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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – The Queen's Gambit: In conversation with Jennifer Shahade (US Chess Grandmaster) and Alex O'Brien (Science Writer and Poker)

Posted on 28 May 2021

Last week, the Academy welcomed two women forging distinguished and decorated careers in fields traditionally dominated by men.

Jennifer Shahade is a chess champion, poker player, commentator, and author, a two-time United States Women's Chess Champion and first female to win the US Junior Open. Her books include Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl! She is also the director of US Chess Women and an Ambassador for PokerStars.

Alex O’Brien, a London-based science writer, is also a poker player and will shortly face Dan Bilzerian heads-up. Her debut non-fiction science book The Truth Detective argues why thinking like a poker player can guide you onto success in the game of life.

This live session was chaired by Charlotte Wilson, Legal Director at Mishcon de Reya, where Alex and Jennifer discussed how women can succeed in traditionally male-dominated environments such as science, chess and poker. They also reflected on their achievements, talked about future plans and The Queen's Gambit.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Charlotte Wilson

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session.  I’m Charlotte Wilson and I will be hosting today’s event.   I am delighted to be joined today by Jennifer Shahade and Alex O’Brien.   Jennifer is a professional poker player, two time US Women’s Chess Champion, Mind Sports Ambassador at Poker Stars and also the Programme Director at US Chess Women.  Alex is a science and technology writer and amateur poker player.  Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, among others.  Alex is a board member at the Association of British Writers, British Science Writers and her debut non-fiction science book, ‘The Truth Detective’ will be published in February next year.  Jen, maybe you can start us off and tell us a bit more about how you got into playing chess and poker?

Jennifer Shahade

I learnt to play chess when I was super-young.  Actually, I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t know the rules of chess and I really got into the game a little bit later than a lot of young chess champions actually.  I definitely played when I was like six, seven, eight and nine but I didn’t develop that burning passion for chess until I was actually in high school.  A lot of people think if you don’t jive with an activity right away then you’re not super-talented and a lot of girls drop out of STEM fields and particularly chess in junior high school so, I really feel like getting back into it is something I like to tell people about.  And then, as for poker, a lot of it was that my chess friends were really into poker and they got me to try it out and I immediately love the fact that there is this other game and this other sub-culture that I could use the same brain skills I used in chess and that I got to travel and meet new friends. 

Charlotte Wilson

And Alex, I know that your background is on the science side of things, you don’t so much play chess but obviously now you’re very into poker so maybe you can talk us a bit more about that?

Alex O’Brien

Yeah so, I got introduced to the game by another female writer who couldn’t make a meet-up one day and left me a message saying she had been playing poker until early hours and made thousands of pounds.  She explained the rules and I just remember being so hooked by the game and its complexity because all I knew about poker at that point was you know, we’ve seen it in popular culture, movies where it’s usually played by men.  I remember after she left that night I flipped open my laptop and started watching finding people to build a whole series.  I mean, it was just like, I have never looked back so everything else is history since then, yeah. 

Charlotte Wilson

But why do you think that so few women get into poker and Jennifer I guess for you as well, chess?

Jennifer Shahade

Well, I think a lot of it is the social networks and connections.  Even chess, which is a head-to-head game, you’d be surprised at how much it is about networking and social because you have to travel to tournaments with your friends, right?  But what I see a lot is that if you’re the only girl of your age in chess, a lot of the time it’s really easy to drop out because you don’t have somebody to go to the tournament with to talk about the games afterwards or to share a hotel room with. 

Charlotte Wilson

And do you think there are misconceptions about women who do play chess and poker?

Jennifer Shahade

I think that a lot of girls and women are intimidated by it because they hear that it’s this crazy brain game and if they are not like really, really smart and good at math then you might not click with it.  First of all, women are just as good at those things as men but tend to sometimes have less confidence because of socialisation.  But even if they weren’t, even if they were just average at math and analytics, chess has something for everyone and you don’t have to be super-smart.  It’s more like a language, that’s what I tell people. 

Charlotte Wilson

And so there are men in both chess and poker and really, let’s be honest, numerous other fields that have quite openly said, “Women can’t do X.  Insert your field of choice here.”  Is there something that makes us so keen to prove them wrong, to stand up, to be counted, to enter into these kind of typically male-dominated spaces?

Alex O’Brien

Part of the reason I was so drawn to poker was because it was such a male-dominated field and I think the question that we’re trying to answer has its roots thousands and thousands of years back you know, we go to Mayans, the Ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians and how they subjugated women.  Like, our perception of what women should or shouldn’t be doing, their modesty, their behaviour so it’s a very difficult question to sort of say, “Oh, we should be just doing that or that.” I think conversations like this, continued conversations and women supporting each other and not feeling like we’re making some sort of statement, it’s just like challenging each other and this is what Jen did, with me. 

Jennifer Shahade

I sometimes find missing from the conversation about women in games, women in male-dominated fields, just the simple positivity because sometimes there’s a lot of well-meaning questions about why there aren’t more women in the game and what we can do about it but also sometimes if that completely dominates the conversation, we’re not bringing out those great role models and those great stories that can really convince people to be a part of it. 

Charlotte Wilson

Do you have specific people that you look to for that kind of support?  What do you look for in a good role model?

Jennifer Shahade

It’s somebody who’s not only super-successful but in some way you can break down what they’re doing to other people in a relatable way.  Definitely diversity is really important for role models because we’re looking to reach as many people as possible.  We want more girls to be influenced positively, to think that they can do anything you know, whether it’s chess and poker now and then later becomes math and science and politics.  They might go into a room where they’re playing chess and they’re one of the only girls and that prepares them for later in life to be the only girl in some other field where we need them, you know. 

Charlotte Wilson

Alex, I know that we’ve spoken before about some of the poker groups that you’ve hosted with your female friends. 

Alex O’Brien

Yes I host a regular poker night with just four of my female friends to help them get comfortable with the game in a very safe environment.  This is a way of me encouraging other women to come and play, gain confidence because so many elements we should really talk about how the benefits of poker for women and what it actually can do for their confidence and a lot of the negotiations and networking happens outside of the boardroom right?  Your know, they happen on golfing outings or poker tables and it would be great for women to have that ability to go, “Yeah, I’ll play a round”, be it poker or golf. 

Jennifer Shahade

That’s the thing about poker and chess that I think is often a little bit under-looked.  I know there is a high stakes player actually, poker player, in an interview who mentioned that he’s actually made more money because he’s an entrepreneur and a poker player.  He’s made more money from the games that he’s played because of the connections he’s made at the table with business people and different relationships that he’s built, than he’s made from winning and he’s a winning player.  So, I think that that’s something we need to talk about more because it’s exactly the reason we need a lot more girls in it. 

Charlotte Wilson

But are there skills from chess and poker and similar games that have universal application?  So, not just for women, not just for children but helpful in those contexts but for everyone, really?

Alex O’Brien

The Truth Detective is about essentially that.  It’s a road map to a more effective mindset.  The elements of resilience, endurance, probabilistic thinking, making on-the-spot risk assessment, being able to control your own emotions but at the same time being aware of somebody else’s emotions – these are skills that have direct parallels and applications to real life and The Truth Detective is about those hundreds of moments every day that we encounter where we need to sort of understand how do we make you know, how do we move forward in the best way?  So you ask the right questions and think critically about it and poker really teaches you that. 

Jennifer Shahade

Now, as for chess there are so many great life lessons but I’ll give you two of my favourites.  One is that in chess a lot of people ask great chess players, “How many moves do you think ahead?” and the famous answer to that by José Raúl Capablanca, the World Champion from Cuba was that the answer is one because he only sees one move ahead because the first move he sees is the right one.  Now, of course that’s an exaggeration, chess players do look ahead but there’s a lot of intuition that goes into their thinking and there’s also a lot of lateral thinking, right?  So, if I look at eight different possible moves and I look at them two moves or three moves deep, that’s still more moves that I’m looking at than if I look five or six moves ahead and that to me is a beautiful life lesson that it’s not just about planning eight years ahead, it’s about looking at all the options you have right now.  And the second one, which ties into the hit Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, is I think the flow experience that chess can give you.  This is particularly important to me for girls and for any marginalised community to be honest.  They need to have access to those moments of pure joy where they’re not thinking about anything else, they’re not thinking about people looking at them or how they appear and they’re just enraptured in activity.  To me that flow experience where you’re totally caught up in the moment.  The Queen’s Gambit did that better than anything I’d ever seen and the fact that it was a woman that was absorbed in those experiences was so meaningful to me in my work. 

Charlotte Wilson

Has The Queen’s Gambit, has it encouraged more women to get into chess, do you think?

Jennifer Shahade

It’s encouraged more people everywhere to play chess, honestly.  Certainly, anybody who might see themselves as an underdog.  I loved to see actually just a couple of weeks ago in the mainstream news that Nigerian American, Tani Adewumi became the newest, youngest chess master in the United States and he won his big championship while living in a homeless shelter.  But you know, this idea that chess is the equaliser is very powerful. 

Charlotte Wilson

I know you both are very involved in giving back and helping to drive change.  Jennifer, you’ve mentioned a bit about women in chess, I don’t know if you can tell us a bit more about that?

Jennifer Shahade

One of the things that I really escalated during this time because of the chess boom, was my efforts to get more girls and women into the game and so we meet together a couple times a week and we talk about chess.  I bring in role models and we also have women’s classes and we have a women’s book club where we talk about books that kind of relate in some way to chess but not necessarily exclusively about chess.  So, I do all these types of events to nominally get people better at chess but show them the ways that chess can improve their lives. 

Charlotte Wilson

And Alex, I know that you also, I mentioned a few of the initiatives that you’re involved with. 

Alex O’Brien

Together with my close friend and also science writer Anton we, a couple of years ago decided that we wanted to not just write about controversial topics and issues and have really thought about how can we drive change?  We decided we needed to bring people together, into a room and we did that by sort of bringing experts onto a panel, have them up close with an audience you know, women, minorities and tackle some of these most controversial subjects such as women in science and give people the opportunity to network after. 

Charlotte Wilson

One of the things that I hadn’t appreciated and I know that we’ve spoken about this previously is, how much work goes into chess? And I hadn’t really appreciated the work and the prep and the revision that goes into it?

Jennifer Shahade

Yeah, I think one of the things that attracted me to chess was just like Beth Harmon, the artistic elements.  I love the beauty of chess combinations.  But the reason they see that so quickly is because they’ve seen similar things before, it’s that pattern recognition.  Not the exact same position but the similarities are strong enough that they can instantly see the right pattern.  So, that is something that you have to do in chess, work on your pattern recognition and also your openings.  So, you’re kind of trying to create a structure where no matter what somebody plays in the first couple of moves you know what to do against it but yeah, it’s a heck of a lot of work. 

Charlotte Wilson

And Alex, it’s the same for poker right?

Alex O’Brien

With poker you can pick up the rules like in five minutes.  This is what happened to me I’m like, “Wow, I love it.  I can play it now.” But you really have to study it.  You have to sit down and figure out how do you get better and that just involves time and hard work. 

Charlotte Wilson

Do you think poker also teaches us to fail well?

Alex O’Brien

I think personally for me, what I’ve learnt is to embrace failure a bit more and just understand that it’s just part of learning.  It has again parallels to life and we can think we’re going down a certain path, a certain direction in life and we have it all mapped out and then something happens and then how do we deal with that sudden change of direction?  How do we deal with that emotionally?  I definitely… poker really does teach you that sort of humility, learning how to become comfortable with failure. 

Jennifer Shahade

It’s not about how often you win, it’s about winning big when you win.  Right?  Like, you could fail eight times in a row and then if you get that one win, that is going to make up for all of it right?  And poker is just like that, it’s not about how many pots you win, it’s about how big the ones you win are and how small the ones you lose are, right?  That is your goal. 

Charlotte Wilson

I have had an absolutely wonderful time talking to both of you.  Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Jennifer Shahade

Thank you everyone. 

Alex O’Brien

Thank you everyone. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.   To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.   


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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