The Grindettes' Jennifer Shahade Talks Poker, Chess & Being A Woman In Both

Posted at 12:25 2012-12-21 by Chad Holloway

Poker player, chessmaster, author and advocate are just a few of the hats worn by Jennifer Shahade. The East Coast grinder is a women’s chess Grandmaster, a two-time U.S. Woman’s Chess Champion, a board member of the World Chess Hall of Fame, author of numerous books on chess, and a poker player capable of success both live and online.

While Shahade formerly concentrated on multi-table tournaments (MTTs) online, she’s also managed make her presence known in the live realm including back-to-back deep runs in the World Series of Poker Ladies Event (17th in 2007 for $8,426 and 33rd in 2008 for $4,765), fifth in a €300 No-Limit Hold’em Turbo at the European Poker Tour Grand Final Monte Carlo for €1,790; and sixth in the Delaware Park Poker Classic $1,000 Main Event earlier this year for $12,106.

In addition to playing, Shahade is an advocate for women in poker. She is a part of the PokerStars Women initiative and has written articles for PokerStarsWomen.com. In addition, she co-hosts the Women’s Poker Hour radio show. She is also a member of The Grindettes, a group of four women with unique backgrounds who play poker for a living.

Shahade doing a chess simulation.
Shahade doing a chess simulation.

Check out interviews with the other three Grindettes by clicking on their names:

PokerNews thought it prudent to round out the women of the Grindettes, so we sat down with Shahade to discuss poker, chess and what it’s like to be a woman in both games.

To say you enjoy games would be an understatement. Did you play a lot of games growing up?

I’m from Philadelphia and I grew up in a house of gamers and nontraditional but very loving parents. My parents used to count cards in Blackjack and my mom played in a weekly poker game, for as long as I can remember. My father introduced me and my older brother to chess at a really early age — there’s even a photo of me in diapers trying to move a knight!

You’re known primarily as a chess player. Can you tell us a little about your chess career and how you learned to play that game?

My brother, Greg, progressed in chess much faster than I did and became a master at just 14 years old. It was intimidating to be so weak compared to my dad and brother, and I felt like a lot of people around must have thought I was stupid. So I took up acting and writing for a while. In one fateful drama camp, I was bullied incessantly and found solace in a lone Pac-Man machine at the canteen.

That summer of living on power pellets drove me back to chess. I went to a tournament right afterwards in Chicago and stayed up late making new friends and playing blitz games in which each player has five minutes or fewer to checkmate. I became really good at blitz, threw myself into openings and tactics and forgot about what other people thought. I became a master at 15 and traveled to over 20 countries to play in international tournaments, World Championships and Olympiads. I also won two U.S. Women’s Championships, which helped pay for my degree in comparative literature at NYU.

My passions for travel, writing and art developed through chess. The thing in chess is when you immerse yourself in the game you lose track of time and have a perfect flow experience, which is what I later looked for in so many other activities.

How did you learn to play poker?

My brother, who goes by “curtains” online, was one of the early pioneers of Sit-and-Go theory, and he taught me how to play. Greg doesn’t enjoy live poker as much as I do (in other words, not at all), so since Black Friday, he’s pretty much stopped. We still talk about hands though and it’s fun to compare his thoughts with people who grind the circuit and/or online. One thing Greg really grounded me in from the start is an understanding of variance and the difference between large mistake and small mistakes. This is key in chess as well—you can play really well all game but one blunder ruins it all.

What other similarities do you see between chess and poker?

Still from Cin I.
Still from Cin I.

The approach to becoming good at either game has a lot of similarities — you need to put in thousands of hours. In both games, confidence is an underrated but essential ingredient to success. So don’t suffer haters!

In chess, you have to both calculate (imagine where the pieces will go in advance) and evaluate (once they go there, how is your position?) and I think there’s some similarity there with poker. For instance, in the latest series I played at WSOP Circuit Atlantic City, there was a hand where I three-bet the turn with a flush draw with second pair. It was pretty easy to approximate how often he needed to fold in order to make my three-bet decent. But who cares about all that if you’re just wrong that you have any fold equity at all — maybe this opponent has no bluffs in his turn check-raise range). Similarly in chess, who cares if you calculate 20 moves ahead if you’re wrong about the resulting position?

What would you consider to be your game of choice — poker or chess? How come?

Chess has many artistic aspects. It’s an abstract form which can be enjoyed in a total vacuum. I love poker for different reasons, because it teaches you so much about life, money and desire.

How often did you play online before Black Friday? Likewise, how did Black Friday affect you?

I was getting much more into poker in late 2010/early 2011. I started writing for PokerStars Women and I was excited to play a bunch of their tournaments and satellites. I also had a nice run in some Sunday majors, so I was building my bankroll and increasing my schedule steadily.

After Black Friday, I decided the only point of continuing with poker was to become a better player because I didn’t see an obvious way to make money from poker without regulated online poker. So I’ve gotten more into heads-up with this goal in mind. It’s such a pure form of poker, and I can feel more easily when I’m improving.

Since then, I discovered Bodog and now Bovada, and that’s a good way to make a little money and get practice in, but obviously it’s no PokerStars! On my latest trip to Israel with my boyfriend, I set up a second residence, so when I go back there in March, I’ll get to play on Stars.

The best thing that’s happened to me since Black Friday is meeting so many interesting people and friends through live poker. In addition to WSOP and local tourneys in AC, I went to Monaco, the Bahamas, Madrid and London for various PokerStars Women events.

Shahade (left) with Jamie Kerstetter. Photo Daniel Meirom.
Shahade (left) with Jamie Kerstetter. Photo Daniel Meirom.

You’ve been an advocate for women in poker for quite some time. Why is this an important issue for you?

In chess, I am a big advocate for bringing more girls and women into the game via books I wrote such as Chess Bitch, Play Like a Girl and things like 9 Queens Academies, where I teach promising young girls. I carried this over to my poker career in various ways, from joining the Grindettes to writing for PokerStars Women and a radio show I used to co-host, Women’s Poker Hour.

Games like chess and poker are great for women because they develop traits females are often not as encouraged to exhibit like confidence, assertiveness and independent thinking.

A lot of women find it fun to be among a lot of guys while others find it intimidating, but if you want to be a champion, you should learn to thrive in the spotlight. Whatever a woman does in poker is going to be magnified, even over an extremely small sample size — if you play well you’ll get extreme praise while errors will be more harshly mocked.

What’s your proudest poker accomplishment?

At the final table of the Delaware Park Classic earlier this year, I ran into some women I’d never met who came up to hug me and tell me how excited they were to see a woman at the final table. It reminded me of how I felt rooting on Xuan Liu at the final table of the PCA. It also made me proud to final table that particular event — I ended up coming 5th for $12K — because I was an instructor at a poker seminar led by Greg Raymer just before the tournament.

I love it when I see people enjoy games I made up, like Chinese Poker chess and Roulette chess.

In poker itself, there are always little moments, like a bet-sizing which induces exactly the reaction you hoped for or a spot which I feel is really close so I jot it down and later do some math or analyze it in more depth and discover that it was indeed extremely close.

On the flip side, what are some goals you hope to accomplish in the game?

Occasionally my head gets cloudy when I play live, and I’d like to think more clearly and fluently. I also want to get better at things beyond MTTs, particularly HU SNGs and Open Face Chinese. Overall, I want to be more confident about my skills so that I suffer less after tournaments over questionable plays.

More generally, I plan to capitalize when online poker comes back to the U.S. market and to continue to contribute to the poker culture.

You’ve written two books on chess and coauthored another. Do you have any aspirations to write a poker book?

With all my books Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl: Tactics by 9 Queens and Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, there was nothing similar on the market. Isn’t it shocking that no one thought to put “Chess” & “Bitch” together? It’s hard to make money from books, so my next one must also fill a gap.

I have some gift for synthesis, so if I write a poker book, it would probably be a combination of travel essay, philosophy and strategy.

What’s next for you as far as poker is concerned?

January should be fun. I’m headed to PCA in a few weeks with Jamie Kerstetter, and I’m a guest lecturer later in the month at Will Ma’s MIT poker class.

Finally, what’s the story behind your Goldilocks poker-related video art project (which can be viewed below)?

The main theme behind Goldilocks is that it’s a curse and a privilege to watch years pass by as you play poker. The fairytale is a good fit for this theme because originally Goldilocks was an old woman who ransacked the bears’ home, and she became a young blonde as the story aged. The story of Goldilocks lacks morality: she took the porridge and had a nice nap, and there are no real repercussions — at least not in this life.

Another poker video I created with Daniel Meirom is even darker. We did a poker retelling of Cinderella in which an evil stepsister and Cinderella are playing heads-up for breast implants. I thought of this cause so many women in the casino/gambling industry feel pressure to look a specific way. In the un-Disneyfied Grimms’ version of Cinderella, the two stepsisters mutilated their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper. But they get so little sympathy!

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