Opinion Mar 30, 2014 | 10:19 AMby GM Ilja Zaragatski

Men, women and chess skill: The whole truth (2)

German grandmaster and chess24 author Ilja Zaragatski wants to solve one of life's great mysteries - why are most strong chess players male? In Part 1: The story so far, he set out the facts showing the overwhelming dominance of men in chess. He also took a look at the current theories on offer, but felt they all stopped short of providing a satisfying explanation. Read on for Part 2, where he aims to do just that (with no shortage of video clips and random photos to support his case!).

Part 2: Groundbreaking new insights (or: the answer to the why question)

When you examine and try to explain human behaviour there are always two levels of explanation for any given phenomenon. The historical, social, cultural, physiological and even statistical explanations that were looked at before only reach the “proximate” level, without arriving at the “ultimate” one. I’d therefore like to offer a somewhat different perspective and follow up by going through with asking and finally answering the million-dollar question… why?

GM Ilja Zaragatski

For starters, let’s acknowledge that the shortage of female overachievers isn’t limited to chess circles. Something similar very much applies to the scientific community, leading positions in private enterprises and the job market in general. The flipside of what is often (mis)understood as systematic discrimination against women is, however, less obvious. Not only the big winners, but also the big losers in any given society are always male!

Here are some numbers and fun facts to illustrate this interculturally highly robust phenomenon:

  • Prisoners: 95% male
  • Homeless people: 80% male
  • People who die in their jobs (luckily not yet prevalent enough to deserve a word of their own!): 90% male. Armies are overwhelmingly composed of men, so in warfare it’s men who kill other men. Among the 5,000 or so American soldiers killed up to 2012 in Afghanistan only 2% were female, although female soldiers made up no fewer than 16% of those based there.
  • Pathological addiction to gambling: also almost exclusively male!
  • Even the number of ‘successful’ suicide attempts is approximately twice as high among men as it is among women. When it comes to ‘unsuccessful’ suicide attempts, though, just the opposite is the case! Well, what can I say? When a man starts a project he simply has to go through with it! We just can't help ourselves.

Everyone is probably familiar with that sympathetic fella at the local chess club who – in spite of the tremendous amount of time he devotes to chess training for a player of his strength – just seems incapable of making any progress and gets stuck at an almost pitiful level. This is the kind of thing that just wouldn’t happen on a regular basis with women. What we observe here, then, is a pretty general difference between the sexes – when it comes to mental qualities the range is just far higher among men than among women, even though the averages hardly differ. Let's consider, for example, general mental ability (intelligence). Contemporary research shows that although there’s only a tiny difference in the overall scores of men and women in aptitude and IQ tests, highly intelligent people – but also those with learning difficulties – are mostly male

Most brilliant poets and writers – but also most stutterers – have always been and still are men. The bulk of composers and musicians of genius are also male, but once again – we all know no lack of gentlemen who suffer from advanced dancing dyslexia and are severely rhythmically-challenged. Among the 802 Nobel Prize winners there have been only 43 women, and in over a century a woman has won the Physics category only twice. By the same token, however, men are virtually unbeatable when it comes to the Darwin Awards, a tongue-in-cheek honour which since 1994 has been awarded to people who accidentally kill or sterilise themselves after a display of immense stupidity, hence doing humanity a big favour by wiping their inglorious genes out of the gene pool. Those of you with too much time on your hands should google away so as not to miss out on some of those stories – at the very least it’ll mean many of those guys didn’t die in vain!

Where were we? Ah yes! Not even the alleged female domain of cuisine is spared from this universal distribution pattern: in most households dishes prepared by a woman’s fair hand demonstrably taste better than the frozen pizzas shoved into an oven by men to appease their hunger. Yet almost all television and Michelin starred chefs are male. I wonder what it would be like in rhythmic gymnastics or synchronised swimming if men could only muster some enthusiasm for them…

Anyway, men really do like to make the spots on either side of the spectrum their own – they’re more extreme than women in every regard. The US art and cultural historian Camille Paglia puts it in a nutshell: ''There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.'' For some reason it simply seems to pay off for men to take risks, striving for success in any specific field. But why? And now we finally arrive at the ultimate explanation for the behaviour of biological life-forms: evolutionary psychology! 

Not only our bodies were subject to natural (and even more importantly in this context sexual) selection, but also our brains and hence our psychology and behaviour were shaped over hundreds of thousands of generations by the success or failure of certain behavioural patterns.

Between the sexes, however, reproductive success differs enormously. All of us sitting here now and joyfully absorbing this thrilling article had only approximately half as many male as female ancestors. A strange thing to say, but it’s true! Genetic studies show that in the past 100,000 years around 90% of all women but only 50% of all men were able to procreate. While the variance differs dramatically, the average number of children is exactly the same for men and women. Kids tend to have just one dad and one mom. Usually. To put it in the words of a great 80s philosopher, Rod Stewart: “Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain!” 

If you can somehow get that song out of your head and think clearly you'll grasp what I mean: in their evolutionary past women and men faced different challenges in order to maximise their reproductive success, and hence their genetic fitness. In this respect the fact that women must invest a great deal more in the birth of a descendant (nine months of pregnancy, breast feeding, rearing and parental care…) was particularly crucial. A guy, on the other hand, can be done in five minutes and is free to move on. Since - due to their obligatorily higher investment - the number of conceptive women is constantly much lower than the number of eager-to-mate men, they represent a scarce resource subject to competitive demand. Those who lacked the necessary hereditary factors for that purpose on average passed on their genes less often to the next generation and were slowly weeded out over the course of thousands upon thousands of generations.

That's all very well, you say, but what does it have to do with our beloved board game?! Well, men are more attractive both as long and short-term partners the more professional (or sporting) success they achieve. Successful men have attributes like ambition, assertiveness, self-confidence, physical attractiveness and material resources. Women are most appealing if beautiful, while men can make up for their outer shortcomings more easily. At this point let's give an honourable mention to Lyle Lovett, Iggy Pop, Steven Tyler and even Jabba the Hutt.

So then - success in a specific field systematically increases the prospects of reproductive success for men. From an evolutionary perspective there’s simply nothing more important, not even the mere survival of the gene-vehicles we like to call human bodies. As Friedrich Schiller put it a long time ago: “life is not the highest of goods”... but instead - from an evolutionary perspective – the highest good is reproductive success (also known as genetic fitness. No, not that kind... 

photo: Wikipedia (istolethetv)

...this kind!)

Still life with bunnies | photo: Wikipedia (Luke Ford)

Herman Hesse also understood: “Most things in life you do for women, even if you pretend there are other reasons.” Hmm, that kinda sounded more elegant in German – and it doesn't even rhyme! But you get the message. Anyway, the higher the social status of a man, the younger and more fecund (or - as we might simply put it - attractive) his female partner. A boss running off with a secretary half his age is not because all bosses have a fetish for secretaries half their age. All men want to be with young (and thus particularly fertile) women, but only a few can actually act on that preference. Ergo, in a liberal sexual system some men have a diverse and fulfilling sex life, while others are limited to solitude and self-devotion. How on earth did I get from chess to sex again that quickly? Never mind.

While the numbers of children and sexual partners men now have positively correlates with professional success (a somewhat newer correlation these days seems to be membership of a shady religious community), for women the opposite applies. The quota of single and childless women is nowhere higher than among female top-managers and university professors. Professional or sporting success doesn’t make women more attractive. Apart from youthfulness and beauty men especially prefer partners who exude solicitude and warmth. They know intuitively that caring women will more easily be willing to relinquish their own career ambitions than assertive and self-confident ones. If you want to sound cynical, you could say that men pick women who do all they can to support their partner's career just to replace her with the secretary when she’s become old and unattractive. But who wants to sound cynical.

Whereas professional success or success in sports evidently increases the reproductive fitness of men, it’s quite possible for it to instead decrease the attractiveness of women. That’s why us boys more often take a shot at chess, which is obviously also a competitive sport with the aid of which you can improve your social status...   

As we can see, it’s hardly any different today, but it was especially true in the (contraceptive-free, among other things) environment where these competitive behavioural tendencies evolved and were particularly adaptive. A high social rank instantly leads to a higher genetic fitness - the only currency for success that nature knows. These evolutionary mechanisms and the resulting inherent predispositions of both sexes were the basis for the phenomena that are now readily invoked as cultural, historical, social or even physiological, hormonal or biological explanations.

The environment has indeed changed a whole lot since, but our genetics just couldn't keep up. And so, boys today more frequently get involved in chess and don't lose interest as quickly, which substantiates the differing participation and self-selection rates and their explanatory power cited in Bilalic et al. (2009), Chabris & Glickman (2006) as well as Knapp (2010) (see Part 1). And even if you girls took up chess and stuck to it for as long as us we’d still be the outliers. In both directions. Just as with cooking.

Of course our fate now is by no means entirely predetermined and certain incentives and motivational programmes have the ability to steer the boat in one direction or another. Fundamentally changing the route, however, would be rather difficult to pull off.

Science and chess therefore teach us: women inherently have the same abilities as men. They’re no better (in contrast to what feminists would like to make us believe), they’re no worse (in contrast to what many men have claimed over the whole course of human history) – they’re just different. 

Come to think of it, they probably are a little better. But that's just my opinion. 

So then... women don’t so much differ from men in what they’re able to do but in what they want to do. Women would also like to go for a career and be successful, but they’re not as willing to make sacrifices for it as men. Men are inherently much more interested in competition and have the constant urge to prove they’re cleverer, more able and better than their fellow men. That doesn't exactly make us more likeable, but it’s true. Women are nicer, fairer and better anyway. I rest my case. But we do it all for you! That’s why we’re the better chess players - you just don't need it!

Anyone who had neither the time nor the inclination to read this excessive and, in terms of political correctness, rather dubious article, and instead got here simply by frantically spinning a mouse wheel to discover the solution to the mystery, can have it Simon Meyer's way, for all I care:

Ilja: “Why are there more strong male chess players than female ones?” - Simon: “Because more men play chess.” Ilja: “Why do more men play chess?” - Simon: “Because they're better at it.”


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