Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes
By WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov
"They're all weak, all women. They're stupid compared
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
Chess is often divided into men’s chess and women’s chess. The classification is quite relative, since women can participate in tournaments for men, while men can’t take part in women’s events. This discrimination has always been a subject of heated discussions. So, is it true that men are better than women in chess, and if so, then what are the reasons for that?
WGM Natalia Pogonina
Chess is an intellectual sport, physical strength is by far not the key factor there. Endurance is also not a factor, because women are probably even more enduring than men.
Some say it’s about the level of testosterone that affects competitiveness – men are more likely to be trying to excel at something than women. However, if we look at the percentage of so-called “grandmaster draws” among women and men then we’ll see that women’s fighting spirits are definitely higher. You may say that it’s an exception from the rule, but we still doubt that it’s the high level of testosterone that makes top women players good at chess.
So, maybe women are just less smart than men? According to multiple studies, on the average the answer is “no”. Then what’s the problem?
Women have started playing chess professionally long after men. Nowadays the number of professional women chess players is growing, but the proportion is still incomparable. There are very few women in chess, so they have meager chances to enter the world chess elite.
Look at the top-300 list of chess players and count the number of women there. If you don’t miss anyone, you’ll find only three of them. Almost one to a hundred, “great” ratio, isn’t it? A few more illustrative figures: according to FIDE’s website, there are 20 female players who hold the GM title to 1201 male grandmasters (about 1 to 60), 77 female IMs to 2854 male (about 1 to 37), 239 WGMs and 7 female FMs to 5400 male FMs (about 1 to 20). Side note: notice the downward trend?
Upbringing and social stereotypes
The other important issue is that in order to become a top chess player you’ve got to study chess diligently from early childhood. Parents (who have a large influence on their children’s choice of hobbies) deem chess as a strange pastime for a girl, and also do not appreciate the fact that their daughter will be spending a lot of time with male adults or teenagers (especially when leaving home to play in tournaments).
Roy Gates (Southern California, USA) recalls:
I think that there's definitely some cultural/sociological bias at work that has made it more difficult for women to excel in chess. I realized a few years ago (after it was pointed out to me by an ex-girlfriend) that I was taking a much more active role in my nephew’s chess education than I was with my niece despite the fact that she was more eager to play/learn and seemed to take to the game much quicker. I had subconsciously not taken her interest in chess seriously and was mortified when I realized I was helping to perpetuate the myth that boys are better chess players.
Michael Ziern (Frankfurt, Germany) adds:
It is hard to convince parents to send girls to tournaments along with their male club colleagues. Parents are often afraid to allow their 10 or 12 year old girl to travel around with a group of boys and young men. If girls play fewer tournaments, they do not improve so quickly and lose interest. In order to solve this problem, my club cooperated with clubs from neighboring towns to have greater groups of girls who could share rooms in youth hostels, make friends etc. with some success.
Moreover, serious chess studies require substantial investments (coaches, trips etc.), while it’s a well-known fact that women chess players can’t make a decent living playing chess unless they’re at the very top. That’s why parents discourage their daughters’ interest in chess – what’s the point of wasting so much time on a dubious activity?
When Natalia was twelve she even had to move to another city to get access to good coaching and financing – life in Russia in the 90s used to be tough for anyone, not to mention chess players. So she and her coach could hardly find money for the chess trips and had to carry heavy bags full of chess books with them and sell the volumes in order to compensate the expenses.
This factor seems to me to be the most important. 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.
Thge Polgar sisters Susan, Judit and Zsófia
She and her two older sisters, Grandmaster Susan and International Master Zsófia, were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father László Polgár, in an attempt to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age. "Geniuses are made, not born," was László's thesis. He and his wife Klara educated their three daughters at home, with chess as the specialist subject. However, chess was not taught to the exclusion of everything else, as was the case with Gata Kamsky. Each of them has several diplomas and speaks four to eight languages. Their father also taught his three daughters the international language Esperanto.
Polgar J - Kasparov G,
Russia vs. The Rest of the World match, Moscow 2002
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Nc3 h6 10.Rd1+ Ke8 11.h3 Be7 12.Ne2 Nh4 13.Nxh4 Bxh4 14.Be3 Bf5 15.Nd4 Bh7 16.g4 Be7 17.Kg2 h5 18.Nf5 Bf8 19.Kf3 Bg6 20.Rd2 hxg4+ 21.hxg4 Rh3+ 22.Kg2 Rh7 23.Kg3 f6 24.Bf4 Bxf5 25.gxf5 fxe5 26.Re1 Bd6 27.Bxe5 Kd7 28. c4 c5 29.Bxd6 cxd6 30.Re6 Rah8 31.Rexd6+ Kc8 32.R2d5 Rh3+ 33.Kg2 Rh2+ 34.Kf3 R2h3+ 35.Ke4 b6 36.Rc6+ Kb8 37.Rd7 Rh2 38.Ke3 Rf8 39.Rcc7 Rxf5 40.Rb7+ Kc8 41.Rdc7+ Kd8 42.Rxg7 Kc8 1-0.
What if women are just not interested in chess? Could it be one of those activities that appeal to men more than to women (like playing PC games, fighting, shooting, cussing etc.?). There was even an amusing hypothesis that chess is for immature and weird people, so women (who tend to mature faster than men) don’t take up such a strange occupation.
Robert Tierney (Binghamton NY, USA):
Adding my two-cents here, I think the question is phrased wrong. "Why do women play chess worse than men" is an improper question, framed in a male-dominated area with a male-dominated history. Since everyone (here) seems to agree that women are quicker learners than men, and mature quicker than men, perhaps they are too intelligent to spend more time at something that is just a game, as Morphy stated several times. Maybe the question should be, are men too stupid or too immature to quit obsessing on chess? Then maybe we wouldn't have this topic getting abused over and over again. "Chess is a sign of lack of intelligence"--now wouldn't that be a kick in the head?
Different tastes and priorities are probably part of the answer, but they are also closely connected with the other reasons. For instance, priorities are largely affected by social stereotypes and upbringing, so if (theoretically) we change them (e.g. encourage boys to play dolls and girls to study chess), we may see a completely opposite result.
Natalia Pogonina in 2005
It’s also important to note that (no matter what their interests are) most women have to dedicate a lot of time to their family: e.g. when a child is born they don’t have enough time to study chess or participate in multiple chess tournaments. Some people argued that men are also distracted from chess by their parental responsibilities, but it’s clear that the scale is incomparable.
Steps to take
Final question – what should we do to make chess more popular among girls?
Run an educational campaign aimed at parents to help them learn that chess is a great game that develops the person’s mind. Crush the stereotypes and provide enough information about the benefits of studying chess, and parents will be encouraging their daughters’ interest in chess!
Introducing chess in the school curriculum could also be a great step towards providing girls with opportunities of becoming good chess players.
Another key thing is sponsorship – women chess is very attractive and exciting, so it’s worth investing into. If prizes in women’s events increase to the same level as in men’s, then girls (and their parents) will have a good financial motivation to consider chess seriously.
Finally, the girls themselves should know that they are equal to men in terms of chess talents, play in men’s tournaments, study hard and believe in their powers. If most women start acting that way, then one day quantity will lead to quality, and the world chess elite will be enjoying more female players.
It’s essential to remember that the sky is the limit and all the obstacles are in our heads…
About the authors:
WGM Natalia Pogonina (born on March 9, 1985) is one of the best female chess players in the world, member of the Russian chess team. Woman Grandmaster (WGM), three-times European champion (U16, twice U18), bronze prize winner at the World Championship (U18) and European Women Championship, winner of the gold medal at the 1st International Mind Sports Games, co-winner of the 2008 Student World Championship, and #1 at multiple prestigious international tournaments (2006 – Bykova Memorial, 2007 – Rudenko memorial, 2009 – Moscow Open, etc.). Her current FIDE rating is over 2500 – a mark that is associated with the title of a male Grandmaster.
Peter Zhdanov (born on January, 8, 1986) is a successful IT-specialist, leading world debate expert, top blogger and a proficient chess player. Peter is also Natalia Pogonina’s manager, the administrator of the official Natalia Pogonina website and Natalia’s co-author of the upcoming book “Chess Kamasutra”.