• jennifervallens

Nothing Wrong with Playing like a Girl

After attending several tournaments and starting a chess club at my son’s school, I started to wonder why chess is so dominated by men. There are many theories to explain why more men reach the Grandmaster level and have successful chess careers.


One theory suggests that genetics is the primary reason for the discrepancy. Some believe that men out- class women in logic and strategy and the ability to focus is a born trait, whereas women are more inclined to be social creatures and are built to multi- task. Since chess is a game that requires intense concentration and strategic planning, it is a naturally better suited game for men. The theory suggests that it is no different from other fields of study where men dominate, such as engineering and mathematics.


Another theory suggests that upbringing is the root to why a divide exists. Girls are taught not to compete or be aggressive. Intimidation may also play a role as to why the ratio of boys to girls at tournaments is so skewed. Most people start their interest in chess around the age of 8. Developmentally at this age, there is a huge gender separation. Peer acceptance is crucial. We see a huge dropout rate at the age of 14 and 15 among girl chess players. Because the game is so dominated by boys at this age, girls may simply be at a disadvantage early on and don’t get the encouragement from parents and peers, nor the necessary practice needed to become proficient.


Some believe there is a disparity because the countries where chess is so highly respected are also the countries where women are undervalued members of society. However, even in the United States where there is more equality between genders, there is not a proportionally significant increase in the number of professional women players.


According to an article “Why Men Rank Higher than Women at Chess (It’s Not Biological)” written by Lisa Zyga http://phys.org/news150954140.html, the answer is simple statistics. More men play, therefore the chances are much greater for them to move on and become world chess elite. For more statistics, please see http://en.chessbase.com/post/do-women-have-a-chance- against-men-in-che-


Some believe the reason is based on interest. Men tend to be more competitive and although women can play as well as men, they are not driven to win like men and therefore don’t pursue chess competitively. The mere fact that chess mimics war and girls tend to shy away from war games, could have some validity. There is even a Saturday Night Live parody titled “Chess forGirls” where Mattel has “femmed” the game to appeal to girls by dressing the pieces in pink and making the Knights look like unicorns.


Another idea worthy to note is that although there are women who defy the stereotypes and succeed at competitive chess, they are often unable to reach the same level of success as male Grandmasters because child rearing and family life interrupt their chess careers while at their peak.


With these factors in mind, there are some initiations that are being done to help bridge the gender gap and level the chess playing field. For instance, Susan Pol- gar’s foundation is working along with WOM (FIDE’s commission for Women’s Chess) and Webster University to create more college scholarships, and is sponsoring creative free training programs to help the more serious and talented girls excel to be top-level players.


WGM Natalia Pogonina (in “Women and Men in Chess – Smashing the Stereotypes” – Chess News) suggests making chess more popular among girls, we need to run educational campaigns aimed at parents to demonstrate the benefits of chess. An- other key thing is sponsorship at women’s chess events to show that there can be a financial motivation to encourage further chess interest. Alexandra Kosteniuk, who is both an International Grandmaster and a Women Grandmaster, http:// www.chessblog.com/2009/10/abolish-womens-itles- ridiculous.html writes in response to an article written in support of abolishing women’s Chess titles:


“My goal, as the current women’s world chess champion, and as a chess educator, is to get every girl on the planet interested in chess. And for that I need the same thing every educator has at his fingers – the power to encourage, the power to congratulate, and the power to offer all opportunities that chess has to offer, including titles, how- ever small they are.


I have put my whole life into chess, from the age of 5 I have loved the game and love it up to this day. I have earned all the FIDE titles that have been available, both women's titles and men's titles, WIM, WGM, IM, GM. I am starting to give the love of chess to my tiny daughter of 2 years old, and I hope she will love it also and will play chess, as I know it teaches skills very useful in school, and later on, in life. I will do all I can to support women's chess, in a positive way, not by attacking or making provocative statements just to attract attention, but in actions.”

FIDE, the World Chess Federation, awards four levels of Master titles that are open to both women and men. They are:

Grandmaster (GM) 2500+

International Master (IM) 2400+

FIDE Master (FM) 2300+

Candidate Master (CM) 2200+


FIDE also awards a number of titles that are exclusively awarded to female players. They are:

Woman grandmaster (WGM) 2300+

Woman international master (WIM) 2200+

Woman FIDE master (WFM) 2100+

Woman candidate master (WCM) 2000+


It is of much debate as to whether having women-only titles which have lower standards, can be seen as degrading to women. However, the titles were/are intended to encourage female players and award their achievement, because there are so few female players playing competitively.


For deeper insight into the world of competitive women’s chess, I highly recommend the book Chess Bitch, written by Jennifer Shahade. In her book, Jennifer eloquently and with a sense of humor, offers a very candid and personal account of traveling with the women’s international chess circuit. She also provides a brief history and her personal opinions of top women players from Nona Gaprindashvili and the Polgar sisters, to Alexandra Kostenuik and Irina Krush.

Jennifer Shahade is an American chess player and writer. She is a two-time American women's chess champion and has the FIDE title of Woman Grandmaster. In addition to her book, Chess Bitch, she has authored Play Like A Girl! Which is a collection of tactical positions from the world's best women chess players. She also founded 9Queens, which is a non-profit organization to further the advancement and accessibility of chess to all. She also writes for the magazine Chess Life and she is the Mind Sports Ambassador for Poker- Stars (online poker website).


The question should not be if men are better chess players than women. The question should be how to elevate the game in the United States and how to increase the number of women interested in chess so that they can reap the same rewards and benefits from succeeding in what is arguably the most complex and intellectual game in the world. If offering additional chances at women’s titles helps in any way, I am all for it.


- Jennifer Vallens (originally published in OFF da ROOK newsletter June 2014 HERE)

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