The lockdown has had disparate effects on people, depending on their preferred activities. If a daily squash game was your routine before COVID-19, the days have stretched out endlessly. But if you love bridge, as my sister does, and you don’t mind remote play (she loves it: less socializing), you haven’t skipped a beat.
Considering who else might be equally happy with remote play, I thought of serious chess players, who probably hardly know they’re in lockdown. And when one imagines serious chess players, one—at least I, not a player, but aware of the demographics at the top of the chess world—think of men.
Or used to. In January I had an interesting dialogue with a chess-playing friend and colleague Grant Brown, who mentioned he had tuned into some of the Women’s World Chess Championship matches, then in progress. Women’s championship? I hadn’t known there was such a thing.
Oh yes, Grant informed me. But it’s even more interesting because, unlike sex-segregated sports, women are eligible for either the Women’s section or the Open. There is no official male-only category (although the Open was called the Men’s World Chess Championship until 1986).
Anyone up on gender politics can see the difficulty here. If men and women are absolute cognitive equals, as political correctness would have it, how, I inquired, is this not insulting to women? Grant informed me that this very question—the merits of keeping a women’s section with its own prizes—has fuelled a raging debate among chess players and organizers for decades.
As a woman, I am not the slightest bit ruffled, indeed I am very much persuaded by the “male variability hypothesis,” which claims a wider distribution of intellectual ability for men than women, especially in the realm of math and science. According to this widely accepted hypothesis, male cognitive extremes cluster at the top and bottom of the charts, with the vast majority of men and women about equally distributed between them.
Neither women nor men seem bothered by the idea that the most cognitively disadvantaged women are smarter than the most cognitively disadvantaged men. But the very idea that the tiny statistical sliver of the most brilliant men may outshine the tiny statistical sliver of the most brilliant women literally sickens some feminists.
If it is not true, though, how does one explain chess which, at the highest levels, and cutting across all cultural lines, has always been and remains a female-free zone?
The reality is, I discovered, that if there were no women’s division, women would never win any prize money at all. Even the most talented women chess players barely make it into the top 100 players. Hungary’s Judit Polgar—the “strongest female chess player of all time”—managed to achieve a rank of eighth best in the world at her peak (and did beat the highest ranked men in individual games), but the second-ranked woman is way way down in the hundreds.
Polgar, it should be noted, had every non-socially constructed advantage: fulltime private coaching, passion for the game and extreme intelligence. She even demonstrated early promise of genius in breaking Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming a Grandmaster at age 15. But she has also seen that record broken at least 37 times in the past 30 years – by boys.
Grant, for example, counts himself as a “weekend warrior” in chess – not good enough to win a university tournament, but “strong enough to be a candidate on the Women’s Olympic chess team.” (If this sounds like boasting, it wasn’t. He was elucidating at my request.) Presently there are five teenage boys higher rated than the top woman, and 18 teenage boys rated higher than the second-best female player.
Grant reckons the ratio of Grandmasters in the world is something like 1000:50 male/female. He compared the top female chess players to tennis champion Venus Williams who, even at her peak, could beat any amateur male player in the world, but could not beat any circuit male in the top hundred or so.
Having heard Grant’s side of the story, I naturally sought out a feminist counter-argument, and found it in a 2015 Aeon Magazine article by New York writer Hana Schank, “Where’s Bobbi Fischer?”
Schank had loved chess as a child, but being the only girl in her chess club discouraged her from continuing. Thirty-five years later, she says, “nothing has changed significantly vis-à-vis girls and chess.” She notes that as of May, 2015, “there are only two women who rank in the top-100 chess players worldwide.” At the moment there is one, Hou Yifan of China, Judit Polgar having retired from competitive play some years ago. Yifan ranks 84th, which is 200 rating points—a full category—below the top-ranked male, Magnus Carlsen.
Schank alludes to the male variability hypothesis. But she isn’t buying it, and sets out to explain the disparity as a consequence of environmental conditions.
The general problem, she concludes, is that the pool of female recruits to high achievement is too small. Up to Grade three, girls make up half the enrolment in one chess club she visited. But half of that half drop out when fun turns into competition. Other chess clubs report that the number of girls starting chess is at an all-time high, but they still tend to drop out “at a furious pace.”
But dropping out voluntarily is not the same as being denied entry or actively discouraged or pushed out by biased gatekeepers, none of which applies to chess, which has no gatekeepers or admissions tests. So that rather undermines her “small pool” argument. Anyway, chess is a global phenomenon. In some countries, girls constitute a much higher cohort of chess players than in the U.S.
It’s very normal in any endeavor for young people to drop out when they find they don’t have the chops for the elite level. (Boys too drop out of chess in high numbers for the same reason. For girls that do stay in chess, by the way, there are inducements, such as opportunities to travel to girls-only tournaments, and special girls-only prizes.)
Besides, even if the pool of girls is small, amongst them should be the true geniuses. After all, the pool of male ballet dancers is very tiny, for no activity could be more stereotypically female than ballet. But of those lads who are brave enough to endure the taunts of their male friends and (minimally) the raised eyebrows of their parents, the great ones—Nureyev, Baryshnikov—rise to heights of aesthetic brilliance equal to the cream of ballerinas.
In what seems like a hail-Mary pass, Schank points out that the Women’s World Championship offers only a third of the prize money the men’s champion earns. As if monetary incentive could possibly be the driver for the fantastic amount of time and energy chess lovers devote to their game. But even if it were, the women are free to enter the Open alongside the men, and compete for the bigger money! So there goes that argument.
Finally, Schank claims that women suffer from a paucity of female role models and female coaches. She cites the view of Judit Polgar’s sister Susan, also an elite chess player, who claims that “boys and girls need to be coached differently, and that male coaches might find it difficult to understand a young girl’s mindset.” But this hypothesis must be set beside the fact that she and her prodigy sisters were coached exclusively in their tender years by their chess teacher/psychologist father, who believed in the environmental thesis and was determined to prove women could be just as great at chess as men.
Indeed, gender “mindsets” come into play in all sorts of creative hierarchies, in which determined women achieve parity with dominant men. Great male chefs often take a far more bullish (to state it kindly) approach to cooking than female chefs. But women with ambition in haute cuisine apprentice to them anyway, and find success. If Schank really believes that mindset is such a significant factor in the chess gender chasm, then she is unwittingly making a case for gender-separate STEM courses.
As a personal aside: my daughter competed in horse sport up to the elite level, one of the few sports where riders of both sexes compete on equal terms. At the entry level, horses are a notoriously girl-centric obsession. Sometimes I noticed the ratio of girls to boys in any given riding class (taught exclusively by women in the early years) was 10:1. Miraculously, when the focus shifted from fun to competition, the boys pick up interest. At the elite levels, the ratio is 50:50.
In her years on the competition circuit, my daughter and her male peers had female coaches and male coaches. In ten years of managing her career, I never heard a word from her or any competitor about gender “mindsets” in horse sport, nor did I ever once hear a female competitor voice a preference for female coaches over male.
Likewise in the following generation: one of my teen granddaughters plays hockey at the elite level for her age. She has had female coaches and—more often—male coaches, who well understand that girls play hockey differently from boys, as it isn’t rocket science to understand that, and who teach to the style, aptitudes and skill levels of their female charges.
I think Schank gave it her best shot, but all her arguments ring hollow in the face of the numbers, which are ineluctable. My conclusion is that you have to be a hard-core ideologue to deny the male variability hypothesis. When you do accept it, you can cheerfully also accept the necessity for a Women’s Division in chess. But you can’t have your ideological cake and eat it too. Or not with intellectual honour.
On a parting note, I cannot forbear mentioning that even though Jewish men represent about .1 percent of the world’s population, 54 percent of the world’s chess champions have been men of full or partial Jewish descent (Judit Polgar is Jewish too.) Social construction can explain certain disparities in certain fields of endeavour. But it can’t explain away a bell curve.