Why so few women chess players?

Perhaps, it’s me but the stark gender bias in chess always astounded me. High-rated women chess players are few and far between. Why is there such a scarcity of female presence at the top level of this sport or profession?

One thing raised my eyebrow when R Praggnanandhaa became a GM and got all that publicity but does anybody know that Vaishali R, his sister, is already one of the highest-ranked female chess players in India and recently bagged her third and final WGM norm (an achievement big enough?!).

She is also among the very few who won competitions in different age categories, viz. her under-12 world title in Maribor in 2012 and the under-14 title at Porto Carras, Greece, in 2015. Only a few other Indians were able to achieve this feat―Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli, M Mahalakshmi, Murali Karthikeyan, Divya Deshmukh and her own brother.

Oh, wait! I recently saw a GoFundMe page where donations stood well above $250,000 because Tani Adewumi, an African-American boy, comes with a rough childhood and an immense talent in chess. I am definitely not against that but why are we not talking about this Chinese girl who became the younger chess master in the United States?

It seems very strange, does it not? It warrants a very question to be asked first.

Are women not capable of chess?

Sofia Polgar was the first woman to take the first step towards becoming a grandmaster. However, she didn’t pursue it further. Judit Polgar, on the other hand, became a grandmaster at the age of 15 years and 4 months, breaking the record of 11th World Champion, Chess Wizard Bobby Fischer. She is the only woman to be ranked in the Top 10, with a peak rating of 2735.

Hou Yifan is yet another woman who is ranked at 84 currently in the world and has shown that women might have the ability to play chess, I mean, really solid chess. She is also ranked first in the women’s chess arena. However, can she fight with the Mozart of Chess (the ultimate numero uno of the chess world) – Magnus Carlsen? Who knows! Carlsen is currently rated 2863, a behemoth 205 points over the women chess queen. Something to think about.

The statistics from the January 2020 FIDE rating list are that there are 771484 active players of whom 120065 are female. That is a female participation rate of about 15.6%, compared to 8.25% in 2012. The female participation rate in chess is increasing, no doubt.

Yet, 15 women for every 100 men?! I ask why. In scholastic tournaments, the number of tournaments is always high. Nonetheless, the percentage of female participation in chess goes down over time. In the professional arena, the number of professional women chess players decline drastically. Alexandra Kosteniuk seems to agree with this notion and also provides a valid reason for this occurrence:

Due to these historical and social reasons, fewer girls begin to play chess and even fewer continue to play chess professionally. I talked to many people from different countries around the world and all these people keep saying that girls first compete on the same level as boys, but when they reach 14-16 years old they stop playing chess competitively, they prefer to go and study for college or University or consider doing other things in life. Why? Because the chess profession for women in many countries is not considered to be a profession and many girls just cannot consider becoming professional chess players/arbiters/trainers because they don’t know anything about the existence of these professions or consider it not to be well paid enough (that’s true!) and that’s only one of the directions where my FIDE Women’s commission which I co-chair is starting to work on.

Interestingly, what happened with Carissa Yip when she wanted to learn chess? This is what her father replied: “No, no, it’s not easy; you probably won’t like it.” I have to say that many parents consider left-brain activities to be more suited for men (or boys) and right-brain activities to be more suited for women (or girls).

The ultimate question is, what about chess? Do women have the innate ability to compete with men?

What does science say about women chess players?

A researchers team from the UK did a curious study that showed the under-representation of women at top-level chess is rather due to lack of a lower number of women chess players, instead of lower talent or aptitude as is the notion.

What’s more? The outcome of the study is, in fact, astounding:

The results showed that the top three women had more points than expected, the next 70 or so pairs showed a small advantage for the men, and the last 20 pairs showed a small advantage for the women. Overall, men performed slightly better than expected, with an average advantage of 353 points, whereas the expected advantage was 341 points. Nevertheless, about 96% of the actual difference between genders could be explained by the statistical fact that the extreme values from a large sample are likely to be larger than those from a small one.

It would be interesting to note that in another study questioning the correlation between intelligence and chess skill, Merim Bilalic, et al, came to this conclusion:

Practice is a better predictor of chess skill than intelligence, even among children with limited experience. This seems to be particularly true for highly skilled young chess players as in our study the association of chess skill with intelligence in this group was at best nonexistent, and at worst, negative.

In another study by Christopher F. Chabris and Mark E. Glickman, it was thus found:

Only 1% of the world’s chess grandmasters are women. This underrepresentation is unlikely to be caused by discrimination because chess ratings objectively reflect competitive results. Using data on the ratings of more than 250,000 tournament players over 13 years, we investigated several potential explanations for the male domination of elite chess. We found that (a) the ratings of men are higher on average than those of women, but no more variable; (b) matched boys and girls improve and drop out at equal rates, but boys begin chess competition in greater numbers and at higher performance levels than girls, and (c) in locales where at least 50% of the new young players are girls, their initial ratings are not lower than those of boys. We conclude that the greater number of men at the highest levels in chess can be explained by the greater number of boys who enter chess at the lowest levels.

Prof Wei Ma Ja broaches in a different perspective in this Chessbase article:

In a field like physics or music composition, practitioners (men and women alike) believe that one needs to be a genius to succeed, and in society as a whole, women are considered unlikely to be geniuses. The disastrous consequences of these two belief sets combined are easy to imagine: women select themselves out because they don’t think they are suitable, interviewers and admission committees discriminate against women, or women in these fields drop out at higher rates due to the pressure of having to fight a stereotype (stereotype threat).

Referring to a study conducted by Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland, he continued to say that “Chess might be similar to physics, philosophy, and music composition: innate-ability beliefs are front and centre in the ways chess players and society at large talk about chess. Chess prodigies are considered born, not made, and popular culture widely uses chess as a cue for genius. Leslie and Cimpian’s study would suggest that the primary reason why women are not motivated to pursue chess or are discouraged by others is that they or people around them do not believe they have the brilliance everyone believes to be needed for success in chess.”

While the requirement of genius to excel in chess is often touted by society, especially the male members, the fact that women cannot possess that brilliance, that “genius” needs to be noted. I would agree with what Natalia Pogonina says:

A stereotype exists in chess that women are no match for men. It is based on statistical data. That’s why many female chess players are taught from early childhood that they’ll never make it to men’s level. TV and books are also trying to convince them that it’s unreal. But all this is a myth! The first woman to break it was the incredible Judit Polgar, the greatest woman chess player of all times.

Here are a few quotes by top male chess players, the ones we often admire and revere.

“They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men.

They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man.

There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.”

– Robert James Fischer, 1962, Harper’s Magazine

“In the past, I have said that there is real chess and women’s chess. Some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition. I think this is a very simple logic. It’s the logic of a fighter, a professional fighter. Women are weaker fighters.”

Gary Kasparov, 1989, PlayBoy Magazine

“The difference between the sexes is remarkable in chess―but not any more so to my mind―than any other field of cultural activity. Women cannot play chess, but they cannot paint either, or write, or philosophise. In fact, women have never thought or made anything worth considering.”

– Jan Hein Donner

That’s a little harsh to say, right?

And finally, the person who was running for FIDE President position, Nigel Short. He has already said along these lines, “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess.” What?!

Give his Chessbase article a read but it was amazing when he was asked about his lower score against Judit Polgar.

Forget about chess. What these people are trying to say is that the brain of the male member of our species is more suited to playing chess than that of a woman. Is there any literature on that?

Well, the following excerpt is taken from HowStuffWorks piece:

In 2001, researchers from Harvard found that certain parts of the brain were differently sized in males and females: parts of the frontal lobe, responsible for problem-solving and decision-making, and the limbic cortex, responsible for regulating emotions, were larger in women, while in men, the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, and the amygdala, which regulates sexual and social behaviour, were larger.

Men also have approximately 6.5 times more grey matter in the brain than women, but women have about 10 times more white matter than men do. This difference may account for differences in how men and women think. Men seem to think with their grey matter, which is full of active neurons. Women think with the white matter, which consists more of connections between the neurons. In this way, a woman’s brain is a bit more complicated in setup, but those connections may allow a woman’s brain to work faster than a man’s.

Diane Halpern, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association, while working on the first edition of her acclaimed academic text, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, wrote:

At the time, it seemed clear to me that any between-sex differences in thinking abilities were due to socialization practices, artefacts and mistakes in the research, and bias and prejudice. … After reviewing a pile of journal articles that stood several feet high and numerous books and book chapters that dwarfed the stack of journal articles … I changed my mind.

Dr Ragini Verma, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says:

Our studies are finding significant differences in the brain circuitry of men and women, even when they’re doing the same thing: It’s like two people driving from Philadelphia to New York, who take different routes, but end up at the same place.

Her study established distinctive “brain roadmaps”―which she called connectomes―varied according to the gender of the human species. Result? Men excelled at certain activities while women at others.

It was found that “men have stronger connections between brain areas for motor and spatial skills. That means males tend to do a better job at tasks that need hand-eye coordination and understanding where objects are in space, such as throwing a ball or hammering a nail.”

Is chess such an activity where men are supposed to excel?

Then there is also the greater male variability theory that states the bell curve of performance for women is better tuned to achieve a greater likelihood of median ability, while men are more erratic – they produce more damaged, faulty brains than do women, but at the same time, they produce more brilliant brains. The male population exhibits greater extremes.

What is what? Sorry, I am not a PhD-holding neuroscientist. I can’t help you.

But what I do find is…

The chess sport (or profession) is male-dominated

Society plays a big part in deciding who we are and what we end up doing.

Nisha Mohota, West Bengal’s first woman grandmaster, talks about something we tend to overlook.

One of my coaches, Evgeny Vladimirov used to say that a man is in the peak of his career in his 30s when he is married and settled and can completely focus on his career. For a woman, it is just the opposite: time to pack up at 25! No man wants his wife to be out of their home for days to pursue her professional career. In India, marriage and childbirth are considered a woman’s responsibility. Women are still seen as the ones who provide an anchor to the men in their lives, make the house a home and raise a family. When a man goes out to play in his tournaments, his wife packs his bag and assures him that everything at home will be taken care of. On the other hand, when a woman goes out to play in tournaments, she plans in advance for things at home before she leaves. Thus, a woman has to be efficient both at home and in her profession too.

This is one of the grave reasons why chess has ended up being not a male-dominated, rather a male-populated sport. Boys (and men) are given more freedom in both professional and personal lives, and this plays out in the chess world as well.

Then there’s the male ego. Go to any tournament and you will see how sexist chess audiences can be.

“She is only a woman. He would never lose to a woman.”

Seriously?! Does the ELO rating match not matter at all?

Nisha is correct when she says, “in an open tournament there is a 10-90 ratio of participation of women to men. The ten women have to compete with the 90 men. If ten men out of 90 do better than the women, the other 80 also think that they are better than the women. Due to one Carlsen, every boy claims to be a Carlsen!”

Then there are times when the chess community completely loses it IMO. For example, the time when IM Anna Rudolf was accused of cheating only because she was playing well.

Anna recounts in this The Atlantic article:

That was in 2007. It was an open tournament in France. I was leading the tournament after four rounds. With just one round to go, I was still leading, and that’s when the arbiter came to me and said, “There are some people who think that you may be using assistance in your games.” The arbiter himself and the organizers, they didn’t believe it, but they wanted to make sure that people were not complaining. So they took away my backpack and they checked my lip balm because I’d had it on the table. The accusers thought that I had a microchip in my lip balm that was connected to wireless internet in my backpack and whenever I opened the tin of the lip balm, I would see the right move to make on the board.

Isn’t it ridiculous? Since she is a pretty blondie, she can’t be playing chess that well. Sure, we, men, are ruled by our left brains – logic, reason and facts.

Frankly, I would say chess is male-dominated because we make it so.

We tend to discourage women from going ahead and rule over that board. Yes, there might be a disparity between the physiological and psychological makeup of average women chess players and that of average men chess players. But here’s what I think. Not every man who plays chess is capable of becoming Bobby Fischer, right? So, how can we rule the possibility that one out of a hundred women might turn out to be the next Judit Polgar?

I am not for equality because that is again based on false and unwarranted notions. In all fairness, I do agree to what Paul Albert from South Salem, NY, says:

I am a strong advocate of equal opportunity for both men and women but reject any thesis that therefore the result should be about 50/50 representation of men and women in every level of position and achievement. Why? Women are different than men: (I speak both from the experience of being married 43 years, having a twin sister, studying in school with women, and working with women in the business world including where they were my boss and vice versa). Being different does not mean less intelligent or less capable; to the contrary, many women are more intelligent and more capable than men. There may be cultural differences that include lack of free choice imposed on women, but some of these so-called cultural differences are a result of the women’s own natural selectivity of preferences and interests. So in chess, if we eliminated all artificial impediments, would 5 out of the top 10 or 50 of the top 100 just naturally be women? Frankly, I doubt it, but I can’t tell you exactly why. The good thing is that we have Judit Polgar and other strong women chess players who are stronger than thousands of male players. Let them flourish and inspire other both female and male players. After all cultural and prejudicial barriers are dropped, I don’t think it matters whether women are 1%, 10%, 50%, or even more of the top. But in chess or other fields as well, I do not anticipate that it will be or should be evenly distributed. Women will prevail in some areas, men in others, but it doesn’t matter as long as everyone is free to pursue his/her own interests. That’s what is meant by liberty and freedom; an equal result is not its proper measure.

But I would have to say this. I suck at building emotional connection even with my own cousins and relatives. My sister, on the other hand, seems to be the centre of attention wherever she goes. Not because I am a man. Not because she is a woman. Just our own damn “wiring” if you could say so.

Maybe science would say that it is more common for women to have better communication skills than men. However, what I am trying to say is, there might be an outlying set of women who are equally introvert and lack social skills just like me. Are you getting the point?

Science generalizes; society categorizes. Yet we are individuals at best, and anything can happen.

Should we abolish women’s chess altogether?

No more WFM, WIM, WGM?

Let’s start with what Judit Polgar has to say on the subject.

I am used to being cited as living proof that women can play chess at the same elite level as men. When I was 15, I became the youngest grandmaster in the world, breaking the record set by Bobby Fischer more than three decades earlier. It turned out that I was not able to become the overall world champion, but I always strived to fulfil this ambition – and at my peak, I was the eighth highest-ranked player in the world.

I could never have reached those heights if I had only been interested in winning women’s titles. In fact, I was only a teenager when I last participated in a women’s tournament – representing Hungary, with my older sisters Zsúzsa and Zsófia as my teammates, in the 1990 Women’s Chess Olympiad. It was great fun, but the chess itself wasn’t very challenging.

I always knew that in order to become the strongest player I could, I had to play against the strongest possible opposition. Playing only among women would not have helped my development, as since I was 13 I was the clear number one among them. I needed to compete with the other leading (male) grandmasters of my time: the likes of Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand, all of whom I would go on to beat.

However, it must be noted that these women-only chess tournaments actually give women the much-needed courage, inspiration and practice to graduate on to the open chess tournaments. Hou Yifan is currently ranked 84 in the chess world. She would not be able to participate for the World Chess Championships. If you take away the Women’s World Chess Championship option from her too, are you providing her with any further incentive to continue to play? I don’t think so.

A few chess sponsors put their money in women-only chess tournaments. If you put a halt to these tournaments, that sponsorship money is gone. It’s more like a lose-lose situation for every stakeholder involved. Nobody would write about the top women chess players anymore. They would sink into oblivion―out of sight, out of mind. Does that help in encouraging more female participation in chess? Obviously, not.

A WSJ reporter talked about how FIDE “persists in the anachronistic and demeaning practice of awarding separate titles for women at lower levels of accomplishment.”

Even Irina Krush, who is a Grandmaster herself, said, “I don’t see their benefit. Women’s titles are really a marker of lower expectations.”

I won’t reject their premise entirely. It does tell a prospective female chess player that if you find yourself unable to rise to the level of an actual International Master, you can stay content with your Woman International Master title instead.

Even Daaim Shabazz of thechessdrum.net agrees:

It is common to hear a chess-playing girl say that she aspires to become a “WIM” or “WGM” because women’s titles are taken as the natural stage of improvement. Unfortunately, one hardly hears a girl mentioning the coveted “IM,” “GM” titles as an initial goal despite the fact that they aspire to compete with the best in every other endeavour. By this default, boys will have higher chess goals, higher expectations and thus, more ambition. Have we pigeon-holed girls and women to think only in terms of gender-related events and lesser titles? Have we encouraged them to have lower expectations of their abilities?

Yet this whole thing can be looked at from another perspective as Alexandra Kosteniuk replies:

That, however, doesn’t mean that we don’t need women’s titles. Women know very well that a WGM is less valuable than a GM, and so what? It’s still a nice recognition for the success achieved so far. If no WIM nor WGM titles existed at all, there would be many countries without any titled women players at all, I bet those countries would even not consider sending teams to the Olympiads, or sending their best representative to an international tournament, sponsors would be harder to come by, they would have many fewer opportunities for simuls, thank you dear Wall Street Journal reporter, you certainly want to help women’s chess!

Kosteniuk points out an important fact that women’s titles are not merely a matter of prestige or accomplishment. It is, in essence, a source of motivation for most women chess players.

“…for me personally, trying to obtain the WIM title was a big motivation. Given the time I want to invest in chess, becoming a grandmaster is simply not an option, but the goal of WGM does seem possible,” adds Arlette van Weersel, a Woman International Master.

Natalia Pogonina, who is in favour of equality of men and women in chess, writes:

Having a title is beneficial in terms of getting special conditions from organizers, becoming a more recognized coach or author, finding sponsors or receiving stipends from certain institutions, free memberships from top chess websites, etc.

Then again, it is evident that for many women chess players, the end goal is not WIM or WIM but rather IM and GM.

FM Alisa Melekhina opines on how she herself prefers a gender-neutral chess title:

I’ve always wanted to go by the more general title. Female titles require less stringent norms and a smaller rating. I just never really got the idea of a WIM. Why? What’s a WIM compared to regular IM? So, I got my FIDE rating to 2300, and I went by FM.

IM Armen Ambartsoumian talking about Tatev Abrahamyan:

She got Women’s Grandmaster, and she didn’t want that title. She thinks she deserves to get the men’s title—and she is right. She can do it all.

I think it can be understood that even a particular category of women chess players are against women’s chess titles. Especially the ones who are ambitious and feel belittled with the gender-specific titles as consolation prizes.

Jennifer Shahade is one such woman chess master, a two-time United States Women’s Champion and a Woman Grandmaster, who remarks:

The arguments I fall back on to explain women’s tournaments like financial incentives and positive examples for the community and the media, don’t work as well when trying to justify women’s titles. In an academic analogy, there are women’s colleges, women’s conferences, even anthologies of women’s work but there are no WBAs or WPHDs.

Judit Polgar believes “you have to put your goals as high as possible and only then will you improve.” Didn’t Henry Ford, Napoleon Hill and James Allen (and almost every other great men and women) say it too?

I would say that before talking about women’s chess titles and whether to abolish it or not, why don’t we first improve the conditions that facilitate a better female participation rate in chess. Why not make it easier for every girl and woman to take part in this beautiful sport if they wanted to? Forget whether they have the innate talent or not, forget whether they could become the world number one or not, and just give them the opportunity first.

Greg Shahade is of a unique opinion, “once you start teaching a girl how to play, and you see that she has talent, all of this statistical nonsense becomes irrelevant.”

While researching on this topic, the best quote was by Dan Lucas from Chess Life Magazine:

Eventually, reporting of events in which she [Judit Polgar] competed stopped referring to her as a woman player and simply referred to her as a player.

Is it not what we all want?

That, male or female, every player be regarded as a player. Win or not, chess is ultimately a game, right?

By segregating and restricting sections of those who are in love of the game, we are eventually affecting the beauty of it.

Bobby Fischer said chess is life. So why not let everyone “live” life for once, huh?

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