Towards the back end of last year, Netflix aired a seven-episode drama series called THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. It was based on a 1983 novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis (1928 – 1984) and centred around a 13-year-old female chess prodigy.
Thanks to the show – and also probably the global pandemic – chess had, and continues to have, a bit of a moment. According to eBay, the retail site saw a remarkable 273% surge in sales of chess sets in the first 10 days of the Netflix series’ release.
The world’s most popular game – made to feel fresh, kinetic and by all reports, damn near sensual by this most recent film treatment – seemed worth finding out a little bit more about. And so I set my sights on taking a tour of the quirky and completely brilliant world of competitive chess. I discovered some interesting things along the way.
My starting point was visiting the website chess.com
Like tennis, golf, athletics, swimming, darts, snooker and many other recreational sports, chess has its own world rankings system for elite players.
World chess competition is governed by a controlling body known as the International Chess Federation based in Switzerland. Founded almost a hundred years ago in 1924, this organization, usually referred to by it’s French acronym FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) publishes a list of the Top 100 Chess Players in the world every month.
The listing on chess.com stretches to the top 138 ranked players in the world. I started at the #1 position – Norwegian Magnus Carlsen – and began scrolling down, waiting to see when the first female name would appear in the list.
Nothing in the Top Ten so I kept going down. The Top Twenty and Top Thirty also came up blank for females. When I’d reached the 40th ranked player and still no female names had appeared, I scrolled back up, thinking I’d missed someone. Nope. No females listed in the World’s Top 40 ranked chess players.
Top 50 – no. Top 60 – no. Top 70 – also no. It wasn’t until I reached the name Hou Yifan from China, ranked as the 83rd best chess player in the world, that I was able to see a female included in the list. Hou Yifan, revealingly, is the ONLY female listed in the Top 100 World Chess rankings.
At just 26 years of age, Hou Yifan is a Professor at Shenzhen University in China. She is the youngest person ever to earn that accreditation at Shenzhen. She has been described as “an exceptional genius” and someone who is “leaps and bounds” ahead of her female contemporaries.
And perhaps most significant to the curious phenomena under consideration here, she is widely considered to be the second greatest female chess player who has ever lived (behind Hungary’s Judit Polgar (1976 – )).
And yet… and I say this with nothing… absolutely nothing but the greatest of respect and deference for a mind light years ahead of my own…she can ONLY make it as high as number 83 in the world rankings.
When you also take into account the fact Hou Yifan is only the third female to EVER crack the Top 100 World Chess rankings since official rankings have existed, then it’s clear something is going on. That ‘something’ is what might be termed a dinky di, boss-sized ‘gender gap’ in the world of competitive chess.
Leave it to your intrepid sleuth reporter SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK to unearth the inscrutable and in-no-small way enigmatic ‘How come?’
In a great many sports – name pretty much any sport you like – women are incapable of competing equally against men. Males have inherent physical advantages in the areas of muscle mass, speed and strength. This gender ‘superiority’ makes biological sense and is hard to argue against. Men are simply just generally bigger and stronger.
By contrast, chess isn’t a physical game, it’s a game of the mind. Some have labelled it the ultimate intellectual contest. And yet… males dominate at the top in chess. That’s not ‘just a little bit’ dominate. That’s completely, universally and unequivocally DOMINATE.
Almost all grandmasters are male, there has never been a female world champion and only one female, Hungary’s Judit Polgar, has ever reached the official top ten rating list (at her peak, Polgar reached #8 in the world in 2005).
How then to account for this male dominance – with the very occasional notable exception like Judit Polgar – at the top in chess when physical strength does not enter the equation?
The first point of note is that male predominance in chess parallels that in domains such as mathematics, physics and engineering, which may tap some similar abilities and propensities.
Prior to the 20th century, it was a commonly held view that men were intellectually superior to women. Early brain studies comparing mass and volumes between the sexes concluded that women were intellectually inferior because they have smaller and lighter brains.
During the early twentieth century, the scientific consensus shifted to the view that gender plays no role in intelligence. And yet in so many fields of what may be characterized as ‘high intellect‘ – chess included – females are underrepresented, bordering on invisible.
The graphs below serve as but one example. Fields such as physics, chemistry and physiology would all be regarded as areas requiring high intellect. And yet, using Nobel Prize recognition as a measure, females hardly rate a blip on the radar screen.
A closer anaylsis of male brain and female brain intelligence reveals that while men’s and women’s average IQ is pretty much identical the distribution within each sex is different.
Let’s say the average IQ for both men and women is 100, well, the vast majority of women are on that average (obviously with some exceptions), whereas quite a few men can be way above it or way below it.
This is why we have so many male geniuses but on the flip side it is also why men fill the prisons. Some people would contend that men – generally speaking – are better analytical thinkers and problem solvers and since there is direct correlation between IQ and being good at chess, this is one, albeit, controversial explanation of the gender gulf between the sexes that exists in the world of top level chess.
Although there is a degree of truth in the simplified and perhaps slightly outdated gender stereotypes represented by the two illustrations above, I personally am more comfortable with the ‘mosaic’ idea of what is seen as typically male and typically female traits, as put forward in this 2019 book..
Having acknowledged the downside of gender stereotypes in their propensity to be in equal measure porous, blurring and simplistic, I’ll concede to finding playful truth in the depiction below –
Returning to the subject of chess, some researchers would suggest the under-representation of women in top level chess is due to social factors.
It can be argued social pressures discourage women from being competitive and, like snooker, chess is seen more as a male pursuit which means less females take it up as a hobby and so the talent pool from which to draw is much reduced compared to men.
This leads on to the question of the purpose and validity of female-only chess tournaments. In addition to publishing it’s monthly list of rankings for the Top 100 Chess Players in the World, The International Chess Federation (FIDE) also publishes lists for ” The Top 100 Women” – “The Top 100 Juniors” and “The Top 100 Girls”.
Jennifer Shahade (that’s her with the pink hair above) is one person who holds strong views on the importance of female-only chess tournaments and separate titles and rankings for women and girl players.
Shahade holds the title of WOMAN GRANDMASTER and was at one time, back in the early 2000’s, considered the best American-born female to ever play the game. Her father before her was a chess FIDE MASTER and her brother is a chess INTERNATIONAL MASTER.
This is her in the ‘Hula-Chess’ video below. From someone who can’t play either chess or keep a hula-hoop twirling around my hips for anything more than a few seconds, this video is pretty impressive –
Shahade believes by introducing separate titles for women (with admittedly much lower performance criteria than ‘Open’ titles open to either gender) the world chess body FIDE has helped create female role models in chess.
This, she believes, has provided women a ‘leg up’ to help increase exposure for female chess with the flow-on effect of increasing participation at the grass roots junior girls level (see video below)
Other commentators have suggested separate titles for women (with lower performance standards) is mildly patronizing and that women-only tournaments assume that females are somehow intellectually inferior.
Former world #8 ranked player – not world #8 ranked female but world number 8 ranked player – Judit Polgar refused to play in anything but ‘Open’ tournaments. Her belief was and still is the end goal must be that women and men compete with one another on an equal footing.
Yet segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially and make friends with people with whom they have similar interests.
Considering the participation rate – probably due to cultural reasons – for woman and girls playing chess is so much lower than for men, separate rankings, tournaments and junior leagues for girls allow chess to grow and develop in an under-represented area.