Review: Play Like A Girl!
Women and chess - don't you ever get bored of the subject? I certainly do. However, I was delighted to open Jennifer Shahade's new tactics puzzle book Play Like A Girl! as it deals with this tricky combination in a delightful and mature manner.
The subject recently created something of a buzz in the chess blogosphere, when much-photographed WIM Ariana Caoili wrote a lengthy and impassioned rant on the situation of women's chess in general and women's chess in Oceania in particular. The story was picked up by The Closet Grandmaster and not long after that, yet another article on the matter appeared on a chess blog by Harvey Kelly.
Having written numerous articles on the theme myself, I must admit this recent burst of activity gave me a somewhat weary feeling - haven't we heard it all before? - and then Jennifer Shahade's new tactics book Play Like A Girl! - Tactics by 9 Queens, published by Mongoose Press, was dropped on my door mat and I was immediately cured.
The non-profit organization 9 Queens, founded in 2007 by Shahade and Jean Hoffman, is dedicated to "extending the benefits of chess to those most in need of its benefits, especially girls and at-risk youth." As the introduction states, all royalties from the book will go back to the 9 Queens organization. The organization helped collect the tactical exercises for Play Like A Girl!, which has chapters on all the great female chess players, past and present, and some beautiful photographs to boot.
About those photographs: they're all in sober black-and-white, and whether it's deliberate or not, this can certainly be read as a statement against some of the stylish, full-colour "glamour" pics that Caoili seems to oppose in her rant:
Being a ‘cute’ little girl and then a photogenic teenager was of superficial benefit but a less obvious curse. It helped with so-called attention but the interest was never in my chess so-much as it was in my publicity value. Photo ops were more important than my preparation and pressure was put on me to win girls events ‘looking pretty’ rather than garnering real chess achievements (...).
Chess isn’t for wannabe beauty queens or weak minded people. The whole fun and allure of chess lies in competition, and it is this that has been systematically eliminated from women’s chess. It is women’s physical qualities, not mental faculties, which are being appreciated (or abused) due to the lack of their ability, in purely chess terms, to offer a critical mass of interesting games.
If anything, the photos in Play Like a Girl! emphasize the tough side of women's chess. Abby Marshall wearing boxer's gloves; Irina Krush in a yoga-pose; and Shahade herself playing chess through a weird hoolah-hoop on a chained chess board. These dynamic pictures are a far cry from complaints about Alexandra Kosteniuk's "obligatory swimsuit shots" (Kelly) or stylish but passive pictures of unknown, low-rated but apparently pretty chess girls: in this book, Kosteniuk is pictured proudly showing off her Women's World Chess Championship medal.
Enough about women's pictures already. It seems to me that Play Like a Girl! strikes exactly the right chord when it comes to women's chess. It isn't shallow, patronizing or complaining, but it doesn't seem to altogether ignore the fact that in part women's chess may have something to do with looks either. (Shahade once played chess against a naked man in a video to promote her book on Marcel Duchamp.)
A very mature approach indeed, which is also reflected in the book's main goal:
The old cliche that "throwing like a girl" or "playing like a girl" means playing in a soft and passive manner. Nothing could be further from the truth about the players in this book. (...)
Many coaches, fans and chess pundits have noticed this tendency for aggressive play by women. As a result, I've heard it said that, "women play too violently because they are impatient." Whether people use "You play like a girl" to denote too much passivity, or too much aggression, it is usually meant as an insult. Because women are a minority in the chess world, making up only about ten percent of tournament players, such negative interpretations can be discouraging.
With this book, I hope to change the meaning of what it means to "play like a girl" in chess. The title is a compliment in recognition of the excellent moves of top women players around the world and throughout history.
The book's promo trailer is another case in point of the book being something special. See for yourself and ask yourself whether you're confused already about the meaning of women's chess in today's world. When Shahade is pulling the strings, you never know.
Shahade has carefully selected the players introducing the various themes of the book. The first chapter - Mates in One - features simply 'The Queen' ("Claim to fame: the most powerful piece"), explains a bit of the piece's history and then presents various mates-in-one. In my opinion, it's an underestimated theme in chess tactics -even though most are pretty obvious for anyone but absolute beginners, there's still the challenge to spot the mate as quickly as possible. In the next chapter - The Queen Sacrifice - the legendary Vera Menchik (1906-1944) is introduced.
Black cannot play 1...Qxe5 because 2.Rxf8+ mates Black on the back rank, so 1...Qxh4+! 2.Bxh4 Rxh4+ 3.Qh2 Rxh2+ 4.Kxh2 Rxf7, and Black has a decisive material advantage.
I thought it a bit strange that this was one of just two positions in this chapter from Menchik's games, but there are plenty of examples in other chapters so clearly it wasn't the author's intention to focus the examples in a chapter around a particular player.
There are some obvious players in the book, such as the world's two top-rated female players, Judit Polgar and Koneru Humpy, but also quite a few surprising ones: for instance, I had never heard of Shadi Paridar (the first WGM from Iran) or 19-year old Medina Parilla (who won a $65,000 University of Texas scholarship at the USA's 2008 All-Girls Nationals). This nice example comes from the chapter on 'Removing the Guard':
1.Ne8+! Rxe8 2.Qf6+ Kh6 3.Rf3 1-0
As you've probably guessed by now, it's certainly true that most excercises in the book aren't exactly John Nunn or Mark Dvoretsky material, but the book was simply made for a different audience. Still, some combinations are pretty tough even for strong players:
1...Nxg3! 2.hxg3 Qxg3+ 3.Kf1 Bg2+ 4.Ke1 and now Stefanova found another dazzling destruction:
4...Bxf2+! 5.Rxf2 Rxd3 with a winning attack.
Surely Shahade is right that this is the way to promote female chess and to make aspiring young (female) chess players enthusiastic about our royal game. No matter how pretty some chess girls look in pictures, their combinations will always be prettier!
Yes, on that we can all happily (or grudgingly, depending on your point of view) agree. But fortunately, Shahade refrains from lecturing men about what they should and should not do. Instead, she offers an interesting and unique mix of glamour, intellect, toughness and sweetness that's extremely charming and, truth be told, commercial. But for me, it is this sensible and realistic perspective that makes Play Like a Girl! such a nice book to peruse.
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