On Nigel Short's article and #sexisminchess

Apr 26, 2015, 4:18 PM |

After reading some comments on Nigel Short's article about difference between men and women, I realized I had surprisingly strong feelings about this issue.

I, frankly, don't see Short's comments as sexist, but that's probably because of my different cultural upbringing. But perhaps he's not completely right about the "different wiring". Or, at least, this "different wiring" doesn't have as much to do with chess playing strength per se as with other necessary secondary skills, e.g. competitive spirit, high degree of self-control etc.

Why do I think so? Because I've read the book Nigel Short mentioned in the beginning of his article (Sovetskie Shakhmatistki by Elizabeth Bykova), and also looked through the biographies of the strongest woman players of their eras - Menchik, Gaprindashvili, Polgar, Hou Yifan.

The first thing I noticed in Bykova's book was this: on amateur and casual level, Soviet women (who were encouraged to play chess and join chess clubs and schools since 1920's) competed with men on more or less equal terms. This was corroborated by a much later comment by Nona Gaprindashvili - "Little girls can play chess as good as little boys, but they're starting to fall behind as they grow up." This is probably still the case for the whole world - if we take a random casual male player and a random casual female player and ask them to play, the probability of each of three results would most likely be equal.

But even the Soviet early world champions (Rudenko, Bykova and Rubtsova) could not compete consistently with men of master, let alone grandmaster strength. The level of women's competition in general was so low that Olga Rubtsova, a 47 years old mother of five who studied chess only in her spare time (she was an engineer), managed to win the qualifying tournament and then defeat Rudenko and Bykova for the World Championship.

(Don't get me wrong, this is an extraordinary achievement for a woman and mother. But if an amateur can become a world champion, the competition level is indeed low. And before Gaprindashvili, Soviet chess women were true amateurs - they didn't get any financial support from the chess federation, unlike men.)

Vera Menchik was obviously an outlier in this generation (she was roughly the same age as the Soviet world champions, but came to prominense much earlier). Curiously enough, Soviet Russia did play a role in her chess biography as well: just before her family left Moscow for England, she took part in a school chess tournament where mostly boys played, and this "awakened her competitive spirit". In England, she studied chess under Geza Maroczy, a very strong grandmaster, but was barred from women's tournaments because she was a foreign citizen, so she had to resort to men's tournaments. Her chess talent, good training and strong competition in men's tournaments is what made her the Vera Menchik, the unrivaled women's champion.

The same can be said about Gaprindashvili (the first truly grandmaster-strength woman player who played in men's tournaments more often than in women's), Polgar (we all know about her father's unique education program) and Hou Yifan (when she started serious chess training, men and women trained together in the Chinese national team; though, according to her, this practice has ended since). Sheer talent (Gaprindashvili, for instance, once admitted that she started to seriously study opening theory only after she lost her world title; before that, she was relying mostly on intuition, like the young Tal or Capablanca. Some grandmaster once said of her: "Yes, I know Nona doesn't know this opening line. But I know that she'll find the best defence over the board."), good training (Georgian women's chess school for Gaprindashvili - the strongest in the entire Soviet Union; father's methods for the Polgar sisters, Judit in particular; "old" Chinese school for Hou Yifan), strong competition (all three compete or competed in men's tournaments with considerable success).

So, well, if regularly playing in men's competitions works wonders for women players, why not abolish the women-only tournaments altogether? Women would surely benefit from mixed tournaments, and then we'd probably be able to prove Nigel Short wrong once and for all?

Not so fast.

Soviet chess authorities have tried to do exactly that in 1938, 77 years ago. Even arguments were the same - to promote equality and give women better conditions to improve their chess skills. But this failed spectacularly: women actually felt discouraged by the lack of women-only tournaments (despite the aforementioned fact that they could already hold their own on amateur level), and women's chess thrived only in the few cities that still held such tournaments. If we do something similar now, the most obvious effect would be a dramatic decrease of professional women chess players - with less chance to win prizes, many of them would prefer to pursue different careers.

The key for woman players being able to compete with men, it seems, lies in the early-age training. Since childhood (or at least teens, as in Menchik and Gaprindashvili's case), their brains should be "wired" for skills necessary for very intense competition. As Judit Polgar and Hou Yifan demonstrate, this can be done, at least in isolated cases. However, generalizations like "Short has a large minus score against Polgar, so he should not say anything about women being weaker players than men" belong to the so-called ecological fallacy: if men in general achieve better results and ratings in chess than women in general, this cannot and should not mean that any male grandmaster is able to defeat any female grandmaster at any given time, so Polgar's personal score against Short doesn't prove or disprove anything. World Champion Euwe had a minus score against Vera Menchik - does it mean that women were already stronger than men 80 years ago? No, it obviously doesn't.

Still, even the training can't give guarantees. Judit Polgar was the only one Polgar sister that made it to men's top 10. Gaprindashvili and Chiburdanidze are the only pupils of the Georgian chess school that showed good results in men's tournaments. Even Hou Yifan remains more or less an isolated case despite Chinese chess system being perhaps even more efficient than the Soviet one. So, specialized training is necessary, but not sufficient on its own. There seems to be something more that prevents women in general from consistently performing on par with men on grandmaster level.

Perhaps Euwe was right after all - "Women don't succeed at chess because they have better things to do". It is not inconceivable to suppose that many women that have great natural chess ability just do not take up chess at all as a career choice, preferring to use their analytical skills in other fields like science or economics - especially because it pays much better.

The real issues with sexism in chess were shown in this article by WIM Sabrina Chevannes. Those are, like in most other occupations, pay discrepancy between men and women and disrespectful or even creepy behaviour of men towards women. The latter was always an issue; Nina Bluket (biologist and one of the pioneers of Soviet women's chess movement) described her early career in Bykova's book like that:

The former Golitsin agricultural courses. A tournament was held there in 1921. My partner, a student, sits at my table and says he'd get a quick win. However, it's he who gets mated. Other partners also tell many "pleasantries". Everyone was silenced when I won the tournament without losing a single game, but I see that many feel insulted.

I also remember the Lomonosov Institute. 30 or 40 students prepare for a simultaneous display against master Nenarokov. I also place my chess at the board. The hall manager comes to each board and writes down the participants' names. He passes me by, not even supposing I might be playing. Only when he wrote everybody down and saw me still sitting at the chess board, he came back and asked for my name. I won my game against Nenarokov.

The next simultaneous display at the same venue was given by master Grigoriev. In his lecture, he mentioned that women still haven't mastered chess. It was very satisfying to draw my game against him after that. This finally cemented my chess reputation among the students."

The same disrespectful and condescending behaviour seems to persist even today, more than 90 years later. Perhaps this increased emotional pressure is also one of the reasons why most women don't achieve much success in men's tournaments (and playing in men's tournaments is the only way to close the rating gap - the new world champion Maria Muzychuk lost some rating points despite winning the knockout world championship, the supposedly strongest women's tournament). This, as I said in the very beginning of my overly long rant, has nothing to do with actual chess skills but everything to do with personality. One should be very strong-willed, like Nina Bluket or all other aforementioned great chess women, to overcome this kind of pressure.

So, to finally finish this: what do women need to compete with men in chess rating lists? First of all, to compete with men, women have to play against men on a regular basis - this is kind of obvious. They need to have considerable chess talent, which is obvious as well. They need to make a conscious choice to pursue chess as an occupation rather than a pleasant hobby - in today's chess world, you can't get very far if you don't dedicate your life to working on your playing. But to consistently show their best chess against men, women's brains need to be "wired" for competitiveness and willpower since childhood - and this needs much training, perhaps even more than men do.

I really hope that I made at least some sense and didn't insult anybody. After all, I'm known here as a translator of Soviet chess texts, not an expert on gender issues, psychology, neurology and other fields necessary to fully answer the question of "why men achieve better chess ratings than women".