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Jennifer Shahade gave us a bargain by writing three books in one. Chess Bitch is the title of her maiden book that chronicles the relationship between women and chess on historical, cultural and personal levels. Each one of these levels is a triumph on its own.
Shadade gives a brief history of women's chess through the lives of world champion women players, from Vera Menchik to Antoaneta Stefanova. She also briefly takes the reader through the history of women's chess in America.
The author delves into some of the issues, real or supposed, that are exclusive to women in chess. She presents a moderate feminist viewpoint sympathetically without alienating the reader.
Ms. Shahade offers her own experiences and insight into how she dealt with chess as a female while expounding on her own philosophies and ideas.
When I initially read the book my focus was on the historical information. Much of what Ms. Shahade presents, particularly in the section on American players, had been totally neglected by chess authors in the past. The biographical information on some players is sparse, but on others is quite detailed. The glimpse into Sonja Graf was basically a repeat of Shahade's fine New in Chess Magazine article from July, 2004. The biographies of Women World Champions, particularly from Menchik to Chimburdanidze, were fairly routine and handled equally well by John Graham in his "Women in Chess: Players of the Modern Age." But the author shines when looking at the post-Georgian champions. Her treatment of the American players is a delight and alone worth the price of the book.
The biographies aren't limited to world champions or US champion, but extends to many other players who are noteworthy for their potential or for their uniqueness. The tie-that-binds is their gender more than their talent. While I won't list them all here, the number of players who are profiled is astonishingly large.
The author's main technique seemed to be to introduce personalities that either followed a logical historical path or who fit under the topic of the chapter and intersperse the biographical information with tidbits of peripheral information as well as applicable cultural arguments. The result was akin to walking towards some destination, but taking time along the way to wander into some alleys or to peek inside some dimly lit alcoves that had little to do with the journey except to provide a more interesting trip. The main problem I found was that the destination was never always clear in my mind, leaving me confused at times about which was the path and which was the alley. The upside is that the journey was enjoyable enough to be an end in itself.
Ms. Shahade, rather than being the extreme feminist that many reviewers seemed to imply, appeared to me to be more a rational feminist. She questioned everything from a feminist perspective without prejudice or any hint of close-mindedness. The most obvious case in point is her handling of Alexandra Kosteniuk. While not agreeing that any publicity is good publicity, Shahade doesn't seem to condemn Kosteniuk's mixing of sex and chess. If she showed her feminist teeth at all, I would say it was most apparent in writing about Fredric Friedel, founder of Chessbase and editor of [...] and his disingenuous sexist attitudes. The implication to me being that Kosteniuk doesn't give up her integrity and separates her modeling aspirations from her chess career, while Freidel wallows in his lack of integrity and purposely integrates chess with unrelated prurient sideshows.
Some reviewers wrote this book off as a fluff piece. I don't know why. In my first reading, my focus was on certain areas that interest me most. I was able to open my mind more during my second reading and look at things more from the author's point-of-view. I was surprised and intrigued by several ideas Shahade introduced along the way. For example, one such idea led me to think back to the 19th century when chess began its change from an amateur pastime into a professional sport, a change that ignited a remarkable improvement in the quality of play and raised the bar significantly for its serious practitioners. Women's chess has only improved as the motivation for improvement became evident and only to the level that the motivation inspired. Women's chess will only rise to men's level when women are equally motivated, the way men were back in the late 1800's. The problem lies with the lack of realization that women and men are motivated differently.
I enjoyed her introspection which struck me as honest as it was insightful. What some reviewers passed off as "gossipy," I believe most readers would take to be an exclusive insider's view. For instance, I don't know Antoaneta Stefanova personally, so it's intriguing to learn what someone who does know her has to say about her. Beyond the insider's look at chess personalities, we also get a personal view into Shahade's mind as she played for the US Women's Chess Championship and what it meant to be a member of Susan Polgár's Olympiad "Dream Team."
What is the value of a book? What makes one book great and another one mediocre?
Chess Bitch never reaches the level of Great. As a history book, it pales when compared to other books covering similar territories, such as Andy Soltis' "The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996" which covers the men's chess championship in the U. S. On a cultural level, it doesn't live up to Richard Eales' "Chess: The History of a Game" or, as a personal account, to Tal's "Life & Games of Mikhail Tal." But Chess Bitch doesn't seem to aspire to such select greatness. By choosing to tackle the issue of women's chess in a manner that's both objective and subjective - sometimes personal, sometimes journalistic, sometimes scholarly - Shahade never attains the full effectiveness of any.
Does this mean, then, that the book is mediocre? No, not in the least. Because Jennifer Shahade tackles topics against which there has been little written in comparison, because much of the subject matter has been ignored by chess writers to date, because the book, for whatever it's failings, is highly readable and ultimately satisfying and mostly because her writing caused me to think and re-evaluate my own positions on certain issues, I would put it in a class all to itself.
I noted several errors worth mentioning but not worth fretting over:
1. page 25. Vera Menchik's husband, Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson, is called "Rudolf."
2. page 144. Philidor is called "the great French player from the 19th century." - Philidor (1726-1795) didn't lived to see the 19th century.
3. page 154. "...Morphy had already gone mad when he was found drowned in his bathtub - Paul Morphy neither was "mad" nor did he die from drowning,
4. page 238. "Soon after this the Queen's Pawn closed and Lisa Lane disappeared from chess." - However, the Queen's Pawn closed in 1964. Lane was the 1966 co-US Women's Chess Champion.