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In Conversation with Grandmaster Ashley, on Naked Chess & Ladies Knight March 5, 2016

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I talk with Grandmaster Maurice Ashley about my piece, “Naked Chess”, installed at the World Chess Hall of Fame for Ladies Knight: A Female Perspective on Chess.

On the Speaking Grind: MIT to STL February 18, 2013

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I used to be terrified of public speaking, until the time I dated a blind Icelandic politician. He told me that the secret to success is very simple, “prepare until you no longer need to.”

Last fall, I was on a game theory panel with poker champion and financial analyst Bill Chen and Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in economics at the “Adventures of the Mind” conference for talented high school students. My alma mater NYU hosted this edition. Also in late 2012, I spoke at the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Art After Five series on Duchamp and chess, which I wrote about on Chess Life Online.

Most recently, I went to MIT to give a one and a half hour lecture on poker and chess for Will Ma’s second annual intensive for credit poker class. You can watch Part I below and find Part II on YouTube.

Currently, I’m in Saint Louis where I’m doing a series of lectures at the STL Chess Club for various levels. Many of the classes are uploaded to YouTube, and the topics range from Double Attack for beginners to analysis of the beautiful Aronian-Anand game for more advanced players.

More to come! I’ll keep you posted here, and more promptly, on twitter.

Hotels From Brooklyn Castle to the PCA December 27, 2012

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Many of my memories of being a female gameplayer are set in hotels. I remember sleeping on rock hard beds in Yerevan, Armenia while staying up late solving chess and life with Irina Krush (now reigning US women’s chess champion) to trekking through Rajasthan with another US Women’s champion, Anna Hahn; to more recently, discussing tournament strategy with Katie Dozier while ordering in room service brunch before this year’s WSOP. But it’s not easy- there are so few women in chess and poker that pairing up and sharing expenses can be challenging, especially since so many women in these worlds have boyfriends or husbands that also play and don’t need roomates.

This may seem minor, but can make traveling expensive, lonely and in some places, even dangerous. Having a single room can be wonderful, allowing for privacy and maximum zzzzz’s. And that’s a luxury I often enjoy now, but it’s not always possible.

I hosted a Q+A for the critically acclaimed documentary Brooklyn Castle last month at the Ritz in Philadelphia and was struck by a storyline featuring Rochelle Ballantyne, who aspires to be the first African-American master in the history of chess (she’s about 120 points away). When I lived in Brooklyn, I worked with Rochelle at IS 318, the junior high school championship team that the movie focuses on. After graduating from IS 318, Rochelle wanted to go to the State Championships, but didn’t have any girls to room with, because so few compete in tournaments- she ended up rooming with the vivacious and supportive Latisha Williams, mother of chess champion Justus Williams (one of the stars of Extreme “X Chess” Championships.)

In this frame, Latisha explains to Rochelle that if she wants to become a master, she’ll have to fully commit herself to the goal. While closing in on the title, Rochelle plans to attend Stanford University next fall (on scholarship!), and I’m so happy for her.

Women in fields like chess and poker may get more attention and opportunities but things like hotels are why it’s so much more complicated than “It’s better (or worse) to be a woman in chess (or poker.)” It’s harder in some ways and easier in others.

I’ve mostly had a great time traveling around the world and sleeping in a wide variety of lodgments from a bizarre hostel in the suburbs of Prague, to a palatial suite in
Udaipur to the historic Chase Hotel, which hosts the US Chess Championship players in Saint Louis. I like overtly feminine design that counteract the default masculine vibe I associate with most hotels. The Chelsea in AC is one of my favorites- we shot part of Cin II there.

In less than two weeks, I’m headed to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. I inquired back in November to a few friends about chopping a room, but no one, including the Grindettes, were planning to attend. A few weeks ago, I found a great deal on CheapCaribbean and Jamie Kerstetter changed her mind, so we are headed to the Bahamas, together. What luck!

Find out more about my PCA schedule hereand follow me on twitter for more on my adventures.

My Lesson with Phiona Mutesi, “Queen of Katwe” December 13, 2012

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Ugandan chessplayer Phiona Mutesi came to Philadelphia as part of a media tour for “Queen of Katwe”, a new book by Tim Crothers which details Phiona’s path from Ugandan slums to chess championships. Watch a gorgeous ESPN video clip on Phiona.

Phiona was the guest of honor at the first 9 Queens Academy of the season on December 1st. After the inspiring session, I gave Phiona a chess lesson and showed her, her coach Robert Katende, and Rodney and Jan of Sports Outreach a little of Philadelphia. Phiona and Robert were particularly impressed upon seeing an elaborate wedding party in Rittenhouse Square.

Catch a glimpse of the lesson below and read more on Chess Life Online.

Raven, the Newest Poker Fairy Tale (Plus my Dad’s Scary Voice) October 16, 2012

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The Raven is the newest project on Poker Fairy Tale with author and letter-writer Samara O’ Shea and Daniel Meirom, the best eye in the business (in my unbiased opinion of course!).

The Raven from Poker Fairy Tale on Vimeo.

The excerpt from our interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s supernatural poem about a man in mourning plays on voyeurism, feminism and how social media enables the descent into modern madness. @Edgar_Allan_Poe himself tweeted as we unveiled the piece, “You cannot be fully dead if you still receive email.”

A day after we posted it, I got the following voicemail from my dad, with a rendition of his own.

It made me understand that classic poems like the Raven, much like chess, has cross-generational power. I read this poem in high school, so did my dad, and I think (?) children still do. And yes, my dad is available for voiceover hire. He’d be perfect for Haunted House gigs.

A Mash-up of Dworkin & Fifty Shades (Free Pussy Riot) August 21, 2012

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I awoke on Friday, August 17th to a photo of the greatest chess player in history, Garry Kasparov, restrained by three police outside the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow (Photo by Olaf Koens). Pussy Riot, a punk rock feminist band, were given two years for singing an anti-Putin song inside a church. I was surprised by how angry the verdict and the images and video of Kasparov made me feel. It made a lot of people feel that way. Kasparov was released later that day, but is being charged for “biting” an officer, which Kasparov vehemently denies.

When I was a kid first reading about Kasparov, I was inspired by his moves and life but irked by chauvinistic explanations for women’s relative lack of success in the chess world: “A women’s train of thought can be broken more easily by extraneous events, such as a baby crying upstairs.” When I met him in 2005, he was already turning a corner–he told me that to promote chess in America, it was critical to address the feminist concern over segregated women’s tournaments. And now, he fights heroically alongside a feminist group with a common goal to unseat Putin.

Poster by artist Molly Crabapple

In Vice Magazine, Pussy Riot sited radical feminist and vocal anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) as an influence. They channel Dworkin in explaining their name: “A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order.”

Dworkin is too often reduced as the obese feminist in overalls who thought that all sex was rape. Though I don’t believe any serious reader of her work could come to that conclusion, I don’t align myself with Dworkin’s anti-porn stance. If anything, I’m more enamored than ever of beautiful female surfaces from photography to fashion, like the work and erotic portraiture of “MissKacieMarie.” I worked with Kacie on several projects, including X Chess and Cinderella. My own vanity is evident in my aggressive promotion of only the most flattering photographs of myself. As I joked on twitter, I ask myself often: “At what point does a vain American woman stop trying to look hot, and just try to look rich?” Also see my earlier post on poker, art and the passage of time.

Beyond “pro-sex” and “anti-sex”, I’m entranced by Dworkin’s writing and feel a compulsion to share it with you guys. So after re-reading Dworkin’s artful book Intercourse, I did a literary mash-up of it with the poorly written but hot best-seller, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James.

Dworkin is the most masterfully rhythmic writer I’ve ever read–that rhythm is seductive, and sexy, even if she challenges sex itself. In contrast, the trite writing and simplistic character sketches in Fifty Shades of Grey make some of the pornographic scenes cartoonish, like a strip club with flourescent lighting and no music or alcohol.

Fifty Shades in italics, Dworkin in bold italics

Sometimes the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then, with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualization, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits.

“There’s a very fine line between pleasure and pain, Anastasia. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other. I can show you how pleasurable pain can be. Again, it comes down to trust….Do you trust me, Ana?”

“My heart was open to you,” says a man obsessively in love in the Face of Another by Kobo Abe, “quite as if the front of it had been sliced away.” This skinless sex is a fever, but fever is too small. It is obsession, but obsession is too psychological. It becomes life, and as such, it is a state of being, a metaphysical reality for those in it, for whom no one else exists. It ends when the skin comes back into being as a boundary.

His skin is so smooth and velvety….and hard….hmmm, what a delicious combination. “Stop Ana, stop. I don’t want to come.” I sit up…..My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream.

Inside a person, sexual desire-or need or compulsion is sometimes experienced as a stigma, as if it marks the person, as if it can be seen; a great aura emanating from inside; an interior play of light and shadow, vitality and death, wanting and being used up; an identifying mark that is indelible; a badge of desire or experience; a sign that differentiates the individual carrying it, both attracting and repelling others, in the end isolating the marked one, who is destroyed by the intensity and ultimate hopelessness of a sexual calling.

My inner goddess frowns at me. You can do this, she coaxes—play this sex god at his own game….picking up a spear of asparagus, I gaze at him and bit my lip. Then very slowly put the tip of my cold asparagus in my mouth and suck it.

Am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.

“Christian. You use sex as a weapon. It really isn’t fair”…He raises his eyebrows surprised and I see he’s considering my words.

Sexual Intercourse is not intrinsically banal, though pop culture magazine like Esquire and Cosmopolitan would suggest that it is. It is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable, not attached to personality, no respecter of boundaries; ending not in sexual climax but in a human tragedy of failed relationships, vengeful bitterness in an aftermath of sexual heat, personality corroded by too much endurance of undesired, habitual intercourse, conflict, a wearing away of vitality in the numbness finally of habit or compulsion or the loneliness of separation.

I don’t even know how to categorize him. If I do this thing…..will he be my boyfriend?…The truth is I don’t think he will.

Having an interior life of wanting, needing, gives fucking human meaning in a human context. Being stigmatized by sex is being marked by its meaning in a human life of loneliness and imperfection, where some pain is indelible.

I did follow my heart, and I have a sore ass and an anguished, broken spirit to show for it.

In Amerika, there is the nearly universal conviction or so it appears- that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard for citizenship.

But I’m not sure I have the stomach to be his submissive—deep down, it’s the canes and whips that put me off.

In fucking, one’s insides are on the line; and the fragile and unique intimacy of going for broke makes communion possible, in human reach—not transcendental and otherworldy, but an experience in flesh and love.

“You are not buying me a car.”
He glowers at me, his jaw tense.
“We’ll see,” he says tightly.

And crossing on that high and rotting and shaking bridge to identity, with whatever degree or quality of fear or courage is the ordeal that makes empathy possible: not a false sympathy of abstract self-indulgence, a liberal condescension, but a way of seeing others for what they are by seeing what their own lives have cost them.

Play Like a Girl in Orlando August 6, 2011

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I’m in Orlando for the US Open, the USCF’s premiere adult event. Tomorrow, on Saturday 8/6 I’ll be hosting a book signing at the USCF Store. If you can’t make it in person, consider supporting my efforts as well as USCF’s and 9 Queens by ordering a copy of Play Like a Girl for your sister, mom or friend. If you want to learn more about Play Like a Girl, see the book trailer and an in-depth (and very flattering) review on Chess Vibes. Or if you’re more in the mood for a good read than puzzle-solving, pick up the ever popular Chess Bitch or Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess. *sales pitch over*

While in Orlando, I also played in the Fischer Random side event, which was a lot of fun. For those of you who don’t know, Fischer Random chess shuffles the pieces on the back row into one of 960 possible positions, hence the name by which Fischer Random goes by in Europe, “Chess 960″. Just like in chess, the game begins symmetrically.

I’d never played any Fischer Random chess except for blitz games, and my initial impressions after the event was very positive. Because my opening preparation is pretty rusty, it was relaxing to be on a level playing field. I also enjoyed having to come up with original opening concepts from move one, rather than following well-trodden paths. I’ll definitely be writing an article on CLO about the event and my games in it, so look out for that.

One of the reasons I played in the event is I’m an organizer and commentator for the upcoming K v. Q: Battle of the Sexes event coming up in Saint Louis. The event, also known as Kings vs. Queens, will feature both “regular” rapid and Fischer Random rapid games. K v. Q will coincide with the opening of the World Chess Hall of Fame on September 9th. Should be a very exciting week for me as I’m also on the board of directors for the World Chess HOF- check out our snazzy new website!

Everyone’s favorite American chess dynamo GM Hikaru Nakamura is surprisingly playing in Orlando, a huge treat for his many fans here. The last time I saw Hikaru, we were having a ball at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. That was less than a month ago, but somehow it feels like another eon. Follow the Orlando chess action on uschess.org/clo and Monroi.com.

Lipstick Checkmate: The Play Like a Girl Trailer February 15, 2011

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The Play Like a Girl! Tactics by 9 Queens (Mongoose Press, 2011) trailer is live.

Even though I’m hardly a make-up fiend, I was able to find 70% of the pieces in mostly abandoned make-up bags and vanity drawers.

Finding sixteen of one item was the main problem, but lipstick was the clear aesthetic and conceptual choice. A thirty dollar Chanel lipstick, purchased because I cannot afford anything else Chanel, co-mingled with one buck steals at the drugstore bargain bin. A pawn is still just a pawn.

Enjoy some stills from the shoot and pick up a copy of the book on 9queens.org, amazon, Mongoosepress or USCF Sales.

Play Like a Girl! Tactics by 9 Queens February 10, 2011

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My new book, Play Like a Girl! Tactics by 9 Queens has arrived. The book is filled with chess puzzles and combinations, all executed by female players and is a perfect “prequel” to my first book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. All the author royalties go to 9 Queens initiatives to bring chess to inner-city youth and girls. Find out more on the Mongoose Press homepage and look for more details coming soon.

Chess Lessons for Artists February 17, 2009

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A Duchamp portrait by Arnold Rosenberg
I annotated 15 chess games by Marcel Duchamp for a forthcoming book, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess (Readymade Press, 2009).  The conceptual artist and painter is famous for works such as Nude Descending a Staircase, Étant Donnés, and of course, the urinal, or Fountain.

I was inspired to update you on this project when reading a recent New Yorker article about Scrabble, "Spreading the Word" by Judith Thurman. The article touches on a lot of interesting points, including the lawsuit over Scrabulous (now renamed Lexulous on facebook.) There is also a section on online gaming addiction, in which New York Times columnist, Deborah Solomon is quoted: "I used to be a productive individual who read serious fiction in the hours before I went to sleep. But that was in the innocent Un-Scrabbled past." Thurman continues: "She plays every night on ISC(Internet Scrabble Club) under the screen name Duchamp- a nod to the French Dadaist, who claimed to have renounced art for chess, and who Solomon says, ‘in that sense, deserves to be seen as a pioneer of the ruined-by-games-online present.’"

After reading a fascinating article about fact checking at The New Yorker, I’m surprised this sentence went through. Duchamp never “claimed to have renounced art for chess,” as Thurman stated. He never said this or anything like it, although, admittedly, countless others have, as the present case demonstrates. I also object to the idea that chess stole Duchamp away, as if it was a useless pastime that didn’t inspire him or add anything to his oeuvre. In fact, Duchamp’s artistic output related to chess is prodigious: He collaborated on a book on pawn endgames, created a pocket chess set and co-organized with Julian Levy the exhibition, "The Imagery of Chess." Many of Duchamp’s works refer to or represent chess, from his early Cézanne-inspired painting, The Chess Game (1910) to the Cubist King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912.) When you read Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, you will see that this is just the beginning.  In this book, gallery owner and the mastermind behind the publication, Francis M. Naumann, writes an essay that examines Duchamp’s career arc as if it were a chess game. Professor Bradley Bailey adapted his thesis on Duchamp, chess and The Large Glass for the book. All the aforementioned things come even before Duchamp’s games themselves, which include many brilliancies. I was particularly impressed by Duchamp’s handling of an opening close to my heart, the Dragon, which showed that in some ways, Duchamp was ahead of his time in chess.

I am involved more and more in art through writing, and various video and photo projects, and I’ve noticed some ways that my background in chess helped me as an artist.

1.   Relentless Self-Criticism:  From chess, I know that some ideas that seem good at first do not pass the "bullshit" meter. I try to be self- critical about any major projects I undertake, so I don’t waste a lot of time on something that is inherently flawed.
2.    Focus: Chess helps me recognize flow moments, where you lose a sense of time and are lost in the moment, which is crucial in any creative endeavor.
3.    The importance of confidence: In chess, without confidence, you can’t improve. I’m also realizing how important confidence is in art and writing. In an interview with February 09 Chess Life cover girl Rusudan Goletiani said it again and again — she never would have won medals at the 2008 Dresden Chess Olympiad if she wasn’t confident. In chess, it’s obvious to me if I spend too much time on a move, it may be cause me to lose on time. If a month passes me by without progress on any projects that are important to me, due to some combination of a lack of confidence and distraction, it’s not as obvious that this may signify a missed opportunity, a project stalled, a chapter unwritten. Check out one embarrassing excerpt from the aforementioned interview:

Rusudan Goletiani (RG)- Our motto at (my chess academy in Westchester) is the 3 C’s. 1. Concentrate, 2. Calculate and 3.

Jennifer Shahade (JS): Hold up; let me guess the third one… Checkmate?
RG: No

JS: Control? Capture? Check?
RG: No, no, no.

JS: OK fine you can tell me. Why can’t I get this?
RG: No, you can get it…

JS:  Oh, confidence, duh!
RG: Yeah, I guess if it took you so long to get that, it may be something you need to work on it….  (Laughs)

On May 6, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art will host a book signing and panel discussion for Duchamp, the Art of Chess. This is just a day before the 2009 U.S. Championships will kick off at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Look for more details on the book and related events here or on uschess.org.