The Real Queen's Gambit - Women in Chess

The question of correlations between gender and chess ability is one of the more controversial conversations around the game, and perhaps always has been. The historical view is as you’d expect – the general belief – sometimes even among female chess-players – seemed to be that men and women have innate differences; that these include traits like aggression, competitiveness, and other such drives associated with chess, the sport; and that this is not altogether a shameful thing because there are other traits women rank more highly on.

In his 1950 publication Chess for fun & Chess for blood, Edward Lasker (distantly related to the more famous Emmanuel) puts the question to Ms. L Gallet, a ‘gifted-out-of-the-ordinary’ female chess-player. The latter’s response –

“I don’t consider it possible for any woman, though, to become a chessmaster. She won’t be able to keep her mind on the game long enough without letting her thoughts wander. When she thinks of a beautiful move she is liable to think also about how beautiful she looks in making it. Then there is that sale she saw advertised…”

Once again, this is a woman, and a skilled female chessplayer, who pens this response.

So deep was this – what one might call “folk psychology”—that women even went as far as to contradict men regarding their own chess-playing ability. In The Fireside Book of Chess –another lovely compendium – the (male) authors write—

“Every radio comedian and night-club wit has several entries in his card-index file about the possibility of a woman’s becoming President of the United States. The idea that a woman might become our chess champion seems equally ‘comical’ – ”

Wry words indeed, but the actual point being made follows shortly after –

“…yet both of these possibilities are less remote than they were in, say, 1930….The chief obstacle to further popularization of chess among women is, paradoxically enough, the nature of the male ego.” The author goes on to say that it’s men that ought to change their ways and gracefully accept defeat to a woman.

This is more in line with the modern thinking, where such discrepancies are considered to be reflective more of patriarchy than any innate inequality.

Replying to this, however, in Chess Review, 1951, is Mrs. H. D. Sheldon, writing,

“Women have the mental agility, the interest in puzzles, the scientific spirit, the pleasure in intellectual beauty […] but they do not, I believe, have that sustained combativeness […] You get men players like that, too, of course, but they do not chalk up great scores. And I think many women are like that.”

She goes on to cite how she has spotted men “throw over table, board and all” after losing, and opines that “the top women chess-players will always be drawn from a small minority of women […] characterized by a high adrenaline output.”

With other sexist stereotypes, they can often be chalked down to illusory correlation, confirmation bias, or various other mechanisms recognised by psychologists that study fallacies of the mind. Both the female writers cited here seem to give subjective evidences of this kind, born of some sort of real-life “grain-of-truth” (Campbell, 1967). Even if this is dismissed, there is the inescapable fact of – and this is what makes this stereotype a little more controversial than others – statistical differences between populations of male and female chess-players.

There are a variety of possible explanations/scenarios here. One hinges on, effectively, a normalised statistical interpretation, looking for differences when both populations are compared in terms of relative quantities. Professor Wei Ji Ma of NYU, for example, makes a comprehensive statistical argument for why it is the discrepancy in sample size, more than anything, which leads to the statistical differences. You will find his article here.

The statistical argument aside, the two biggest possibilities, as usual fall along the nature/nurture debate – is chess-playing ability determined by innate, genetic differences (nature) – or is it shaped largely by social forces (nurture)?

In a conclusive and extremely successful experiment by their father, the Polgar sisters, who were raised to be chess-playing ‘geniuses’, represent a compelling argument for the “nurture” case. Or at least, solid evidence for the fact that their female “nature” did not in any way represent any sort of inner glass ceiling on their chess potential – Judit Polgar was, at her prime, included in the world top 10 – across genders – a feat which the mid-century writers of the aforementioned articles would have thought impossible. Indeed, in her recent game with Carlsen, on which the recent agadmator video is based, she proved that there continued to be no such cap on her potential – irrespective of gender.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of genetic predispositions – in most examples from the ‘nature v nurture’ debate, the conclusion has been that a person may have a genetic predisposition to something, but the expression or manifestation of this dependent on the environment and social factors. This is seen time and again, most clearly, for example, in the case of the Genain quadruplets, all of whom had the same genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, but manifested it at various stages in life depending on their varied upbringings.

Then, even if we are compelled to admit any sort of genetic differences relevant to chess, the manifestation of this latent advantage or disadvantage wholly depends on things like training, hardwork, willpower, determination, etc, and herein lies the factors that a sportsperson should be judged on, in any case. In other words, a man who doesn’t play chess is no better at chess than a woman who doesn’t play chess.

The most important point, in the author’s view, is that we seem to have, due to the benevolent forces of society or personal effort, transcended all sorts of minute biological and other predispositions. We live in a world where so many exemplary men and women have shown that they can be whatever they want, and so it is hardly of interest anymore what their predispositions may or may not be. One of the successes of modern society is people are hardly determined by their genetics, or race, or gender, or any other factor that they are born with.

And chess is hardly what anyone is genetically programmed to be good at, be it a man or a woman. It’s something a human can, by application of their higher intellect, learn and become good at.

Judit Polgar raises an interesting point when she says – “One can say that in the last decades chess has become more of a sport than a science. I see it from an artistic point of view.” – seeming to draw the distinction between the various facets of chess. The game, which is at least, all at once, an art, a science, and a sport, requires all sorts of interdisciplinary intelligence to tackle, and part of what makes sports and indeed any other human endeavour interesting is indeed how each sportsperson chorales their unique variety of variables towards a common end.

In other words, there will always be scientists who are driven more by calculation, and others by intuition. There are writers who are more ‘head-y’ – Rand, Orwell, Vonnegut, Camus – and then there are those of the ‘heart’ – Rilke, Kerouac, Bukowski, Plath. And then there are ones that have a more linguistic genius – Borges, Nabokov, Joyce. There are artists who think in more geometric and mathematical shapes, and those who embrace the vague, the fuzzy, the imprecise and the chaotic. Indeed, even among chess players there are those who play more defensively, those who play more recklessly, those who prefer a logical and systematic attack, etc – that is to say, it takes all kinds anyway, and that – the diversity in human condition – is precisely what makes the arts, the sciences, etc more interesting and more successful

That is not even to say that women and men are pigeonholed into distinct, gender-determined styles of play – because the real point to be made here is about neuroplasticity, and plasticity of the human mind. Ever since the famous cases of Phineas Gage and others, the psychological community is well familiar with the notion of neuroplasticity – how one part of the brain can adapt to perform another’s job – one mustn’t underestimate the malleability of the human mind. In stroke patients, those with left-brain lesions are often found with their right-brains taking over the requisite jobs, while those with right-brain injury see the converse.

That is to say, even the notion that men and women are condemned to different styles of play because of some inherent disposition or biology – at the end of the day, both sexes are striving towards a common goal – making the best possible sequence of moves – and it is up to them with what combination of head, heart, contemplation, intuition, calm, aggression, single-minded focus or complete relaxation they tackle this task.

Whatever the differences in gender be, they are likely not so large that they do not fall under the usual magisteria of idiosyncratic variables that chess players have to either mitigate, or harness to their advantage. Got a temper and a competitive edge? Try and channel it into passion and determination. Have obsessive tendencies and poor multitasking skills? Try and channel it into single-minded focus. Isn’t this the sort of alchemy that we all have to try and engage in to surmount our innate tendencies and achieve any task?

The real question, really, is what we can do to give as many humans as many opportunities as possible to achieve their full potential. In the context of this discussion, the goal is clear – as is the methods of reaching there. The more women play chess, the more women will see representation in the top echelons. That half of the species has certainly demonstrated that there are no real limits, and to be convinced of this one has to only look at the excellent games in the Womens’ Championships and by female players in general (many of which are covered on the agadmator channel, such as the Polgar games and talented modern trailblazers such as Ju Wenjun).

The real problem is when we have, indeed, the male ego, which is probably the biggest threat to women receiving their equal share of opportunities (many of the absurd cases have, once again, been covered on the channel, such as that of GM Short or WGM Anna Rudolf). This is something, unfortunately, that has always been the problem.

We will finish on one more historical curiosity, again from the 50s, this time a short note by a Mrs. Jane Carlyle in the Chess magazine –

“One night […] Mr. Buller having beaten me with his usual facility, said in the most provokingly slighting tone: ‘I do wish you could improve a little!” […] somehow I felt myself injured – he should see I was determined that I could play if I liked – and so I beat him the next game and the next – and he has had a sore thrashing of his brains for any game he has won from me since.”

What we should all be able to agree on, at the end of the day, is that more women in chess is a good thing, because, far less than having some sort of limited ability, what they bring to the table is rather a whole new variety of ways to play excellent chess. It’s the injection of this kind of new life which keeps the arts, the sciences, and sports alive, and instead of scrutinising the ways in which women’s differences might limit their playing, we should probably celebrate all the different ways in which they might rather enhance it.

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Antonio "AGADMATOR" Radić

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