player, the MindSports Ambassador for PokerStars, and a board member of Poker Power, which aims to teach 1 million women to play poker. What skills do you think crossover between poker and chess?
The biggest crossover is the approach to studying a game. It’s a craft—you’re trying to learn from your mistakes, develop a strategy, and learn from great players. That’s important for poker. Some people approach it as a way to make easy money or as a way to get lucky and win the jackpot; That is not the mentality that will likely lead to success. You need to think about making good decisions, not about the results you get in the short term. I believe that chess prepared me for that, since I was used to thinking about “What’s the best move here?”
And poker can teach chess players to be very pragmatic—to think about the psychology of the game. In chess, sometimes psychology is overlooked, since you are ultimately looking for the best move. Chess is a binary game: you either win or you lose, unless you draw. Whereas in poker, it’s all about the margin of victory. You can win a lot of money in one hand or you can win a tiny bit of money. It’s all about maximizing your win rate, which could mean you could win seven hands and lose three and still be a losing player, because the hands you lost were really big. And vice versa.
I think poker players are very attuned to being pragmatic and think about small edges and psychological factors. Sometimes chess players are so focused on finding the best move, they don’t consider these factors, such as: thinking about what your opponent wants; what kind of openings they might be scared to see; how they’re feeling; and, whether or not you can make a move that is slightly less accurate but will throw them off balance. That kind of thinking doesn’t come naturally to chess players.
As director of the US Chess Women Program at US Chess, which brings chess programming to thousands of girls all over the country, what programs are you the most proud of?
I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done during the pandemic. I never realized how much we could harness technology to connect people from all over the world to get more girls and women in the game. I feel very proud that I was able to leverage it. I have all these great connections and, because people were mostly staying at home, I was able to get all these amazing leaders to inspire our girls. I'm very grateful to the people who carved out time in their schedules. The combination of the generosity of our speakers and our network of girls from all over the country was really meaningful to me. It created communities and networks that will last forever. Some of these girls will meet in person in the future and will have a base level of trust and community that we built from virtual classes during the pandemic year.
A good example is when Ugandan Chess Champion Phiona Mutesi, the real-life “Queen of Katwe” from the Disney film, visited the Girls Club Room to talk about her life and her games.
We also created a cross-cultural program with super talented, chess playing girls in Kenya. They played in tournaments, took lessons and had the chance to learn about each other’s cultures. It’s hard to imagine a better connecting tool than chess during these times. The platform of online learning is so well suited to it. I hope that, as we approach a hybrid future, we can take everything we learned from the pandemic years and apply it as people start meeting in person again.
The GRID is a poker podcast which is also an art project. This stems from my artistic background at NYU and from my friend circle. The idea is that there are 169 possible poker hands. The podcast is both a series of interviews about great poker players and memorable hands, and also an attempt to tick off every possible potential poker hand. It is a project and a podcast.
Ladies Knight is an arm of the work that I do at US Chess Women. It’s a chance to have longform conversations with thought leaders in the chess community. We sometimes feature men who are promoting women and girls in chess. I think it is important to include those voices along with women in chess.
Right now, US Chess Women is a small organization, as part of US Chess, so we are focusing mostly on women and girls, but I do think that the more we grow, the more there will be an emphasis on all genders. I think that men and boys really benefit a lot from seeing girls and women in power and they benefit when the world becomes more balanced. The subculture of chess has a huge gender imbalance and I don’t think that is good for anyone. More gender diversity and intersectional diversity is actually good for everyone. It allows for more fun, more networking and community potential. I have a lot of listeners and viewers and fans who are men and who enjoy my work with women and I want to continue to encourage that.
What was your biggest takeaway from the success of the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit?
I think that, during the pandemic, people were really craving the idea of a game which is utopian in a sense—the effort you put in matched the outcome you got. There’s a lot of direct correlation between results and outcome in chess that is absent in life. The correlation in life is far from direct—bad things happen to really good people who make really good decisions. I think that there was a craving for something that has an integral justice—everybody starts out with the same pieces. You can’t buy-in for extra rooks, as you could for a game like poker.
Chess was really of the moment and the way The Queen’s Gambit captured that introspection, especially from a woman’s point of view, was very successful. We saw her completely engrossed in the game and able to escape all other thoughts. That was something that people in this pandemic craved, even if they weren’t as troubled as Beth Harmon was. In addition to the fact that the series was spectacularly well made, it came at a perfect time.
The Queen's Gambit creator, Scott Frank, and the 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov, a consultant on the series, visited the US Chess Women Girls Club. It was such a privilege to have them speak to the girls, and so inspiring. I think that Garry and Bruce Pandolfini, also a consultant on the series, having their input taken so seriously, and Scott Frank’s massive passion for chess, was what made the series so great. The chess wasn’t just an adornment or a detail. Every chess board was an integral part of the story and was as important as other elements, such as the dialogue and the costume design.
What resources do you recommend for players new to chess or who want to teach their kids how to play?
I mentioned earlier that I am teaching my son to play and he takes Story Time Chess classes, which have an NYU connection. I was on a “Learn Chess Basics” NYU alumni panel with the Director of the Chess at Three STARS program and Story Time Chess instructor, Adam Trodd (STERN ’22).
I think it is important for kids to have a combination of digital and real-life experience. One thing we take for granted as grown-ups is that kids aren’t necessarily able to transfer knowledge from digital mediums to real-life. If they learn chess moves on an iPad, it doesn’t mean that they can make the same move on a real chess board. It is important to teach them on both.
I also encourage people to sign up for a US Chess membership, especially girls and women who are interested in the game. To learn basic rules, I recommend Chess.com or Lichess.org. At US Chess, we have classes for women and we have our flagship program, the Girls Club, where everyone is welcome.
There has been such an educational focus on chess for many years, so there is a lot of thought that goes into these online platforms. The Play Magnus app and ChessKid are good ones. If you want to teach your kids chess or if you are passionate about the game, you are in luck because there are a lot of great resources available now.
A version of this article first appeared on the NYU Arts and Science Alumni blog in May 2021. It has been updated.