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The Open File - Women in Chess

  • NM Zug
  • | Oct 20, 2008

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?


Click here for links to Mike's other work on Chess.com


  • 6 years ago


    Here's some figures...

    In England I gather the ratio of males to females, across all ages, is 9:1.

    When I first heard it a few years ago, I checked it against entries at Ireland's largest tournament, The Bunratty Chess Congress. Sure enough it was c 9:1. Mind you, most of them were in the lowest section, under 1200 rating; the other sections being u1600, u2000, and over 2000.

    Another item of interest. I teach chess in schools. In some schools it's a 5 or 6 lesson session. The rules are covered first, and then I run a 5 round swiss. In mixed classes of boys and girls, the top 20% are nearly always Boys. The youngest age group I cover is 4th class, c age 9.

    If a girl appears in the top group, she's a potential Girls Champion. But the chances of her continuing to play beyond Primary School are extremely small.

    I don't have any theories why girls perform poorly compared to boys at chess, but I have noticed that a female chess tutor will hold their interest longer than a male's.

    Any other similar experiences/observations?

    John Alfred (Dandylion),    www.ChessZ.com

  • 6 years ago


    I just came across your article from your posting in yet one more women vs men topic (yawn) in the chess.com forums.  I don't find the topic uninteresting, but I find the resulting discussion generally either uninformed or presumptuous and always predictable.  Rather than just compparing women against men, your article at least addresses the more relevant issue of the lack of women in tournaments.  And even this is is only important, I imagine, if one considers tournament chess (and the titles one can earn only through such an avenue) as the best, or possibly only, measuring stick for chess ability.  When discussing women vs men, people tend to forget that there are thousands of women who can outplay millions of men.  These women almost never rise to the very top, but then again neither do most men.  I guess those men were born with female spacial capabilities?  The question one might really want to ask (and you did!!)  is why any women would want to subject herself to tournament life and conditions, especially considering that they are predominately male-oriented.  That's why women who do like the tournament life usually opt to play women-only tournaments - not because they fear men's oh-so-vast superiority, but because they enjoy the social nature inherent in the company of other women.

    an after-thought disclaimer:   I love men and this isn't meant to demean anyone.

  • 6 years ago


    Why aren't there more top women chefs? why do men dominate the world of professional cooking the way they do the world of chess?

    Surely even the most sexist guy wouldn't say anything as stupid as women can't cook or men's brains are better designed by nature or God for cooking food.

    So I think the answer is in the atmosphere of competition in male dominated worlds. It's not that women can't compete with men but more like most girls or women won't or just don't want to compete in macho environments.

    I believe women are just as competative as men. But they are not as hostile. Men often confuse or inject competition w/ hostility (I mean have you seen a professional kitchen?! they're just cooking food ferchissakes! you'd think they were hunting down bin laden). But women often just talk of competing hard for a good win or result. More often a woman competitor will speak of improving so she can be better at her skill. Men talk a lot of crushing the other guy into dust and humiliating him on the field of battle, even if that battleground is just a white plate or wooden board with little squares - Michelin stars or GM titles.

    The environment of women's competition is different in quality but not I would say in the urge to compete.

  • 6 years ago


    What chess needs is some HOT SEXY women of GM calibur which many are coming out of Russia! BAHM..! Cool

  • 7 years ago


    I was a very close friend for a number of years of Pam Ford; who was the only woman chess player that I know of in San Francisco during the 1970s to early '80s. I don't know if she still plays chess but she was a very strong amateur (I believe her rating was 2000+, it was certainly above 1800) who played at Mechanic's Institute Chess Club among other places. She never seemed to lack ambition or ego and invested as much time and effort in the game as anyone, even though she worked full time to support herself. Perhaps the reason more women don't play chess is that their lives have simply been more proscribed and demanding than men's. Now there are many more women playing chess and I expect their numbers will increase in the future as more and more have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and fascination of the game.

    However chess has always been seen as 'unfeminine' (in America it was even considered to be mildly subversive - the pass time of those Agnew referred to as 'effete intellectual eunuchs'); but society is changing, look at all the women GMs we have now! I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we have a woman contesting the world championship just as there are now women in every other activity once considered to be 'male', from the boardroom to politics. And, if there is any sport where men and women can compete on a truly equal footing, it must be chess.

  • 7 years ago


    chess is a game where u hve to be top most of the top to make a living out of it.

    so when most of the women, who do take up the game seriously, know that they cant be one,they leave it before it becomes a less fruitful exercise.ie they r more practical.

    its a different issue for those who love the game though.....

  • 7 years ago


       I feel it is important to be respectful and encouraging to all chess players and especially newcomers to a chess club. Generally, I have not found that at clubs and as a result the beginners never come back. This may be part of the reason women do not show up because they sense that the average male player is not very sensitive to the feelings of their opponents. This Is why I prefer online to otb.

  • 7 years ago



    ROFL...I didn't know ego was gender-specific!

    Of course you don't - you are male, right? CoolLaughing

    Btw. I find what I lack on chess.com:  more emoticons! Undecided

  • 7 years ago


    Lydia Blonde wrote "Males have a fragile ego and they must have something to say "we are better" then woman - and it will be more and more important in next decades, for women are going to take control of MORE then 50% of top positions in politics, economy, science etc.. Smile"

    ROFL...I didn't know ego was gender-specific! not to mention women were close to taking control of more than 50% positions in politics, economy and science! Hilarious how people delude themselves!

    I've worked at Argonne National Labs, Brookhaven National Lab and Fermilab, arguably three of the top research labs in the US and also the world. I've yet to find even 10-15% females in research fields in Math & Physics there. MIT has special quotas for females so that the disparity is more or less palatable to 'social workers' and 'rich alumni'/politicians, while Caltech just doesn't care as much and has a more pronounced division. Chess is no different to this scenario as well.

    I don't want to get into the reasons lest I shatter some fragile 'female' egos.Tongue out. While Zug was bold enough to write on this subject, most of the comments are heavily 'p.c.' .. as with topics pertaining to religion or politics, this is just another inconclusive debate. Hats off to Zug for writing this article and thereby putting his rep at the stake , hehe..

    p.s. I've known some brilliant females in the field of science..and thankfully none of them were feminists..so we had a blast discussing important things in our field like 'science'! Smile

  • 7 years ago


    I agree with BBCaprice. The Polgar Sisters are an exception (of course), no wonder one of them is named Judith, a legendary female warrior quoted in the Bible.

  • 7 years ago


    I remember polgar she is pretty but. but she is great player. I believe its time to remove the gender championships in chess. this is no physical game and i believe women can match men on games.

  • 7 years ago


    On-the-dot article, Mike!

    I can give a fresh reason on this topic: society. Society has a tendency - right from the beginning - to dress girls in soft clothes, boys in rough; dolls for girls and games for boys. We tend to condition girls to a certain mindset which is not conducive to chess. Otherwise I do not think that ladies lack the capability to compete, win or dominate in chess.

  • 7 years ago


    Your article is spot on sir. I do wish women would be a little more interested in strategy games hell bent on defeating your opponent.

  • 7 years ago


          As a woman,i must mention,i never felt any inferiority complex while playing with any male participants!And i also must mention,i have always had very good friends,who actively helped me to improve my game skill & encouraged me!!

         The fact that the pleasure of this game is more subtle & less emotional makes it less attractive for most of the women!Also,the time that is consumed while playing it with full involvement,makes it less as a first choice,as women have more of household responsibilities than men!

  • 7 years ago


    I myself am addicted to the game. I can spend hours upon hours playing. If I am dead tired all somebody has to say is "wanna play some chess?" and I spring back to life. I can't say why there aren't more women who play. I have two daughters one plays and the other could care less. To me chess is life!

  • 7 years ago


    Somebody started a topic in foum here about the subject of genders in chess every few months, and there are a lot of comments. The last one: Female chess players. I wrote an article about it, and I submite it also at my blog:Women in Chess. My two points:

    • I generally don't like discusions about gender issues, and
    • I agree males are generally beter in chess and you can't explain it by social environment only - but, who care! I am personally stil better then most of them (among the top 2% here - actually, today, among the top 1% - smart me! Laughing).

    I said I am a post-feminist.

    Males have a fragile ego and they must have something to say "we are better" then woman - and it will be more and more important in next decades, for women are going to take control of MORE then 50% of top positions in politics, economy, science etc.. Smile

    It's true, females don't aspire to dominate DIRECTLY to much - even for me it's a case, in my every-day life - it's different in chess, I am an agresive player. Yell However, I don't like OTB play, direct confrontation with males with their fragile ego and I can't completelly smother my empathy. Kiss And to play with females... phu, even worser...

    Women usually like more subtle ways to impose their will, not throught a direct confrotation, and I am sometimes suprised that males didn't see that. Many times, as a witness of a conflict, I am at the side of a male... Undecided

  • 7 years ago


    Good man, Mike, for wading into this topic!

    I'm with Rolandwood's second argument: most woman are simply too sensible to devote their lives to pushing wood round sixty four squares. It doesn't put food on the table (maybe 100 GMs excepted),  isn't good for your health, stops you getting the dishes done, does nothing for global warming or poverty in Africa.

    But, of course, the alchemy of science, sport and art we call chess is a wicked brew that can intoxicate anyone who gives it the time.

    Batgirl is far and away my fravourite chessblogger and would love to hear her views on this. Laughing

  • 7 years ago


    Chess establishes a hierarchy that ranks you in relation to other players. This aspect of chess is OKwith men and uncomfortable for women. That's one argument.

    Chess is an intellectual pursuit. At it's root it is a diversion/entertainment. Improving your chess game has no practical effect on your life. Ultimately,it is navel gazing. Before you say that it does have an effect I will point out that if I spent as much time on my academics as I spent on chess, I would be a freaking astronaut. Women are more practical.

  • 7 years ago


    Interesting article!

    It has often crossed my mind too.  I think that there is another factor that you didn't mention though.  As children girls tend to be interested in different things from boys, and Chess is often very low on their agenda.  On the other hand boys love war games and often develop life-long interests in games such as chess from a young age.  In my opinion this is one of the major reasons why there is such a gender split.  I have a younger brother and sister, 7 and 8 respectively.  After trying to teach both how to play chess my brother seems far more interested in the intricate strategy than my sister, who seems more content just to mess around.

    I don't think there is any reason why females cannot play as well as males.  I have only ever played one competitive game against a female (OTB) and she won.  I was a little bit shocked when I realised I was going to be playing a girl but tried to detach myself from it, and ultimately she out-played me which is why she won.  Perhaps I will have an opportunity for some revenge in future but it certainly makes you realise that no one starts a game in a vulnerable position.

    A Cool

  • 7 years ago


    well... i know that i would like a gilrfriend who plays chess well. but (as a woman) i wouldn't like a boyfriend who plays chess...

    maybe some women think it's enough for them that the queen is the ruler over the chessboard and they don't think they need to actualy play the game... :(

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