Vive la Différence – the full story

by New In Chess
4/22/2015 – Yesterday we reported on the extraordinary news storm that had broken out over an article, by Nigel Short, that appeared in the magazine New in Chess. Going through the follow-up stories and readers' reactions it became clear that many had not read the original article. So we asked the NIC publishers for permission to reproduce it in full. Now you can judge for yourself.

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The story that unleashed the media storm in the international press appeared in the latest edition of the chess magazine New in Chess.

NIC, as it is often called, appears eight times a year in English and is read by club players in 116 countries. Its chief editors are GM Jan Timman and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam. NIC contains notes by top players and chess prodigies on their own games. Typical contributions are from players such as Magnus Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik, Levon Aronian, Vishy Anand, Sergey Karjakin, Hikaru Nakamura, Veselin Topalov, Fabiano Caruana, Alexander Grischuk, Hou Yifan, Judith Polgar.

New In Chess also publishes Yearbooks four times per year that offer opening surveys and theoretical articles. NIC also publishes other chess books.

In the following, we bring you, with permission of NIC publisher Allard Hoogland, the entire article as it appeared in volume 2/2015 of New in Chess, with a few pictures embedded by us.


By Nigel Short

‘The difference between the sexes is remarkable in chess, but not any more so, to my mind, than any other field of cultural activity. Women cannot play chess, but they cannot paint either, or write, or philosophise. In fact, women have never thought or made anything worth considering.’ – Jan Hein Donner

Russian communism may have brought untold misery to many millions, but at least, by very small consolation, this warped ideological system provided its citizens with good (and cheap) chess books. Recently, I was kindly presented with a 1957 copy of Sovetskie Shahmatiski by Elisaveta Ivanovna Bykova. How many of today’s younger generation have even heard of the author – the 3rd ­Women’s World Champion – I wonder? Alas, my deficient knowledge of the language is inadequate to provide a proper appreciation of the book’s contents, but even a linguistic patzer can enjoy the veritable cornucopia of information – annotated games, crosstables, pen-portraits etc. – on largely forgotten figures in Soviet women’s chess.

Elizaveta Bykova, World Champion 1953-56 and 1958-62

What struck me, alas, when leafing through the faded pages, was just how mediocre many of these players were. The era between the tragic death of Vera Menchik and the rise of Nona Gaprindashvili was particularly fallow. Indeed, could it be that the provocative, outrageously-sexist, bitingly-savage wit, Jan Hein Donner (see introductory quotation), had a point?

Dutch GM Johannes Hendrikus (Hein) Donner, 1927–1988 – photo Wiki

The towering Dutch Grandmaster, not for the only time in his literary life, might have overstated his case. Indeed, I suspect his unbending life-long convictions and prejudices – such as undue reverence for the two bishops – retarded his development somewhat. At university level, women are clearly now outperforming men in many disciplines. In my own family, my daughter was uniformly academically excellent, whereas my son (like his father before him) is both lazy and erratic. But within the narrow confines of chess, the jury is still out. It is not enough to point to the recently-retired Judit Polgar as evidence that women are as good as men, as the brilliant Hungarian is clearly an outlier. It would be equally erroneous to claim that (the pre-debilitating stroke) Viktor Kortchnoi proved that older players are no weaker than young.

According to Chris Fegan, of the UK charity Chess in Schools and Communities, girls at primary school level who take compulsory chess lessons are as good as, or sometimes even better than, boys of the same age. Unfortunately, this promising start is rapidly eroded and they soon lag far behind. Nevertheless, my gut feeling was that female chess players are both stronger and more numerous than they were when I first began competing. The latter is certainly true, but an excellent article by the Australian Robert Howard on the website last year [Explaining male predominance in chess] demonstrated that, despite the enormous societal changes over 40 years, the gap between the leading males and females has remained fairly constant at nearly 250 Elo points – a yawning chasm in ability. That women seem stronger has more to do with universally higher standards, due to the ubiquity of computers, than any closing of the gender gap.

This painting by Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533) very aptly illustrates our subject

Howard also subtly critiques the most absurd theory to gain prominence in recent years, by Bilalic, Smallbone, McLeod and Gobet (which was submitted to the prestigious Royal Society, no less), that the rating sex difference is almost entirely attributable to participatory numbers (they comprise just 1% of the readership of this magazine). With the aid of a couple of bell curves this foursome neatly solve the eternal chess conundrum of why women lag behind their male counterparts, while simultaneously satisfying that irritating modern psychological urge to prove all of us, everywhere, are equal. Only a bunch of academics could come up with such a preposterous conclusion which flies in the face of observation, common sense and an enormous amount of empirical evidence too. Howard debunks this by showing that in countries like Georgia, where female participation is substantially higher than average, the gender gap actually increases – which is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would expect were the participatory hypothesis true. Interestingly, in the intellectually rigorous, but far more sociable game of bridge, where women make up the majority of club members, men still dominate the upper echelons. This would suggest that discrimination or overt sexism may be less of a factor in explaining the gender gap in chess than is commonly supposed.

The Tradewise Gibraltar Masters famously offers a large prize fund, with hefty additional prizes available to the fairer sex. Brian Callaghan, the genial driving-force behind the event, is unapologetic about his favouritism, although I have often wondered whether the practice is legal (not that anyone is complaining). After all, if, say, a company were to offer extra performance related bonuses only to those employees in possession of a penis, then they would (rightly) invite a raft of litigation. ‘Positive’ discrimination – an oxymoron, of course – is still discrimination. However, if one could prove that women were, in fact, at a biological disadvantage at chess, then potential criticism would be blunted. This might be an unpalatable conclusion to the militant feminists, but I suspect that Gibraltar, in which females have produced numerous superb performances over the years, does more for the women’s game than any amount of ideological grandstanding.

In round seven of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival in January 2012 Judit Polgar, 35, rated 2710 at the time, had black against the reigning Women's World Champion Hou Yifan of China, 17 years old and rated 2605. Yifan won in 45 moves. She also finished the event in shared first place, with 8.0/10 points and a rating performance of 2872.

High female drop-out rates are something of a mystery to this writer, and I am not referring to the traditional reasons of marriage and motherhood. People tend to stick at what they are good at, which makes it surprising how many girls drift away from chess, for no obvious reason, despite having represented their country. If one can retain a place on the national team with minimal effort, then why quit? Should it not be a matter of pride and honour? And if patriotism is not important, then why not, at least, selfishly enjoy a few foreign trips?

A noteworthy but atypical example of premature retirement is Susan Polgar, who, a handful of games notwithstanding, effectively quit chess the moment she became Women’s World Champion in 1996, at the age of 27. Like an earlier World Champion of Hungarian Jewish origin – Bobby Fischer – her demands for defending her title, against Xie Jun in 1999, smacked of insincerity given that her actions, or rather lack of them, demonstrated she had no inclination to play at all. Substantial sponsorship perhaps played its part in luring her back to competitive chess for the 2004 Calvia Olympiad where, despite an inevitable degree of rustiness, she did surprisingly well. However, just two years later this brief flicker of playing activity abruptly ceased. Her husband and business manager, the twice bankrupt Paul Truong – who claims to have won the Vietnamese Junior (under 21) Championship at the age of 5, and to have been kidnapped by pirates on several occasions while narrowly escaping death by circling sharks – continues to run her successful, relentless, self-publicity machine. He has not, as yet, been abducted by aliens, but it is surely only a matter of time.

Given Susan Polgar’s undoubted genuine achievements – such as being the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title conventionally by making three norms – it is tragic that her brand is tarnished by extravagant and literally incredible claims like her supposed world record in 2005 of playing 1,131 games consecutively (winning 1,112!) in just 990 minutes. This works out at just 52.5 seconds per game – although it would be somewhat less when one takes into account bathroom breaks. Given that she was walking around the whole time, which causes a second or seconds to be lost on very move, for this record not to be fictitious would require an extraordinary high number of Scholar’s Mates. It is hard to understand why an emotionally stable individual would even imagine anyone else might believe this record to be genuine.

In stark contrast, her younger sister, Judit Polgar, has never been in need of bombast and hyperbole to support a fragile ego, preferring always to let her magnificent results speak for themselves. After a glorious trail-blazing career, smashing every record in sight, she has now moved on to different projects. Having demonstrated what women are capable of, her mantle has been passed to Hou Yifan. Whether the young Chinese World Champion will equal or surpass Judit’s achievements is a matter of conjecture, but she is, beyond doubt, the best hope to do so.

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.

Facebook reactions

On Monday, after the press storm broke, Nigel Short posted the following on his Facebook page:

Actually the story broke on Monday on page three of The Telegraph and written by Leon Watson. Everyone else copied it, as you would expect – first the Daily Mail, then the Independent, then everyone else in the UK and the rest of the world. Nigel's pointer to the story led to a vigorous discussion in Facebook with many interesting views and additional information. Here are a few excerpts:

  • Gerhard Schebler: Several studies have shown the hippocampi of men and women to differ anatomically, neurochemically, and also in degree of long-term potentiation. Such evidence indicates that sex should influence the role of the hippocampus in learning. One experiment examined the effects of stress on Pavlovian conditioning performance in both sexes and found that males’ performance under stress was enhanced while female performance was impaired. Activation of the hippocampus is more dominant on the left side of hippocampus in females, while it is more dominant on the right side in males. This in turn influences cognitive reasoning; women use more verbal strategies than men when performing a task that requires cognitive thinking. The hippocampus’s relationship with other structures in the brain influences learning and has been found to be sexually dimorphic as well.

  • Kevin Goh Wei Ming: Yet another classic example of a knee-jerk reaction from the media. No one could have expected such a huge response but Nigel Short, admit it, I bet you are loving all of it.

  • Sarah De Lisle: The common presumption in the Western world is that women are no good at maths as their brains are wired differently - surprisingly then that in Asia women outperform men at maths and Asian maths standards are higher...nature or nurture? When a man decided his daughters were going to be top chess players, and nurtured them thus, they became top chess players! Nature or nurture? As for brain wiring, look into neuroplasticity...brain wiring can be culturally dependent....

  • Exicu Pro: Not quite true Sarah. When a man decided that his daughters would be top chess players one of them became a top player and the other two became very strong and among the top women players only. It was also a very deliberate and extreme example. The point Nigel was making was just a general point that there are tangible differences and effects because our brains are wired differently. There is also the very understandable notion that the real reason why there are so few female chess player and even fewer good ones is because overall women are far too sane and sensible to be wasting so much time on just one thing that requires and obsessive level of attention and time and instead live life more fully and are generally all the better for this. Important to understand that it is not a question of better rather than different and tendency rather than absolute.

  • Louise Scarlett Sinclair Exicu: I think a lot of this emphasis - that women are not obsessive and are living life more fully could translate to "women are like butterflies. They flit hither with no real interest in one topic due to their scatter brained minds."

  • Mig Greengard: FWIW I disagree with your conclusion but not the basic theory of difference. Men and women are different, sure, but the manifestation in elite chess is based on hyper-competitiveness from upbringing and testosterone and the proto-autistic obsessiveness that males demonstrate 30 to 1 over women. (Again, partly genetic but competitive & anti-social behavior is also routinely rewarded in boys and punished in girls, like so many other things.) Eventually more women lack the incentives and the desire/ability to care about and study and play chess enough to get to GM-level, not the *cognitive* capacity to play chess very well. Men are also far more into collecting things obsessively and competitively as well and nobody argues women just aren't good at buying comic books. Men and women do show slightly different cognitive capabilities at different ages, too, but to a fine enough degree to impact their skill level at chess is very unlikely. We'd have to have similar rates of participation at the amateur/club level to really test that. If we saw equal performance at 1400 or 2000 but it dropped off notably at 2500 with equal participation throughout there's be a cognitive case to look into. This is all why Garry's (equally ill-advised) "not great fighters" comment sort of makes sense to me while the cognitive argument doesn't. Far fewer women than men giving a shit about chess has the same statistical impact on their being bad at it, but it's not the same thing. (Not to mention the hugely sexist atmosphere putting so many girls and women off the sport, but can shelve that for now!)

  • Hannah Lowry O'Reilly: I think it is because chess is a game that requires A LOT of TIME and training and generally girls in a lot of countries where chess is big and where the major players come from, girls stop in their teens! It is nothing to do with girls not being as good, it is just the role that society imposes on females which reduces the number of females in the game and then inevitably there are more men in the top 50 list than females!

  • Helen Milligan: Hannah, note that huge numbers of boys also give up in their teens. Just shows up more for girls because by that stage there are already fewer. Mig, yes! Different stuff going on in the brain but no proof that this is correlated with chess success. Still looks like a result of participation rates to me (though I would like to see the Georgia data that Nigel mentions). I have a slight suspicion that despite the low participation rates, women are over-represented in higher rating bands (though not present at the top, just yet. GIve it time. When I started playing, women were enormously fewer and weaker than now... Since all female chess players seem to be determined to moan about sexism in chess today....can I point out that things are far worse in other areas. My experience of (trying to be) an astrophysicist is a case in point. The casual sexism in the technical academic world is dire, and there is no way to refute it by beating the guys, as you can do in chess! You have to play the political system as well as be better than the men. No wonder participation rates of females are low. And there are no girly prizes in academia either - no wPhD (or should that be wDSc for Dr Short?!). No getting trips to foreign conferences ahead of equally 'strong' but male colleagues. Also, no suggestion that the low number of women suggests that they can't do it just as well - in fact it is pretty widely accepted that they are driven out by the unbearable atmosphere...

We take this opportunity to remind you that Nigel has recorded two excellent DVDs on his chess career.

Nigel Short:
Greatest Hits Vol. 1 + 2

Languages: English
Delivery: Download, Post
Level: Any
Price per volumn: €32.90 or €27.65 without VAT (for customers outside the EU) $29.57 (without VAT)

Born in1965, is an English grandmaster who, at the early age of ten, defeated Viktor Korchnoi in a simultaneous. Celebrated by the British media as a "chess prodigy", Short participated in the British Championship for the first time at the age of twelve.

In the Youth WCh in Dortmund in 1980 Nigel came in second behind Garry Kasparov. Thirteen years later the pair would sit on opposite sides of the board for a real WCh match. Previously, Short had eliminated from the FIDE candidates cycle of 1991/92 Jonathan Speelman, Boris Gelfand and surprisingly Anatoly Karpov. In the candidates final Short also overcame Jan Timman and thus qualified for a WCh final against World Champion Kasparov. However, both of them refused to play under the aegis of the world chess federation FIDE and founded a so-called professional association, the Professional Chess Association (PCA). Finally Short was defeated by Kasparov in the PCA World Championship in London 1993 by 7½:12½. The result was surprisingly one-sided. Because Short had already indicated in his younger years what an excellent match player he was with a demoralising 7:1 victory over the naturalised American Lev Alburt. He also came in first in the very strong four-man tournament in Amsterdam in 1988, 1992 and 1993. A selection of his other tournament victories reads as follows: Wijk aan Zee 1986 and 1987 (equal on points with Viktor Korchnoi), Reykjavik 1987, Groningen 1996, Budapest 2003. Short has represented England in 14 chess Olympiads. He has two children and lives with his family in Greece.

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New In Chess (NIC) was founded in 1984 and appears eight times a year. It is read by club players in 116 countries. A yearly subscription for eight issues costs €79.99.