Gender differences in chess – feedback and a new theory

by ChessBase
1/30/2012 – We recently told you about a report on the gender differences in chess – why it is that there is just one woman in the top 100 players in the world, and just 2.2 percent in the top 1000, according to the FIDE rating list. Naturally we received a large number of more or less adamant opinions from our readers, which we now share with you, together with a pet idea of our own.

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Before we proceed to the feedback from our readers, and our new attempt at an explanation of why there are so few women in the top levels of chess, here is a new service provided by Peter Zhdanov, the husband of Natalia Pogonina. Peter informed us that her web site has been calculating live ratings of top female players since July 2010. In addition there is a list of the highest rated women of all time, which we gladly share with our readers:

# Name Fed. Rtng   Date
1 Judit Polgar HUN 2735 Jul 2005
2 Koneru Humpy IND 2623 Jul 2009
3 Yifan Hou CHN 2612 May 2011
4 Tatiana Kosintseva RUS 2581 Nov 2010
5 Anna Muzychuk SLO 2580 Jan 2012
6 Susan Polgar USA 2577 Jan 2005
7 Nadezhda Kosintseva RUS 2576 Nov 2010
8 Jun Xie CHN 2574 Jan 2008
9 Nana Dzagnidze GEO 2567 Mar 2011
10 Maia Chiburdanidze GEO 2560 Jan 1988
11 Alisa Galliamova RUS 2560 Jul 1998
12 Antoaneta Stefanova BUL 2560 Jan 2003
13 Kateryna Lahno UKR 2557 Jan 2012
14 Wenjun Ju CHN 2552 Jan 2012
15 Zhao Xue CHN 2551 Jan 2012
16 Pia Cramling SWE 2550 Oct 2008
17 Chen Zhu QAT 2548 Jan 2008
18 Alexandra Kosteniuk RUS 2540 Apr 2006
19 Anna Zatonskih USA 2537 May 2011
20 Marie Sebag FRA 2533 Oct 2008
21 Viktoria Cmilyte LTU 2527 Jul 2010
22 Dronavalli Harika IND 2525 Nov 2010
23 Elina Danielian ARM 2521 Jul 2011
24 Ioseliani Nana GEO 2520 Jul 1997
25 Xu Yuhua CHN 2517  
26 Gunina Valentina RUS 2514 Nov 2011
27 Lei Wang CHN 2512 Oct 2001
28 Ekaterina Kovalevskaya RUS 2507 Jul 2001
29 Wang Pin CHN 2506 Oct 2000
30 Arakhamia Grant SCO 2506 Jul 2009
31 Sofia Polgar HUN 2505 Jul 1998
32 Monika Socko POL 2505 Apr 2008
33 Lilit Mkrtchian ARM 2503 Jan 2010
34 Svetlana Matveeva RUS 2502 Jan 2004
35 Anna Ushenina UKR 2502 Jul 2007
36 Kanying Qin CHN 2501 Jul 2000
37 Natalia Pogonina RUS 2501 Apr 2009
38 Trang Hoang Thanh HUN 2501 Jul 2009
39 Lela Javakhishvili GEO 2500 Mar 2010

You will remember that Peter Zhdanov has visited this theme before: two and a half years ago he and his wife Natalia Pogonina wrote and article entitled Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes, which led to many interesting letters. And more recently he proposed setting up a list of a live rating list of chess players’ earnings.

Feedback from our readers

David Levens, Nottingham, England
I see nothing wrong or unusual in having differences in male and female brains, though to claim one is better than the other is ridiculous. Different yes, better no! But the reason males generally do better in competitive events is a chemical called testosterone. It makes males more competitive. Broadly speaking the more successful females in competitive have a higher level of testosterone than their counterparts. Though I work full time as professional chess coach, I am a qualified athletics coach too.

Mavaddat Javid, Vancouver
Thank you for your astute and science-based article on the explanation for the gender-imbalance in chess. It is the first evidential report on this subject that I have ever seen from the chess community on this subject and I was very glad to see it. It made me feel happy to be a supporter and follower of ChessBase. I sincerely hope every ChessBase reader interested in this subject can peruse the literature you cite so that we can better understand why biology alone simply cannot account for any significant part of this difference. Great work!

Ken Unbe, Denver, CO, USA
A 19-year old woman visited Denver, Colorado, USA and beat the state champion 19-1 (that man is NOT an offender in the following). Another male player spoke to her in front of other male players about specific sexual behavior of two other female players whom he named. There was another local young female who enjoyed participating and improving her game who was also subjected to such harassment. There was another case of a male discussing in public the sexuality of a female player who was at the time a legal minor.

Neil Charness, Tallahassee, Florida
Relevant to your readers, I suspect, are the following studies on gender and chess skill:

  • Chabris, C. F., & Glickman, M. E. (2006). Sex differences in intellectual performance. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1040-1046.
  • Charness, N., & Gerchak, Y. (1996). Participation rates and maximal performance: A Log-linear explanation for group differences, such as Russian and male dominance in chess. Psychological Science, 7, 46-51.

    See also Proceedings of the Royal Society: Why are (the best) women so good at chess? and
    How Intellectual is Chess ("In 1927 Djakow et al. first showed that world-class chess players do not have exceptional intellectual abilities. This finding has subsequently been confirmed many times. Different participation rates, or differences in the amount of practice, motivation and interest for chess in male and female chess players, may provide a better explanation for gender differences in chess performance.")
    – Ed

Clive Waters, Blyth
For any statistic to be relevant, you would need to take the total number of female players as a fraction of the total number of male players. Get a prediction of expected results for females and only then compare with the number per selective group. Your 2.2% is meaningless with regard to gender difference.

Really? And if we discover that exactly 2.2% of all chess players are female, what would we have found out? Would one not have to conduct a new investigation to explain why only 2.2% are women? – Ed.

Ed Seedhouse, Victoria, Canada
The most obvious explanation, surely, is simply that far fewer women play serious chess. Assuming, say, that only 2% of serious tournament players are women, then in any area of the distribution we would expect to find only 2% women even if there is no inter gender difference in ability. So first you must correct for the population sizes. A simple one way analysis of variance procedure can tell you if there is any statistically significant difference between the two populations. I would exclude women who only play in women's events because they form different rating pools and cannot be fairly compared. So take all the men who play serious tournament chess and all the women. Calculate the means and variances do a simple math procedure and find what "F" is and what the resulting "p" is. If p is statistically significant only then is there something to wonder about.

Paul Albert, South Salem, NY, USA
I read the articles with interest, both summary and full articles with comments. I am a strong advocate of equal opportunity for both men and women, but reject any thesis that therefore the result should be about 50/50 representation of men and women in every level of position and achievement. Why? Women are different than men: (I speak both from the experience of being married 43 years, having a twin sister, studying in school with women, and working with women in the business world including where they were my boss and vice versa). Being different does not mean less intelligent or less capable; to the contrary, many women are more intelligent and more capable than men. There may be cultural differences that include lack of free choice imposed on women, but some of these so called cultural differences are a result of the women's own natural selectivity of preferences and interests. So in chess, if we eliminated all artificial impediments, would 5 out of the top 10 or 50 of the top 100 just naturally be women? Frankly, I doubt it, but I can't tell you exactly why. The good thing is that we have Judit Polgar and other strong women chess players who are stronger than thousands of male players. Let them flourish and inspire other both female and male players. After all cultural and prejudicial barriers are dropped, I don't think it matters whether women are 1%, 10%, 50%, or even more of the top. But in chess or other fields as well, I do not anticipate that it will be or should be evenly distributed. Women will prevail in some areas, men in others, but it doesn't matter as long as everyone is free to pursue his/her own interests. That's what is meant by liberty and freedom; equal result is not its proper measure.

Paul Beach, Auckland, New Zealand
Why don't we just ask the top women players why they think there is a difference? Surely they would know more about it than the men.

Philip Roe, Ann Arbor USA
Something that strikes me is that among the leading women there are three sets of sisters, the Polgars, the Kointsevas, and the Muzychucks. Maybe not all that significant out of a very small sample, but I cant think of any sets of famous brothers. Now sisters will share very similar genetic inheritance and also very similar upbringings, but if either of these was the explanation, we would expect an equal proportion of brothers. But also sisters would support each other through any instances of cultural bias or hostility, so perhaps THAT is an important advantage to talented sisters, but not so important for talented brothers?

Ben Silva, Tallahassee, USA
It seems that the largest factor accounting for the supposed disparity in playing strength is simply due to the large disparity in participation of females versus males in chess tournaments (at least from what I have observed in the states). Not only is the ratio heavily in favor of male players I believe history tells us that males also have a head start on the timeline as I am sure you would find as many women playing chess in the 19th century as you would men knitting. Society, of course, has quite a bit of influence over gender roles but it seems impossible that NO biological considerations would exist. For example, it is a fact that men have more muscle mass, which may act as an advantage in some activities and a disadvantage in others.

Cristóbal Cervino, Luxembourg

First of all, nice article, but I think the idea that there is a "social factor" undermining women's performance in math/chess and other technical subjects doesn't seem quite convincing. In fact I find it quite poor because there is unfortunately strong evidence that men perform a lot better in the higher levels of technical domains than women. You could gathers thousands of data proving just that. But a simple example will make it clear: Why is it that so few female decide to go into engineering? As far as I know the rate is about less than 33%. So there is a strong predominance of male students. I imagine the same happens with physics and maths. Chemistry is perhaps the exception because I think it doesn't require great level of abstractness which characterizes the other domains.

You could argue that women are perfectly fit to perform well in these domains but that they are just not interest and decide to study something else. Is it really a vocational problem? I don't think so. I believe that one tends to like what he/she does well. If a female student decides not to study engineering for example, the probability that the main reason for that is that she doesn't performs "too well" in math and physics is very high. Usually engineering students are those who excel at maths and physics already in school. And these tend to be male. This seems to be the general pattern. In my school with hundreds of students of different nationalities, about 40 took advanced mathematics. In the French section with about 20-25 students taking advanced mathematics only 2-3 were girls; in my section, no girl took advanced mathematics even though we had a predominance of women in class! There were 16 girls versus five boys. Four boys took advanced mathematics, and of those 16 girls not one of them did so!

My general feeling is that women tend to be more focused, and tend to have higher grades in general already at an early stage in school. This is because of many reasons, but one good example is that men devote a lot of time to playing football and other physical activities which are almost non-existent for female's mentality. Also boys tend to be more addicted to video games.

But the problem is about the extremes. Women outperform us in average, but at the "elite" not so. This could be for many reasons, but for me, it is that men have better aptitudes in logical thinking, special reasoning and abstract thinking. And of course women are better in other domains like languages, etc. This is nothing new; there are tons of literature about this. And once, again you can ask yourself why are there so few female Nobel prize winners in general (in technical domains)? This is a far more complex question. Some people argue that at the elite level women are clever, but they lack of a "creative brain" to make advances in science. I do have the feeling that there could be many, many more female chess players. Unlike winning the nobel prize I don't think you have to be a genius to be a decent player in chess. In this case I do think that this lack of interest of women has to do with vocation and mother biology!

Rouslan Toumaniantz, Kortrijk
The "greater male variability" hypothesis is another politically correct (and quite stupid idea) in support of this completely biaised view based on the ridiculous axiom of our supposed equal intelligence. When we see that at tennis maybe four or five women would be able to make it in male top 1000, everybody agrees that it's simply because males are physically superior to females, which is normal because we don't carry all the equipment for making babies. When we see similar results in chess, why don't people admit that it's just because women are on average intellectually inferior, which is normal because their brain is inferior to ours in any field apart from its ability to take care of a young child?

Let's compare man/woman intelligence in random fields. The main outcome of intelligence being the capacity to invent, create new concepts, innovate in order to be able to adapt to a changing world, let's check...

  • Nobel prizes. 97.3% male, 2.7% female.

  • Fields medal. 100% male.

  • Inventors. Almost not a single woman in the history of mankind has ever created anything. Everything you can see in your lives, appartments, houses, economical concepts, industry development, music styles, architecture, litterature ideas... everything came out of male brains. Simply said women were washing clothes and dishes by hand till a man came to give them washmashine and dishwasher. Even feminism was probably suggested to Beauvoir by Sartre...

  • Even worse. Almost every woman on earth is a cook. Most men are not. Now let's have a look at Michelin Guide, and ... woohoo, out of around 50 restaurants awareded three stars, you'll find two women and... the rest are men. That is, even in fields that are typically female, elite is still male.

That's just mere facts. Women have 200 grams less brain mass than men. We come from nomadic tribes where men had to hunt, women stayed with the children and the elders. That evolution lasted for millions of years or more, and made our brains what they are. Hunting developed two things in our male brains: the ability to find our way better (because we needed to find our way back home), and ... intelligence (because we obviously are not that strong). We needed to become smarter than, say, a bear or a mammoth, in order to get some meat.

The rest of his email is more offensive and rabidly misogynistic. We should introduce our Belgian reader to some of our friends who have doctorates in quantum physics, are redefining the Shannon Limit to maximise bandwidth in data transmission, or of course this incredible lady who simply plays chess. – Ed. (with apologies).

A proposed new explanation

The original study, Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance, by Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz, tested several popular explanations for the percieved gender gap in mathematics. Their cross-cultural analysis seems to rule out several causal candidates, including coeducational schools, low standards of living, and innate variability among boys. Much of what was discovered (and refuted) applies directly to chess, which is why the study was so interesting for us.

However, the Kane and Mertz did not propose any really compelling reasons why women should not be as capable and, more importantly, as successful, as men in the field of mathematics – or by analogy in chess. Why is there just one woman in the top 100 players on the FIDE rating list, and why are just 2.2 percent of the top 1000 players female? Others have put forth many possible explanations, but none of them are really convincing. We would like to add one to the list, an explanation which to our knowledge has not been proposed before. It is presented as a possible factor, which may perhaps turn out to to be a major one.

What is the best age for rising talents to immerse themselves so deeply into chess that the structures required to achieve true excellence are hardwired into the brain? Obviously this can only happen in their teen years. Just as in language, if you have not learnt all the grammatical and idiomatic intricacies, all the patterns and all the relations between them, by the time you are twenty, you may still become a competent speaker (or chessplayer) but will never progress to the very highest levels.

Now there is a big difference between the environment for boys and girls during their teen years. Girls become interesting to older boys, who look out for them and offer interesting activities outside of chess. A sixteen-year-old female chess talent will usually have boys with driving licences and cars asking them out to meals and movies – or other exciting things. The point is that a sixteen-year-old male talent is very rarely picked up by nineteen-year-old girls with fun and distraction on their minds. They stick with chess, by necessity, while their female colleagues are experimenting with other games and entertainment.

So: as a male the probability is much higher that you will have dedicated yourself to acquiring the basic skills and mental structures required to achieve true excellence in chess, because at the only time that this was possible you really had nothing else to do – or nothing to seriously distract you.

This theory has not been empirically or statistically tested in the way Kane and Mertz did in their study. We base it only on observation of dozens or so very young female talents that we encountered (and tried to foster). Many were indistinguishable from young male talents, but all of them ended a few hundred points from the very top. Many were deeply determined and seemed on the way to reaching the highest rankings, but inevitably they stopped at the GM level and did not proceed to the very top (with of course the one big exception).

We did conduct one test – inadvertently. During a recent tournament I expounded the theory during a minibus ride and got the following reactions from two very attractive members of the press staff, girls in their early twenties: "You are telling this to two WGMs who started off well and never made it to the top?!" – "Oh, sorry," I replied, "I did not think of that. Is it completely implausible?" – "No," one of them replied, "I think you hit the nail right on the head!"

Frederic Friedel

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