On the PBS program “Amanpour and Company”, host Christian Amanpour discussed the very popular “Netflix” series “The Queens Gambit”, with former world chess champion Gary Kasparov and the greatest female player of all time Judit Polgar ( a game changing moment for chess). The show was typical in the way such subjects are discussed. We were shown Kasparov’s early incredulity about the chances of women becoming top players. Amanpour noted that Polgar became a grandmaster at an earlier age than either Gary Kasparov or former American world champion Bobby Fischer. She also noted that Polgar had beat Kasparov when he was world champion, in rapid chess. Not mentioned, is that rapid chess is considered less a measure of chess ability than the standard competition.
I am not trying to disparage Polgar’s accomplishments. Her highest ranking was eighth in the world. At her best, among other geographic locations, she was ranked higher than every man in the America’s from Canada to the bottom of South America. If she had been from the United States and ranked number one in this country, that itself would make her be regarded as a great player.
However, the discussion implied by Amanpour and others about the topic, would make one believe that women players are competing with equal success with men. In truth (based on my checking online on Jan 5 2020), of the top one hundred players in the world, one is a female, Hou Yifan from China. OuHou is currently the 87th ranked player (ratings.fide.com Jan 2020). In the United States women do somewhat better. There are three women in the top 100. Their Rankings are 74th, 88th and tied for 96th (www.uschess.org/component/option,com)
Because competitive games are determined by the performance of the participants, thus largely immune to discrimination, men’s superior rankings are largely omitted when such topics are discussed. Obviously, this is the opposite of the way things are depicted in the business world, where the media is obsessed with such gender disparities. Where such differences exist, discrimination is automatically assumed to be a cause. Imagine the reaction by the press, if a gender discrepancy of top ranked workers at a Fortune 500 companies mirrored that of chess. It does not seem at all plausible that it not being declared unequivocally that rampant discrimination against women was a major culprit. Actually, it is hard to imagine any company let such a disparity exists. We also don’t hear about the gender pay gap in American chess. No doubt, this gender disparity far exceeds that of the typical American company.
Results in competitive games such as chess, should make journalist wary of automatically assuming sexism when men dominate the highest positions in a company. Such notions can end up doing severe economic damage to such companies. Such indiscriminately based charges do a great deal more than that. These contentions if wrong, cause injustice in many other ways. Often people who are charged with such behaviors, are stigmatized and suffer dire consequences. Nor should discrimination automatically be assumed, if men or women, are disproportionately considered the best at for instance, artistic pursuits.
I believe there are reason other than genetic abilities that contribute to the lack of women at the top of objectively determined contests such as chess, bridge, scrabble and poker. However, few would contend that there is no overlap in chess skills and many jobs. In fact, the idea that the game develops skills useful to the job world is a primary reason people are advocating more women to play chess.
A taboo subject regarding Fortune 500 companies, is to assert that male predominance is not largely a result of discrimination. In competitive games like chess, the taboo idea is that men may have a better aptitude for the game than women. As a result, the arguments for why men dominate the top rankings in chess, are consistently ones that would lead to outrage, firing and countless hours of disparaging media coverage, if they existed in the business world.
Probably the most benign of explanations for why women are absent among the top chess players, is that men tend to perform both at the top and the bottom of abilities in many endeavors. This is not just speculation in that we see this phenomenon cross culturally. However, this is also the hypothesis by economist Larry Summers that led to him being being fired from his job as President of Harvard.
Former “Google” employee James Damore, found out the penalty for writing that gender differences in interest and personality contributes to there not being a 50-50 ratio in high-tech workers. The fact that his analysis was well reasoned, based on current research and sympathetic to women, was not enough to protect him from being fired and to receive widespread virulent condemnation. Notice the wording of the link to his paper( Exclusive: Here’s the Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed …).
One can only imagine if such an explanation was expressed by the highest achieving women in business. However, in chess there is no need to imagine. A ranking of the top female chess players of all time, listed Juliet Polgar number one, followed by her sister Susan and the currently highest rated women, Hou Yifan (https://sportsshow.net/greatest-female-chess-players). All three have used similar reasoning to explain men’s superior performance in chess, without retribution. Judit Polgar said this about her chess career: “you can’t think of your wife or children—only about yourself. …. I’m not going to give up everything to become world champion; I have my life. (Wikipedia Judit Polgar).”
Susan Polgar, a coach and advocate for women in chess, has discussed issues involving the subject in a fair amount of depth. Here are some of the things she has said: “Boys and girls approach the game of chess very differently. Most boys are results-oriented and focus on winning and losing. Most girls are very different; they have a greater appreciation for the artistic and social aspect of chess. (Susan Polgar: With encouragement & right environment, girls …).” “Boys are a lot more competitive naturally, so you don’t need to teach them to be competitive. Girls need to be coached to be more competitive. Girls would rather solve chess prizes than play against one of their friends. … Boys will always choose to compete. (The Grand Master Experiment Psychology Today).
Children are a part of life,” explains Susan. “Because of that, there will always be fewer women playing chess than men. In many professions, it’s OK to be good, or very good; there is no need to be the best. But only the very best can make a living at chess. … Female players often must interrupt their careers in order to raise a family (ibid., Susan Polgar: With encouragement).
The media tout’s’ women’s job performances after pregnancy, even in the realm of physical demanding athletic competition, where at least short-term decline is pretty much inevitable. It would not be tolerated for someone to contend that women can’t make it to top levels in business, because females no longer function at their top level after giving birth. In truth, such factors are not as detrimental in chess as they are in the business world. Players reach the top of chess at a much younger age than they tend to in corporate America. In addition, unlike the business world, the game of chess remains the same. Also, you do not have to leave your home to continue working on your chess game.
Fortunately, it is not true that women can’t compete at a top level of chess after having a child, which Susan Polgar well knows. Her sister Judit received her highest rating after returning to chess following the birth of her first child (Juliet Polgar, Wikipedia). As for Susan, she had considerable success after giving birth to her two children. For example, she became the first woman to win the US Open Blitz Championship against a field which included seven grandmasters (Susan Polgar Wikipedia).
Susan Polgar noted: “there were times when I felt faint at matches because of menstrual cramps (Ibid., The Grand Master Experiment).” Imagine a female CEO explaining menstrual cramps keeping women from performing at an equal level to men, as a reason for why most of her highest salaried employees are male. Although in truth, I believe discussing issues unique to females, would help not hurt women reaching for high-ranking jobs in business.
Hou Yifan observed: “Male players will analyze the situation and make the most objective and rational decision to see what would practically be the best choice. For a woman, even for myself, sometimes we seek something enjoyable.” The writer of the article also noted, that from “an early age Hou decided chess would be a hobby and not a career (top female grand-master takes on man’s world of chess).” This contrasts media coverage of big business, where they contend that women have to work twice as hard to achieve success.
According to Hou: “In China, girls tend to think more about university, and then things like family, life balance … while boys are more focused and persistent on that one thing ‘(Queen of chess’ says it’s hard to imagine women competing at …). This should be disturbing to female chess advocates, since five of the top 20 ranked female players are from China. If Hou is correct, what does that say about women in the countries that China performs better than in the sport?
Hou contends that women have less endurance than men, which contributes to a male advantage. She notes: “I think there is a physical aspect because chess exhausts a lot of energy, especially when games last 6-7 hours (Hou Yifan Interview: ‘Competing with Top Males …). Do we need to be reminded that Donald Trump’s was charged with sexism for contending he had more endurance than Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that she fainted during a speech? In reality, evidence does not support Hou’s contention. To the contrary, if anything the evidence appears to show women have greater endurance.
What appears to be the most widely espoused explanation for men’s superior chess performance, was a study controlling for the number of female players in comparison to men, which found women’s performance pretty much equaled men’s (Why Men Rank Higher than Women at Chess (It’s Not Biological)). However, according to the International Chess Federation (FIDE), about 15% of their members are female. This statistic does not explain why only one woman is among the top 100 ranked players. In addition, more women than men, participate in competitive games such Bridge and Scrabble, yet men still dominate the top positions in these games. The number of female chess players, parallels the business world, where 18% of computer science majors are female. However, the discussion of women in companies such as “Google” frequently ignores this as a reason for there being few women in top jobs.
Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short, actually studied chess history. He dared to conclude that men have a better aptitude for chess. As one would expect, he was largely pilloried simply for coming up with an unpopular conclusion. Even the fact that he lost a head-to-head challenge competition with Judit Polgar, was used as evidence to discredit his ability to render an opinion on the topic.
In reality, Short was a higher rated career player than Judit, meaning his rating higher than any women in history. By this logic, no women’s opinion on the subject should be taken as seriously as Short’s. This includes Hou, who unlike Judit Polgar, he defeated in a challenge match. Then again as Short noted, regarding the things Hou said regarding women in chess, he “would have been ripped to shreds as a misogynist dinosaur. (IBID., Queen of chess’ says it’s hard to imagine women competing at.”
Clearly it is blasphemy to man, to express and opinion that men may be better at chess (or anything else for that matter). But to have a part of the chess world that excludes every male of any age on the planet, while asserting men have no genetic advantage for the game, is fine.
Men are accused of being too insecure to give women an opportunity to display their intellectual skills. Short did so with Judit Polgar and other top female players. The result, his defeat to Polgar, is used to disparage him. As for Short’s opinion of Juliet Polgar, check out her Wikipedia biography. Short is quoted as rating Judit as “one of the three or four greatest chess prodgies in history.”
While there are reasons outside of ability that work against women, I think overall, they are less influential in games such as chess than in the business world. I already addressed the topic of children. In addition, men are significantly more likely to aspire to be at the top levels of their profession (see for instance the book, “Why Men Earn More”, Dr. Warren Farrell, 2005, pages 109-113). However, in chess, ranking is based on winning matches, something that all the players try to accomplish. It is also what their income is based on. As for life work balance, players typically retire from high level competitive chess in their thirties.
I believe the idea perpetrated by the media that discrimination is what keeps women from reaching the top levels of high grossing corporations (called Fortune 500), actually leads to less respect for female workers. With all the media attention given to the subject, few insightful people are going to believe women are not in fact getting preferential treatment in the workforce. The premise of favored treatment of top female worker is supported by data. “Why Men Earn More” (ibid, Page 86) cites the facts that women become top executives at major companies at a younger age than men, while putting in less hours More plausible explanations lead to more credibility, thus more respect regarding the many accomplished women in the workforce.
In her book “The Sexual Paradox”, author Susan Pinker stated that men are better than women in both scrabble and chess. Perhaps not. Take scrabble. More men are the bottom of intellectual abilities, so more most likely could not learn the game of scrabble at all. Generally, women tend to be better spellers than men. Considering all factors, perhaps women are as good in scrabble and other games overall, even though men are the top performers. This is a testable hypothesis.
Susan Polgar runs all female chess tournaments for girls and is advocate for such competitions. I happen to agree that it is a good idea. However, her reasoning is not without hypocrisy. She contends that men have been advantaged in chess, for amount other reasons, they have been more encouraged to play the game.
The Polgar sisters were part of an experiment introduced by their father to prove that anyone can be a chess champion. The sisters (there is a third top chess playing sister) success is evidence that women, or other groups could perform better than they have. But most likely, no group of people has had an equal opportunity to the three of them to succeed in chess. By Susan’s reasoning, other players should not have to compete with the three sisters. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous, when applied to women?
So, for adult competitions, why should there should there be a segment of the FIDE that excludes men from earning income? The same can be asked about other advantages given to women. For instance, a male chess player lamented about giving women free entry in tournaments. While in order for him to enter, he had to pay over two days salary (w.reddit.com › chess › comments › is_chess_sexist).
Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade explained why such all-female competitions are necessary. Without them: “women would just get other jobs and stop playing chess (A Gender Divide in The Ultimate Sport of The Mind | WBUR).” You know, like all male chess players in the world with comparable chess abilities. Then again, perhaps all these women have husbands and children to support?
Sexism regarding all female tournaments was addressed in “Sports Illustrated”. As one would expect it was about discrimination against women. That is, explaining female players are being discriminated against because their male excluded tournaments, have too little prize money compared to the open competitions.
Perhaps an analogy would explain how absurd this is. Black runners dominate the fastest sprint competitions in a similar degree to men in chess. Should we exclude all black runners from competitions and have the other runners complain about racism because they make too little money for their inferior performance? Why is that a good thing regarding women in chess?
As all chess players know, the only female piece the Queen, is easily the most powerful in the game. This has been true since about 1400 AD. One can only imagine the allegations and theories of sexism, if the genders of the pieces were the reverse. Nevertheless, it is mostly boys who flock to the game. Does this tell us anything about the presumption of chauvinism among the male sex?
I believe if we had an all-female chess board with the exception of one most powerful male piece, it would be cited as a reason man are the top players. If you think such a theory would not be taken seriously, you are not familiar with much of feminist literature, or the mainstream media that takes such speculations seriously.
NCFM’s Mr. Manners, Chess, Feminism, Media, Hypocrisy