The best (and worst) countries to be a female chess player

by David Smerdon
5/4/2019 – Australian Grandmaster and Ph.D. in Economics DAVID SMERDON recently published a thorough analysis regarding how female participation rates differ across the world. The results are surprising: countries that rank higher in gender equality do not have a higher rate of female participation — quite the opposite, actually! The author suggests some hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. A must read. | Pictured: Judit and Sofia Polgar in 2017. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Encourage them to stay

The following article is reproduced by very kind permission of the writer, David Smerdon. The original can be found here

Summary: Female Participation rates are higher in countries that are traditionally patriarchal. Various theories are discussed. Federations seeking to boost female participation should concentrate on teaching chess to girls in or before primary school, as well as encouraging young adult women to stay in the chess world.

Here’s a quiz for you. Try to guess which of these countries have the highest percentage of female chess players:

  • Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom, USA, Vietnam

We’ll get to the answer soon, but it’s an indisputable fact that chess is a man’s game – at least statistically. All players know only too well the feeling of walking into a club to see twenty or even more men for every woman. It’s not even that uncommon to play a tournament with no females at all. How can such a ‘fair’ sport that purports to provide a level playing field for people of all colours, races, ages and genders end up with so few of the fairer sex?

One of the most common questions that a chess player might hear from non-players is “Why are there women-only tournaments?” This is just one of the ideas chess organisers have come up with to address female participation; another is having special female titles, such as ‘Women’s Grand Master’, which has lower standards than the male (‘Open’) equivalent. Special female prizes are regular features in tournaments, though this measure can occasionally still not be enough. At the end of a recent State championship in Australia, where the highest-performing female is usually awarded the State women’s title, the organisers faced a dilemma as to what to do with the sole female participant. The young girl had put in a fabulous performance, but ultimately did not get the title on account of not having any female competitors.

Hou Yifan

Top female player Hou Yifan famously rejected to play in the women's world championship cycle | Photo: Alina l'Ami

You are probably not surprised to hear that female participation rates differ across the world. After all, some cultures value girls differently to boys. Some countries may be more supportive of women playing competitive games against men. In more conservative countries, a girl might be encouraged to get married and stay at home with the kids, rather than play rated tournaments. In poorer countries, a family might not be able to afford to send all of the children to chess lessons, and so the girls might miss out.

These are all intuitive stories. And indeed, female participation rates do vary significantly, and predictably, across the world. But not in the way you might expect. Going back to the countries in the quiz at the beginning, I suspect most people would arrange them in roughly the same order as their level of gender equality. The United Nations Development Programme releases a ranking of gender equality every year, and using the latest figures, those 16 countries are ranked like this:

  1. Denmark
  2. Sweden
  3. Netherlands
  4. Germany 
  5. France
  6. United Kingdom
  7. China
  8. USA
  1. Vietnam
  2. Mexico 
  3. South Africa
  4. Brazil
  5. Indonesia
  6. Iran
  7. India 
  8. Kenya

Seems logical enough, right? Here’s a graph of many more countries, ranked by the UN’s gender equality index:

Click or tap any image to enlarge to full size!

You can see the usual suspects at the top end of the scale: Switzerland, the Netherlands, and all of Scandinavia, as well as most of western Europe. At the other end we mainly find developing countries or other nations in the Middle East and the subcontinent. I’ve dropped countries with a very small number of Fide-rated chess players, because I want to compare this to gender participation rates. If the intuition above holds, then we would expect to see similarly downward-sloping bars when we add in the female participation rates: Higher rates in Scandinavian countries than in typically patriarchal Islamic nations, for example. So let’s see. Thanks to some data from the indefatigable Jeff Sonas, I was able to match up a country’s proportion of females among active, Fide-rated chess players against its gender equality score. The data below covers 1999-2015, but I also checked against a recent sample from November 2018 and the pattern is the same. Remember, for the stories above to be true, we’re expecting the the bars to get lower as we move from left to right. Here’s the actual result:

You can see the usual suspects at the top end of the scale: Switzerland, the Netherlands, and all of Scandinavia, as well as most of western Europe. At the other end we mainly find developing countries or other nations in the Middle East and the subcontinent. I’ve dropped countries with a very small number of Fide-rated chess players, because I want to compare this to gender participation rates. If the intuition above holds, then we would expect to see similarly downward-sloping bars when we add in the female participation rates: Higher rates in Scandinavian countries than in typically patriarchal Islamic nations, for example. So let’s see. Thanks to some data from the indefatigable Jeff Sonas, I was able to match up a country’s proportion of females among active, Fide-rated chess players against its gender equality score. The data below covers 1999-2015, but I also checked against a recent sample from November 2018 and the pattern is the same. Remember, for the stories above to be true, we’re expecting the the bars to get lower as we move from left to right. Here’s the actual result:

Surprisingly, it doesn’t look that way at all! In fact, if anything, the rates get higher as we move down the equality scale (we can show statistically that this is true). As expected, women are the minority in every country. But there’s still quite a lot of variation in rates. Denmark is the worst country in our list of participation, with only one female player to roughly 50 males, while the rest of Scandinavia as well as most of western Europe also languish at the bottom.

On the other hand, some of the best countries show evidence of the effect of female role models, and would be no surprise to players familiar with women’s chess history. Georgia (ranked 5th) and China (ranked 4th) both featured multiple women’s World Champions. There are also some high rates from a few unexpected sources: Vietnam (1st), the United Arab Emirates (2nd), Indonesia (8th), and even Kenya (12th) really buck the trend. Interestingly, a lot of the best countries for female chess players are in Asia. Besides Vietnam, there are five other countries in the best ten, and if I am a little more lenient with the chess population cut-offs, Mongolia and Tajikistan would also be in there.

Here are those 16 countries we mentioned earlier, but this time also ranked in order of female participation, and where I’ve highlighted the top and bottom halves by gender equality:

And here’s the complete sample of countries ranked in order of their female chess ratios:

So, the more gender-equal a country is, the fewer females want to play chess? What does it all mean?

There are a number of possible explanations, for which we can look to the broader research on gender. A recent, slightly controversial, school of thought fits with the chess results. Last year, a paper in Psychological Science discussed the so-called gender-equality paradox in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. They found that while girls perform better than boys in STEM subjects at school, many more capable girls decide not to pursue STEM career than boys – and this gap is much larger in more gender-equal countries.

Then a few months later, a paper in Science, using data from 80,000 individuals in 76 countries, found that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences. The story goes along the lines that if women somehow biologically prefer NOT to compete with men, then they will be most able to show this in countries where women have more freedom to choose.

Pia Cramling

Pia Cramling did choose to play chess — despite Sweden scoring rather low in female participation | Photo: Bill Hook

Could it be that, deep down, women just don’t like chess as much as men?

Well, we can’t rule it out, but I doubt it. There are a lot of other parts to this story. For example, a different explanation is that women are more likely to play chess in gender-unequal countries because it’s one of the few fields where they can actually compete with men, and be sure that the result is judged without discrimination (as opposed to, say, promotions in the workplace). This story is plausible and I think worth investigating, though I haven’t worked out how to do it without more data.

Another alternative explanation that we CAN check is that our results are accidentally picking up the trend of worldwide increased female participation over recent decades.  If countries with higher female participation are newer to international chess and therefore have younger chess communities, they will more likely reflect this trend. Here is a sample of the age distribution of male and female players across all countries:

We can immediately notice a few obvious features: there are more males than females at all ages, most people start playing when they’re young, and players of both genders start to drop out after primary school. There’s also an interesting point that many men come back to the game around their 40’s; this could be related to the period when a father’s kids become independent, but also might have to do with the surge in popularity due to the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world championship match. However, there’s no such resurgence among women, so the ‘Fischer effect’ seems unlikely.

Let’s check the graph for the countries with the lowest female participation rates:

The female graph looks predictably abysmal and the gender gap is massive even before the age of 10. The male graph also has a curious feature: the peak is actually around 50. There are a lot more older men in these countries.

But when we turn to the countries with the highest female participation rates…

…the picture is completely different. These are indeed ‘young’ chess countries. Strikingly, girls make up a sizeable share from a young age and maintain it until their early 20’s, after which the ratio drops sharply. This could be due to marital/childbearing pressures in these countries, but it could also be because chess organisations rarely focus on targeted female infrastructure after the junior years.


These results suggest that the age distribution of a country’s chess community plays a big role. The best countries for female players are those where there are a high share of girls playing from a young age. This could be because federations or school chess organisations make it a priority to focus on teaching chess to both genders. At the London Chess Classic last year, I asked the federation president of Mongolia (where females make up over a third of all rated players) the secret to their success. He told me that the federation has a clear goal to teach chess to every child, no matter what age, social background or gender. The focus on teaching girls when they’re young coincides with another strain of gender research, which argues that girls are ‘nurtured’ from a young age to believe they can’t (or shouldn’t) compete with boys.

Still, even among the top-ranked countries, there is the same exodus from the chess world of young adult women. Perhaps this is a neglected group in chess policies. There is often easily accessible infrastructure to play chess while in school, such as girls’ clubs and a higher frequency of female-only junior events. But after the age of twenty or so, it becomes decidedly more difficult for the average female club player to enjoy the game among other women. I don’t know what sort of policies might address this – promoting young women’s clubs, or perhaps introducing female quotas into more team events, as has been shown to be effective in recent research from French league data.

On the other hand, the effect of female chess role models is also an area to explore, while Asian countries seem to making the biggest headway towards encouraging women to play chess. Perhaps there’s a cultural element, or perhaps their chess federation policies are different – I don’t know, but it is definitely worth finding out. What’s clear from the data is that girls in all countries around the world are still leaving the chess world after school, and they’re unlikely to come back. We should encourage them to stay.

Links



Topics: Economics, Women

David is an Australian chess grandmaster and economist. He is the second highest ranked chess player of Australia. Smerdon has played for the Australian team in the Chess Olympiad since 2004. He goes by the online persona "Smurfo".
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James Satrapa James Satrapa 5/13/2019 05:18
Thanks David for a fascinating article in an ocean of rubbish speculation about the gender differences relating to chess strength and participation. By far and away the most interesting article since Psychology Today published "The Grandmaster Experiment" which took a long, in-depth look at why the Polgar sisters were so phenomenally successful (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/articles/200507/the-grandmaster-experiment).

Geography, infrastructure, demography and opportunity may also be contributing factors affecting other groups. For instance you're aware how difficult it is to achieve titles in Australia, as it is geographically distant from the northern centre of chess where the strongest tournaments are staged. There is precious little government assistance for chess as a sport as distinct from the more physical sports (although we have a few more GMs of recent years). Australia needs more than the Doeberl and the SIO to generate serious interest from overseas GMs.

Geography and infrastructure probably play a significant role in the development of African chess, especially when it is evident that the strongest African nations are Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, which are on the other side of the ditch from the European centres of chess. As for the other countries in the southern hemisphere in Africa, South America and Oceania, I suspect their chess infrastructure is lacking. One hypothesis is that most of these countries are too poor to sustain "luxuries" such as organised and highly developed chess, which has generally been underpinned by relatively well developed economies and cultures, as distinct from those still locked in neo-colonial vassalage.

The extreme paucity of African, African-American and African-Eurasian GMs would seem to be an outcome based on socio-economic deprivation underpinned by the relentless weight of discrimination and consequent cultural factors. Thankfully Cote D'Ivoire (and Kenya) may signal this may be changing.
peterfrost peterfrost 5/9/2019 09:45
Thought provoking article. Every time I play in Vietnam's HD Bank Open, and sit in a sea of young female chess players, I reflect that the rest of the world can learn a great deal from whatever Vietnam is doing. The female market is a huge untapped growth opportunity for our game. The "nightclub" effect should come into play too...once the girls are in the room in numbers, more boys will naturally follow.
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 5/8/2019 11:27
Chess is a man's game. Women in general don't like to think that much. (lol)
brabo_hf brabo_hf 5/6/2019 04:11
"There’s also an interesting point that many men come back to the game around their 40’s;"
I have shown with statistics on my blog that this is a wrong conclusion.
Make the same graph but now based on data from x years ago. You will suddenly see that men are coming back around their 40's - x years ago.
In other words there is no such thing as people coming back but rather a decline of interest between the older generations. Society has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.
IlkkaSalonen IlkkaSalonen 5/6/2019 12:29
Well, in Nordic countries to almost any academic question woman might want to raise a female perspective, and everybody must think it is very deep and important. In chess there is need for objective evaluation, so maybe it is not therefore very appealing. I do think it is a serious issue and relates to all kinds of denialism in the world.
smurfo smurfo 5/5/2019 07:01
@drad: I agree with both your points. To the first: These confounders should not affect the difference-in-differences with regard to gender ratios, unless they are cultural factors specific to gender (which is kind of the point). To the second: I agree, and that is one reason why we only look at FIDE-rated players. Presumably those who get an ELO (must be >1600) have selected into playing chess. A minor point: if we DID include children who learn chess in schools, Sweden would actually be doing quite well, as they have so many (of near-equal gender split) that it would outweigh the rated players.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 5/5/2019 06:20
World champion role models is not convincing if we do not know the data on how many females were playing chess before the players won the world championship. A country with more female chess-players is more likely to produce a world champion.
drad drad 5/5/2019 12:16
I think there's huge cultural confounders here. Rich countries all share Western European culture. This cultural bias probably far outweighs the influence of gender equality. The 2nd confounder is girls who are forced to play chess in school. I'm not sure you can really count them in the statistics when their participation is not self-motivated, anymore than you can say 100% of girls in school are mathematicians.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 5/4/2019 10:32
Which group of countries have had more female leaders: Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Italy, or Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia...? Maybe opposition induces ambition (and the opposite).
A reason might be that when male opposition dwindles, the female peer group gets stronger - and has more to say about what suits a girl: "don't do that male thing" instead of "we can also do that male thing".
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