Women in Chess: The #sexisminchess Controversy

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Women in Chess: The #sexisminchess Controversy


It’s been a big week for chess news in the mainstream media with the “Wesley So making notes” saga, Nigalidze’s phone-wrapped-in-toilet-paper scandal and now Nigel Short is being accused of being sexist. Whilst all of these stories seem to cast a somewhat negative light on chess, they do say that no publicity is bad publicity.


This all started because Nigel wrote an article in New In Chess and made the comment that “men’s brains are hard-wired differently to women’s…instead of fretting about inequality, we should accept that”. This seemed to really touch a nerve of Amanda Ross, founder of Casual Chess, a new and exciting place in London where everyone can get together to play chess as they wish. She lashed out at him on Twitter:




Naturally, Nigel defended himself, but things quickly escalated:




Whilst Amanda may have over-reacted and calling Nigel racist was simply absurd, there was a clear issue here that sexism is an issue in chess that needs to be addressed.


I was swiftly contacted by a reporter at The Telegraph, a leading paper in the UK for my comments on the matter. Whilst Nigel has been known to be somewhat sexist in the past, I wasn’t clear exactly what he meant in this circumstance, as I believed his words to be open to interpretation. Therefore, I did not comment on what Nigel said exactly, but talked about my experience with sexism in chess in general. The original article that was released can be found here and this quickly went viral.


I spent the greater part of my Monday giving interviews for various radio stations, newspapers and Sky News. I couldn’t believe that mainstream media was interested in chess and was amazed at the amount of coverage that it was receiving. Sky were extremely interested in hearing my views on what it is like to be a female in the chess world.


Of course, to an outsider, this is all rather fascinating and a prominent English figure in the chess world saying that women’s brains are just not up to the task to be as good a chess player as men’s, will obviously cause a stir. However, Nigel is adamant that he did not mean it in such a way and he was merely pointing out biological differences between the genders. I, myself have been quoted in various news sources about this topic and my thoughts on Nigel’s words. I have even been described as “attacking Nigel” but the reality is far from this.


My thoughts on sexism in chess


Due to the news coverage on this topic in the UK media over the last couple of days, #sexisminchess was even trending! But really, what do we mean by sexism in chess? I spoke up about my experiences and explained that I have suffered sexism in chess throughout my career and that I have had many friends leave the game of chess due to sexism.

What this does not mean is that every man in chess is sexist, nor does it mean that the majority of chess players are sexist, but it does mean that it exists. Nigel Short even agrees with this on his interview with Sky News.


Examples of issues that myself and my female colleagues have faced are:

-       Being refused entry to playing halls as only players are allowed in. Even after explaining that we are indeed players, they are still in disbelief

-       Patronising remarks before a game saying that they will “go easy” on us because we are a girl

-       Having our titles belittled: e.g. saying that achieving the WIM title just means that we now know how to castle


Whilst these things are mild and can easily be shrugged off if you are not of the sensitive kind, they are not particularly helpful or encouraging.


A more severe case is when women are completely objectified at tournaments and harassed, just because they are female. Some men think it is OK to follow women around the tournament hall, invade their personal space, make disgusting remarks and just generally make them feel uncomfortable. At my last tournament, I offered my opponent a draw in a position I simply could not lose just to get away from some creep who would not leave me alone. This should not happen and women should be made to feel this way. It is quite surprising that women play so well considering what they often go through at tournaments!


Effects of sexism in English Chess


Yesterday, I spoke to a woman, who used to be part of the English women’s Olympiad team, but has left the country and now resides elsewhere. She mentioned that there has been sexism in whatever country she has lived in, but nothing as bad as the UK. For example, when we play in a team competition, the men would receive a very large fee for playing, accommodation in a single room, flights booked on a great airline and the coach of their choice. The women would receive no fee, shared accommodation, flights on budget airlines and no coach. However, this is better than the alternative as the threat is usually not to bother sending a women’s team at all. The reasoning? Because “it’s not like the women are going to win anything”. Such encouraging attitude! The argument for the lesser conditions is that we are simply not as good as the men. However, we are still the best in our country! If you look at Team GB who take part in the Olympics, the women don’t get treated less favourably because they have a slower 100m time, so why should the women’s chess team get severely less conditions than the men?


We are of course not expecting the same conditions as we are not starting up another debate like the tennis equal pay debacle, but we are disputing why there is such a large difference. The tennis dispute was so prominent because women only play 3 sets and men play 5. However, women play the same time control as men in chess, so this is not even an argument. It is this treatment of the England Ladies’ team that has caused some of our best players not to take part in team tournaments and has thereby weakened our team drastically. We then fail to perform at these events and this apparently justifies not spending any money on us. Unfortunately it is a vicious cycle and I know that the majority of our top players are really disheartened about the situation.


What needs to be done about it


I look in admiration at other countries and their support for women and can’t help but think about transferring to another federation. The problem is, is that I love my country and nothing makes me prouder than to represent England. Plus, every federation has its own problems behind closed doors that we don’t know about – a classic case of the grass is always greener…


However, I think that there are several situations that have been caused by sexism, which has had a detrimental effect on women’s chess. Several strong female players have left the game due to suffering from sexism. Some have returned at an older age, where they now just don’t care, but still are scarred from their experiences from a young age. The number of women playing chess is still ridiculously low and so we need to do as much as we can to help encourage those who still play to remain in the game and to still love the game. We hope that with some positivity, we can also increase the numbers of new women joining the game too.


Back to Nigel’s Comment


I don’t think Nigel expected to cause quite the stir he has done with his New in Chess article and it seems he sincerely didn’t mean the comment quite so offensively as many women have taken it. Whilst I am not particularly happy with how he has handled himself on the issue of sexism in chess, I am not holding him personally responsible for the situation as it stands. Sexism is present in chess, as it is in every walk of life and Nigel’s comment wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last. However, the positive result of what he said is that now more people are aware of what women go through.


I also hope that his comment will encourage some female chess players to work harder at the game and fight to catch up the likes of Judit Polgar and Hou Yifan. After all, these two ladies have shown that women of course are not hard-wired to be weak at chess and greatness can indeed be achieved with a mixture of talent and hard work. These two amazing women of course have something special, which most of us probably don’t possess, but it doesn’t mean that more and more women can work harder and break that magic 2600 barrier.