The Open File
by Life Master Mike Petersen (Zug)
Women in Chess
I'm going to tackle a tough subject. It’s so controversial that most chess journalists won’t dare touch it, and that’s the question of why there aren’t more women playing chess.
I've been playing tournament chess for over 35 years and, with the exception of scholastic events, I've never seen more than about three or four female players in a single event at a given time. Even at the World Open in Philadelphia, where about 1500 players compete in an average year, a lady is a rare sight. You might think that a woman should be writing this column, but given the amount of time I’ve spent in and around the chess world, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the situation. You see, I tutored a female chess player for over four years, and before she gave up the game, her rating approached the 2000 level, which is not bad for a lady.
Ugh! Did you see what I just said? "Not bad for a lady?" How sexist can you get? But I really don't mean it that way. What I mean is that, since there aren't many females who put that much effort into the game, 2000 is in the upper percentile of the group, even in the top 50 in the USA. So, “for a lady,” 2000 isn't a bad rating. As a matter of fact, I could get into all kinds of trouble with this subject. Heck, I probably already have! What I'm not going to say is that women are not competitive, or that women aren't as smart as men, or any other of those patently ridiculous statements. So, what can I say? Well ... read on.
There are really only two visible sports I can think of off the top of my head in which women compete regularly in the USA: tennis and golf. But, they don't compete directly with the men. There are good reasons for that, mostly physical in nature. But chess doesn't require any physical acumen, so what gives?
Well, I'll tell you what I think. Chess is an intensely uncomfortable game to play competitively. The key theme is domination, and (uh-oh, here goes) I just don't think women are, in general, that domineering. When I do see a female player, she is usually surrounded by a crowd of spectators (especially if she is attractive) gazing at the game like a horde of vultures. In addition, I don't think that women are encouraged to play chess that much by men. Sometimes I think we're afraid of losing to a lady chess player! Some of you may be familiar with Vera Menchik, the first really excellent female master. Among the male players at the time, there existed an informal "Vera Menchik Club". The requirements for membership were simple: you had to have lost a tournament game to her. Doesn't say much for us men, does it? Unfortunately, Vera died in a London air raid during WWII. Today we have many top notch lady chess players, but still not enough.
I'll tell you the truth, though. I’m almost afraid of giving another reason why I think more women don't play chess. But, in the interest of completeness, I am obligated to mention it. Did you ever take a good look at most guys when they play in tournaments? We look like a rag-tag bunch of vagabonds most of the time. Imagine yourself a lady. Would you want to be around us?
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