Recently, the World Chess Championship was held in Dubai and was the talking point to all chess lovers across the globe. Magnus Carlsen reigned supreme over the contender Ian Nepomniatchi, thus cementing his place as one of the greatest chess players. But the event sparked an age-old debate, why are there so few women chess players?
For ages, women chess players have faced the notorious assumption that women are not good at Chess compared to their male counterparts. The chess community has long debated the cause of it, but no single explanation was sufficient to show why there are so few female chess players.
We know that women do not possess the same physical attributes as male, and most sports are physically demanding; the theory sits perfectly with the results. Soccer, Tennis, Basketball, Cricket- in all forms of sport, females are ranked differently than males as there is simply no contest in the light of physical capabilities. But Chess defies logic. Being a proficient player in Chess hardly demands any extraordinary physical prowess. The game is considered an indication of cerebral strength- the ability to find patterns over the chessboard, the sense of attack, and defense using wooden pieces. The game hardly requires any sort of physical activity. Yet, the performance of female players mastering the craft of Chess has always remained a footnote; no one in chess circuits takes it seriously enough. The women players are ranked differently, they can not participate in Male championships, and even the most comprehensive rankings do not have a single woman at the top. Recent statistics include only Hou Yifan in the top 100 chess players in the world.
But is there any scientific explanation for this disparity? The only notion proving this anomaly is a controversial admission that women are intellectually inferior to men. But science has debunked this theory long ago. There is no significant biological factor found that can establish women’s inability to match men in cerebral prowess. Studies conducted on children under certain age groups show that a girl can perform all the smart tasks a boy of the same age can do given the same platform. Perhaps the rearing in their elder lives makes all the difference.
The story of the Polgar sisters only accentuates the debate. Laszlo Polgar formulated the idea that all children are potential geniuses, and our educational system prevents them from attaining mastery. He proved his point by bringing up his three daughters as Chess Experts. The sisters, famously known as Polgar Sisters, went on to become the most successful chess players of their time. Mark the sentence; they were considered one of the bests within their gender category and worldwide. One of the sisters, Judit Polgar, the youngest of the three, was ranked in the top ten of all chess players. She defeated eleven current or former world champions in her career. She even headed the Hungarian National Men’s team.
These facts nullify the argument that women can’t be exceptionally good at Chess. But Judit Polgar can be an anomaly rather than a norm. Maybe Judit was gifted to match the brilliance of male chess players, a feature that can not be found in average women in general. But the studies again come in handy to refute the assumption. Merim Bilalic of Oxford University conducted a study to show that the participation factor plays a big role in determining the numbers of women at the top of the chess circuit. To simply put, fewer women participate in competitive Chess, thus minimizing the odds of having great women chess players. Though numerous inaccuracies plagued the study in itself, the significance of the participation factor remains constant. When girls aren’t outnumbered, according to research published in the journal Psychological Science, they play just as well as boys.
A wonderful demonstration of the participation factor can be experienced in a study not remotely relevant to Chess but provided great insight on the gender inequality in an intellectually demanding field. After Germany was divided into East and West Germany at the time of the partition, the gender gap in mathematics was considerably lower in East Germany than in West Germany. This result can be owed to the East’s highly egalitarian system, which boosted females’ self-confidence and competitiveness in the subject. Moreover, many accomplished male mathematicians migrated to West Germany, thus minimizing the effect of social dominance and leveling the field for female mathematicians. Mathematics itself as a field is similar to Chess; excelling in both requires intensive intellectual stimulation. The result can be interpreted to show the impact of social and cultural factors on the gender imbalance.
All these attributes, coupled with the participation factor, make the fight for women a lot more challenging. From Lisa Lane to Hou Yifan, women in Chess continue to fight the battle on and off the board, a burden the male chess players do not have to shoulder. Currently, just 14% of US Chess Federation members are female, a record number since the inception of the establishment. We need to encourage young girls more into this beautiful game. The emphasis should be laid upon providing an unbiased premise for these budding chess stars to flourish unhinged. Until science proves otherwise, it is our common challenge to break the mindset barrier over gender competency in sports.