I had to confess to family and friends that I was reading an interesting book on . . . chess? It was hard to believe and even harder to admit. After all, in American popular culture, chess has a rather unflattering reputation.
While two-time U.S. women's chess champion Jennifer Shahade's prose and organization is lacking at times, her first book does a solid job of enlightening readers on the surprisingly entertaining world of professional chess and the (sometimes trying) position of women in it.
"Chess in America is still suffering from an identity crisis, an intellectual endeavor in an anti-intellectual society," Shahade writes.
"The negative image of chess in America may prevent many young girls from pursuing it. In Europe, recognized chess players can range from a respected sportsman to a young, hip teenager but to the American public, the stereotype of a chess player as geeky and monomaniacal lingers."
Shahade begins and ends with her personal experiences as a chess player. She sets out to explore several themes -- what it means to "play chess like a girl," what lingering and stifling stereotypes exist in the subculture and if there is a consistent brand of feminism among standout female players.
Unfortunately, the one thing the book lacks is consistency. She jumps among topics -- from her own story to biographical accounts of significant women to analysis of gender roles -- rather abruptly. Her style switches from accessible scholar to fawning personal interviews with unnecessary details. Most notably, she devotes an entire chapter to a transgendered player without making an adequate connection between the woman's personal journey of transformation and acceptance and the greater plight of women in chess.
Stylistic flaws aside, Shahade's account is eye opening for anyone who never even knew one could make a living (albeit not easily) as a professional chess player.
The book is filled with interesting anecdotes about former and current players, including several who have a penchant for partying during tournaments. Her examination of chess in Georgia, China and the Soviet Union among other countries lends a credible world view of the game.
In the end, Shahade concludes that while the sport is gender-neutral, the governance structures and culture are not.
"Chess thinking at its most pure is a realm where gender is not relevant," she writes. "This is in sharp contrast to the culture and politics of the chess world where women are such a minority that their gender is extremely visible."
Her interviews and observations shine a bright light on the gender bias that exists in chess and offers it as one of the reasons why American girls fail to pick up the game. Couple that with her insightful presentation of the culture -- complete with its own "sexy sells debate" and bikini-clad Web sites of Russian stars -- and suddenly chess doesn't seem so boring or geeky after all.
Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport
By Jennifer Shahade
316 pages, $24
Amy Moritz is a News Sports Reporter whose knowledge of chess is limited to correctly identifying a chess board.