On Chess: Not Particularly Beautiful | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: Not Particularly Beautiful

Oct 17, 2019

"Not Particularly Beautiful" is a chessboard I created with Daniel Meirom, in homage to women players who endure backlashes as they find new power, inspired by the chess queen.

The queen was once the weakest force on the board, only able to move one square diagonally. Games were long and tedious, as it was much harder to checkmate without the chief executioner.

'Is that Lady on Drugs?'

Around 1500, as powerful queens reigned in Europe, the piece rose to the potent powerhouse she is today. This faster, better game that we still play over five centuries later was initially derided as the "madwoman’s chess game."

'Lacking in Any Depth'

In protest of the new rules, French writer and critic Gratien du Pont created a chessboard in 1534 with an insult for the queen on each of the 64 squares. Some squares, translated as "True She-Devil" and "Very Negligent," are eerily reminiscent of the insults that trolls use to belittle female and nonbinary brilliance and ambition today. 

I first read about Gratien’s misogynistic chessboard in Marilyn Yalom’s "Birth of the Chess Queen" (2001). Donna Dodson reintroduced it to me when inviting Meirom and me to contribute to her 2018 show at the Boston Sculptors Gallery, "Match of the Matriarchs."

'Overly Ambitious'

The white squares of our board are insults levied at top female chess players, including the title square, a YouTube comment about me, "She is Not Particularly Beautiful At All."

A center square of the chessboard reads "Not Particularly Beautiful At All," a real remark made about Jennifer Shahade in a YouTube video.
Credit Crystal Fuller | World Chess Hall of Fame

'Missing Neuroplasticity'

Calligrapher Emily Reichlin lovingly penned the squares of "Not Particularly Beautiful" in her script named "The Grace" after Grace Kelly.

“It’s an elegant, feminine script that I felt a fitting juxtaposition to the ugliness and misogyny of the content,” Reichlin said.

'Without Shame'

In "Not Particularly Beautiful II," unveiled at the World Chess Hall of Fame’s opening of “A Beautiful Game,” designer Audra Danielle Noyes filled in an early square with “I Rise, I Rise, I Rise.” The tone of our second edition was distinct, with positive declarations dominating the board and just a handful of cathartic inscriptions.

'Less Intelligent Than All Men'

The St. Louis Chess Club is a leader in growing girls and women in chess, including the Cairns Cup, the top women’s tournament. There are also female-centered shows at the World Chess Hall of Fame and weekly Ladies’ Knight classes. In 2019, the St. Louis Chess Club partnered with US Chess to bring more females into the game via the US Chess Women Program.

'Loves to Hear Herself Talk'

Online chess culture has improved in the few years since I compiled these mean slurs. Active, often paid, moderation, along with tactics like shadow-banning (muting an abusive user without their knowledge) helps flush out trolls.

On US Chess’s “Ladies Knight” podcast, popular streamer Alexandra Botez explained to me her low tolerance for negativity as she built a community of 50,000 Twitch followers, while International Master and commentator Anna Rudolf told me: “The best response is to keep going and growing. Your own success is the best middle finger.”

Jennifer Shahade and Daniel Meirom flank their creation at the debut of the "A Beautiful Game" exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Credit Crystal Fuller | World Chess Hall of Fame

'When’s the Last Time You’ve Been Assaulted?'

"Not Particularly Beautiful" is part of a growing trend to reclaim and tackle negative comments head on. The old advice "not to feed the trolls" or to "ignore the haters" can be sound in some cases, but condescending and insufficient in others.

Gratien du Pont initially wished for his chess board to be anonymous, but he was exposed. Comments veering from rude to evil won’t always evaporate as an aberration, a temporary and therefore acceptable cruelty. They may just end up viral on Twitter, in a comedian’s punchline, or the wall of a museum.

"A Beautiful Game" debuted on Oct. 10 and runs through spring 2020. 

Jennifer Shahade is a commentator, author and the director of Women’s Programs at US Chess. She is also a board member at the World Chess Hall of Fame. You can find more about her on jennifershahade.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.