This post is a translation of Kvindeturneringer – en nødvendighed at my Skakkerlak-blog. A special thank you goes out to GM Tiger Hillarp-Persson for convincing me of that I ought to make this post accessible to a larger audience.
Upon publishing my post of April 12 on the Danish Championship I announced on Facebook, that I was going to write a post on Danish women’s chess in general. It was my plan to elaborate on the huge importance of having a national championship for women, given the current state of women’s chess in Denmark. While writing this post, the British press turned the spotlight on a column written by Kasparov’s former challenger, GM Nigel Short, for the latest edition of the quality magazine New in Chess. Only few had noticed the column thus far, but then controversy arose over an article1) in the newspaper The Telegraph under the telling headline:
Girls just don’t have the brain to play chess
The article kickstarted a veritable media storm with TV-coverage on SkyNews, other newspapers (in the United Kingdom as well as abroad) picking up the story, chess bloggers rushing to react and comments flying back and forth on Facebook and Twitter.
In light of this discussion my post turned out more elaborate than would otherwise have been the case, but the conclusions remain unchanged:
- No biological evidence exists for women being less able to play chess than men.
- The lack of women asserting themselves at the top (both nationally and internationally) is largely attributable to the low proportion of female chess players.
- Furthermore women’s results are undermined by the widespread stereotype of women being less suited to play chess.
- It is unknown, whether or not other factors should be taken into account with regard to a possible difference between men and women’s chess potential.
In order to see more women reach top levels, the most important step is therefore to increase the number of women playing competitive chess, and one of the primary measures to do so is arranging women’s tournaments.
I will return to all of this along the way. Right now we will start where my post originally started…
Normally, when filling up my chess calendar, I go after those tournaments, where I can expect to meet the strongest competition. All-play-all tournaments, where I am among the lowest ranked. Open tournaments with minimum rating requirements. I make an exception for the team competition – here I play for Seksløberen2) the cosiest club in Denmark, in spite of the opportunity for stronger opponents, had I played for a team in the national league.
When I was a child…
At the age of 15, I already opted for the open qualification tournament for the national youth championships (I still lived in the Netherlands at that time) instead of the girls’ qualification. Back then the national coach tried to convince me to choose the girls’ qualification, as it was uncertain, whether or not I would receive a wildcard to the girls’ national championship in case I didn’t qualify among the boys. I ignored the warnings, did not qualify for the open championship, received a wildcard of course, and won the girls’ championship together with 2 others.
Low level in women’s chess
The sore spot is hidden between the lines. The strongest competition is seldomly met within women’s chess. The level of chess in the girls’ sections pales in comparison to the open sections in the junior category. Women’s championships in general just can’t measure up to the corresponding open championships.
This was certainly the case as well at the recently held Danish Championships in Svendborg. All participants in the top section (Landsholdsklassen) were male. Likewise in the challenger section (Kandidatklassen) – not a single woman had qualified to play in it. Only three out of 14 participants in the women’s section could have participated in Group 1 of the 7-round Swiss tournament (Margarita Baliuniene, Miriam Olsen and yours truly). And it’s not just in Denmark, that the gap between male and female players seems to be huge. One gets the same picture worldwide.
Are women just worse at playing chess than men? I will return to this question in the next subsection. For now it’ll suffice to note that there is no compelling biological evidence supporting the stance that women are less able – in contrast to most sporting disciplines, where men have the upper hand due to their physique.
Nonetheless, female chess players are constantly met with claims such as women’s brains not being built to play chess, women lacking the necessary competitive spirit, or women just being no good at chess altogether.
Nigel Short postulates the first in his column3). But despite the fact that Nigel invokes several scientific research articles to document his claims, he mistakenly draws conclusions, that are more than the scientific evidence can bear.
It is a fact though, that chess seems to appeal less to women than to men. Numberwise, women disappear into the crowd. Only 18 women participated in the Danish Championships out of a grand total of more than 250 players – only just above 7%. The rating list of the Danish Chess Federation counts 114 women out of 4.250 players – less than 3%4). And something indicates, that sheer numbers can explain why the best male players are so much better at playing chess than the best female players.
Statistical explanation: extreme value fallacy
It’s tempting to conclude, that women are worse chessplayers than men when facing facts like
- All world champions from Wilhelm Steinitz to Magnus Carlsen are male.
- With the exception of Judit Polgár (who has retired from competitive chess) and Hou Yifan, all chess players in the world’s top-100 are male5).
- Only one woman (Judit Polgár) has ever reached a top-10 ranking in chess6).
The problem is that by doing so, one uses the extreme values of a sample to infer something about the sample distribution. And this doesn’t work! A large sample for instance will typically contain a bigger number of extreme values (both high and low) than a small sample taken from the same population. The error committed by concluding on distributional level from extreme values only, is also dubbed the extreme value fallacy.
This can be illustrated nicely by men and women in chess. Let’s assume that men and women biologically are equally predisposed to become world champions at chess. We consider two populations, namely all adult males (regardless whether they play chess or not) and all adult females. These populations are roughly equal in size, and would therefore contain the same number of potential world champions. Within each of these populations, we consider the subset of individuals, who have learned to play chess during childhood. Without consulting other sources I dare to say that the group of grown up males, who have learned to play chess during childhood, outnumbers the equivalent group of females by quite a margin. In this case the probability of the male subpopulation containing potential world champions is considerably higher than in the female subpopulation.
Hence it is essential to study characteristics of the distribution instead of extreme values. Researchers have studied the rating list of the German Chess Federation, and despite there being some dispute about the results, the latest state of affairs is that 67% of the difference in level between the top male and top female chess players can be explained solely by the small proportion of female chess players7). This leaves space for supplementary explanations, including the possible explanation that males have some kind of biological advantage, but 67% still is a whole lot.
Chess has to be made more attractive for women
This result indicates that the best thing we can do to get more female chess players at the top8), is to ensure more women being introduced to and sticking to chess. I would not know for certain how this can best be achieved, but I would say that a women’s championship, such as this year’s women’s section at the Danish Championships, is a good place to start. Moreover I would recommend the national women’s coach and the executive committee of the Danish Chess Federation to look at other countries with similar population counts as Denmark, such as Norway (5.1 million), Finland (5.5 million), Slovakia (5.4 million), Ireland (4.6 million) and Croatia (4.3 million)9). What is being done in those countries, where the number of female chess players is larger than in Denmark? Is there something we do in Denmark, that is not being done in those countries, where the number of female players is lower than here?
Some countries have favourable conditions with regard to chess, attracting men and women alike:
- A national role model. Norway is a special case among the forementioned countries, as they have Magnus Carlsen.
- Chess tradition. The Eastern European countries in particular. Slovakia and Croatia are in this category.
- Chess in schools. The Danish scolastic chess organisation (Dansk Skoleskak) is doing great work, but in some countries chess is on the national curriculum.
Factors, which I presume particularly affect the number of women playing chess:
- Female role models. The Slovakian women team became European Champions in 1999. I would believe the attention raised by this event to have increased the number of girls playing chess [in Slovakia].
- Critical mass. Insofar girls and women are a visible factor in chess to start with, more girls will take on chess. And as we have seen earlier, a larger number of players increases the probability of having female role models.
- Women’s tournaments, training sessions etc. These help increasing the visibility of women in chess and strengthening a sense of community in the absence of a critical mass. A good example is the Norwegian girls squad (Jentebrigaden).
- Respect for women’s capacities. We need to have a small intermezzo on this item.
The Stereotype Threat
It is a widespread misconception, that women can’t play chess. A prejudice fuelled by the forementioned extreme value fallacy, which women themselves ánd their surroundings fall prey to. Bobby Fischer is known to have said10):
They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.
Curious if Bobby would have been able to beat Judit Polgár under those conditions. The quote is preposterous, so can’t we just leave it at that? Apparently not. It’s not entirely without reason, that the organisation Casual Chess reacted to Nigel Shorts column with the following tweet:
— CasualChess.Org (@CasualChess) 18. april 2015
A recent study has shown that young girls are well aware of the stereotype and that there is a tendency for girls to perform worse than expected based on their own and their opponent’s rating when playing chess against boys. According to the researchers, the girls fall victim to the so-called Stereotype Threat, which is described as fear to confirm a negative stereotype. This fear not only causes underperformance, but also makes girls hesitant to engage in tournament activity following a tournament with disappointing results. This tendency was not observed for boys11).
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to fight the stereotype that women can’t play chess, in order to keep girls interested in the game as well as to boost their performance.
The stereotype threat is known from other disciplines, where prejudice favours one gender above the other12), for instance in relation to science and mathematics. It’s quite common to meet the attitude, also among teachers, that boys are better at these subjects than girls. This influences the girls’ confidence as well as their results – and when the girls are convinced they cannot do it, they discard science and math as a career option. It seems that the key to change this pattern is to enhance the girls’ belief in their own skills. Only when girls experience science and math as something they are good at, they become interested as well13).
I therefore propose testing the following hypothesis in chess: Upon introducing girls to chess it does not matter so much whether or not they find chess exciting. The most important thing is to let them experience that they are good at it!
The women’s section – a very good idea
Ever since the stereotype threat became apparent in educational settings, it has been attempted to teach boys and girls separately in subjects ranging from science and math to Danish and home economics. This has lead to mixed results and opinions going in all directions. Advocates emphasize among other things, that gender segregated schooling helps girls being more confident in traditionally “masculine” domains. An opposing view is that segregated schooling confirms prejudice providing fertile ground for the stereotype threat to flourish.
What are the implications for women’s chess – is it a good idea to arrange women-only tournaments such as the women’s section at the Danish Championships, or would it be better not to?
There is a crucial difference between education in science and math on the one hand, and chess on the other hand. Math and science are compulsory elements on the national curriculum, causing all girls to be exposed. The critical mass, which I have referred to as important for women, is thereby provided for, and thus the debate on partially segregated schooling can focus on whether or not segregation increases girls’ confidence ór if it rather enhances the stereotype threat.
At the same time, chess is an optional discipline. Not every child learns the rules of the game at all, remember my earlier claim that more boys than girls learn to play chess. Here the issue is to get more girls through the door. To this goal girls’ and women’s tournaments, training camps etc.are among the most powerful measures at hand. These events generate visibility in absence of a critical mass. Only when we have succeeded at increasing the number of female players to a certain level, can we permit ourselves the luxury of disputing the necessity or beneficiality of special treatment. Therefore I definitely think, that including a women’s section in this years’ Danish Championship programme was a much-needed step in the right direction.
Couldn’t these 18 female participants in the Danish Championships have registered themselves for one of the great many open sections in the tournament schedule? Yes they could have, and some of them did. Among the 12 participants in the women’s section there are likely to be several, who would have participated in the Danish Championships even if the women’s section had not been an option. But there are also players, who would not have come to Svendborg at all. Yours truly is one of them (as I accounted for in my earlier post Danmarksmester!)14). In other words, the women’s section succeeds in attracting more women to the Danish Championships than would have been the case without it15).
Apart from the necessary visibility, this years’ women’s section met another key factor for attracting more women to chess, due to the composition of the field. Namely the opportunity to meet with role models. Almost half of the field in the women’s section were junior players. Some of them are on the verge of catching up with the top women and will have to take the leap to “grown up chess” within the next couple of years. If these girls are to keep an interest for chess among many competing interests it is paramount they have role models to look up to. It is not sufficient to hear about chess idols like Judit Polgár or Hou Yifan in the chess media – there have to be some nearby heroes to relate to. Someone to compete with and lean in on. It just isn’t the same to compete with boys your own age, being teenage girl. There need to be some female players who have paved the way before them only so slightly. Someone they can fasten their eyes on while saying to themselves: if she can do it, I can do it too.
The women’s section at the Danish Championship provided an opportunity for the strongest junior girls to compete directly with some of the top women and experience, that they are breathing them down the neck. Ellen Fredericia-Nilssen started out to get yours truly on the ropes in our first round encounter – i was lucky and escaped with a draw. Later on in the tournament she came really close to beating Marie Frank-Nielsen. In the second round i reeled in the point against Ellen Kakulidis after having had a totally lost position. She proceeded making draws with both Marie and Miriam Olsen. The latter also had to concede half a point to Freja Vangsgård. These successes are great for the girls to bear in mind later this year, when competing at the European Youth Championships in Porec, Croatia (Freja and Ellen F.) and the World Youth Championships in Halkidiki, Greece (Ellen K.).
The youngest girls
The youngest girls Caterina Wul Micalizio and Elisabeth Mechlenburg-Møller did not get to play against each other (they will have ample occasion to do so in other tournaments!) and demonstrated that they were best of the rest. Neither girl is bothered by shyness and they clearly enjoyed the opportunity to bond with the teenagers and chat with the grown up stars. I had the pleasure to compete with Elisabeth in the penultimate round, and she already has the aura of a Grandmaster while she plays.
My original column proceeds to show one of Elisabeth’s games. The curious reader is kindly referred to Kvindeturneringer – en nødvendighed.
Only weeks after the Danish Championships, Elisabeth (Elo-rated 1437) held Anna Cramling Bellon (1925) to a draw at the Nordic Championships for Girls 2015.
The debate: further reading
Grandmaster and PhD-student David Smerdon has done a great job at illuminating the issue in no less than two blog posts:
- Men, Women and Nigel Short which contains a very nice description of the ideal but hypothetical experimental setup to settle nature-nurture controversies of all kinds.
- Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response providing a more technical discussion of the claims Nigel actually makes in his column, as well as the scientific evidence or lack thereof.
David seems to agree with me that Nigel draws some conclusions that are rather more extreme than the scientific studies can account for.
Another important thing to remember is, that statistically significant differences between two populations are irrelevant with respect to specific individuals from those populations. As International Master Greg Shahade points out in his blog post Women in Chess: even if convincing scientific evidence should show up that women’s chess abilities are inferior to men’s chess abilities on average, this does not rule out that a woman could become World Champion in chess some day.
In relation to the subsection on The Stereotype Threat earlier in this post, the following statement from Greg’s post should now resonate with my dear readers:
No individual person gains anything from being told that one of their potential heroes thinks their entire group is at a statistical disadvantage.
This brings us to a very interesting blog post by Daaim Shabazz at The Chess Drum; Women in chess… the long and the Short of it. I only read this article today, while in fact it was published April 23, several days before I outed the Danish original of the post translated above on my Skakkerlakken-blog. Apart from touching upon several of the same scientific sources as I refer to in my post, Daaim points out that the stereotypes and sexism that women encounter in the chess world are very similar to the predjudice and latent racism people of African descent have to cope with.
Apparently, attitude issues among peers and public are not the only challenge women and blacks have in common with regard to chess. He does not mention the participation theory as a factor explaining the absence of black chess players in the elite, but my guess is it is relevant here as well. And in an earlier post at the Chess Drum about The Challenges of Black Chess Masters refers to the prominent representation of African players among the World’s strongest draughts competitors. My guess is, tradition for playing the game and the presence of role models are beneficial factors that are in place for African draught players, whereas these are sorely lacking for African chess players.
1)In my original post I used the word interview, but the feature in the Telegraph does not really live up to being an interview. The feature quotes several people, among others Nigel Short, but some of these quotes originate from other sources (Twitter) or are construed (for example the phrase “Girls just don’t have the brain to play chess”. Hence I find it more correct to refer to the feature being an article, rather than an interview.
2)The Danish word seksløber means revolver, while løber means bishop (the chess piece).
3)This footnote was not in the original post. Nigel has repeatedly objected to having either said or written, that women’s brains are not built to play chess. In my blog post from April 27 i have openly admitted, that I had arrived at Nigel actually writing this in his column, and that I only discovered my mistake after publishing the Danish original of the blog post translated here. The blog post from April 27 also discusses the reason for this incorrect inference to happen.
4)Lookup from April 12, 2015.
5)FIDE-rating list from April 1, 2015
7)Michael Knapp (2010). Are participation rates sufficient to explain gender differences in chess performance? Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2257. This small article comments on the following publication:
Bilalic, Merim; Smallbone, Kieran; McLeod, Peter; and Gobet, Fernand. (2009) “Why are (the best) women so good at chess? Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1576. Earlier, a similar investigation had been performed on american chess players: Chabris, Christopher F.; Glickman, Mark E. (2006) “Sex Differences in Intellectual Performance. Analysis of a Large Cohort of Competitive Chess Players.” Psychological Science, 17, 1009-1107. The new investigation mends on several, though apparently not all, methodological issues with the first – see Michael Knapps commentary.
8) A recent analysis of the FIDE-rating archives by Robert Howard attaches question marks to this claim. See chessbase.com for a synopsis of Howards research on this matter. He shows, among other things, that the gap between men and women is larger in those countries, where relatively many women play chess (e.g. in the former Soviet republic of Georgia) than in countries where the proportion of female chess players is low. In my opinion his investigation is seriously hampered by the fact that far from all chess players have a FIDE-rating. By using FIDE-ratings only in stead of a national rating system, one only gets to look at the relative elite. To top it off, Howard restricts his comparison to players, who have played 750 or more rated games, another criteria removing the lower echelons. I am planning to write another blog post to explain, why we need to take the entire distribution into account, if we wish to make claims about the mode of the distribution.
9)Estimate per December 1, 2014. Source: Wikipedia.
11)Rothgerber, Hank; Wolsiefer, Katie. (2014) “A naturalistic study of stereotype threat in young female chess players.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, Vol 17(1) 79–90
12)Instead of gender the stereotype can also relate to race or ethnicity, religion, social background, age mm.
13)Source used for my original post: http://videnskab.dk/kultur-samfund/piger-mangler-selvtillid-i-naturfag, September 2008. The equivalent source in English: Tracking The Reasons Many Girls Avoid Science and Math
14)As the blog post i refer to is in Danish, I will give a short explanation in English in this footnote. Being a working mother of two young boys, the time I have available for myself to participate in chess tournaments is limited. My family however agreed to spend their Easter vacation in Svendborg with me so that I could support the first women’s section at the Danish Championships in many years through my participation. Had it not been for the women’s section, I would not have had the opportunity to play chess at all this Easter.
15)In any case I cannot immagine any female players staying away because of the women’s section!