Long before Beth Harmon burst on to our screens as a flame-haired chess prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit, Jennifer Shahade was checkmating her way to the very top of her field.
In fact, the 40-year-old is a two-time US Women’s Chess Champion and the World Chess Federation (FIDE) bestowed Shahade with the title of Woman Grandmaster, putting her on a par with the likes of iconic male competitors, including Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
So rather than being a work of fiction, Shahade knows women can rise to the top in chess just like in The Queen’s Gambit – and is hopeful Netflix’s most-watched limited series ever will encourage others to take up the game.
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, the seven-episode show is set during the Cold War era and tells the story of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan taught to play chess by Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), the caretaker at her strict boarding school.
She quickly picks up the game and proves to be a chess prodigy, going on to play competitively and taking the male-dominated chess community by storm.
The show’s creators, producer Allan Scott and Jewish screenwriter and director, Scott Frank, worked closely with chess heavyweights Bruce Pandolfini and Kasparov to ensure the world of chess was portrayed accurately.
Like Beth, red-headed Shahade also started playing chess at a young age and is from what she affectionally calls “a chess family” from Philadelphia.
Her Lebanese father, Mike Shahade, is a FIDE Master and four-time state champion who taught her to play at five years old, and her Jewish mother, Dr Sally Solomon, is a university professor and author.
Her brother, Greg, is also an International Master. Growing up in such a dynamic and academic family did not faze Shahade; she was instead inspired by it.
She tells me: “The best thing about being around people who are great at what they do is not as much about what they teach you, but how they point you in the right direction to teach yourself.
“My mum and dad both put me on that path. I also think the fact that my mother was big on conquering male-dominated fields in her professional life made me see any gender prejudice as a challenge to overcome, rather than something I should accept.”
Despite being brought up in a secular Jewish home, she has begun celebrating more of the Jewish festivals and holidays since marrying her husband, Daniel Meirom, an Israeli director and film producer.
“I even learned to make kneidlach soup!” she laughs.
There was a time when Shahade briefly lost interest in chess during her early teens, a particularly common issue among young female players who don’t have other friends interested in the game, and so gravitate towards other outlets.
But her love of the game was soon reignited. She achieved competitive success at 16 when she became a National Master and went on to become the first woman to win the US Junior Open, a mixed gender competition, when she was 18.
Throughout her competitive career, she gained further accolades and titles, becoming the youngest American-born women’s US chess champion in history, as well as winning a Silver Olympic Medal in 2004.
In her role as programme director for US Chess Women, Shahade acknowledges she is in an influential position to bring about positive change. Through its Women in Chess initiative, she aims to encourage more engagement from girls and women of all ages.
As part of this, Shahade hosts Ladies’ Knight, a monthly podcast that features female chess champions and leaders, and she has also recently started the Madwoman’s Book Club, to discuss books relating to chess.
Unsurprisingly, The Queen’s Gambit was the first book to appear on their list.
The popularity of the series combined with the pandemic has inspired a boom in online chess and, throughout lockdown, Shahade has been running twice-weekly virtual girls’ clubs connecting girls from across the US and beyond.
For as much as Shahade is pleased to see this new surge in keen players, she also acknowledges how chess can really prove a boon to mental health at this time.
“Chess allows you to completely lose yourself, like Beth does in The Queen’s Gambit,” she explains. “Being engrossed in something more constructive than spending too much time on social media, or in negative environments, helps develop self-worth and resilience.
“The game is not just about how good you get, but how it accentuates your life. You can use it to build a network, work on things that do not come easily to you, or revel in what comes naturally.
“In my case, visualisation and aggression came easily, but patience and confidence were harder. I leveraged my strengths and worked on my weaknesses.”
While many strides have been made in encouraging more girls to take up the game, there’s no disputing the facts: currently there is only one female player ranked in the Top 100 players in the world.
The Queen’s Gambit shows Beth’s male competitors as supportive and honourable, and while Shahade feels this mostly reflects her own experience, throughout her career she has also witnessed discrimination and what she calls “an undercurrent of resentment” from some factions of the chess community.
Her book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport speaks out on these issues, giving a snapshot of the negative experiences of female players in competitive chess, and the obstacles they have had to overcome to achieve success.
But perhaps now the tables – or in this case, the chess boards – are turning, and more women are being encouraged to take up the game.
Beth Harmon and “The Queen’s Gambit effect”, as Shahade calls it, might just yet prove to do just that.
- The Queen’s Gambit is available to watch on Netflix now
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