Reviews | March 15, 2011 17:54

Review: Play Like A Girl!

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.

Lazard-Menchik
Paris 1929

Review: Play Like A Girl!

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':

Paridar-Babaeva
Iran 1996

Review: Play Like A Girl!

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:

Eliet-Stefanova
France 2005

Review: Play Like A Girl!

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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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll

Chess.com

Comments

Edward James's picture

Please don't use the word 'puzzle' where problem should be. The term "puzzle" was popularised in the U.S. because it was felt 'problem' would deter young people. It's not for adults.

John Nunn is World Chess Problem Solving Champion, not the Puzzle Champion (well, perhaps in America).

That being said, I liked Shahade's last book and I'll take a look at this one too.
Thanks.

Remco G's picture

But "problem" has a very specific meaning: it's a composed position with a specific task (e.g., mate in 2, or helpmate in 2, whatever).

These are "find the combination" positions from games, they're not problems. Puzzle is a good name for them.

Rini Luyks's picture

I suppose the Mr. Lazard from the game Lazard-Menchik was the same as in Gibaud-Lazard: 1. d4 - Nf6; 2. Nd2 - e5; 3. dxe5 - Ng4; 4. h3?? - Ne3 0-1, Paris 1924!? :)

Brian Karen's picture

Edward - On what do you base your statement that "Chess Puzzle" has been popularized in the USA? I've seen it used by people from all parts of the world. It seems more descriptive to me. As a student once said when I gave him some chess work "Problems, Problems, I have enough problems already"

According to the Google Ngram tool the term chess puzzle was used as far back as 1860 by English Champion Howard Staunton on page 114 volume 3 of his magazine "The Chess Players Chronicle".

You can find that and other early sources of the term "chess puzzle" at:

http://www.google.com/search?q=%22chess%20puzzle%22&tbs=bks:1,cdr:1,cd_m...

NBC's picture

If I were still playing chess, I'd strongly consider buying "Play like a girl" for a few male friends, just because of the title.

Paul V's picture

Wow! That has to be the most memorable title for a chess book ever!
("How to beat your dad at Chess" is a distant second on that list.)

Anthony's picture

Women's chess is like women's tennis: good for the development of the young female, but a farce as a professional sport.

Women used to be called 'accomplished' when they learned the basic skills of, say, music, knitting, etc. They can be called as such when they grasp chess at a reasonable level.

But it is just pathetic that women try to find identity by competing with men. They are demeaning themselves by striving for the hopeless and should be concentrating on their real mission in life, which is child rearing and being a trustworthy helpmate for their husbands.

Women have been cherished for eons for being the heart of the household. They are being scoffed at competing, which is not their nature and for which they are hopelessly inadequate.

MJul's picture

Women are usually in physical disadvantage compared with men wich I think affect in chess (except Polgar, or Seles -before the attack- in tennis). However is not our real mission in life "child rearing and being a trustworthy helpmate for our husbands" (In my case: I don't want to get married or have children -I think that since I was 5, as less-).

Also if you think that competing is not in our nature: you are totally wrong. Maybe we don't make it so obvious to you, but we are always competing

Anthony's picture

maybe YOU have been competing always. Since feminist programming has been destroying the natural order and you have probably been exposed to this since childhood.

But if you want to find a place in life that will be deeply gratifying, instead of short term ego pleasing: go and find out what feminism is really about and liberate yourself in the true sense of the word.

Pablo's picture

You are not a really open mind person, Anthony. Indeed, your ideas are refuted by vast information; actually, this Sistem (the capitalism) has refuted you completely. Women showed that they can achieved any man job; think one, they can. Chess is a complex sport. You are blind because of how chess improved around the world; girls usually had less chances than men. Is because people like you that women are not as good in chess, and not because the hidden nature that you (and many guys, also) are the only one with such a great capacity to understand.

I believe you never met girls with great attitude; I can't even think you are just a lonely dude. Maybe I'm wrong, but with such way of thinking I wouldn't be surprise. I know a lot of smarts women, a lot more intelligent than a lot of guys (you, for example) and with greater abilities to compete and to think about life and challenges and the way the things are (because of people really, really closed mind like you).

Good luck with you life, dude. Thanks god women are active enough to fight against guys like you and can achieve what they deserve: they full rights.

Good bye, "mr. hunter by nature".

..

Anthony's picture

Strange reaction................

I'm married, with two children and I'll spare you my IQ, but it would not be considered 'low' by most.

You apparently have a different view, that does not mean I'm stupid and lonely...........

Your trust in the 'Sistem' is quite touching......................

I know many women with great attitude. They screw around until they are 35 and then start realizing they missed out. They end up with stupid idiots, just because the clock ticks so hard.

That's feminism..............

Logical fallacies's picture

What are the reasons for your your blatanly obvious logical fallacies? There is no way you can read off a statement what a person is like, but you apparently, seems to know everything about Anthony from only a few snippets of his opinion of women and chess.

What you're doing is ad hominem. Let it go.

Arjo's picture

I misread the title first... thought it was : play like A(nish) Giri... would be a nice title too ;-)

hanseman's picture

I had the same impression ;)

noyb's picture

You used to be able to view online a superb video of Fischer's opinion of women's chess which was priceless. Kasparov has also had some choice words about women's chess.

applesauce's picture

To quote a Homer truth 'women should stick to womens sport like hot oil wrestling, foxy boxing, pillow fightIng...

Marcel's picture

Requote :

Marge in regard to a gay, speaking to Homer :

"Homerrr!! he likes men as a company!"

Homer : "Dont we all, Marge.."

Yno's picture

That quote is tragic and very comic!!

PinkPearl's picture

My recommendation: "Play like a pussy" by Dr. Seuss

Pablo's picture

You are not a really open mind person, Anthony. Indeed, your ideas are refuted by vast information; actually, this Sistem (the capitalism) has refuted you completely. Women showed that they can achieved any man job; think one, they can. Chess is a complex sport. You are blind because of how chess improved around the world; girls usually had less chances than men. Is because people like you that women are not as good in chess, and not because the hidden nature that you (and many guys, also) are the only one with such a great capacity to understand.

I believe you never met girls with great attitude; I can't even think you are just a lonely dude. Maybe I'm wrong, but with such way of thinking I wouldn't be surprise. I know a lot of smarts women, a lot more intelligent than a lot of guys (you, for example) and with greater abilities to compete and to think about life and challenges and the way the things are (because of people really, really closed mind like you).

Good luck with you life, dude. Thanks god women are active enough to fight against guys like you and can achieve what they deserve: they full rights.

Good bye, "mr. hunter by nature".

Creemer's picture

Allow me to put forward an intriguing idea: men and women differ. Since chess = life, and in life the differences between men and women are visible (not readily definable), so must those differences manifest on the chessboard.
Competition, wheter by nature, nurture or both (!), plays a role in both sexes. Again: these roles are different. It would lead me to the hypothesis men are generally better equipped for competitive chess in its present form, as a result of dynamic combinations (in real life, not on the board...) of cultural and natural (if one can make such a distinction in a fundamental sense) variables.
This is not a shame on women, nor is it anything to boast about for men. Men and women are just different. For now...

Richard L Walker's picture

Why is there a separation between men's and women's chess? I can understand a separation in contact sports and strength sports but chess? Seems like you should go from beginner to the top levels with sex not being a factor.

Yno's picture

I think the separation between men and women chess categories has the goal of building their confidence in chess until they can hopefully achieve better status.

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