Chess gender debate in the international press

by Frederic Friedel
4/21/2015 – The latest issue of the Dutch magazine New in Chess carried an article entitled "Vive la Différence!". In it the former World Championship challenger Nigel Short provocatively claims that there are genetic reasons why men are more successful in chess than women. This two-page article went viral, was picked up by the international news services and generated a world-wide media storm.

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Vive la Différence!

The original article by Nigel Short appeared in vol. 2/2015 of New in Chess Magazine that appeared last week. It starts with a quote by Jan Hein Donner: "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."

Nigel's piece is more tempered. He writes: "Indeed, could it be that the provocative, outrageously-sexist, bitingly-savage wit, Jan Hein Donner, had a point? The towering Dutch Grandmaster, not for the only time in his literary life, might have overstated his case. Indeed, I suspect his unbending life-long convictions and prejudices – such as undue reverence for the two bishops – retarded his development somewhat." The article is two pages long.

More on the New In Chess on their web site.

Stories in the international press

Addendum: The story broke on Monday. Actually (as we have subsequently learned) it was in The Telegraph and written by Leon Watson, who cleared up the chronology for us: Leon knows Amanda Ross who was very vociferous about Nigel Short's comment. So he wrote a story on Sunday, which appeared on page three on Monday, and then went online. Everyone else copied it, as you would expect – first the Daily Mail managed to get it in their last edition, then the Independent put it online, then everyone else in the UK followed. After that it went round the world. In summary: the initial exclusive story was this one, which we unfortunately quoted last in our collection below.

In The Guardian Stephen Moss writes:

Nigel Short, one of the UK’s greatest chess players, has incurred the wrath of the female chess community after claiming men are “hardwired” to be better at the game than women. Short, who won his first grandmaster title when he was 19, told New In Chess magazine that we should “gracefully accept it as a fact” that men possess different skills to women that make them better able to play chess at a high level. Asked about his thoughts on the lack of women competing in chess, Short, 49, said: “Why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do.

Short also elaborated on his comments on Sky News, reiterating his belief that “it’s quite easy to demonstrate there is a fairly substantial gap between men and women. Women have all sorts of skills where they are superior to men” he said, adding that the fact Polgar had once beaten him was irrelevant to his general point. “The fact that I have one bad score against an individual doesn’t prove anything” he said. “I’m talking about averages here … statistically women don’t [compete] in the same numbers. The average gap is pretty large and that is down to sex differences … Those differences exist.” Here's video of the interview:

Short acknowledged the problem of sexism, but insisted his comments were not making it any worse. He told Sky News: “I think probably sexism is an issue in chess and I wouldn’t try and escape from that.”

British chess grandmaster Nigel Short has suggested that girls don't have the brains to play chess. He thinks that men and women should just accept they are “hard-wired very differently”. He told New in Chess magazine: "One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.” His comments echo those of his great rival Garry Kasparov that “women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players: they are not great fighters”.

But the problem isn’t that women are worse at chess than men – it’s that there are far, far fewer women chess players. IM Lorin D’Costa, 29, told The Telegraph that this is because girls tend to stop playing chess around the age of 12, while boys carry on. "Girls don’t continue playing because they drop out too early. They think it’s not worth all the hassle. A lot of girls think, 'why should I do this when I can hang out with my friends?'” But D’Costa is helping to change this attitude, at least in one London girls’ school. He is employed by North London Collegiate School to give compulsory chess lessons to the primary school pupils, aged six to eight. On top of that, he runs an after school chess club for both the primary and secondary school girls.

Lorin D'Costa has recorded a number of Fritztrainer available in the ChessBase Shop

Unsurprisingly, Short's words have been called sexist. He's succeeded in angering every woman in the chess world, including Judit Polgar - the world's best female player for 26 years and the only woman to qualify for a World Chess Championship tournament. She rebutted Short's comments, saying: "I believe that as I have proved it with my carreer that with the right amount of work, dedication, talent and love for the game it is possible to compete the best male players in the world of chess even though many of my colleagues were sceptical about my potentials. Men and women are different but there are different ways of thinking and fighting still achieving the same results." If her words don't prove Short wrong? The fact that she's beaten him eight games to three, with five draws, should.

The second follow-up article in The Telegraph says that Nigel Short's comments provoked an angry reaction from female players. Amanda Ross, who runs the Casual Chess cafe in London, said it was “incredibly damaging when someone so respected basically endorses sexism”. She added: “Judit Polgar, the former women’s world champion, beat Nigel Short eight classical games to three in total with five draws. She must have brought her man brain. Let’s just hope Nigel didn’t crash his car on those days, trying to park it. At least this resolves the age-old debate as to whether there’s a direct link between chess-playing ability and intelligence. Clearly not.”

In this TIME story Judit Polgar says: “I grew up in what was a male dominated sport, but my parents raised me and my sisters [to believe] that women are able to reach the same result as our male competitors if they get the right and the same possibilities.”

Europe's biggest and most influential news magazine carried the story on their online page (in German)

Not enough? Here are some more articles in the international press:

As Nigel wrote on his Facebook page:

We too are in awe of this chess news story of the year. We take this opportunity to remind you that Nigel has recorded two excellent DVDs on his chess career.

Nigel Short:
Greatest Hits Vol. 1 + 2

Languages: English
Delivery: Download, Post
Level: Any
Price per volumn: €32.90 or €27.65 without VAT (for customers outside the EU) $29.57 (without VAT)

Born in1965, is an English grandmaster who, at the early age of ten, defeated Viktor Korchnoi in a simultaneous. Celebrated by the British media as a "chess prodigy", Short participated in the British Championship for the first time at the age of twelve.

In the Youth WCh in Dortmund in 1980 Nigel came in second behind Garry Kasparov. Thirteen years later the pair would sit on opposite sides of the board for a real WCh match. Previously, Short had eliminated from the FIDE candidates cycle of 1991/92 Jonathan Speelman, Boris Gelfand and surprisingly Anatoly Karpov. In the candidates final Short also overcame Jan Timman and thus qualified for a WCh final against World Champion Kasparov. However, both of them refused to play under the aegis of the world chess federation FIDE and founded a so-called professional association, the Professional Chess Association (PCA). Finally Short was defeated by Kasparov in the PCA World Championship in London 1993 by 7½:12½. The result was surprisingly one-sided. Because Short had already indicated in his younger years what an excellent match player he was with a demoralising 7:1 victory over the naturalised American Lev Alburt. He also came in first in the very strong four-man tournament in Amsterdam in 1988, 1992 and 1993. A selection of his other tournament victories reads as follows: Wijk aan Zee 1986 and 1987 (equal on points with Viktor Korchnoi), Reykjavik 1987, Groningen 1996, Budapest 2003. Short has represented England in 14 chess Olympiads. He has two children and lives with his family in Greece.

Order Nigel Short's Greatest Hits DVDs in the ChessBase Shop

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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