Exploring stereotype threat

by Alexey Root
8/21/2019 – In Alexey Root’s first article about FM and WGM Jennifer Yu’s ½ of 9 score in the U.S. Junior Championship, Root speculated about whether research on “stereotype threat” and on the difficulty of second-half “comebacks” could apply to Yu’s performance, which was around 2½ points less than her expected score. In this first follow-up article, WIM ALEXEY ROOT explores stereotype threat in chess. | Pictured: (clockwise from left) Annie Wang, Sarah Chiang, Jennifer Yu | Photos: USChessChamps.com

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Did it hurt Yu's U.S. Junior performance?

In my first article about the 2019 U.S. Junior Championship, I speculated that “stereotype threat,” combined with being the “wildcard invite,” may have negatively affected Jennifer Yu’s performance. Among those who responded was New York University Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Wei Ji Ma who has also written about women in chess. Dr. Ma tweeted about my article and put me in touch with an expert on gender stereotyping, Dr. Andrei Cimpian.

On August 8, I interviewed Dr. Cimpian by phone. His responses are not an evaluation of Jennifer Yu’s performance at the U.S. Junior Championship but do provide insight into stereotype threat in chess.

chess pic

Alexey Root: What stereotypes exist about girls and women in chess?

Dr. Andrei Cimpian: Chess is not typically associated with women. The interpretation is often, when there are not many women in a field, that means that women just aren’t as good as men in that field.

AR: What is your definition of the psychological theory of “stereotype threat”?

AC: When one becomes aware of the stereotypes associated with one’s identity in a particular context and worries about others’ judgments based on those stereotypes, then that worry takes up cognitive resources that could be used for the task at hand.

AR: Does stereotype threat apply to the performances of girls and women in chess tournaments? Are the girls’/women’s performances when playing against boys/men better or worse (or the same) as might be predicted by their ratings?

AC: It depends on the situation. Sometimes the worry that others will judge you in light of a stereotype impairs your ability to do something cognitively taxing, like finding the best moves in a chess game. However, under certain circumstances, being reminded of stereotypes might be motivating—it might make people want to prove the stereotypes wrong, which sometimes increases their performance. For example, women who were told that women had done poorly on a negotiation task in the past ended up doing somewhat better than men at that task. There is some evidence of this sort of pushback or “reactance” effect in chess as well.

AR: How are the male opponents of the girls/women affected by chess stereotypes?

AC: Some work (not in chess) has suggested a “stereotype lift” effect. For example, men sometimes do better in math when they’re reminded of the negative stereotypes about women’s math abilities. This effect may apply to chess too, but that’s a little hard to square with the evidence that women do better than you would expect based on their ranking when playing against men.

AR: What other insights might help me, and ChessBase readers, understand or counteract stereotype threat in chess?

AC: There was a huge boost in the number of women who earned chairs in top-tier orchestras when blind auditions became the norm. Playing online, where players can be blind to the genders of their opponents, might be a way to counteract stereotype threat.

At in-person chess tournaments, an Open section at the same time and location as a Women’s section, as mentioned by Sarah Chiang in her account of the 2012 Pan American Youth Festival, may highlight the stereotypes and under-representation cues for women that choose to play in the Open rather than in the Women’s.

More generally, organizers could try to minimize the cues that prompt women to experience stereotype threat — the cues that make women feel that they are not a valued part of the chess community. Nothing says you don’t belong like, say, having to walk three floors down from the playing hall to go to the bathroom.

It was remarkable that Dr. Cimpian mentioned restrooms. I have played in many tournaments and clubs where the only restroom near the chess boards was designated for men. At some tournaments and clubs, the organizers would ask the men to vacate that multi-stall restroom, if I told the organizers each time I needed to use the restroom; or I could walk to another restroom, five minutes or more away, which was for women only. At other chess clubs, there was only a single, one-stall restroom, sometimes with a broken door lock. That restroom situation was one part of chess that made me feel unwelcome. When I wrote about my perception of the restroom situation in 2001, I was vilified. Restrooms are part of the structure of a chess club or tournament and can be a cue to girls and women about whether they are welcomed as chess players. And restrooms are something that organizers could fix, perhaps more easily than getting rid of the degrading comments that Sarah Chiang recounts experiencing.

Sarah Chiang

WFM Sarah Chiang played in the U.S. Junior Championship in 2013. The only girl in the field that year, she scored ½ out of 9. Later, when an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, Chiang researched the gender divide in chess (see PDF). A research paper, written in 2015 for a college class, ended with “ignoring stereotype threat is difficult; I can attest to that. But whether we choose to allow negative environmental factors [to] influence us is partially under our control.”

Chiang slide

Chiang believes that running open sections alongside sections for girls (or women) may increase stereotype threat. Chiang played in the 2012 Pan American Youth Festival, where 62 boys and Chiang played in the Open Under 16. She could have chosen to play in the concurrent Girls Under 16 instead. In a 2015 personal essay for a college course, Chiang reflected on that 2012 tournament:

For eight years, I had been playing with boys and men alike and no one seemed to notice. But take a major tournament and segregate girls into their own section, and all of a sudden I’m some unusual specimen. Usually, I took pride in being one of the handful of females battling over a chess board. But I wasn’t naïve. People have long asked me, ‘Do you know how to play?’ or ‘You’re playing in that section?’ or ‘You’re a master??’ Usually, I stashed those comments in my bag of funny stories. But this tournament was different. I had never been doused with so many degrading comments, and it was difficult to prevent them from seeping in.

Currently taking a gap year, Chiang is a research technician in the Patti lab at Washington University in St. Louis and will apply to medical schools. In Chiang’s email to me, she added:

While I believe having a separate section for girls may increase stereotype threat, I don’t believe that having a separate section for girls is bad. I recognize that encouraging girls to participate through separate sections is important and has greatly increased female interest and participation in chess. I, personally, have benefited greatly from participating in high-profile female tournaments.

Annie Wang

On August 6th, 2019, FM (and WGM) Annie Wang took first in the Open Under 20 at the Pan American Youth Chess Championship (Campeonato Panamericano de Ajedrez Sub-20 Absoluto), which also had Girls Under 20. Wang had started the tournament as the fourth-highest rated player. Wang earned a direct IM title and a GM norm for her first-place finish. Unlike Chiang in the Open Under 16 at the 2012 Pan American Youth Festival, Wang was not the only girl in the Open Under 20. WIM Mitzy Mishell Caballero Quijano also competed in the Open Under 20, starting as the 27th-ranked player and finishing 26th out of 51. Two female players and 49 male players in an Open is “normal” ratio for a chess tournament and thus may have blunted the under-representation cues.

Final thoughts

In our phone interview, Dr. Cimpian said, “The negative stereotypes about women in chess are a distracting burden for women, whether or not their performance in particular chess games is affected. And those stereotypes are a burden that chess-playing men do not have to bear.”

A second part to follow will discuss second-half “comebacks” with Dr. Kenneth Regan as well as an interview with Yu herself.

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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BuzzardBait BuzzardBait 9/17/2019 11:08
I think the statisticians are correct with regard to the question of "Why are men better at chess than women?". From what I've read (and understood), since the majority of the chess playing population is male (and has been for a very long time), it would be natural that the statistical outliers (Magnus Carlsen, Gary Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, etc.) of extremely skilled players that have been identified would be male. Statistically speaking, the way to find the female outliers is to simply increase the number of female players, and eventually they will be found. So I don't think that it's a matter of males being better than females, it seems to be just a simple matter of statistics. This of course is easier said than done, since the real questions should be "Why are there not more female chess players?" or "How can we (the chess community at large) increase the number of female chess players?"
Longhorn Longhorn 8/23/2019 06:27
It is easy to sympathize with Ms Roots's desire for a chess club environment where both civil language and clean/convenient bathrooms exist. It is evident that some old buildings might just have one bathroom.
Similarly in an old YMCA/YMCU men's club.

It would have been prudent had Ms Root interviewed the Polgar sisters and other female players; asking them to relate their experiences in playing amongst men. In the case of Judit Polgar, she achieved a rating of 2735 (8th in
the World 7/05) and apparently did not feel herself in the midst of an "unsafe space" environment.

In witnessing Susan Polgar win a US Open speed event (11 or 11.5/12) she plowed thru GM's and IM's without
experiencing feelings of being in an intimidating situation or environment.

When we hear talk of "partition dividers", the sad impression is formed that Ms Root would rather not deal
with men at all.

Baseball organizers have "Wild-card" team invitations. Those professional teams do not experience
adverse psychological difficulties with such invitations.

A chess tournament and a chess club is typically a place where cerebral (oft-time pacifists) go.
And so, it is a "safe space."
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/23/2019 04:05
A 'stereotype threat' pretty much by definition exists only in the mind of the believer. That said, it can none-the-less be 'real' in that it can have an affect on someone - as in the 'voodoo' instance I mentioned - who buys into it.

Both sexes are susceptible to tall sorts of mental garbage. It's a 'human thing'.

If a young girl (for whatever reason) thinks she is somehow 'not good enough' or 'inferior' to a male in a game that is played purely between the ears (as opposed to lifting or running where men have an undeniable biological edge)...or if society convinces her so, then that is bad. Bad and likely demonstrably wrong.

However, as I said, males seem to like to play games more than females over the course of their lifetime and it often takes a long time to get really good at chess. We are perhaps rightly said to not want to grow up...and out of games. That combined with a males natural aggression simply 'might'...'might' make men in general better suited for the game.

It might...or it might not. I don't know. But that might be an article more would get something out of...or at least not get all bent out of shape over.

Might...or not. Humans are good at closing their minds to new ideas once something else has been allowed to bake itself into their grey matter.

But then maybe I am just stereotyping we human beings...
countrygirl countrygirl 8/22/2019 05:09
'Stereotype threat' has been debunked. I am saddened that ChessBase is so naive as to publish articles on it.
celeje celeje 8/21/2019 07:34
chessgodo: "The Chessbase staff has been pushing this nonsense very hard of late."

macauley: "This article was written by a contributor, not "ChessBase staff" but for the record, we publish interesting well-written stories from a variety of viewpoints, without an "agenda"."

chessgodo, you could always try to get Nigel Short to contribute an article on his well-known view that women should “gracefully accept it as a fact” that men possess different skills from women that make them better able to play chess at a high level, but given that Nigel is now part of FIDE, he will probably decline. ;-)
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 8/21/2019 03:57
I am not leaning one way or the other because I simply do not know for sure. But the way some of these men in the comments respond - only goes to prove the point of the article - most critics here have been rude and extremely disrespectful, much more so than male-written articles with whom they disagree.

I can't relate because I'm not a woman, but I can try to walk in their shoes. Example: years ago, two black (African American) girls convinced me to go to a 'black' night club with them. It was a huge night club and I was the ONLY white guy there. No one bothered me or even gave me so much as a dirty look. But I felt strange by being the only white guy. I didn't feel scared or in danger but I still felt out of place - it felt like everyone was looking at me and thinking I don't belong (even though intellectually I understood that it isn't so, and that in reality probably no one there cared about me). I then began to think that many black people feel that - because most blacks I see at work or at supermarkets and so forth are usually one or two of the only black people in the room (or store or office) and I wonder if they feel what I felt at that club. Now that I have drawn you this picture, I imagine it might be similar to a girl playing in an all boy field. I'm sure the girl knows that most likely the boys don't have anything against her - but still, it is hard to overcome this. Unlike a chess player, I was at a club and I ordered a drink and had my two friends to make me feel more welcome. But if I had to concentrate and play chess in that condition?

I am not a fan of feminism. I am politically very conservative. But this isn't about feminism. This is a common sense situation, and I just described how I can also find myself in such situations. My example was "white guy in a black club" but feel free to replace 'white' and 'black' and 'club' with any other parameters. You get the point.
chessgod0 chessgod0 8/21/2019 03:12
@ KevinC

Evolution stopped at the neck--clearly. If you don't believe that, you hate women. /sarc


I quite agree your comment. Jennifer is doing the right thing by playing up a league. She will only get stronger---I think she will surprise us all in the future.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/21/2019 03:12
I referred to it as a 'victimization culture' which has the unintended consequence of all too often perpetuating itself. Most articles ill define the individual at the center of the debates 'buying into' some stereotype...or if they even do. Without the buy-in, there is largely no effect.

I am reminded of a program about VooDoo...there is obviously no reality behind it. However...the effect it can have on a 'believer' can be strong...causing them harm.

The way out of such magical thinking is not to wallow in it with endless articles and studies (we should have plenty of those by now) but to know better and for the individual at the center of the issue to not be subjected to even the thought lest we imperfect humans begin to think there is a reality there that we are denying. In this case, that "I play worse, because I am a girl".

Now I do think articles and studies examining KevinC's point that men and women are wired differently are fair game...men really do seem to be more competitive and this is a game after all...where the more competitive may on average simply have an edge in the desire to get better at it. If so, that is reality...not VooDoo 'magic' messing with someone's brain.
macauley macauley 8/21/2019 03:08
@chessgod0 - This article was written by a contributor, not "ChessBase staff" but for the record, we publish interesting well-written stories from a variety of viewpoints, without an "agenda". Feel free to peruse (Why) are men better chess players than women? or Male chess players show elevated aggressiveness against women or Explaining male predominance in chess or any of a number of other articles under the tag Gender Gap.
KevinC KevinC 8/21/2019 02:22
Or it is simply a difference in our physiology. It is clear that men and women have very different anatomies, so why can't there be some underlying difference in the brain that we do not yet understand?
Tanuki76 Tanuki76 8/21/2019 01:46
This identity politics garbage needs to be tossed. She lost, badly. Deal with it. We don't need articles pushing her as a victim of a chess patriarchy, or she suffered from negative stereotypes...
Next we'll have chessbase pushing articles that too many white males play chess....
Roth2016 Roth2016 8/21/2019 01:41
Jennifer is doing the right thing and deserves a lot of credit for playing in a field of such strong players nearly all IMs or GMs when presumably she could have taken the easier path (in terms of opponent ratings) and played in the girls only competition.

An article reviewing her games, seeing where she made mistakes against this strong field would have been far more helpful than hypothesizing about "negative stereotypes" which almost certainly wouldn't have been mentioned if she had, had a good tournament.

You are not helping female chess players succeed by convincing them that bad results are due to negative stereotypes or other such uncontrollable factors.

Incidentally, in the girls tournament Maggie Feng had a particularly poor tournament relative to her rating, what stereotype was that due to?
besominov besominov 8/21/2019 12:48
It's all the men's fault. We got it.

"the evidence that women do better than you would expect based on their ranking when playing against men"

So.... what exactly are you complaining about?

Welcome to the world of identity politics.
thirteen thirteen 8/21/2019 12:36
It seems to me that all chess players naturally experience high and low form. Males also get to play chess in some very varying mixtures of surroundings, although the lady rest room distance and unlock condition was a point. Even today I was reading of the much travelled GM Sergei Tiviakov's troubles with extreme tournament noise distractions and indeed shall we call it organisation bias? The "Stereotype threat" is an opinion, or some analysis of such, that should be no less observed [although it obviously is] just because it did not come from a man. Even in the west "equality" is often a myth, as proven by pay structures alone, but is not limited to just the different sexes.
Jack Nayer Jack Nayer 8/21/2019 10:21
Good. So it's a hypothesis and no proof.
BeFreeBusy BeFreeBusy 8/21/2019 07:27
"Stereotype threat", another good example of silly orwellian language that serves the ideology of Equality.

No, not all people are equally good chess players so all people have weaknesses, including women. But only feminist would rob a genuinely good performance of female player (in this case Annie Wang) and blame it on "atmosphere".
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/21/2019 04:57
This ‘Victimization culture’…is both real and not. But for certain it is all too often self-perpetuating! It becomes like a meme which gets into a person’s brain and will not leave.

Wesley So was once thought to be too meek and mild mannered to every be a great chess player. In fact, he was even forfeited once in the US Championship because he was caught writing --no, not chess analysis during a game, but ‘notes of encouragement’ to himself - ”I am good…I deserve to win” type stuff.

I do not think this weakness (of will or character or whatever – I don’t want to go there) which once affected him has stopped him from becoming one of the best players in the world, has it?

And so, I hope for their own sakes that neither Jennifer nor any other young female ever hear the word ‘stereotype’ or read one of these blasted articles which might only serve to give the meme a chance to take hold.

It reminds me of the former alcoholic who goes into an AA meeting every other day and continues to call himself an alcoholic - even if they have not drank in 40 years. It serves to remind him of what he ‘was’, not what he truly is. In that instance it can be a powerful reminder...but with chess as the analogy, it may simply instill and reinforce the thought that there might be a reason to think they were not and are still are not 'good enough' to compete with men....all for no good reason.
chessgod0 chessgod0 8/21/2019 01:56
@ Rezonator

This is a completely ridiculous comment that in no way engages with the actual substance in the comments below.

Also, I'm quite familiar with the so-called stereotype threat...becacuse I'm black (my ancestors were slaves in the American colonies from the 1700s). I know very well what it's like to be subjected to stereotyping and racism and don't need to be lectured about it from drive-by commenters who don't have the wherewithal to meaningfully engage with adversial evidence/arguments.
bongcloudplayer bongcloudplayer 8/21/2019 01:54
Wow Rezonator is so cool!!! Come on guys SHUT UP AND LISTEN!!!!
Rezonator Rezonator 8/21/2019 01:45
Great to see a couple of males chime in to say they don't believe in the stereotyoe effect or haven't experienced it themselves (quelle surprise). I hope the discussion gets more interesting from here on in, mainly by way of males shutting up and listening.
bongcloudplayer bongcloudplayer 8/21/2019 01:41
The argument in this "article" is absolute garbage propped up by cherrypicked data:
For the most part, the author does nothing more than demonstrate that tournament performance is correlated with seeding (what a surprise!)-- Root cites the last place finish of Chiang in the 2013 US Juniors, yet conveniently leaves out the fact that she was the lowest-rated player in the field (almost 200 points below the second-lowest). Root then contrasts Chiang's performance with Wang's stellar performance at PanAm, which she attributes to the fact that there was ONE other female player, therefore undermining the stereotype threat. Yet, her whole argument is a parody of itself. Root literally mentions that Wang went into the competition seeded 4th and ended up winning, whereas the other female player was seeded 27th and finished 26th. Neither of their tournament performances deviated substantially from their seeding, and Root's suggestion that having a single other female was the reason for Wang's success is absolutely laughable.
Lastly, Root completely neglects to address or explain any counterexamples. Going back to the 1999 Junior Championship, Irina Krush came out 2nd in a field of mostly male players. None of it had anything to do with Root's phony explanation-- Krush was the 2nd highest seed and she simply placed as expected.
Chessbase really needs to get Root to stop writing. Her articles are misleading and at best pseudoscience. Virtually all the "issues" she is bringing up are just basic statistics and she is almost deliberately leaving out important details to make her weak case as compelling as possible. It may be true that female players are struggling to perform at a similar level as males and it would be great to understand why that may be, but to conclude that stereotype threats are the cause based on Root's small sample size and missing evidence is ridiculous.
chessgod0 chessgod0 8/21/2019 01:36

You are quite right to be skeptical of this. The Chessbase staff has been pushing this nonsense very hard of late--even though 'stereotype threat' is far from settled (social) science. In fact, there's a good chance it's bunk:


This is a paper by noted statistician Andrew Gelman which finds that empirical evidence for stereotype threat is inconsistent and that publication bias is a likely factor underlining the supposed strength of the phenomenon. Gelman found that researchers who found positive evidence of stereotype threat were much more likely to be published than researchers who did not.

You can also see this on Chessbase---research that attributes womens' chess performance to misogyny is much more likely to be aired here than research which does not.
Peter B Peter B 8/21/2019 01:10
Or maybe she just had a bad tournament, like we all do from time to time. In my worst tournament, I started ok, then lost 6 in a row. There's no doubt that there was compounding effect and my play went downhill. But it wasn't due to any stereotype effect; I just had a bad tournament and other players took advantage of my poor form,
fixpont fixpont 8/21/2019 12:53
ideologically motivated pseudoscientific gibberish, i dont believe a single word of this, im sorry