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Jennifer on Philly's Hall of Fame and Roulette Chess Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
March 8, 2010
Jen Shahade, Photo Betsy Dynako
Years ago, I was immediately intrigued by the point in Jonathan Rowson's book, "The Seven Deadly Chess Sins" that knights introduce circles into chess, a linear game. It's striking to me that ten years later, two of my favorite projects from the last year are also about combining chess with circular forms, first with hula-chess (which I created with DimMak Films) and second with roulette-chess (which I created with artist Larry List).

An article on roulette chess came out it in the recent issue of New In Chess. I wrote about the first public roulette chess game, held last fall at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The game, contested between US Women's Champion Anna Zatonskih and Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis founder Rex Sinquefield ended in a draw. The article also included a move by move analysis of a particularly exciting roulette chess game against my dad, FM Mike Shahade. The game began 1.e4 e6 2.d4 Ke7, which I called "an unorthodox variation of the French." Certainly not an opening you'd normally see in NIC!

Anna Zatonskih, Jennifer Shahade, Rex Sinquefield, Photo Betsy Dynako

Ever since I got into poker, I've been haunted by the hypothesis that chess can't explode in profitability, if not popularity because it's too easy to tell how good you are it. Poker players on the other hand, can lie to themselves for hours, years, lifetimes about whether they are winning or not. Roulette chess attempts to combine skill and chess so that a stronger player can feel like she has an edge but a weaker player does not feel like she has no chance.

The project was also a response to Marcel Duchamp's famous wish that roulette and chess meet in the middle. Author and curator Larry List even incorporated specific Duchampian style graphics to make that connection more vivid. (For more on Duchamp, see the recent chessvibes Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess review, now available on USCF Sales or the art of chess.org.)

Larry List and Anna Zatonskih, Photo Betsy Dynako

Most roulette chess rules are intuitive. You spin the wheel to determine which type of piece you move, and if you land on a spoke with multiple pieces, you pick either type of piece. There are a few spokes that allow you to move whatever you want and a terrible spoke that allows your opponent to pick what piece you move. The most difficult rule to resolve was what to do if a player was instructed to move a piece (s) but had traded off or lost or immobilized all of that type of piece(s). In early game tests, a player who couldn't move the piece he landed on picked another move. But that made it too advantageous to trade or even purposely lose pieces. So I changed the rule: If you can't move a piece, you look at the color of the spoke (red or black) and if it's your own color (red being like white in chess), you pick and if it's the opposite color, your opponent picks.

The piece distribution is weighted heavily in favor of pawns, as otherwise it would be very difficult for the other pieces (except knights) to join the action! Photo Betsy Dynako
For instance, let's say Red starts the game by spinning a pawn, and plays 1.e4. Black also spins a pawn and plays 1...e5. Now what if Red spins a rook? She can't move either of her rooks. If she landed on a red spoke, she is free to move any piece and would probably choose Bc4 or Nf3. But if she landed on a black spoke, her opponent would likely force her to play 2.Ke2! It's possible that for this reason, 1.c4 is a superior move to 1.e4 in roulette chess. But you also have to weigh risk vs.reward. e4 allows the chance of a quick mate with Bc4 and Qf3 while c4 does no such thing.

For more photos, see Betsy Dynako's photo gallery of roulette chess on my website. 

Roulette chess is very personal because it expresses how I feel about games right now: Too much luck in poker and not enough in chess.

On another happy topic, I was recently inducted into the Philadelphia Chess Hall of Fame.

The founder of the organization, NM and author Dan Heisman, started the Hall of Fame to help celebrate our city's great chess history. He told me:

When I was young I played Dr. Max Cohen, who was then in semi-retirement, and one of the very few masters in Philadelphia (with Sergei Goregliad). Later I felt bad that no one seemed to know who Dr. Cohen was, so I looked for a way to honor those that the living still remembered. I did not feel authorized to pick out those who came before my time. Around this time creating your own web site became possible, so I thought it might be nice to create a page to honor those who played and did other activities (direct, organize, etc) well for a long period of time while living in the area. The hard part was finding how to get this going, so I personally selected a few who clearly stood out and then each year....the already elected members vote on a new inductee.

I was honored to join my dad, FM Mike Shahade in the Philly Chess HOF. I also get to vote for future inductees now! Hmmm, my brother is a good choice. Despite his contributions to chess and IM ranking, he's the only Shahade chess master NOT in the Philadelphia HOF. I'm sure that will change soon enough and in the mean time it's a cool opportunity for dad and I to make fun of him :) See the full list of members and more information on the Philly HOF website.

That's all for now, but see you at the Philadelphia Open, where I'll be looking for victims for US Chess Scoop interviews.