Chess improvement and other issues... continued 2

Jul 26, 2010, 6:30 PM |

Women in Chess.


A careful examination of the games of players whom the world recognizes as great reveals the fact that the faculties and qualities of concentration, comprehensiveness, impartiality and, above all, a spark of originality, are to be found in combination and in varying degrees. The absence of these qualities in woman explains why no member of the feminine sex has occupied any high position as a chessplayer.”


Lasker’s Chess Magazine (April 1906, pages 276-277) reproduced an article entitled ‘Women and Chess’ from The Saturday Review.


My teacher was deeply surprised to find that there was both a separate Women’s Grandmaster title, female only tournaments and separate women’s world title. When she asked me why this was and why there were so few professional female players in comparison to males, roughly 1-2% of Grandmasters being females.  I couldn’t find an adequate answer so I went to investigate. While I found a surprising amount of chauvinistic opinions especially amongst the higher echelons of chess, with Kasparov stating "she is, after all a woman. It all comes down to the imperfections of the feminine psyche. No woman can sustain a prolonged battle." (In reference to Judit Polgar) He also stated that female chess players should stick to having children and described Judit Polgar as “a circus puppet”.  In 2002 when she finally defeated him it was not only the first time in chess history a female player beat the world's #1 player in competitive play. It was also the first time in any sport that the No.1 ranked male player has lost to the No.1 ranked female. While I did find allot of sexist opinions (or that’s what I consider them) like Laskers above quote I also found some very interesting research which might explain the lack of female Grandmasters.


Merim Bilalic from Oxford University showed that solely from the numbers you could statistically predict the differences at the higher end of chess. The idea is simple, the best players from a larger group are more likely to be better then the best players from a smaller group. With this in mind Merim performed a simple experiment, he took the Elo ratings of all known German players roughly 120,000 players of whom a massive 113,000 are men. Then using a mathematical model, based solely on the size of the playing groups, he attempted to calculate the expected difference between the top hundred males and the top hundred females. The model showed that the larger proportion of male chess players accounts for a huge 96% of the difference in ability, between the two genders at the highest level of play. The top three women were performing ahead of statistics, while from position 3-73 the men were performing better then the model predicted and from the 80th pair onwards the advantage lies with the fairer sex. Another study by Christopher Chablis and Mark Glickman found that both sexes improve at a matching pace. So the simple explanation for the lack of female Grandmasters at the high level is the lack of participants at the lower levels. I suspect that the reason for this lies in gender stereotyping, differential gender roles and the higher encouragement of males to pursue chess. However, that is merely my speculation and if anyone knows of studies that look at this issue ill be very interested to read them.


An interesting thing I discovered while looking at this issue was the upbringing of the Polgar sisters. Which was based around a theory of intelligence that their father Lazlo proposed, essentially he believed that intelligence was the result of nurture rather then nature and was aiming and raising exceptional children. I don’t think anyone can deny his results, so my next blogs shall be on chess prodigies and the theories of intelligence surrounding chess.


"a phenomenon, by far the strongest female player the world has ever known [and] the only female player in the top 100". But according to Bilalic's study, the exceptional thing about Polgar is not necessarily that she is an incredible female chess player, but that she is a female chess player at all. So as a hale to an exceptional, exception I applied Kotov’s method to her first grandmaster scalp at the mind-boggling age of eleven.


Before I leave I would like to make mention of one the most humorous of explanations for the lack of women in chess.


 It amounts to this: that wire hair-pins excite “counter-currents of electricity”, whatever they may be, and so bewilder the wearer’s brain with strange vagaries, and lead them to do whimsical things. Now, it would be well for players to take note of this, for the “wire hair-pin” theory explains many things. It is evident that when a woman wears a handful of wire hair-pins there is an amount of electrical disturbance going on around her scalp that puts good chess out of the question.”

‘A Scientific Hint for Women Players’ on page 196 of the September 1897 American Chess Magazine:

As always thanks for reading and all comments are welcome.