WSOP 2015: The poker queen's gambit

Jen Shahade_WSOP_d1b_july.JPG

It turns out there's a pretty easy way to put Jen Shahade on minor tilt. It's not practical, so it's not going to give you an advantage at the table, but if you happen to pass a chess board when she's in the vicinity of it, jumble up the pieces. Put them in the wrong order or in the wrong place. Shahade can't help but drop everything to tidy up.

Actually Shahade seems pretty focused on everything she does, whether that's playing chess, playing poker, or in any other project she's been a part of this past year. It's what happens when you discover passions for things, and dedicate yourself to mastering them.

In Shahade's case, the first of those was chess.

"I started out when I was six and played my first tournament when I was in third grade, and I didn't click with it well. My brother clicked really well and became a young chess master and so I kind of gave it up. It was his thing. Then I got back into it in high school."

Accordingt to Shahade she was no child prodigy, but she was inheriting from her father, himself a FIDE Master, some pretty advance chess knowledge. She was also something of a pioneer, a woman in a world typically populated by men, a theme she explored in her book Chess Bitch in 2005. By that point she was already US Women's Chess champion and playing up to 50 players simultaneously, a circus feat known as a "simul".

"I like it because you interact with so many people at once and I like the challenge of trying to win as much as possible. But I want to make it fun for everyone. If I go overly slow or methodically win every game people get bored."

The way she explained it, it sounded almost routine.

"Honestly, to me the simul is a tiny bit boring, because I've done it so many times," she said. "I understand to someone who doesn't play chess that it's an awesome spectacle, but I like to mix it up. Otherwise I feel like my fans might get kind of bored, because they've seen me do 100 simuls."

While you or I might only ever make the queen's gambit by accident, or only stare long and hard at the board because we're trying to remember which way the horse moves, Shahade often has to jazz things up a little to keep things interesting. Sometimes that means hula-hooping. Other times Cross-Fit.

"My brother gets me into these cool things," she said. "I did this game with him where on every capture you had to do three burpees, and it's a blitz game. Towards the end I had a winning position but he kept capturing my pieces and I couldn't do the burpees fast enough, so I was doomed to lose. But it was really fun."

In many ways Shahade and her brother Greg (an International Master) are similar. He took up chess, and then she did. He took up poker, and then she did. But in this latter case at least, it's Shahade who is sticking with it, now dividing her life evenly between chess and poker. Both offer that same appeal.

"I like the theory of the game, and getting better. It really excites me. I think we're in a kind of time when game theory is way more important in poker, and I find it more interesting than ever.

"I can spend all year studying chess; I can spend all year studying poker. There are infinite things to learn in both. Even if you think you've learned something, there's always people playing games all over the world, you have to keep track of what's going on. So it's an impossible task."

Much like winning the WSOP Main Event, but for Shahade, like most players, this is an annual highlight and one she's been playing since 2007. Back then she entered the Ladies events and a few sit and goes, and picking up on the poker scene in general, complete with its cliques and personalities, something that was similar to the chess world. Years later she still considers the WSOP Ladies event a yearly highlight, but equally looks to the bigger buy in events for results, with her main event campaign starting today.

A result here would be just another highlight in a busy 12 months, which has included /the OFC tournament win in Prague, jumping into the PokerStars Shark Cage at the PCA, and in the chess universe, hosting the Grand Chess Tour, which features some of the brightest minds in world chess.

Speaking to Shahade you get the impression that while winning is good, the journey itself gives her the greatest pleasure. It's not the winning 50 games of chess, it's the interaction. It's not just about winning the ladies event, it's the atmosphere and seeing old friends. Same goes for the trip to a small Island in the North Sea to play chess and poker in one tournament.

"When I went to the Isle of Man last year, and did the poker chess simul, that was awesome," she said. "It's something different. I was playing Mickey (Petersen) at poker, and Ike (Haxton) in chess.

"I didn't win," she added, almost as an aside. "Bard Dahl did, but it was really cool. We had a really good time."

There it is again. Winning is great, but the ride should be fun too. On second thoughts I'm not sure moving a few chess pieces around will get her on minor tilt after all.

Stephen Bartley is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog.