What comes to mind when you think of chess? Perhaps it’s the beautiful game’s complexity, the elders at the park hustling money from novices, or simply images of the iconic checkered board. However you might associate the game, there’s a quote from the hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit that should always be remembered: “They’re all just pieces.” Those pieces themselves are relatively inexpensive, knowledge of the game has become universally accessible, and online platforms allow for international engagement. And yet despite the game’s relative accessibility, with anyone being able to theoretically pick up the pieces and play, a problem remains. Why is there still such a gender discrepancy in the game? That’s the question professional poker player and chess phenomenon Jen Shahade has wrestled with her entire career.
This past May, GLORY Media travelled to Monte Carlo to catch up with Shahade at the European Poker Tour with PokerStars and learn about her mission to create parity in an otherwise male-dominated sport.
“When it’s so many men, it can actually make the culture too monolithic or manolithic,” says Shahade, cracking a smile.
There’s a clear underrepresentation of women players in both the chess and poker worlds. The reasons are plentiful and stem from both institutional and cultural issues. Shahade attributes a major factor being finances, with the wealth and income gap contributing to the problem in both of her respected sports. However, it’s not just the monetary issues that Shahade believes are the catalysts behind this disparity, but also the fact that women in sports aren’t celebrated like their male counterparts.
“People often forget the great women of the game [chess]. They might remember the one who won the most world championships, Vera Menchick […] who won nine women’s championships before the age of 38, but sadly died from a Nazi bomb,” explains Shadhade. “But the general history of women in the sport is often forgotten by fans and media.”
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The likes of Vera Menchick and Judit Polgar (often regarded as the greatest female players of all time) not being in the public’s eye is certainly a problem, but Shahade looks to change all of that. She does this not only by being a high-level chess and poker player herself but by delivering stories and pathways in her own words to inspire youth. Shahade has published several books including her most recent book Chess Queens: The True Story of a Chess Champion and the Greatest Female Players of All Time. She looks to crack the case.
“So, my goal is not to sugar coat it, to tell people what the hurdles are but also to really make sure to celebrate the women who have overcome them so that women and girls have some inspiring models,” says Shahade.
Shahade’s written work isn’t the only catalyst to growing the popularity of the game across all demographics, but so too is her work with US Chess Women, a project Shahade partnered with US Chess to develop. The goal is to use different methods to bring more girls and women into the game. This includes creating an online girls’ forum where they bring some of the best players in the world for discussion. The club isn’t just limited to the US either, as girls from Kenya and Columbia have also taken part. These actions are meant to inspire women players to join live events and get into tournaments, where US Chess Women continues to support them.
“We have a girl’s club where there are tournaments that are open to men and women or girls and boys in this case. But because girls are so outnumbered, we have a special clubhouse for them where they can get a snack, meet other girls, and learn from top women players. And this is one of my favourite things because it’s like the best of both worlds. They’re still out there fighting in the mixed-gender competition, which is kind of rare. You don’t have that in every sport, but they also have that safe space and that space to network and make friends,” Shahade explained.
While the obstacles women face when it comes to entering chess spaces are still prevalent, it is through role models like Shahade, written work, and even popular Netflix series that the game becomes more mainstream and accessible for women. While the world fell in love with the story of Beth Harmon – and rightfully so – Shahade is working to make sure that future diversity in chess, poker, and every other sport isn’t simply relegated to a script.