Women's Roundtable: The Experiences Of Women In Chess

Women's Roundtable: The Experiences Of Women In Chess

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The subject of the female minority in chess has long intrigued the chess world. There are many theories and hypotheses as to why there are so few women in chess. However, one of the most obvious, and often overlooked, reasons is that the current state of chess is not supportive enough and, at times, is downright disruptive for women. 

In this eye-opening and honest discussion, led by IM Anna Rudolf, seven prominent women in chess gather together to discuss some of the important issues they have faced in the chess world. This is a discussion that must be watched by all coaches, parents, officials, event organizers and participants. The women touch on subjects that include inspiration, equality, breaking barriers and common stereotypes, and harassment. They raise awareness of our own everyday actions that can sometimes hinder the success of girls and women in chess.

Watch the full video below and check out the summary thereafter.

The women further include invaluable suggestions of what each one of us can do to make the chess community more inclusive, supportive, and a happier place for everyone to be in. We can all take action, sometimes in surprisingly small steps, to bring more fairness and equality to chess.


The participants of the discussion include:

  • IM Anna Rudolf, a renowned content creator, chess Olympiad competitor, Chessable author, and the host of the discussion
  • WGM Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Women’s Champion, director of the Women’s Program at USCF, and critically acclaimed author of several books
  • WIM Ayelén Martínez, who represented Argentina at the chess Olympiad and is a member of the Chess24/ team
  • WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni, a member of the national team, renowned commentator, and journalist at some of the world’s top events
  • Lula Roberts, one of the leading content creators, who also represented Jersey at the Chess Olympiad in 2022
  • FM Alisa Melekhina, a frequent contender in the US Women’s Championship, corporate litigator, and author of Reality Check
  • GM Judit Polgar, one of the greatest female players ever and the only woman to be in the top 10 players in the world. Vocal advocate and ambassador of chess in education

The Queen’s Gambit Effect

It’s been over two years since Netflix released its powerful and much-beloved series, The Queen’s Gambit. It has changed the perception of chess forever. The series has inspired many girls and women all over the world to take up the game. "For so many years," says Jennifer Shahade, "I’ve been trying to tell my friends that chess is glamorous and fun and that it was about the beauty of the game and not just winning. And, of course, when you saw The Queen’s Gambit, I didn’t have to convince anyone because they suddenly knew it."

Seeing the "representation of chess" embodied by feminine grace, beauty, and intelligence inspired Lula Roberts to take up the game and become a sensational content creator. The message throughout the discussion is clear—girls and women want to see more female role models in chess. The positivity and increased interest in the game that The Queen’s Gambit has brought are inspiring and unparalleled.

Lula discussing how The Queen's Gambit got her into chess.

Despite doing many things right, the series, however, came with some startling flaws. Everything about the show, other than the main heroine, Beth Harmon, was male-driven. The writer, the producers, the consultants, and the creative team were all male. Not a single game that was taken from history and portrayed in the show was played by a female player. The result? The show totally "glossed over a lot of the female experience," says Alisa Melekhina. This is "strange because it is supposed to be a coming-of-age story of a young, female player coming into her own. And they didn’t really portray a lot of the adversity."

In the real world of chess, Judit Polgar had to "fight a lot… so that people acknowledge [her] achievements." The 'fight' many women still face today: the 'fight' against being demeaned, belittled, abused, harassed, and not being supported and acknowledged enough. "To tell you the truth, I was kind of unhappy that I didn’t have a single game [featured in the series]," laughs Judit. 

Judit Polgar Women's Roundtable
Judit laughing at the fact that none of her games were included in The Queen’s Gambit.

Furthermore, the defamation case of GM Nona Gaprindashvili vs. Netflix could have been avoided altogether, had more consideration been given to women’s chess. A character in the series stated that Nona “never faced men.” In reality, Nona was the first female player ever to earn the “general” grandmaster title among men. Her inspiring accomplishments in chess cannot go unnoticed and unacknowledged.

The lessons learned from the series are apparent: include more women in decision-making, front and back. Encourage and support female role models.

The Gender-Bias Side Of Chess

Unlike in The Queen’s Gambit, "playing chess in real life makes you feel your gender. When you go to a chess tournament and maybe have a negative experience, you start to feel out of place," says Lula. Playing and being harassed online is one thing, but "feeling disrespected [in real life] is a whole different thing altogether." As a newcomer to chess, Lula did not anticipate facing so many issues.

Jennifer’s own experience and recent allegations of an assault have opened up a lot of discussions and an urgent need for change. Girls drop out of chess because "they don’t have the support structure of friends, family, and school that would support them not only as players but as human beings," she says. She noted that boys experience abuse too and there is a great need for proper code of conduct implementation.

Jennifer and Alisa discussing the lack of support structure.

Furthermore, once a woman experiences abuse or inappropriate actions against herself, she is often left to her own devices, not knowing what to do. Every woman in this discussion can share such a story. However, and many people may not realize this, "speaking up is really difficult," says Anna Rudolf. "I had experiences where I’m not brave enough to talk about them. I was ashamed. I haven’t told my family. I haven’t told my friends. I haven’t told anyone." And for the first time, in this discussion, Anna has opened up about such an emotional experience.

Anna telling her story.

A much older man, a teammate, was trying to touch and kiss her when she was just eighteen years old. It was totally uncalled for and inappropriate. "Just because you are kind to people," says Anna with now almost teary eyes, "doesn’t mean you have any romantic affection towards them, which a lot of time is being misinterpreted."

But speaking up is not just difficult. Speaking up means reliving the trauma a second time. Not everyone wants to go through that. For many victims, it’s just easier to bury their negative experiences and move on. It’s possible to forgive, if only for one’s own sake and sanity. But impossible to forget. So many women still carry the weight of misconduct against them on their shoulders.

And the next worst part of it all, is that some people dare to ask these women: "Well, how are you conducting yourself? Are you inviting this type of [behavior]?" Alisa had issues with stalkers following her to chess tournaments and sending her gifts and love letters. She clearly did not invite that type of conduct. Neither did Anna.

It is important to be aware that harassment can take on many forms. It can also be psychological. Like that one time when Anna was winning game after game in a tournament, beating the top seed. This instantly raised suspicion, because she is female. The tournament arbiters went searching through her belongings in front of everyone. A “traumatizing experience to witness,” says Fiona Steil-Antoni, who is also Anna’s close friend.

Fiona discussing some of her negative experiences.

Fiona herself has experienced sexist, demeaning remarks about women from a partnering commentator right during a live broadcast. And, to her dismay, nothing was said or done about it for days. "Is anyone even watching this?" she wondered. Of course, people were watching.

The message that women get from such experiences is that they can’t possibly be so good. If they don’t "play like a girl," if they play aggressively or positionally instead, well, then something is suspicious. They don’t fit into the stereotype.

So What Can We All Do?

With FIDE being the official governing body of chess, a lot of talks have been done regarding the issues that women face in chess. But talking is not enough. "The support is great," says Ayelén Martínez, "but I want to see action. Tell us exactly what you’re going to do about [all these issues], in concrete steps." Every governing body, organization, chess club, and event organizer has the responsibility to create a safe environment for the players and shall be held accountable for it.

"So what can the chess community work on for a more equal future?" – Anna

As a society, we can all play a role in making the chess community safer and more supportive for all players. We can:

Begin with education

Parents and coaches need to raise their children in a gender-bias-free environment, where both talented boys and girls are being told equal things about their abilities. An environment where playing a girl shouldn’t be viewed as “easier” and losing to a girl shouldn’t be shameful.

Watch our language

We see and hear it everywhere. In books, in movies, in chess courses, and in our everyday conversations. A chess genius is always a "he." An unknown, online opponent is always a "he." Even women make these references and assumptions. We need to incorporate more "she" and "they" into our chess language. And "we have to watch how we phrase a sentence when we want to uplift someone’s knowledge," remarks Judit, to avoid references such as "you play like a boy." Her way of inspiring girls is to tell them, "Be the best you can!"

Speak up

It can be extremely difficult for a person who has experienced any sort of harassment to speak up about it. Nonetheless, speaking up is important. And what is more important is that men also need to step in. If they see something is not right, they need to escalate it and help the victim deal with the situation.

Set up policies and procedures

The chess community needs to decide how to address and escalate issues and misconduct and establish a centralized dispute mechanism. The right questions to ask, says Alisa, are: “Is there a sexual harassment policy in place? Can people make complaints in a confidential way? Will conflicts be escalated to the right people? Is there a dispute resolution in place? How can conflicts get resolved in a way that is fair?” All chess players need to be aware of the policies and procedures that are going to be put in place.

Involve more women

Many chess federations and organizations, including FIDE, are run predominantly by men. As such, it is difficult for a woman to raise her concerns to a man. “These federations should be protecting us when we’re speaking out,” says Ayelén. “But we are fighting alone.”  Women’s involvement also means hiring more female coaches and engaging female role models. This is not just for girls. Boys would benefit from this too. While this might be logistically difficult, we still have to try, says Jennifer.


Now is the time to think about all of the above issues and to take appropriate action. Each one of us can change the chess environment for the better and prevent the next headline.

And with this important discussion in place, we can now all begin to feel a little more optimistic about the future of chess. We can all try to be the best we can be. Chess is a game that builds invaluable skills and fosters amazing friendships. And, as Alisa stated, "The chess community is worth fighting for!"

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