The ratings gap and gender: Analyzing U.S. Chess Championships (Part I)

by Alexey Root
4/10/2021 – In this article, part one of a two-part series, Ashley Yan and Alexey Root compare average ratings in the U.S. Championships and the U.S. Women’s Championships held between 1972 and 2000. The United States Chess Federation’s 20th-century ratings and the gender distribution of its membership is also discussed. | Photo: Chess Life Magazine, November 1984 (from the Chess Life and Chess Review Archives)

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Percentage female?

US Chess

When analyzing ratings and their distribution among United States Chess Federation (US Chess or USCF) members, keep in mind that there are fewer girls and women than boys and men. Among recent members (12/31/2020 or later expiration date), 12.4% are coded as female, 85.4% are coded as male, and 2.2% are uncoded (M. Nolan, personal communication, February 23, 2021). From 1972–2000, that percentage was 5% or lower.

Al Lawrence, Executive Director of USCF from 1988-1996, wrote a memorandum, distributed to the USCF Policy Board and the Women’s Chess Committee, about “Female Membership in USCF.” The memorandum is listed internally at USCF as “100 BINFO #93-397” with a date of October 22, 1993. There’s a hand-written note about some members not being coded for age or gender, affecting the percentages. According to his memorandum, in 1993 girls and women combined were 4.65% of the total USCF membership (3,340 of 71,794 members). Of those 3,340 females, only 612 were women ages 21 or older. In other words, adult women were .0085 of the total USCF membership in 1993.

Another memorandum, “105 BINFO #00-118,” summarizes a USCF membership survey conducted in April of 2000. It found that USCF membership was 95% male and 5% female. It breaks down USCF membership as a whole (not by gender) as 8% under age 10, 20% ages 10-20, 42% ages 20-50, and 30% as 50 and older. Given the two BINFOS, from 1993 and from 2000, one can assume that female USCF membership was always 5% or lower from 1972–2000.

USCF membership numbers, not separated by gender, can be found through 2000 at this link. Data in graphical form through 2020 is at this link, and current membership numbers 2000-2020 are at this link.

1950: Initial USCF ratings

The first USCF individual ratings and tournament rating averages appeared in the November 20 and December 5, 1950 issues of Chess Life. Compiled and computed by USCF Rating Statistician Kenneth Harkness, the ratings took into account dozens of tournaments, including six prior U.S. Women’s Championships and U.S. Championships.

Three U.S. Women’s Champions appeared on the spring 1954 individual list: Gisela Gresser, rated at 2080, Mona May Karff, 2023, and Mary Bain, 1902.

Championship year

Average rating (Harkness/USCF) U.S. Women’s Championship

[Number of players in brackets]

Average rating (Harkness/USCF) U.S. Championship (finals) [Number of players in brackets]

1938

1698 [11 players]

2561[17 players]

1940

1798 [9 players]

2511 [17 players]

1941

Mona Karff over Adele Rivero (Belcher) in a match which was not rated.

Sammy Reshevsky over I. A. Horowitz in a match which was not rated.

1942

1665 [9 players]

2421 [16 players]

1944

1572 [9 players]

2248 [18 players]

1946

1726 [10 players]

2369 [19 players]

1948

1703 [8 players]

2239 [20 players]

Modern USCF ratings, by Arpad Elo, debuted in 1961. The Fischer boom began in 1972, when Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship. “The USCF was founded in 1939 and grew gradually until 1972, when membership doubled due to interest in Bobby Fischer’s rise to the World Championship” (“United States Chess Federation,” 1996).

Methodology for 1972–2000

For the years 1972 through 1981, the U.S. Women’s Championships’ averages were calculated using the end-of-year (December) rating list or the top-50 list provided for that tournament’s year. For example, the 1972 women’s average is taken from those 11 players’ end-of-year (1972) ratings, averaged, except for one player whose only rating appeared on a list earlier that year. For 1978, the average was calculated using a Top-50 Women list which appeared in the January issue rather than the December issue of Chess Life. For tournaments held during 1984–1991, the ratings were included on the Chess Life crosstable of each women’s championship. For 1992 onwards, pre-tournament ratings from each tournament’s online crosstable were used to calculate that championship’s average.

From 1972–2000, the women’s tournaments were 10-, 11-, or 12-player round robins. If the highest-rated players did not accept, alternates were next on the list by rating. Starting in 1948, the winners of the U.S. Women’s Open were seeded into the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, or the next highest finisher if the winner already had a spot  (“N. May Karff Retains,” 1948; “U.S. Women’s Open,” 1948). The U.S. Women’s Opens were held sporadically, sometimes as round robins alongside the U.S. Open, and the qualifying spot seems to have disappeared in the years after 1948.

The U.S. Championships invited most players by ratings. During the 20th century, all invitees were men. For most years, the U.S. Open Champion, the previous year’s U.S. Champion, the Grand Prix Champion, and the U.S. Junior Closed Champion received spots in U.S. Championships. The U.S. Junior Open Champion used to get an invitation to the U.S. Championship, though that qualifying spot went away after 1959 U.S. Junior Open winner Robin Ault’s 0–11 performance in the 1959–1960 U.S. Championship. The U.S. Championship was typically a 14-18 player round robin.

The U.S. Championships’ ratings were calculated using names of the players listed on Graeme Cree’s website, here. Click on each year for a link to that year’s crosstable, with participants’ names. Using those names, ratings were found in the corresponding years’ Chess Life magazines, available here.

Graeme Cree has posted links to U.S. Women’s Championship participants’ chess ratings on his site; scroll to the bottom of that page, after the list of champions. Cree has also listed rating averages for most U.S. Women’s Championships: Click on a championship year to find the players’ ratings and the average rating of the players.

From 1972–2000, for both championships, players who were not U.S. citizens had completed “one continuous year (12 months) of United States residency, as a USCF member with a U.S. Address, immediately prior to the event in question” and also who had refused “to represent other countries within the year... Playing for another country at any time requires a candidate for invitations to begin the year...anew” (“1993 Yearbook,” 1994).

The average USCF (Elo) ratings of each U.S. Women’s Championship field from 1972-2000 follows.

Championship year

U.S. Women Championships’ Average USCF (Elo) ratings

[number of players]

U.S. Championships’ Average USCF (Elo) ratings

[Number of players]

1972

1799 [11 players]

2473 [14 players]

1974

1813 [11 players]

2455 [14 players]

1975

1894 [11 players]

2486 [14 players]

1976

1903 [11 players]

No U.S. Championship

1978

1853 [11 players]

2497 [15 players]

1979

1854 [12 players]

No U.S. Championship

1981

2034 [12 players]

2565 [15 players]

1984

2129 [11 players]

2587 [18 players]

1986

2055 [10 players]

2619 [16 players]

1987

2158 [10 players]

2634 [14 players]

1989

2072 [10 players]

2658 [16 players]

1990

2195 [10 players]

2587 [16 players]

1991

2208 [10 players]

2637 [16 players]

1992

2244 [10 players]

2631 [16 players]

1993

2274 [10 players]

2674 [12 players]

1994

2263 [10  players]

2632 [14 players]

1995

2200 [10 players]

2628 [14 players]

1996

2306 [10 players]

2634 [14 players]

1997

2243 [10 players]

2651 [16 players]

1998

2250 [10 players]

2632 [16 players]

1999

2208 [10 players]

2642 [16 players]

2000

2187 [10 players]

2665 [12 players]

In part 2, we will analyze the gaps in average ratings between the U.S. Women’s Championships and the U.S. Championships for 1972–2000.


References

  • N. May Karff retains women’s title at U.S. open championship tourney. (1948, August 5).  Chess Life, 2(23), 1.
  • 1993 yearbook: USCF invitational event requirements. (1994, April). Chess Life, 49(4), 326-327.
  • United States Chess Federation. (1996, June 9). http://www.uschess.org/archive/results/uscf/index.html
  • U.S. women’s open championship restored at Baltimore tournament. (1948, June 20). Chess Life, 2(20), 1.

Links


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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Bruce Leverett Bruce Leverett 4/13/2021 03:05
As Ms. Root knows, a fascinating series of articles has appeared recently about the U.S. Women's Chess Championship tournaments from 1937 through 1990. Here is a link to the first one, from which you can follow links to all the others: https://www.chess.com/article/view/american-woman-part-i If you want to learn about these competitors as people rather than just names and rating numbers, these articles are the place to start.

I am afraid we are treading on very thin ice when we present "ratings" of the players in the 1940's tournaments based on backwards analysis from the first published rating list in 1950. My examination of early 1950's ratings confirms what I was told by some older players, that those older ratings were horrendously unreliable. But, that topic would perhaps better be discussed some place else.

Without even considering ratings, one can see that the women's championships of the late 1960's and early 1970's were not nearly as strong as the championships of the 1940's and early 1950's. When Mrs. Gresser won in 1969, and Mrs. Aronson won in 1972, and Mrs. Karff won in 1974, in spite of being in their sixties, it was obvious that women's chess in this country had stagnated since the same women contended for the prize in the 1940's. I don't have an easy explanation for this. To me it seems like a much more interesting question than the relative strengths of the women's and men's championships. Perhaps the young women of the 1930's and 1940's were galvanized by the achievements of Ms. Menchik, just as all chess players were later galvanized by Bobby Fischer.
adbennet adbennet 4/12/2021 11:26
This part 1 article only presents some dry numbers, so it's a little early to be criticizing the author(s) for PC or gender bias reasons. But given the tiny dataset in part 1, I expect to be completely underwhelmed by the analysis of the "gaps" in part 2.

I do remember in the 1970s there was some discussion of performance differences between men and women in running events. It was noted that the differences were smaller for longer distances, and that the differences at all distances had been declining for some time. There was even speculation that women might someday surpass men at the longest distances! Well since then there have been instances of women finishing first in open ultra races, but nobody is claiming that means women have surpassed men in general. It turns out the 1970s analysis was based on a very poor dataset. But news organizations are very interested in sensational conclusions, and less interested in sober assessments.

So let's see what is served up in part 2. In particular there had better be some error estimations in the presentation.
Harry Pillsbury Harry Pillsbury 4/12/2021 12:52
@jfrendek Spot on ! Well said.
hurwitz hurwitz 4/11/2021 07:10
@ jfrendek: I cannot agree more.
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 4/11/2021 04:16
I agree to some extent. Alexey has been writing a lot of articles surrounding female equality in chess, yet she sports the title of "woman's international master" which is the antithesis of equality in the game.
jfrendek jfrendek 4/10/2021 11:15
Call me what you will but I'm pretty fed up with the whole Politically Correct deal counting women or minorities differently. Unless people want reverse discrimination we just need let whoever wants to play, play without even noticing who/what they are. Like it or not, just like this flu, our pathetic efforts just make it worse. You can't force equality. It needs to come over time via mutual respect.
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