Where Are All The Grandmistresses?

Why does the gender gap persist in chess?

Dominic Lawson

Nigel Short is not merely the only Briton to have fought his way to a world championship chess match; he is also a talented controversialist, as those who read his regular column in that excellent magazine New In Chess can attest. His most recent contribution did more than just stir up the chess world: it generated furious debate throughout the mainstream media.

Yet Short’s theme was rather hackneyed. Under the headline “Vive La Difference!” the English grandmaster rolled out the familiar opinion that there is something innately different between the brains of men and women which means that the latter can never be a match at chess for those of us with a Y chromosome. “Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?” wrote Short, attacking what he called “that irritating modern psychological urge to prove all of us, everywhere, are equal”.

This duly enraged all the people Short had intended to infuriate. At the risk of swallowing the same bait, I shall take issue with my old friend — because this is, actually, a most interesting discussion when the sound and fury is removed.

It is true that only one woman — Judit Polgar — has ever been a match for the best men: the Hungarian prodigy once got as high as world-ranked eighth. Apart from her, only one other female has reached even the top 100 list: that is the woman’s world champion Hou Yifan, now at 55th in the rankings. At 21 years of age, Yifan has obvious potential for improvement.

More than six years ago in Standpoint I wrote on this theme, having come across a significant new paper by a group of Oxford psychology academics, led by Merim Bilalic. It asserted that the relative under-performance of women was a statistical phenomenon, rather than anything connected with “different wiring”. Analysing the number of rated German chess players of both genders, it demonstrated that the distribution of ratings among females was exactly what one might expect given that there were far fewer of them than males. This is akin to the fact that there are many more highly-rated chessplayers from China than there are from, say, Luxembourg: the talent pool is vastly bigger.

In other words, if as many women were playing chess as men, Bilalic and his colleagues argued, you would have as many women contesting at the highest level. I buy the statistical argument. But it misses out the first stage of the process. Why is it, precisely, that there are far fewer rated female chess players in Germany (and elsewhere) than males? There are countries where prejudice and discrimination against women certainly do keep them away from the chess board — it is a big problem in India, as the International Master Nisha Mohota pointed out in a response to Nigel Short. But in modern Germany, the land of Angela Merkel? Not so much.

Serendipitously, I had a chance to discuss this with one of Bilalic’s co-authors, Professor Peter McLeod, after last month’s memorial service for P.D. James (Peter is the late novelist’s son-in-law). I agreed with him that the issue was nothing to do with differential intelligence — not least because the world’s best male chessplayers do not usually have genius-level IQs. But I suggested there was something about chess which seemed to obsess men much more than it does women. He agreed with the proposition and added (in a written postscript to our discussion): “Trying to understand why this should be is more likely to uncover a major difference in the sexes than looking for a cognitive explanation for the greater number of males among the best players.”

This question was addressed back in the 1970s by the witty Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner: “During their games, chessplayers are incommunicado, they are imprisoned. What is going on in their heads is narcissistic self-gratification with a minimum of objective reality, a wordless sniffing and grabbing in a bottomless pit. Women do not like that and who is to blame them?”

A few months ago I had this insight confirmed, and from an impeccable source. Hou Yifan, who as a young teenager was the strongest chessplayer of her age in the world, ahead of all the young male talents, told me she was by no means sure she wanted to play chess for the rest of her life. She said she had other things she wanted to do and experience — and as a result had temporarily stopped playing in order to get a degree in International Relations. This echoes the outlook of Judit Polgar’s sister Sofia, who at the age of 14 had herself achieved global fame by winning a tournament in Italy ahead of several male grandmasters, with the phenomenal score of eight wins, one draw, and no losses. Yet Sofia gave up chess altogether, declaring: “It’s not that chess was too much for me; it was too little.”

In other words, it is not an in-built shortage of cognitive powers that stops women from scaling the summit, but of the desire to attempt it at the expense of everything else the world can offer. I for one hope Hou continues to play the game at which she has such an extraordinary gift — as she demonstrated back in 2008 with this precocious victory over . . . Nigel Short.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Be7 6.Qe2 Nd6 7.Bxc6 bxc6 8.dxe5 Nb7 (This looks strange, but is a defence favoured by the great Emanuel Lasker. Maybe Short thought his 13-year-old opponent would be unfamiliar with this line from the early years of the previous century) 9.c4 0-0 10.Nc3 Re8 11.Rd1 Bf8 (Short’s last two moves are too slow, as Hou now demonstrates) 12.Bg5 f6 13.Bh4 g5 14.Bg3 d6 15.Ne4! Bg4? (Black had to try 15…fxe5 16.Nfxg5 h6 17.Nf3 Bg7 when White would still be better, but not decisively so) 16.exf6! (Avoiding 16.Nxf6+?? Qxf6! winning a piece for Black) Bh5 17.Qe3 Bh6 (If 17…h6 18.Nfxg5! with a winning attack) 18.Ne5! Rxe5 19.Bxe5 Bxd1 20.Rxd1 Qe8 21.Bc3 Nd8 22.f7+! Qxf7 23.Nf6+ and Short resigned. He is helpless. If, for example, 23…Kh8 then 24.Re1 Bg7 25.Qe8+ Qf8 26.Qh5 Bxf6 27.Re8 wins the Queen.

Who knows, perhaps Nigel underestimated his opponent?

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