When knowing is losing – gender factors in chess

7/9/2009 – Normally knowing your enemy is an advantage. Not so in chess games between the sexes. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology Dr Anne Maass (et al.) pitted male and female players against each other via the Internet. Women showed a 50% performance decline when they were aware that they were playing a male opponent. Very thought-provoking!

The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport

From European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 38, Issue 2 (March/April 2008)
Anne Maass, Claudio D'Ettole, Mara Cadinu


Women are surprisingly underrepresented in the chess world, representing less that 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world's grandmasters. In this paper it is argued that gender stereotypes are mainly responsible for the underperformance of women in chess. Forty-two male-female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via the Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents. In addition, our findings suggest that women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a weaker promotion focus, which are predictive of poorer chess performance.


A number of novel findings emerge from the present study that complement cognitively-oriented research on chess. Most importantly, gender stereotypes can have a greatly debilitating effect on female players leading to a 50% performance decline when playing against males. Interestingly, this disadvantage is completely removed when players are led to believe that they are playing against a woman. This may, in part, occur because women choose a more defensive style when playing with men.

A second and more general message of our study is that self-confidence and a win-oriented promotion motivation contribute positively to chess performance. Since women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a more cautious regulatory focus than males, possibly as a consequence of widely held gender stereotypes, this may at least in part explain their worldwide underrepresentation and underperformance in chess.

Thus, women seem disadvantaged not because they are lacking cognitive or spatial abilities, but because they approach chess competitions with lesser confidence and with a more cautious attitude than their male opponents. Hence, a motivational perspective may be better suited to understand (and prevent) the underperformance of women in the ‘ultimate intellectual sport.’

Anne Maass, PhD

Anne Maass, born in Germany, living in Italy since 1984, received her MS in Social Psychology from the University of Heidelberg (1978) and a MS (1980) and a Ph.D. (1982) from Florida State University. She has been employed at the University of Kiel (Germany) and subsequently at Padova University (Italy), and has taught and conducted research at other universities (Arizona State University, University of Heidelberg, University of California at Davis, Griffith University, Free University of Amsterdam, International Graduate School at Jena University). She is currently the head of the Doctoral Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Padova. Anne has published research (including 70 articles in prestigious international journals) in diverse areas including minority influence, eyewitness testimony, sexual harassment, prejudice development, and stereotype threat. Her current research interests are mainly concerned with the link between language and social cognition, investigating both interpersonal discourse and language used in mass communication.

Additional information is available on this University of Padua page.

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