A Short chat at 2020 Women’s World Champs

by Alexey Root
1/9/2020 – Given past controversy over his views on women and chess, Grandmaster Nigel Short might seem a surprising choice for multiple roles at the 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship. Short is the championship’s FIDE Supervisor, Chair of the Appeals Committee, and a commentator. Short’s credentials include being the official challenger in the 1993 World Chess Championship, commentating expertise, and promoting chess in 129 countries. WIM ALEXEY ROOT sent us this brief interview.

Greatest Hits Vol. 1 Greatest Hits Vol. 1

Nigel Short takes us on an electrifying journey through a very rich chess career, which saw him beat no less than twelve world champions. His experience in tournaments and matches all over the world – Short has visited a total of 89 countries – can be seen in the narratives that precede the games which he annotates with humour and instructive insights.

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Short in Shanghai

Nigel Short is serving as a commentator, along with WGM Zhang Xiaowen, for the Women’s World Chess Championship. He is also the FIDE Supervisor for the match, and the chair of its appeals committee, for which he earns 4,000 euros. The other appeals committee members earn 3,000 euros each. They are GM Oleg Romanishin of Ukraine and IA Abd Hamid Bin And Majid of Malaysia. FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky explained that selecting Nigel Short is part of a broader framework of choosing distinguished grandmasters and International Arbiters for appeals committees. Sutovsky posted on Facebook, and emailed me permission to quote here:

Nigel ShortThe last part of Sutovsky’s Facebook posting refers to the present FIDE administration’s efforts to be transparent regarding how jobs are assigned. The Facebook posting was partially in response to a tweet by Grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen regarding such transparency.

From the Women’s World Chess Championship playing site in Shanghai, Chief Arbiter Shohreh Bayat messaged me, “As the Chief Arbiter of this event, I am very happy that Nigel Short is here because he is very experienced. There are not many people who have played in a World Championship Match and it is important to have someone, like Nigel Short, who understands players.” Short is also an experienced commentator and, according to Edward Winter, one of the five best commentators in the world.

In 2015, Nigel Short wrote about possible limits to the achievements of female chess players. Quoting from his article “Vive La Différence”:

Photo: Zhang Yanhong

Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so 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. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. 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.

I spoke with Nigel via Facebook on January 9th, about two and a half hours before the fourth game in Shanghai.


Root: Technical problems prevented your Round 1 commentary from being posted to YouTube, but your commentary for Rounds 2-3 has been posted. Are there any insights you want to share about the games thus far, or the two players?

Short: The first insight I would like to share is it is clear that Goryachkina is very determined. She presses very hard and plays games to the fullest. Objectively, she didn’t have any significant advantages. But she created practical problems. Ju Wenjun is a little bit passive in her play, which isn’t characteristic of her. What I have seen is a bit of indecision on Wenjun’s part. It could have cost her, for example in Game 3, Bd3 was played by Goryachkina at an inappropriate moment, on move 23. Then 23…Ne5 was called for. [An article on ChessBase also mentioned this key moment.]

I was looking at the position, after 23. Bd3, and my first reaction was “What’s wrong with Ne5?” The engine showed it was stronger than I expected it to be. I think Ju Wenjun is missing some things tactically. In that same Game 3, in the rook and pawn ending, she could have played 81…Rf5+ and 82...Rxg5. It has absolutely no relevance to the outcome of the game, which was drawn, but that two-move sequence would have drawn the game instantly.

My prediction is that if Goryachkina goes to Vladivostok with an equal number of points as Ju Wenjun, then things will start to go Goryachkina’s way. Ju Wenjun is seeming nervous from what I have seen so far.

Root: How do the conditions in Shanghai compare to your own 1993 World Chess Championship match conditions?

Short: Very, very different, in particular the playing hall. The players have a nice, carpeted hall. But they are playing in isolation. There are no spectators. That’s the biggest difference. Nowadays, for a World Chess Championship match, you either have to play behind a screen or, like this in Shanghai, with no spectators at all. This isolation is to prevent cheating. Here, there are metal detectors at the door. The players are checked. The players will also be drug-tested at some point, at a surprise point. In Vladivostok, there will be a one-way screen rather like in the Carlsen-Caruana match, and there will be spectators.

Playing hall

The Shanghai playing hall | Photo: Michael Friedman

Root: You have traveled to 129 countries, promoting chess in each. What are a couple of your memorable successes in chess promotion worldwide that you would like to share with ChessBase readers?

Short: I am very proud that I have been the first grandmaster to visit a number of countries in a chess capacity, for example Liberia, Grenada, Malawi, and several Caribbean countries. In some cases, it has led to further chess developments in those countries. Even going to very well-established chess countries, such as India, has led to positive experiences such as coaching kids in Kerala. I had a number of very strong players, including a few GMs, who attended a talk I gave in Chennai. I’d asked them to prepare questions, and the questions were very good. I was able to expound on how I came up with certain ideas in chess. Even one person, who wasn’t sure what he could learn from an old chess player past his prime (as I am), went away feeling that he had learned something and was seeing things slightly differently. 

Root: Do you believe that “hard-wired” differences between men’s brains and women’s brains account for gender differences in chess achievement?

Short answered: I list the differences between the brains, in the article I sent you, and they are pretty substantial. [Short emailed me his article “A Beautiful Minefield,” published two months after “Vive La Différence.” Both articles appeared in 2015 in New in Chess. “A Beautiful Minefield” stated, “Men and women have such dissimilar brains it is implausible to expect their cognitive functions to be identical….The point is not that women are incapable of playing good chess - because clearly some of them can - rather that they are less likely to do so, on average.”]

Root: Would you agree with Garry Kasparov’s 2017 statement, “Theoretically yes, a woman can win the chess world championship, but practically it is highly unlikely”? Who do you think, among the current top women players, might have the best chance to play, as Judit Polgár did in the 2005 Candidates Tournament, in the Candidates Tournament leading to the World Chess Championship?

Short: I agree with Kasparov’s statement; a woman could win but it would be unlikely. I think “unlikely” rather than “highly unlikely” in the future, but “highly unlikely” at present. To be a Candidate, you have to be over 2700. Hou Yifan is not playing much. I don’t think any of the current top women will become a Candidate. Don’t forget, Judit was in the top 10 and even when she wasn’t in the top 10 she was in the top 20. No woman is lurking in that top-20 area currently, which could change in 5-10 years’ time.

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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.