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Castles of skill: PokerStars, the US Chess League & women

From checkraising to checkmate, chessplayers who love poker have been honored by seven years of PokerStars sponsorship of the US Chess League. The USCL, an internet based league of the top 16 chess cities in America, was founded by my brother Greg Shahade, a poker player and International chess Master. Since then, many of the top players in the World have claimed spots on rosters, including reigning US Chess Champion Hikaru Nakamura, who has participated in the WSOP Main Event and Eugene Yanayt, who plays high-stakes cash games on PokerStars. The link between poker and chess is strong, and many poker champions and pros began gaming paths on 64 squares including Team Pro & 2011 WSOP runner-up Martin Staszko.

The success of chess players on the felt is a strong argument for poker's legitimacy as a skill game, which was advanced by an August federal court decision, which declared poker more a game of skill than of chance. Greg, a Supernova on Stars, said that, "I'm particularly proud that PokerStars is the title sponsor of the US Chess League, since I've personally seen poker help so many chessplayers use their analytical skills to build a career."

Much like poker, the majority of chess aficionados are male, but women can compete on equal terms. As Team Pro Liv Boeree said on "I Bet My Life", "This is a sport of the mind I can play against guys in...and I can beat them...and they HATE that." Successful women in poker and chess often contradict stereotypes with more fearless approach than a similarly successful male player: from Judit Polgar, the top female chessplayer in history known for her risky attacking style to hyper-aggro Team Pro Vanessa Selbst.

I talked to several females who played chess as youth to tell PS Women about how it affected their experience transitioning to poker. Almira Skripchenko, 2011 WPT Celebrity Invitational runner-up, and reigning French Women's chess champion started playing chess at six years old. She was one of the few girls in class, which prepared her for often being the only woman at the poker table. When she took up poker seriously, it took her some time though to manipulate her image to her advantage, a skill with far less importance in competitive chess.

Almira said that in the beginning, her opponents would often condescend to her but when they learned she was a chess Grandmaster, "my image would change dramatically." It took her a year to bluff effectively and, "to lie with a smile." She remembers her first cold four-bet, at a World Poker Tour in Venice, "Such spots would previously come once or twice, but I would not seize it even if I knew it was a perfect move, because it would be so unnatural for me as a chessplayer." When the jack-four offsuit got through, Almira smiled and said she had kings even though, "It took almost two years from my life."

After several years of prioritizing poker over chess, Almira is now in preparation for the World Women's Chess Championship in Russia. Her poker experience is helping, "I'm starting to think of risk/reward in my preparation." She plans to return to live poker with the France Poker Series Final and European Poker Tour Deauville, pending qualification.
Chessmaster Amanda Mateer is a law student, a member of the US Chess League team, the Arizona Scorpions, and a poker player. She said, "Like PokerStars does for poker, the USCL allows a wide range of competitors to showcase their talents and fight for prizes and victories, while allowing anyone with access to a computer to watch and learn."

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Amanda Mateer, courtesy Jeff Smith

Amanda's experience in chess has helped her handle more macho personalities, "I'm a relatively small girl, and I'm not particularly fierce in appearance or demeanor. At the WSOP in 2011, I was playing one of the deepstack events at the Rio and a guy from Peru saw me playing chess on my phone on a break. He challenged me to $100 a game over the board, claiming that he never once 'met a girl who knew more than how the pieces moved and how to give them all away.' When he got stacked a several hands later, I told him he should give me his number, so I could meet up with him later to work out the details of our match." Amanda never heard from that villain again. She is now trying to use her image to her advantage in poker and chess, finding spots in poker "to call down light against the hyper-aggressive player" and to surprise opponents with unexpected lines.

Poker player and fellow Grindette Katie Stone also began her gaming career in chess. She recently relocated to Mexico to play on Stars again, and sees the partnership between PokerStars and chess as a natural fit. "PokerStars (recognizes) the crossover between the two sports. One of the similarities between chess and poker is the love of analyzing...you absolutely have to be obsessed with doing this to be great at either game."

As PokerStars players focus on qualifying to the PCA & PCA Ladies weekend, the US Chess league approaches finals. While we can all agree there still aren't enough queens in the deck, the women who shift between 52 cards to 64 squares know that hard work and focus is the quickest route to mate and money.

Jennifer Shahade is a senior writer at PokerStars Women. She recently wrote about returning to PokerStars in Israel. Also see related pieces on playing like a girl (in chess and poker) & chess inspired tips for poker players.

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Jen Shahade playing roulette chess, photo courtesy World Chess Hall of Fame.


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