Why the gender imbalance in chess? DR asks the question as a result of the appeal made by retired ambassador Louis Wiltshire when he addressed the prize giving function of the Knight’s Chess Club’s Open tournament earlier this year. The Knight’s president, noticing a drop in female participation in the popular annual event, called for more girls to enter the sport’s competitive arena since he saw no reason why it should be dominated by men. Inadvertently, it seems, Wiltshire had drawn attention again to a fascinating question that several leading players and social scientists have long pondered upon. Why the gender division, indeed the dominance of men, in the world’s greatest mind game? One prominent commentator, member of the board of the Dutch Chess Federation, sees the game as providing “a reasonable testing ground for intellectual power” since it requires no physical strength.
“And the fact of the matter is that men totally dominate chess,” he says, apparently considering the difference as the natural order of things. He supports this viewpoint by comparing the Elo rating, which is the recognised measure of chess strength, between Magnus Carlsen, currently the best chess player in the world with an Elo rating of 2,826, and Judith Polgar currently the best female player in the world who has an Elo rating of 2,680. Polgar, he points out, is the only female player in the world’s top 100. Commenting on this gender imbalance, the Dutchman says, “Nature has its paradoxical ways of asymetric justice. Yin and Yang are opposing forces. Yin is the water that erodes the toughest rock. Women give birth to men and women alike. They nurture their offspring literally.” What this DCF official seems to be saying is that the imbalance should be accepted as a judicial decree of nature. Men may dominate women in the arena of chess, but they are totally outplayed in the far more vital activity of child bearing and nurturing.
However, DR must ask, is this comparison genuinely valid? If chess is a purely intellectual exercise, requiring a lot of brainpower, what is the conclusion to be drawn from this Dutchman’s contention? In her book, The Gender Blur, Deborah Blum discusses the different roles of biology and society in gender development. She challenges the common belief that these roles are largely controlled by the mores of society, “that women should cook and clean and men should work hard and be the breadwinner.” She contends, instead, that “biology plays a bigger role in helping us to become who we are.”
Another commentator calling himself Silfir makes the point that competitive chess is not separated. There are no tournaments exclusive to men. Silfir notes:“We have had, for instance, Judith Polgar beating Garry Kasparov and numerous other top level male players. No fluke either, since her rating has scratched the elite level too.” The problem is still, he argues, that chess is not commonly seen as something that women can, or are supposed to, excel at.
As far as T&T is concerned, DR tends to agree with the results of the Chabris and Glickman study published a few years ago in Psychological Science. The authors say: “External factors like the relative lack of female role models among the world’s top players and the prospect of playing a game dominated by boys may be discouraging to girls or their parents, either directly reducing their likelihood of learning how to play in the first place or indirectly reducing their initial performance in competitive play via test anxiety or stereotype threat.” The fact is that T&T has never produced a really first-class female chess player, one who consistently held her own in open or national tournaments and, as a result, provided an inspirational role model for other women who may want to take up the game.
Over the modern age of chess, when the gender discrepancy became so obvious, several theories have been offered and studies undertaken to explain it. Comparisons have been made between the characteristics of the male and female brain, one claiming that the chemical testosterone, which makes men more competitive and combative, accounts for the difference. There is also the idea that men perform better in “the higher levels of technical domain” than women, which explains why so few females choose to go into engineering. Apart from social and cultural influences, history, it is pointed out, has also played a part giving men a head start on the timeline of the game. As one observer notes, “I am sure you would find as many women playing chess in the 19th century as you would find men knitting.” In closing, DR adopts the view of Elubas who writes: “The fact that the different percentages of men and women playing chess are so astronomically different makes me think it’s the most mysterious issue in chess today. Everyone has their theory, but no one really knows.”