An Interview with Philly Chess and Poker Pro Jennifer Shahade

Philadelphia magazine talks to Jennifer Shahade about live versus online gambling, why Sunday is a great day for poker, and her favorite things in the city.

Jennifer Shahade is a woman of many talents.

The Rittenhouse Square area resident is not just a two-time United States women’s chess champion and the author of books like Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl. She’s also a professional poker player, and a pretty successful one at that.

Shahade, who went to Masterman High School, will be appearing at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City this weekend as part of the PokerStars Run It Up Rumble. The event features a $30 buy-in no-limit tournament at the casino, and a $10 buy-in no-limit event online across the state. Shahade will be at a breakfast Meet & Greet at Resorts along with Jason Somerville, Vanessa Selbst, Barry Greenstein, Chris Moneymaker and Liv Boeree.

Philadelphia magazine sat down with Shahade in Atlantic City last month to chat with her about poker, chess, Philadelphia and other topics.

What’s it like being a poker pro in Philadelphia, where you can’t play online?
After that Friday of April 15th, 2011 [when online poker was essentially shut down nationwide, a/k/a Black Friday; New Jersey has since legalized it], I started playing more live. I just bought a house in South Philly and I was pretty happy with that situation, and so I ended up playing a lot more live after that because I couldn’t play online from my home anymore.

So where do you like to play live?
I play at Borgata a decent amount. And then there is the Sugar House — I don’t usually play there. Sometimes I travel with Poker Stars for their [World Poker Tour] tournaments, like I was in Dublin in February. It was so fun, I loved it there. Before Black Friday, I loved poker but I didn’t really know anyone in the poker world — just a few people. So it was kind of interesting that even though it was mostly a negative that you couldn’t play online anymore, there were some positives for me specifically that I kind of got out and had to meet a bunch of people who also love this game, you know?

How has playing poker changed since Black Friday?
I think the level of play has gotten stronger, for sure. But it’s not as much as people might think because, without being able to play online in America, some peoples’ skills haven’t sharpened as much as they will now that some of these sites are coming back and getting regulated.

Because I personally just think that the volume that you get by playing online makes it more intellectual and more exciting. I like poker for the social aspects, but I really find that the online game is more intellectual because you get enough data and volume that you can really see what you’re doing wrong.

How did you get into poker in the first place?
Well, my brother [Greg Shahade] was a professional poker player, actually. He was really big into PokerStars. That was his favorite site. They sponsored one of his chess projects for many years.

So let’s go back. How did you get into chess?
My dad [Mike Shahade] got me into that. He taught me when I was a child. At first, I actually didn’t gravitate towards it too much. I was not that strong for many years and my brother and my father were both really, really good. They were already masters, so I was a bit intimidated by that situation. It felt like a lot to live up to, so I actually quit the game for several years. Then I got back into it where I became more excited about the game itself and not as concerned about ranking lower than them.

You’re still involved with both, but how did you make the move from chess to poker?
It was pretty gradual. But I really like being involved in different subcultures, because I’m interested in getting to know different types of people and challenging my brain in as many ways as possible. It’s like, by doing both, you kind of are constantly challenged and always in different networks. I guess I got more into poker, though, probably when I signed as a Mindsports Ambassador for PokerStars three years ago.

How are chess and poker similar?
They’re more similar these days than ever. I feel that a lot of people have a very serious approach to poker. Like a studious approach, right? So they definitely are similar in that they don’t want to have a 9-to-5. A lot of chess and poker players actually have that kind of, like, artistic streak in them where they want to like just live life on their own terms. Dissimilarities … well, I think poker is like a bit more attached to the real world, so there’s a little bit more interest in making as much money as possible and figuring out how to stay afloat.

You can’t blame them because the only way to make money in poker is to have money. It’s kind of a microcosm of a business. If you don’t have money to invest in a game — even if it’s a really good game, you can’t play in it, then you can’t make that money. That’s why people in poker are obviously, to some extent, obsessed with money — which you don’t see in chess as much. It’s more like an artist’s life where money just represents time, you know. They need it to keep playing.

Online poker is legal in New Jersey but not in Pennsylvania, where you live. Would you like to see it legalized there, too?
I think it’s fantastic to have regulated, legalized online poker because, as much as I like live poker, it’s not for everyone. So there’s a lot of people in situations where playing live poker is not going to be great for them. You know, perhaps they just had a child or they’re handicapped or they don’t like the atmosphere of live poker. They have trouble sitting for that long. There’s so many people who love the game of poker but playing live is not a good fit. They don’t like the smoke, or they don’t have the money.

The thing about online poker is: You could just have an honest, good living, but not have a lot of discretionary income. But if you play online, you could be using, like, a bankroll of $10 a week and still be playing a ton of poker. Like just playing like micro-stakes. Whereas that’s impossible live. There’s no way you can have like $100 a month to play live poker. It just won’t work.

Frankly, I think a lot of people play live and they don’t have the bankroll to play it but they juts do it anyway. Being able to play online and being able to play for like whatever stakes you want really makes it possible for people who love the game to play responsibly, rather than have to go outside their bankroll in order to play responsibly. You’d be surprised. Bankroll management is like a science. It’s just math, really, but it’s surprising how nitty … you know what nitty means?

Nitty means conservative. It’s really shocking how conservative you should be about things like bankroll. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, so it’s easy to get caught up in playing live and just like risk too much of your net worth in one game. So I think that’s great, and then hopefully … the goal is that they, um … if they love the game and they’re just playing recreationally, it’s like entertainment, that’s great. For people who really want to become one of the best, they can start by playing small and then like build up their bankroll.

That’s why it really upsets me when people talk about the dangers of online poker, because I kind of see it the opposite way.

That you can easily blow more money playing live.
You have to spend more. Also, on the other hand, if you’re going out and you’re playing really big, you just need to make sure that you have a good strategy with like being discrete about carrying around all that cash, which again is not something you have to worry about playing online.

If you’re playing big games like high stakes online, no worries. I always spend tons of time thinking about, like, if I’m playing in a big tournament. In Prague I played a 10k euro event. I spent a lot of time figuring out, thinking about how I’m going to get that money there. All the best players, they’re thinking about that, because it’s very important for these days to think about every edge, so you’re not going to want to sit around and like pay a bunch of fees just to play in a tournament. The whole online thing makes all of that so much easier. One of the weekends that Poker Stars just opened … actually, they’re opening Sunday, because Sunday’s the really big poker day. That’s the day that both amateurs and professionals are obsessed with.

Why is that?
Amateur players have the day off for it. I’m not that into watching sports, but I think it might also have something to do with like having sports in the background. It’s just like a good day to play. It’s usually starting at around 2 or 3:00, they play just like a bunch of big tournaments.

Somebody who would normally never play a $200 or $100 tournament is going to kind of like save their bankroll or try to satellite in on Sunday, so everybody gets really excited about it. It’s like game day, yeah. It’s very exciting. Makes me smile even thinking about it. I used to love it, Sunday.

One last question: What are your favorite things about Philadelphia?
I lived in South Philly for a time, so I really love going to the Italian market and walking around that area of towna. I obviously love the Art Museum and I feel like sometimes people miss the Marcel Duchamp room, which I think is so important because I’ve done a lot of art related to Marcel Duchamp. I love him. I wrote a book about his chess games. We’re so lucky in Philadelphia to have so much of his work because he had such a small output. It’s not like other artists where we have like two great paintings but you can also see great paintings in the Met or in Chicago. Like we really are the only ones that have so much of his work. It’s really cool and special, I think, to be able to go and see that. And I do know a lot of artists who come to Philly specifically for that.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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