Monday, November 09, 2020

There was no world-dominating female chess player like on Queen's Gambit

Even though I am not a chess player myself, I have been enjoying the mini-series Queen's Gambit on Netflix. It has the air of a "based on a true story" story, so I was a bit surprised when I found out it wasn't based on a true story at all, but on an entirely fictional Walter Tevis novel.

So, the protagonist of the series, the quirky female chess prodigy who goes off the rails but then finds love, is very much fictional. This is not to say that there have been no female chess prodigies: the Hungarian Grandmaster Judit Polgár, still widely regarded as the greatest female chess player ever, became the youngest ever Grandmaster in 1991. But, even at her peak, she only ever reached No. 8 in the world ranking, and she remains the only woman ever to have so much as qualified for a World Championship tournament. (And don't me started on her and her sisters' upbringing, and their father's weird experiment to prove that "Geniuses are made, not born").

But it seems to be a fact that there are relatively few great female chess players. Only 31 out of 1,429 chess Grandmasters are female - about 2% - and there are only 2 women who rank in the top 100 (as of 2015). And even this is a very recent development: Georgia's Nona Gashprindashvili became the first ever female Grandmaster in 1978, and even she did not make the World Championship. 

Why, then, are women not able to compete with men in an intellectual pursuit like chess, and why do so few women and girls even play the game? 

Apparently, this wasn't always the case. In medieval times, women were as likely to play it as men. But this was not the same game as we have today; it was a leisurely game played between lords and ladies. All this changed in the 17th century with some important rule changes in the game, principally the changes to the queen and the bishop, which used to be relatively weak pieces with a very limited range of movement, but became powerful pieces able to range widely across the board. This (somehow) had the effect of making chess into a much more competitive and aggressive game, one considered unsuitable for ladies to partake in.

Since then, and up until very recently, it has never quite been considered a ladylike pursuit, much like it would never have occurred to 18th or 19th century women to play cricket or rugby. And male chauvinist attitudes only reinforced this, leading many to conclude that because they didn't play it competitively, they were constitutionally unable to. As recently as 1962, famous US Grandmaster Bobby Fischer opined, "They're all weak, all women. They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess, you know." Even more recently, Grandmaster Nigel Short suggested that women "just don't have the killer instinct".

At any rate, the main reason there are so few women at the top of chess seems to be that there are so few at the bottom too. Not that many girls take up the pastime in the first place, and those that do tend not to want to pursue it to a competitive level, given the preponderance of loud, aggressive and hyper-competitive boys in competitions, especially during the socially awkward teenage years. Teemage girls are more likely to abandon chess and take up other, perhaps more social, hobbies. 

There is even something called "stereotype threat": studies have shown that young girls are already so aware of the stereotype that "boys are good at chess", that they play differently against boys, less confidently and generally worse. And another study showed that, when boys play girls, they often play even more aggressively than when they play other boys, for some obscure psychological reason.

Another issue, which leads on from all this, is the lack of female coaches, and the fact that most parents are understably reticent to let their teenage daughter hang out with some older guy, supposedly playing chess all day. And neither would they want to get into the logistical issues around sharing hotel rooms (or paying for two rooms) while attending competitions. Not to mention that girls need to be coached differently (and may even need to be taught to be more competitive, unlike boys).

And then, of course, there is the whole issue of why there is such as thing as the Women's World Chess Championship, open only to women, separate from the World Chess Championship, which is technically open to men and women (before 1986, it was called the Men's World Chess Championship, and was NOT open to women). I understand the need for separate women's competitions in, say, tennis or soccer: there are umavoidable physical differences that make the two games very different. But an intellectual sport like chess? 

Sexist? Redundant? Limiting? Well, maybe, but the separate women's chess championship has many apologists who maintain that it is not an admission of inferiority. Notably, Judit Polgár always refused to play in the women's championship (although maybe her domineering father wouldn't let her!), and she argues that girls that only play against other girls end up limiting themselves and their ability to improve. Certainly, having a separate competition is not going to help those youmg girls overcome those stereotypes we talked about earlier.

No comments: