Q&A With Poker Champion and Chess Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade

Jennifer Shahade is one of poker’s most iconic and accomplished figures. She has won hundreds of thousands of dollars in poker tournaments and contributed to poker’s meteoric rise as a globally recognized ambassador for the game. Incredibly, she’s also a two-time US Women’s chess champion…

Jennifer Shahade plays at poker table

Jennifer Shahade is one of poker’s most iconic and accomplished figures. She has won hundreds of thousands of dollars in poker tournaments and contributed to poker’s meteoric rise as a globally recognized ambassador for the game.

Incredibly, she’s also a two-time US Women’s chess champion, a Woman Grandmaster, and the Program Director of Women’s chess in the US. We were fortunate enough to interview Jennifer on her experience in poker, her thoughts on opportunities for women in poker, and what it takes to play at the top level of poker and chess. Don’t miss our event with Jennifer on March 12th from 6-8pm CST where you can learn from her firsthand and play a tournament with the whole Poker Power community.

Poker Power (PP): How did your chess background inform your poker play when you were just learning the game?

Jennifer Shahade (JS): When I first started playing poker, most online on MTTs (multi-table tournaments) and SNGs (sit-and-go’s, or 1-3 table tournaments) on PokerStars, I wasn’t attracted to the gambling elements. I was more interested in making the right play, not whether I’d hit an ace or not. I think my background in chess helped me immediately see poker in this way.

I think that poker and chess are now converging in a weird way. Poker is becoming more scientific as people use solvers and craft study plans similar to chess players. And chess is becoming more glamorous! And there’s tons of overlap with people like Daniel Negreanu and Liv Boeree participating in chess competitions online.

PP: As a Run It Once coach, what elements of strategy did you prioritize in your lessons?

JS: When I made videos for Run it Once I was playing a lot of Open Face Chinese Poker and I wanted to help viewers create heuristics (or rules of thumb) based on math and data. I also wanted my material to be fun and watchable, a trend that has certainly accelerated since with the advent of YouTube strategy channels that both educate and entertain.

PP: What got you into the emerging game of Open Face Chinese Poker? What game type do you think there is the most opportunity in?

JS: I got into OFC because it was so much fun, it felt like a puzzle to me. Right now I think there’s a lot of opportunity in live poker when it opens up again, and PLO (Pot-Limit Omaha.) I am lucky enough to live in Philadelphia, a great city and in one of the few states that PokerStars is now in (along with New Jersey and Michigan.) As a PokerStars ambassador that gives me great opportunities to play in tournament series and try new formats.

PP: How has talking to your Grid podcast guests changed your perspective about poker?

JS: Talking to such a variety of poker players and professionals on my podcast the GRID has reinforced my love for the poker culture and community. Every guest brings something different from the hilarious author and poker aficionado Helen Ellis to Maria Konnikova, who speaks so eloquently about life skills and poker, to top pros like Doug Polk or the great poker/mathematician Bill Chen. The underlying concept of the GRID is that poker is where storytelling and math meet. They are not in conflict — in the poker grid itself (the 13×13 grid of all possible No Limit Hold Em combinations) you can see the harmony of both.

PP: Have there been times where you felt underestimated in poker or life because you were female? If so, how did you respond?

JS: Yes, I was underestimated many times in poker and in life because I’m female. But I have also been given a lot of praise and support because I’m a woman in a male dominated field, so it’s a double edged sword for me. I’m more worried about people who are discouraged to try poker because of initial poor experiences. They may never get to the bright side of the equation. Building community is super helpful to giving women the strength to keep going when encountering negativity. That’s why I love what groups such as Poker Power are doing. I also have my own community, US Chess Women, a nonprofit I run, to help connect girls and women through chess and the culture of chess. The value more than direct education, is building a network that can lead to compound benefits in a girl or woman’s life.

In poker, it’s not bad for your game to be underestimated sometimes — it can help you get away with bluffs. At the Poker Stars Players Championship, a $25,000 tournament in the Bahamas, which was the highest buy-in I’d ever played, I check-raised on a river on a very tough table. It wasn’t even the most amazing bluff, but in this case it didn’t matter as my opponent was clearly going to fold everything but the nuts, which he expressed to the entire table before folding.

Many women have told me similar stories, and while it’s a key trend to note, it’s also dangerous to give isolated hands too much weight- it doesn’t apply to everyone, and if you get too caught up in dramatic folds, you may get distracted from studying the math and theory of the game, which is most relevant to improving.

PP: Do you feel like the same level of analytical aptitude is required to compete in poker at a high level as is in chess?

JS: I think the skill sets between excelling in poker and chess are different. But to be elite in either is equally rare and difficult. In poker you need discipline as well as a good memory, a good training program and a rare combination of patience and aggression.

In chess, visualization is extremely important. You need to visualize the board in your own head and keep it in place. You can train this skill but like language, it requires a lot of dedication and time to learn later in life.

In poker, to make more money, it really helps to have a lot of money, which is similar to life, but it’s also important to note when anyone claims it’s a “totally even playing field.” The reason is that you can make more profitable investments when you have more money to invest, without fearing the risk of ruin. That’s why bankroll management is so important.

PP: What are your thoughts on the role that luck plays in poker? How do chess players adjust to information asymmetry and variance?

JS: Chess players don’t really need “bankroll management.” While there is money in chess, it’s usually in the form of “freerolls” for professional players, or sponsored tournaments, where you get prizes just for getting invited. That said, the prizes are far more modest than in poker. So that’s the biggest hurdles chess players may face if they try to transition to poker. Those skills don’t come naturally to all of them. It can also be hard for great chess players to lose so much! Due to variance, you can make the perfect play so often and still lose. And still, chess players definitely come into poker with some wonderful mental assets that can help them succeed. But they should be aware of the differences too!

PP: What poker accomplishment are you most proud of?

JS: Running deep in the WSOP Main Event while pregnant (getting to day six), qualifying for the finals of the PokerStars Shark Cage with Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu, and winning the first OFC High Roller Championship as the only female in the field.

PP: What would you say to a woman who was on the fence about trying poker for the first time? Do you have any general advice for our community of women in poker?

JS: If a woman is on the fence about trying poker for the first time, she should definitely give it a go in a friendly game for low stakes. That should give her an idea if she will enjoy the game. My advice to women in the Poker Power community is to find an aspect of poker they’re super passionate about, whether it be the theory of No Limit Hold Em, or analyzing high stakes hands online, or creating poker content. Passion will lead to motivation and create high chances of success. I also think it’s important to focus on the networking potential of poker. Even if you don’t become a professional or super serious player, having poker as a skill set can help you meet people from all over the world, of different ages, genders, backgrounds and industries. That type of network is power! And the doors are wide open to women, especially women who come in prepared and with their own community to back them up.

Jennifer will be speaking with the Poker Power community on Friday March 12th from 6-8pm CST. Stay tuned for your invite to this special event! If you want to learn poker to follow in Jennifer’s footsteps, you can sign up for free Poker Power lessons.

Poker Power is for educational purposes and does not permit gambling in our clubs. No poker experience is required.

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