Jennifer Yu’s US Junior Championship: Can research explain her result?

by Alexey Root
7/21/2019 – The 2019 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Yu was the wildcard invite for the U.S. Junior Championship which concluded on Saturday, July 20th. She finished last in the 10-player round robin with ½ out of 9. In her post-tournament interview, Jennifer Yu mentioned, “Maybe there is a little more pressure or something.” In this article, WIM ALEXEY ROOT looks at two research-based reasons for the pressure Yu perceived and its possible effects on her result. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Pressure from “Chess Fans”

In the words of one ChessBase reader, Yu is “a role model for young women with [her] current title” and her U.S. Junior Championship result “will find its way in future articles/books/essays regarding the relative strength of female vs male players and be fodder for that debate.” Even before the event, some questioned why Yu got the wildcard invite rather than higher-rated boys. One “Chess fan” wrote, “What a terrible pick for wildcard. I want to see the best junior players in the US Junior, male or female. It’s a shame the wildcard wasn’t used to reward another 2500+ Junior.”

Despite her chess qualifications, then, Yu perhaps felt pressure on her from some chess fans. Her qualifications include the FM and WGM titles. Yu won the U.S. Women’s with nine wins and two draws, a performance rating of 2663.

Yu’s invitational rating (US Chess rating) for the U.S. Junior Championship was listed as 2455, which meant the only player rated lower than her was Atulya Vaidya. Vaidya had an invitational rating of 2299 and earned his spot by winning the 2018 U.S. Junior Open. So Vaidya finishing ahead of Yu was not predicted by their ratings. Yu’s score of just one draw out of nine rounds was lower than expected. (Yu's expected score based on the players' FIDE Elo ratings was a little over 3 points -Ed.)

Jennifer Yu

Jennifer Yu waits for her opponent's next move | Photo: Crystal Fuller

Stereotype Threat

ChessBase previously highlighted research that found “gender stereotypes can have a greatly debilitating effect on female players leading to a 50% performance decline when playing against males.” The links in that article no longer work, but I found the original PDF using my online library journal access where I work, at The University of Texas at Dallas. The following quote, with my boldface emphasis added, is from the article described in ChessBase, which is titled “Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport.”

From the perspective of gender stereotyping, chess also constitutes an interesting realm of inquiry for two additional reasons. First, it is one of the few sports in which men and women enter in direct competition. Second, chess tournaments satisfy a crucial precondition of stereotype threat, namely category salience, considering that women represent a miniscule percentage of players in practically all mixed-sex chess tournaments. Such minority or token status is known to produce performance deficits, decreased well-being, and a reduction of self-confidence.

Wildcard status is somewhat akin to “token” status, as the organizer picks someone who would not have otherwise qualified for an event to play in the event. In the concurrent U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, Rachael Li got the wildcard invite. Her age made her a minority, as she was the only player with an age in the single digits. She also had the added pressure of being hyped, before the tournament, as its youngest-ever participant. Li was three years younger than the next youngest competitor. At that age, that’s a huge gap, between age nine (Li) and age 12 (Rui Yang Yan). Like Yu, Li finished last in her tournament.

Yu not only had the wildcard invite (which can be perceived as a “token” invite) but was also a minority, the only girl in a field of boys. 

Jennifer Yu

In practical play expect the unexpected | Photo: Crystal Fuller 

book coverAccording to “Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport,” women perform 50% worse than expected when they know they are playing against men and are reminded of the stereotype that men are considered better and more gifted at chess. In the experiment on which the article is based, similarly-rated men and women played two-game matches online, at first without knowing the other player’s gender. In the match where gender was unknown, the women scored 1 out of 2 (the expected score). However, when the men and women were told the gender of their opponent (i.e. the men knew that they were playing women and the women knew that they were playing men), and the women were reminded of the stereotype that men are better at chess than women, the women scored ½ of 2.

The article’s authors noted that the stereotypes about women being worse in chess are pervasive, citing WGM Jennifer Shahade’s 2005 book Chess Bitch. Yu was undoubtedly aware of the stereotypes before she played in the U.S. Junior Championship. So stereotype threat may have negatively affected her performance.

Comeback likelihood?

A second research-based reason can affect both men and women. That is, research from sports about the likelihood of a second-half comeback. According to an article in Scientific American, if a team is way behind at the halftime, that team will almost surely lose the game. Quoting that article, “Being far behind did not increase effort. In accordance with the principle of diminishing sensitivity, the farther away participants were from their goals the less they tried to achieve them.” But being just a little behind at halftime can be motivating, and teams often rally in the third quarter (right after halftime) to win.

Yu might have found it difficult to make a comeback in the second half of the tournament, after scoring 0-5 before the rest day, since she was so far behind in the standings. She no longer had a chance to win the event, or to attain an even score. The commentators praised her for continuing to fight every game, however. And Yu graciously consented to a post-tournament interview with them.

Speaking to Grandmaster Jesse Kraai, Yu said, “I played some okay games. But there are some games where I didn’t have a chance at all.” Kraai asked about her future chess plans. Yu replied that she will “play in Washington International in one week.” Kraai asked if she would consider chess rather than college. Yu replied, “I might consider a gap year. I still have a year to decide.” 

Yu speaks with GM Jesse Kraai following Round 9 | Saint Louis Chess Club on YouTube

Commentator and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan asked, “How has your life changed after winning the U.S. Women’s Championship?” Yu replied, “More people know me now. Maybe there is a little more pressure or something.” Commentator and GM Robert Hess asked about areas for improvement. Yu replied, “My openings have been a problem for years and years. I should have held my endgame in round 8. Also, I need to fix my time management.” Abrahamyan asked about whether she had a coach. Yu replied, “I haven’t had a coach in a while.” Abrahamyan mentioned the top women players now get grants for coaching, due to the $100,000 gift for Women’s chess from Saint Louis Chess Club.

Jennifer Yu

Jennifer Yu exits with half a point | Photo: Crystal Fuller

Speaking of motivation...

Thanks to chess fan “Leavenfish” for his comment, which motivated me to write this article. His comment was, “I rather doubt however that we will see a ChessBase article specifically about this result from [Alexey] Root.” Perhaps Yu, when faced with those who may be currently doubting her, can find motivation for future results as well.

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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