Women’s chess: ‘It is not biology’

by Frederic Friedel
12/13/2021 – When Beth Harmon defeated a series of top male grandmasters, and then went on to wrest the title from Russian world champion Vasily Borgov, it was not real life. It happened in the Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix series that did more for chess than anything else in 2020. In reality, today there is not a single active female player in the top 100. But FIDE wants to change that, as the Guardian reports.

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The Netflix series drew vast new audience of people who became interested in the game. Beth Harmond became a household name, eponymous with female excellence in chess. But the reality, now that Hou Yifan of China, who is ranked 83rd in the world, has gone into semi-retirement and is focusing on academia (she is now a professor at Shenzhen University), there is not a single active woman’s player in the top 100. And only a handful in the top 1000.

Experts have sought explanations for the gender difference. In 2015 Nigel Short, vice president of FIDE, claimed in The Guardian that “men are hardwired to be better chess players than women, you have to gracefully accept that.” The greatest ever female player, Judit Polgar, who has a winning record against Nigel, told The Guardian: “It is not down to biology. It’s just as possible for a woman to become the best as any guy. But there are so many difficulties and social boundaries for women generally in society. That is what blocks it.”

The Guardian has taken up the subject in a November 29 story by Sean Ingle. In it, he reports that FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich is pushing hard to make the game more welcoming for women:

The organisation has designated 2022 as ‘Year of Woman in Chess’, however Dvorkovich accepts more can be done to help women progress to the very top. “Around 13-14 years old we find that girls leave while boys continue to play in large numbers,” he adds. “We need to change that. Personally I would also like to see more women in the top 10. But chess is not just about professional play.

And Judit Polgar: she points out the attitudes among most men have shifted from an era when the legendary world champion, Bobby Fischer, used to dismiss women players as “terrible”, telling them to “keep strictly to the home”. She says

“Nowadays most of the top players would not dare even to say – or even to think that way, Fischer was the most ridiculous. And another world champion, Garry Kasparov, also said some things because he grew up in that kind of environment.

“But when I came in the picture, and I was torturing Garry at the board, little by little he transformed his vision. So this is what I’m saying: many people think that people - or the community - cannot change. But it is possible.”

Read the full story "'It is not biology’: Women’s chess hindered by low numbers and sexism" in the Guardian

Also read

You cannot say we have ignored the subject of gender difference in chess. Here are the articles we published in the last ten years. Anyone want to make a scientific paper on it?

Amanda Chen: Addressing Sexism in Chess: A Guide to Making Chess More Inclusive
4/13/2021 – Nature or nurture? Much more men play chess than women and with a rating of 2658 Hou Yifan is the world's number one women player but on the world ranking list she is on place 85. The numbers alone suggest that there is a gender gap in chess. But why? And how should the chess world deal with this situation? Amanda Chen, chess fan and a student of Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University shares a few observations and ideas.

Wei Ji Ma: What gender gap in chess?
10/15/2020 – If you want to compare chess achievements between men and women, writes Professor Wei Ji Ma of NYU, given their vastly unequal numbers, it is a very bad idea to focus on the top male and female players. If you do you will need to account for the participation gap using an analysis similar to the one he presents. Prof. Ma supplies the tools needed to refute the theory of female inferiority. 

Mint: Why women lose at chess
10/5/2020 – Mint, one of India’s premium business news publications, just published an article written by Omkar Khandekar focused on the rating gap between the top men and women chess players. The author wonders whether it has to do with conventional gender roles or unequal access. 

Investigating gender differences in chess pattern recognition
2/21/2020 – Here's an opportunity to support chess research. Tom Koolen bills himself as an "interdisciplinary data scientist" and a chess player, who's attempting to get a research project off the ground using the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. Commentator WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni has promoted the project on social media.

Alexey Root: 'Women’s Chess' and equal footing
12/16/2019 – As Honorary Director of the London Chess Conference, which had the theme in 2019 of Chess and Female Empowerment, Grandmaster Judit Polgár wrote, “I make a point of never separating girls and boys, nor awarding special prizes for girls...Meanwhile, national federations use their resources, and public subsidies are creating more female-only competitions. It is high time to consider the consequences of this segregation — because in the end, our goal must be that women and men compete with one another on an equal footing.” 

David Smerdon: The best (and worst) countries to be a female chess player
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. 

Wei Ji Ma: Women in chess: role of innate-ability beliefs
5/30/2015 – What could the chess world learn from problems in the academic world, with regard to the participation of men and women? This "gender gap" is much bigger in physics or music composition than in molecular biology or psychology. A recent study found what matters is whether people believe you need to be brilliant to succeed in the field. Prof. Wei Ji Ma tells us what this study might mean for chess. 

Frederic Friedel: Chess gender debate in the international press
4/21/2015 – The latest issue of the Dutch magazine New in Chess carried an article entitled "Vive la Différence!". In it the former World Championship challenger Nigel Short provocatively claims that there are genetic reasons why men are more successful in chess than women. This two-page article went viral, was picked up by the international news services and generated a world-wide media storm. 

Robert Howard: Explaining male predominance in chess
6/19/2014 – There are two theories to explain male predominance at the apex of intellectual achievement: some attribute it to some innate evolutionary ability differences, others to social factors of present-day society. Robert Howard of Sydney, Australia, has sent us the most profound and well-researched article we have seen on this subject – we urge everyone to read it.

Peter Zhdanov: Do Women Have a Chance against Men in Chess?
3/8/2012 – As we know all too well: most of the strongest players in the world are male. In the past we have speculated on the reasons for this gender discrepancy, with vigorous reader participation. On International Women's Day Peter Zhdanov, who is married to a very strong female player, provides us with some valuable statistics, comparing men and women on a country-by-country basis. Eye-opening. 


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.

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