(Why) are men better chess players than women?

by Vera Spillner
5/14/2019 – Men in chess have higher ratings then women. Is this due to more male players being involved in serious chess? Or is there an innate difference between the sexes? Bruno Wiesend has a new critique of the "participation rate" hypothesis. VERA SPILLNER summarizes the findings.

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Questioning Gender Studies on Chess

A famous and often-cited 2009 publication by Bilalic, Smallbone, McLeod & Gobet (PDF) has been a favourite study for many people, including the media, like "Der Spiegel". Their publication implied that men are rated higher in chess simply and only because more men are playing tournament chess than women do; their approach was consequently named the "participation rate approach". This paper was most prominently criticized by a 2014 publication by Howard — who concluded that the gap in performance was in fact not explicable by the number of players, but rather that there had to be a difference in brain performance. His approach is therefore called the "Natural talent hypothesis". Who is right?

A recent analysis by Bruno Wiesend, "Questioning Gender Studies on Chess" (PDF), sheds new light on the 2009 participation rate approach — and, in fact, discards it as unsound.
The new publication shows in detail which statistical approximations were made by Bilalic — and why these approximations were methodologically unjustified and do not hold under the given circumstances.

If the latest paper, which makes use of quite involved and advanced statistical methods like the Monte Carlo method, is indeed correct, it proves that the point gap between male and female performance can in fact not at all be explained through participation rates — at least not in the way Bilalic has done this in 2009. It furthermore then would be true that stronger players also are not stronger because they play more games — as had been implied by earlier studies — but rather that stronger players reach their performance limit earlier; this may mean that they seem to only play more games because they like what they are doing — and it supports the natural talent hypothesis.

Boy at chess board

All previous publication heavily drew on FIDE and other international chess databases. But what do these really tell us about the natural talent hypothesis? They generally do not provide much data on players before the age of 10 years. The reason is that often players only then start playing in FIDE rated chess tournaments. However, it is within these early years that chess talent can still — to a point — be created or bolstered through intensive practice, as seen in the case of the Polgar sisters, who were intensively trained from the age of 4, with Judit Polgar eventually becoming the strongest female player of all time.

The latest publication raises one more interesting fact: it seems that female players drop out earlier from tournament chess than males do, on average. The authors ask why at all this fact seems to emerge, and speculate whether this is due to chess being a war game and thus more attractive to males. Whatever the reason, this early drop-out rate could be responsible for females lagging behind at an early and critical brain development time — making it harder or even impossible to close the gap later.


Download (PDF) "Questioning Gender Studies on Chess"


About Bruno Wiesend

Bruno Wiesend


Born in 1955 from Munich, Bruno Wiesend earned his doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry and became interested in chess in 1980 on the occasion of the candidates final between Hübner and Korchnoi. His peak FIDE rating was 2153 in 2005, and he is currently no longer active as a player, but has nevertheless remained faithful to chess and has been engaged in chess research.


See also



Topics: Gender, research, Women

Quantum physicist, polyglot and violinist. Earned her PhD at the Institut für Philosophie in Bonn, studied quantum physics (special area of expertise: string theory) at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Heidelberg.
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eric b eric b 5/16/2019 07:50
@Pieces in Motion

"It's most likely biological. Men have bigger brains than women and brain size connotes intelligence. Testosterone too, perhaps?"

Oh God, you didn't actually mean that did you Pieces? Or are you somehow trying to mock the idea?

I stated in my previous comment that I believe in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, and I did proposed that there may be some type of cognitive differences between men and women when it comes to the game of chess, but I certainly did not mean what you said! What you said about brain size and testosterone is patently untrue. If you are trying to make a valid point, then your reasoning is extremely simplistic and unscientific. If there are any neurological or biological aspects to this, it is vastly more complicated, subtle, and specific in nature.
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 5/15/2019 12:48
It's most likely biological. Men have bigger brains than women and brain size connotes intelligence. Testosterone too, perhaps? The drive and the desire to win which is crucial in Chess which have been exhibited by all the world champions of the game.
Peter B Peter B 5/15/2019 02:23
@eric b - thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree there is difference between the sexes, but it appears to be more about personality and motivation, than innate spatial/cognitive ability. What I mean is, to be really good at chess you need to work pretty intensely, and men (and boys) tend to have more obsessive personalities. There is also the competitive factor, which males seem to need more. Add to that, boys are more likely to be encouraged in pursuits like chess. [Anecodatally, it seems to me that girls start out just as strong, but the ones who improve the most are almost all boys, which would support a theory of equal ability but unequal motivation].

But the difference is, the personality/motivation factor can be overcome in the right environment, as shown by the Polgars. (And to a lesser extent, others like Hou Yifan who have made the top 100). If the difference was cognitive ability, no amount of environment or training could put a woman into the top 100 in the world; just as no amount of training has ever put a single woman at the top level of men's physical sports. That's my theory anyway :)
Classique Classique 5/14/2019 11:48
There are more hypotheses in heaven and earth than "participation rate" and "innate talent." Debating the former is one thing; falling back all the way to the latter is quite another. Not that it's impossible that it should be true, but it would just be really hard to show. Anyway, to do so would require a lot more than this! It's not as if society is offering a controlled experiment. You'll never untangle all the variables. And why try?
eric b eric b 5/14/2019 11:08
@Peter B

"@eric b : "A single example cannot be used in any meaningful way to determine the truth." -- I disagree. In science, a single (verified) example can be all that it takes to rule out a particular hypothesis."

I agree with you on this point Peter (and I thought of it after I wrote it). For example, if you have a hypothesis that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and you then find life on another planet, that single example pretty much confirms that life exists elsewhere in the universe. However, I think this is a little different. Perhaps it would be better to put it this way, men "on average" have a greater innate aptitude for achieving high-level chess play than women. Some women, like Judit Polgar, may achieve equal skill at the game, but on average men might achieve a higher level of play due to some inherent quality in how the male brain operates. Of course, we need to be careful in how we phrase this. This does not mean that men are smarter than women, or that social factors do not come into play. It only means that men are, for some reason, better at this particular game. I'm a strong believer in both evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. The physical differences between men and women are obvious. When it comes to cognitive abilities the issue is much more complex as the human brain is the most complex organ. Social and cultural factors cannot be ruled out, but evolution may have played a role in certain areas of perception and cognition due to different environmental pressures and needs placed on either sex during our evolution. Chess may simply utilize parts of the brain that males, on average, have a greater aptitude for than females. For the same reason women, on average, may have a greater aptitude than men in other areas of cognition. People naturally resist this idea due to its political and social overtones, but it doesn't have to be that way. We can look at it purely scientifically and without prejudice.
Alpha Zero Alpha Zero 5/14/2019 12:18
It's no mystery. Men have a higher variability. Case closed.
Pionki Pionki 5/14/2019 11:36
Alpha Zero, Even if this is true, no-one will lend you an ear.
Pionki Pionki 5/14/2019 11:31
There we go again with the question (that no-one can answer).
Peter Catt Peter Catt 5/14/2019 11:11
Why only apply the analysis to chess? How many women reach the top in Go, Draughts or Checkers, Shogi, Scrabble or any other board game for that matter?
allytton allytton 5/14/2019 10:39
I know many young girl players that are very good. All these girls are strongly supported by their families. One young girl named Rianne Ke. She lived in China until she was a little over four years old. She was first taught chess there at 4 years old. Her parents have her go to a brick and mortar chess school for children in Southern California. She is a Candidate Master and believe she's 13 or 14 years old. Girls are not given the same opportunity that boys are given.
gerando gerando 5/14/2019 09:42
The title of the aricle unfortunately reproduces gender sterotypes. It would have been more accurate to ask : why domen haver higher elos, and as he paper seems to point out, earlier drop-out, cause by different forms of socialisation between boys and girls, is the main answer.
Peter B Peter B 5/14/2019 08:21
@eric b : "A single example cannot be used in any meaningful way to determine the truth." -- I disagree. In science, a single (verified) example can be all that it takes to rule out a particular hypothesis.

At the very least, the example of Polgar disproves the notion that men are innately better by a similar margin by which they are innately better at nearly all physical sports. For instance, in the 100 metres sprint, schoolboys regularly beat the female world record (and that's before we debate whether the world record of 10.49 was wind assisted). No woman would be in the top 1000 in the world, probably not even the top 10,000 -- never mind the top 10.

Any theory on the relative strength of the sexes needs to account of all the data, including the performances of Judit Polgar.
eric b eric b 5/14/2019 07:45
@Peter B

You state that "If men were innately better, Judit Polgar would not have been able to make the top 10 in the world". Come on Peter, you know better than this. The performance of one female player, albeit an exceptional one, cannot be used as a statistical average. A single example cannot be used in any meaningful way to determine the truth. In any large statistical sample there will always be exceptions. This in no way diminishes what Judit Polgar achieved, but her example alone cannot be used to either prove or disprove the argument here.
staleno staleno 5/14/2019 05:56
A few obvious things that may be part of the explanation, but are not discussed: 1) Many female players quit chess early on because there are few women/girls in the community. 2) To become a strong player you need to be very dedicated, and men/boys typically enjoy getting deeply immersed in strange hobbies such as chess.
John Upper John Upper 5/14/2019 04:11
Don't men have a higher standard deviation than women in all things?

If so, then we should also expect men to dominate the other end of the bell curve -- the incompetent end -- but I've never seen any report on chess skill that looks at the low performers.
Peter B Peter B 5/14/2019 02:23
If men were innately better, Judit Polgar would not have been able to make the top 10 in the world. To be world class, you've got to start young, and boys are both more inclined to like chess, and more likely to be encouraged to pursue it. Judit Polgar shows that there is no barrier to girls, if they are interested in chess and are in the right environment.
Alpha Zero Alpha Zero 5/14/2019 01:07
Isn't the easiest explanation of the phenomenon of more men in elite chess just pointing to the fact that men's intellectual capacity seems to have a higher variability?
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