Women and men in chess – crushing the stereotypes

  • IM Vlad_Akselrod
  • | May 24, 2009

WGM Pogonina, a top women grandmaster rated 2501 FIDE, shares her views on the evergreen topic “why do women play chess worse than men” and takes a look at the future of women’s chess.


Kasparov - Retired, but still the greatest

Chess is often divided into men’s chess and women’s chess. The classification is quite relative, since women can participate in tournaments for men, while men can’t take part in women’s events. This discrimination has always been a subject of heated discussions. Anyway, chess is an intellectual sport, physical strength is by far not the key factor there. So, are women just less intelligent than men? No. Then what’s the problem? Many people will tell you that men are just historically better at chess than women (due to various reasons), and there’s nothing you can do about it. Look at the top-300 list of chess players and count the number of women there. If you don’t miss anyone, you’ll find only 3 of them. One to a hundred, great ratio, isn’t it? Ok, then probably we should support women chess players and hold “women only” events? Let women chess exist as a separate sport along with women tennis, athletics etc. So, if we think that way, then the issue is closed, and we should just face the fact that men are dominant in chess? No way.

Judit Polgar - indeed a chess classic

If chess is a mind game, then why are women B-movie actors in it? I have the following view of the situation:

Women have started playing chess professionally long after men. Nowadays the number of professional women chess players is growing, but the proportion is still incomparable. There are very few women in chess, so they have few chances to enter the world chess elite. It’s also important to note that women have to dedicate a lot of time to their family: e.g. when a child is born they don’t have enough time to study chess or participate in multiple chess tournaments.

The last factor seems to be the most important to me – it’s psychology. A stereotype exists in chess that women are no match for men. It is based on statistical data. That’s why many female chess players are taught from the early childhood that they’ll never make it to men’s level. TV and books also try to convince them that it’s unreal. But all this is a myth! The first woman to break it was the incredible Judit Polgar, the greatest women chess player of all times.

Natalia Pogonina - a smile before  the game is worth 100 rating points

Final question – what should a girl do to compete with the best male players? She should keep telling herself that she is equal to men, play in men’s tournaments, study hard and believe in herself. If most women start acting that way, then one day quantity will lead to quality, and the world chess elite will be enjoying more female players.

It’s essential to remember that the sky is the limit and all the obstacles are in our heads.

© Natalia Pogonina, article courtesy of http://pogonina.com - exclusively published at Chess.com before the official release



  • 2 weeks ago


    Women simply aren't as good. They don't have an attacking mindset. They are emotional and not logical.

  • 3 years ago


    I predict a healthy future for this kind of debate !

  • 3 years ago


    I predict a healthy future for this type of debate !

  • 7 years ago


    Explainations of the statistical differences in the chess arena in terms of "home with children" ...? Come on ...!!

    Although, as somebody on this blog pointed out, "we do not know the answer", we do know that the sexes have different preferences in terms of what they spend their time on. This of course, have nothing to do with either intelligence or logic ability.

    Chess does have, among its many elements, a couple of characteristics that are inconsistent with preferences among sexes: two that come to mind are "enjoyment of pattern recognition" and "the urge to compete". Do you know many women that enjoy reading maps? Hardly. Does this mean that there are not excellent female map readers? Of course not, but they are fewer! ... and as another blogger pointed out: ... men are overrepresented on gigs, women are overrepresented in art exhibitions.

    To the extent these observations are useful, they do point in a certain direction in terms of the key training - and motivational elements of developing a stronger female chess community.

  • 8 years ago


    I saw this thing on youtube on susan polgar. There was an interesting bit about strategies men(boys) use to navigate hedge mazes vs girls. The explanation was based on the physical difference in men and women's minds (specifically the interaction between the two hemispheres of the brain). The boys relied more on the ability to form a mental image of the maze while the girls used physical references and landmarks.

    I haven't read the study that the 'scientist' was quoting from, but if it suggests that men and women approach problem solving differently, then perhaps its fair to say that men and women need different instruction in chess. I firmly believe women have every capacity for as much success in chess as men.

    It probably comes down to more women need to play in order to prove this. I would be interested in hearing from successful female players, especially if they have used different training strategies than men.

  • 8 years ago


    "Maybe the question should be, are men too stupid or too immature to quit obsessing on chess?" That's framing of the worst sort if ever I heard it. Quite happy to take it in the context of a joke, but would just like to observe what might happen if it was phrased "are women too stupid to play chess well?" NB I DO NOT HOLD THESE VIEWS, just making an observation.

  • 8 years ago




    I like your comments. Especially because you see the problem first-hand and point to bottlenecks. But in the end, I do not quite buy your conclusion. Let us take women's tennis and football for example. Not many people believed 15 years ago that the games will become so athletic so soon. There is still quite a bit of disparity, but I would not be shocked to see mixed tournaments before I grok. Is chess really more difficult to organize than football?


    Another story is that athletic sports are good for your heart, and in the end- for your health (especially if you are not trying to be the best). It is harder to say the same about chess. That might be adding to the parents' discomfort.

  • 8 years ago


    Adding my two-cents here, I think the question is phrased wrong.  "Why do women play chess worse than men" is an improper question, framed in a male-dominated area with a male-dominated history.  Since everyone here seems to agree that women are quicker learners than men, and mature quicker than men, perhaps they are too intelligent to spend more time at something that is just a game, as Morphy stated several times.  Maybe the question should be, are men too stupid or too immature to quit obsessing on chess?  Then maybe we wouldn't have this topic getting abused over and over again.  "Chess is a sign of lack of intelligence"--now wouldn't that be a kick in the head.

  • 8 years ago


    I am going to be honest here and I mean to say this respectively, but I completely disagree with this article.There are probably only 3 women in the top 300 because there are way less of them. I would like the know the average rating of men and women to say that one is stronger than the other. Yes, maybe women do have less time for chess, but I have also heard that women learn quicker. Also women mature quicker so I think that they would be able to become much better than men.Just because there are a lack of pro women chess players you cannot say that they are worse than men. Gonnosuke, I think that the separate title is beneficial to women. They can get the same titles that men can get along with other titles.

  • 8 years ago


    I am not sure about chess, but I have heard of a study about males/females with math. The study showed that on average males and females are very close. The difference between them is that males tend to be spred out more, while the females tend to be closer to the average, so there will more men in the best 1% than women, but there will also be more men than woman in the worst 1%.

    If this true also about chess then it explains why there aren't many woman who are in the elite.

  • 8 years ago


    Reasons mentioned is what I've said many times too. Glad that a Top Grandmaster Female player can confirm it too..it's just logical reason, like the game itself. Thanks for sharing and can all those men out there - thinking women are dumb when it comes to chess (as there are some of them thinking it) now be "quiet" (you know what word I could have used here instead! lol!) and sit in the corner with their finger on their mouth! Laughing ...and women get more exhauster than men when playing chess...rubbish :)

    @ badbrad...yes, it is hard to get girls into chess...they will tell you how long their lists of interest is and that chess is somewhere at the "bottom"... it's hard work (very - sometimes) to get them into chess... and with men telling women they are dumb when it comes to chess does not help us teachers that want to get more girls into chess! so..please men...STOP doing it! You know you are wrong!

  • 8 years ago


    Men don't lose as much time as women in childbirth. I know this because my wife is currently pregnant and it affects a whole host of things, from getting tired at weird times, to affecting concentration levels (because of the tiredness). The whole pregnancy cycle affects the woman, whereas it's a minimal interference throughout for the man. It has been a tough slog for me, and I've done a lot more flatpacking and housework than I usually do (although I probably should be doing this level all the time), but I know that physically I'm far less inconvenienced than my wife.

    As to the main problem, the women that I've talked to about chess (sorry anecdotal again) have generally expressed more of a "why bother" attitude than the men. If the men spot something that someone enjoys they'll be quite happy to give it a bash, even the lazy ones, until they maybe find that it requires more study, the women are more of the view that it's a waste of time and boring. Why that is I don't know, but it's possibly societal as much as physical.

  • 8 years ago


    I'm disappointed in one very important flaw in this article ,and that's the idea that when children are born, men apparently don't lose chess study time and chess play time, while women do. If we're fighting sexism in the article, let's apply it to all, not just one. It's a very sexist notion to say that men aren't as affected by child birth.

  • 8 years ago


    Dear IM Cheap. Dear fellow chess players!


    Thanks for the great article!

    I've been as well a (hobby level) tournament player as well as youth chess coach for several years and I see 2 main reasons for the fact that there are only a few women among the Top GMs.

    But first things first: I see no evidence that women are less gifted than men. In general women are the better learners, hence they should rather be the better chess players. Why are they not?

    The first reason is that in order to become a really great chess player you have to start to practice early. That means you need the support of the parents. But parents at least in Germany don't consider chess to be a girl's game. It compedes with horse riding, volleyball, handball and soccer and often loses. The next question is, why?

    One point is that as a parent and non chess player you don't see that your child is doing well. You are happy to see your girl sitting on a horse. You are not convinced seeing her sitting in front of a chess board. But that is true to boys as well.

    The true reason is rather, that there are only few women chess club members. As a parent you don't want to be your girl to be the only one in the local club among boys and elder men, because you are afraid or at least consider it to be weird. Also for the girl it's discouraging to play chess, when there is no other girl (or only a few) around and most of her friends are playing soccer or volleyball. The next problem is that it is hard to convince parents to send girls to tournaments along with their male club colleagues. Parents are often afraid to allow their 10 or 12 year old girl to travel around with a group of boys and young men. If girls play less tournaments, they do not improve so quickly and loose interest. In order to solve this problem, my club cooperated with clubs from neighbouring towns to have greater groups of girls who could share rooms in youth hostels, make friends etc. with some success.

    Another problem in the clubs is that the coaches sometimes lack experience in women psychologie. Girls often react in different ways than young boys e.g. to lost games. That is what you have to be aware of.


    The second point is that parents may not support girls to become high ranked players, because they do not accept chess to be a decent job for their daughter. As the author points out correctly, you have to take into consideration that women who raise children have less time to prepare for their matches. If they are less prepared than their male colleagues, they will probably earn less. And it is hard enough to make a living as a chess pro anyway, if you are not a top 10 (or at least top 100) player.


    Summing up my arguments, because of the reasons stated above, I don't think that there will be much more women in the top 100 in the near future. One of the ways out of these problems is the inter - club cooperation to enable young girls to travel to tournaments. Another chance is the internet. You can also improve much playing chess - online, what eliminates somewhat the problems stated above and gives girls an additional oppurtunity.

    Anyway. I don't know the numbers exactly. But as long as women represent only 10 - 20 % of the club players there won't be anything close to 50 % women in the top 100.  

  • 8 years ago


    World-over, in all cultures, women traditionally have been and are still the mainstay of families. Devoting a lot of time to chess training and playing therefore becomes impractical for most women chess players, especially after their marriage. As the author says, it is all in the mind but of course, those minds also need support from their families or have to be strong enough to run on their own! That alone is enough a dampener for most players from aiming for the greatest. It is the few greats like Polgar sisters who manage to break the 'stereotype thinking' and go on to achieve greatness.

  • 8 years ago


    Frankly, I missed the point of this article. It is not that I disagree with any particular statement. I did not get what the author is after. “why do women play chess worse than men”  Is it really true? I lost a few games to women here, on chess.com, so I have my doubts.


    Such sweeping statements as above are like paradoxes, the answer depends on how you look at them. Obviously, some women are better in chess than some men, and vice versa. So, which women and which men are we comparing to decide who is better? Those who know the rules of chess, or play at least one game per year, or bothered enough to earn an IM title? Depending how we define the base, one to a hundred in the "top 300"  list might actually be an over-representation. I do not know the numbers, but it might be fun to look up. Maybe we will learn that women are better at chess than men!


    There were of course a few interesting questions, those that go beyond statistics. Why are women, on average, less interested in chess than men? How much of it is in social reasons, in hormons, in brain physiology? And what can (should?) be done to encourage women who like chess to devote more time to it? I kinda wished the author would better define such discussion points. Because the central question- who is better- seems strange to me. Who is better, heads or tails? 

  • 8 years ago


    I found a perfect quote from Woody Harrelson, of all people, in an interview by Susan Polgar;

    Q: Here's an interesting question for you -- well, I think it's interesting. How came there aren't any great female chess masters?

    A: Like the champs? I don't know about that. That's a good question. Maybe the mentality in most women is not quite as warring as the male mentality. We have that truculent approach. I think it was [Garry] Kasparov who said, "Chess is the most violent sport." I don't know. That's a good question. I have run into some really good chess players who are female, though.

  • 8 years ago


    Is it possible that women just arn't interested in chess?

  • 8 years ago


    cobblepot, you misunderstand me( or perhaps you are taking my theory further than I intended). I'm not making any value judgements, just saying that testosterone gives someone a natural, hormonal competitive drive, and this chemical boost will undoubtedly help in securing the motivation to study hard and get better.

    as to the politics theory, two words; Margeret Thatcher, the biggest patriarch other than God.

  • 8 years ago

    NM ozzie_c_cobblepot

    I've heard the testosterone argument before, in chess. But I've also heard it in politics, where it is used in the context of a disadvantage for men. It goes like this: Men are too wrapped up in winning and not enough wrapped up in long-term success of the nation, so women naturally make better leaders.

Back to Top

Post your reply: