A male dominated game?

by Andrew Martin
2/5/2018 – On Sunday January 14th 2018, something very unusual happened in England. A chess tournament took place with upwards of 260 players, all of whom were female. The southern semi-final of the ECF National Schools Girls’ Championships was made up of eighty seven separate teams of three. Thirty two schools took part. This may be commonplace in countries such as Turkey, India, the USA and others, but in the UK it is almost unique. IM Andrew Martin has the story. | Photo: Jasmine Andrews

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Girls only

Back in 2014 the ECF decided to expand the portfolio of national schools tournaments to include a girls-only event. This was an excellent move and the tournament has grown year by year to the point at which it is absolutely massive today. From the feedback we have received it is set to grow further. Luckily, we have a sponsor with vision, St Catherine’s School in Bramley, who sees the value of encouraging chess among young women and the associated educational benefits.

Spectators and parents

The playing hall | Photo: Andrew Martin

I’ve learned a lot over five years about what girls and women like about chess and what will bring them to play in an event:

  1. Good conditions for play.  Luckily, the venue at St Catherine’s has plenty of space, light and air.
  2. Efficient, competent organisation. The event should run to time and does what it says it will do. No surprises.
  3. A strong, social element. This is the major difference between women and men. Time is made at this event for the teams to mingle. An excellent free lunch is provided by the sponsor. Conversations take place, friends are made. This does not stop the event from being highly competitive.

Spot grandmasters

Spot the grandmasters: There are two in the photo-can you see them? | Photo: Andrew Martin

Team managers

Pleanty of team managers, most of whom are male! | Photo: Andrew Martin

Will they stay?

Now we come to the big question and one that occupies me: how many of these kids are going to stay in the game? It’s OK to have big numbers, but if most of them give up when they reach adolescence then the war is not yet won.

This, hitherto is what has happened in the UK. There is very little opportunity to make a living from chess and so kids get diverted into other things. I would welcome advice from other countries, which have been more successful than England in solving this problem.

Let’s digress for a moment. I was recently sent an article by maverick IM Mike Basman, which he tried unsuccessfully to get published in a chess magazine.

It is an interesting read and he touches on the important subject of how to keep young people involved in chess.


by Mike Basman

Some time ago, when Ray Keene was young, he was interviewed for a chess book.  "Do you have any other interests besides chess?"  he was asked. "What else is there?" he replied.

That was our situation in the sixties; chess was an amazing game. We thrilled to the battles over the board, we absorbed all the histories of the past, including the stories about Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine; the Soviet players, headed by Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Tal, Spassky and Bronstein were all gods to us.

Naturally, the last thing any of us wanted to do was to get a job.  In this way we were part of the revolution that produced so many artists, actors and musicians, people who were prepared to misfit into society in pursuit of a dream.

Inevitably, reality broke in, as we left university, found wives, and realised that chess could not provide a living; perhaps because we were "not good enough", or because, even if we were, life was too precarious.  One of the most poignant chapters in my book, "The Killer Grob", is entitled "Shaun Taulbut becomes an accountant".  It still brings tears to my eyes.

In the 90s, when I was running the UK Chess Challenge, I dwelt on the question, "If chess players are so brilliant, why are they so useless". They surely had the analytical powers to get to the depths of a problem, to see the essential elements; could not this genius be harnessed to solving world problems?  But in general, chess had such a hold on the minds of its followers that few ever left it to deal with bigger issues.  And many had problems of their own; Morphy and Fischer withdrew from life; Steinitz was always the cantankerous rebel. Only Kasparov has made a decent stab at political life.

In my analysis of the chess playing character, I came up with three vital ingredients which were undeniable positives:

  1. analytical power
  2. ability to make decisions
  3. ability to withstand pressure.

All these produced a resilient character and a powerful thinker.  But for a successful personality, there were four cardinal virtues which were also necessary but which chess players often lack:

  1. kindness
  2. knowledge (in the most general sense)
  3. honesty
  4. the ability to work with others

Accordingly, in running the Chess Challenge, and in my chess teaching, I tried to develop all these characteristics so that players could move more easily between chess and the wider world. I tried to bring in more girls to chess, who would have some of the cardinal virtues mentioned above; e.g. kindness, and the ability to work with others. This approach caused some puzzlement in the chess world; hundreds of strong new players were produced, but why, asked Gary Kasparov, were there no English International Masters under 18 years old?

However, if your aim is to produce more balanced individuals, who nevertheless have a lifelong love of chess and mental activity, you would have a different approach to someone who was primarily trying to produce strong chess players.

Seen in this context, my bankruptcy last year, though not intentional, was not accidental. With 50,000 players a year, the Chess Challenge got so big that it came to the attention of the VAT authorities. I am not a worshipper of the sacred cow of taxation; tax money is necessary to the government, to fund its operations; however, for every pound spent wisely, there is at least another pound misspent or wasted; and what the government is most wasteful of is our time.  I explained to HMRC that I needed time to run the chess event, the largest in the world, and that time should not be invaded carrying out many of their pointless and overcomplicated procedures. Of course, HMRC did not take kindly to this request for "less", and after around 10 years of "discussions", they bankrupted me.

Many people consider that I was insane to have opposed HMRC, but my point is, if we are not to use our own minds and voices to suggest improvements in the organisation of society, the value of our chess training is negated.

I realised that in writing this article, I may be addressing a hostile readership. After all, many readers are accountants, lawyers or solicitors! And in fact, when I published these ideas at the Terafinal in August, 2016, there were howls of protest on the English Chess Forum. Yet even among these voices there were many shades of opinion. The accountant, Alan Kennedy, essentially agreed with my position when he wrote on the Forum, "You can tell who are the people who never have to deal with VAT rules… they are the happy ones".

I hope my example may have caused some people to think more deeply about their place in society; the argument must continue, and will be taken up by the children of the Chess Challenge. But for older players all is not yet lost. They also have their part to play. Keith Arkell, Mark Hebden, Danny Gormally — will you be content to jog around from tournament to tournament until the year 3000?  Bill Hartston, will you spend the rest of your life entertaining us with your Stephen Fry-lite Beachcomber column in the Daily Express? The country needs your brilliant analytical skills. We should no longer be simply fairground curiosities.

Time to grow up guys!

I find Basman’s comments on the development of the chess-playing character fascinating. I’ve learned from them.

To close, let me say that there is no doubt in my mind that women can become as strong at chess as men.  There are three reasons why they may not:

  • Opportunity. Do women really get equal opportunity in the current chess world? Is this situation improving?
  • Priorities. Women see life very differently.
  • Free choice. Women simply choose to do other things.

Coming back to the schools event, it’s quite obvious that chess is popular among girls and young women. Initiatives such as the UK Chess Challenge, now administered by Sarah and Alex Longson and Chess in Schools and Communities have helped to build this regard. I hope that we can keep all these players in the game. 

Under-11 winners

The winners of the U11 competition – Guildford High School | Photo: Clare Berry

Under-19 winners

The winners of the U19 competition – North London Collegiate | Photo: Clare Berry


Andrew is an English chess player with the title of International Master. Martin has won various national and international tournaments. He has been playing for years in the Four Nations Chess League, at present (July 2009) for Wood Green Hilsmark Kingfisher, previously for the Camberley Chess Club. Martin received his title as international master in1984. He earned his first grandmaster norm in the British Championship of 1997 in Brighton. Martin was a commentator on the chess world championship between Kasparov and Kramnik in 2000.
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BeachBum2 BeachBum2 2/7/2018 11:11
In USSR, there were some "obligatory" team chess tournaments between schools. Each school was supposed to have a team of 4 boys an 1 girl (girls would play each other). I had no problems finding other 3 boys, I could even make a team from just my class. We played during classes, during breaks. I had a little magnetic chess board and we would "hide" it in between us on our bench (in USSR, people were seated in "pairs") during random classes and play. But only boys. Girls did not play (and could not compete anyway). I eventually found a girl who "knew how to move pieces" but had to ask our teacher to persuade her to actually go and play (it was in the building of another school, she did not want to go).
In our city chess club for school children, where I went later - I don't remember a single girl. I played some kids tournaments, those were mixed (on my low level), but very few girls, and usually "not those who beat you".

There is no such thing as gender equality in chess. Similar in math/physics. I later went to study in several different math/physics high schools in USSR, and after that in (arguably) the best math/physics USSR university. At least those had girls (and even occasionally very smart ones!) - just a very small %. But "top 10" in math/physics Olympiads among high school kids were always boys.
Don't know why - genetics, "social pressure", views on life, whatever - this is just statistics.

My mom discouraged me from paying chess, saying that I should do "something useful" for my future life instead (study math etc). She was right... But at least I learned enough to not be good myself, but to enjoy beauty of games by Kasparov, Alpha 0, etc. No regrets! Still, once in a while, I log in and... spend 6 straight hours playing blitz non stop!
sligunner sligunner 2/6/2018 05:50
Excellent article, Andrew.
montree montree 2/6/2018 04:23
The whole concept is backward and demeaning to girls. Where is the 'equality'? By segregation, it just proves that Girls are 'inferior' to Boys in chess and cannot compete on 'equal terms'.

The SJWs are going herr derr 'equality' by having such tournaments. I would just propose to see the reaction of those SJWs if we have a 'white' only tournament or say 'Black only' tournaments. Everyone will gang upon that with outcry 'Blatant racism' etc etc.

It is not gender rather age, that can have advantage in chess. Thus a sixteen years old (gender don't matter) would have advantage against an eight year old (gender don't matter). So tournaments with age groups should be there, with participation of both boys/girls. Eight years old boy playing against eight years old girl, that is fair, that is equality.
'Equality' cannot be achieved by segregation. That is backward and should be shunned.
fons3 fons3 2/6/2018 11:38
This topic again. You could republish articles like these in the year 3000 and nothing will have changed.

(Unless by then we've all become some kind of male/female transgendered transhuman whatever. Good times!
On that subject I'm surprised we haven't yet seen a transgender male to female racking up the points in the female tournaments. Or maybe the hormone treatments mess with the chess skill, I don't know.)

Don't quite see the point of the "Time to grow up guys!" article. Chess players should find a normal job? Chess is doomed?

So why are there less women in chess?
It should be glaringly obvious that there are a whole bunch of fundamental differences between men and women (apart from the physical) and clearly some mix of these differences must be the answer.

(These fundamental differences will never change, or if they do extremely slowly. It's in our genes, it's how we have evolved as a species. In any case it does not seem to have changed for thousands of years.)

Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen a better explanation yet.
Aighearach Aighearach 2/5/2018 09:44
Don't wait for chess player to grow up, just look at the comments and understand it is important to have adult supervision at chess events, and it is important to have professional organizers to run the events instead of just having some strong chess players do it.

One of the jobs chess players can do when they decide to "grow up" is to be a tournament director ("arbiter" for Europeans), for example.

Chess doesn't benefit from genius, that is just athletes being arrogant to foolish excess. Chess is about being able to be arbitrarily narrow-minded, which is not necessarily even an adaptive trait in most situations. Most tasks in life benefit from always remembering context!

Chess is fun, and like anything, if you're well adjusted then you can learn lessons from it you can take to the rest of life. But it is nothing to do with chess; whatever you spent those same hours on would have been an opportunity to take lessons from it for life. The question is what lessons do you learn, what answers do you find, are they actually useful to other things in life? Looking at the trouble that chess players have it doesn't seem that chess is somehow more beneficial to learning life lessons than reading literature, or competing in arm-wrestling competitions.

There are people at the local chess club with IQs under 85 who have chess ratings over 2000. If you think a high rating implies you're a genius, that's just a narcissistic fantasy. It is no less silly than thinking that somebody with a high average score at bowling must be a genius, or that a fast runner must be a genius.

Gender equality will continue to be worked towards by adults, it is not really any surprise that being good at chess doesn't help people to see all the context that leads to this being the case.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 2/5/2018 09:14
When will these nonsense gender equality end?

- Once we have got the scientific explanation as to why men are better or at least more interested in chess than women!

Spot the grandmasters: There are two in the photo-can you see them?

- No. And no female IM either ...

How many of these kids are going to stay in the game?

- After 10 years, on average, 1 in 100 on average. Here there are 250 girls, then maybe two will be able to play against each other!

If chess players are so brilliant, why are they so useless?

Because they can not pass on those chessful abilities into the real world or, in case they do, someone else take the chessplayers idea and benefits on these!

Some more Questions Mr Martin? But on your tax questions however you put it I will answer:

- Yes nobody has any respect, anyway they already expect you to all give a check to some tax-deductible charity organizations!
sshivaji sshivaji 2/5/2018 08:12
What are the names of the U11 and U19 winners?
CostaMaison3 CostaMaison3 2/5/2018 08:07
When these nonsense gender equality will end?
In principle, gender equality is good. However, extreme gender equality is nonsense, as we can't equalize women in everything.

First, empowering women is really costly in some disciplines such as sports. There must be a limit to our initiatives in equalizing women with men. For example, we have open tournaments and women only tournaments, well how about men only tournaments? Not having men only tournaments is a bias decision. In other hand, having open and men only tournaments is also nonsense because in practice, we are repeating the same tournaments.
Currently we have some women only chess tournaments such as World Women Championship. That was good, but to what extent we can equalize? There are two difficulties: 1) FIDE is facing difficulties in find sponsors for such tournaments because of their low profiles. 2) Women will keep pushing for more equality. E.g. Hou Yifan has boycotted two world championships in a protest for not having equal tournaments format as men.

Second, this debate reminds me with whether human should interfere into the wildlife or not. If chess is not attractive to women by their nature then why we interfere to make the game attractive to them? Why we don’t just accept the fact that women are different by their nature?
Jarman Jarman 2/5/2018 07:35
This event deserves to get all the mainstream media coverage it can - both in the UK and abroad. Hopefully it will continue to grow. Great job, chaps!
identity777 identity777 2/5/2018 07:26
Brilliant article. Must be the best I have read in a long time.