Features Jun 5, 2015 | 6:32 PMby chess24 staff

Tkachiev: Why do men dominate chess?

In his latest article Vlad Tkachiev takes on one of the trickiest topics around (as Nigel Short knows to his cost!): how do you explain the overwhelming male dominance of professional chess? The Russian grandmaster's approach was first to survey the views of over a dozen of his fellow chess players, something he felt was missing from all existing studies. He takes on board their views and then goes on to give his own answer to the question. 

Future World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the greatest female player of all time, Judit Polgar, did a photo shoot together on the London Eye before the 2012 London Chess Classic | photo: Ray Morris-Hill, London Chess Classic website

Why do men dominate chess?

(an unscientific investigation)

The first “Ladies Chess Club” appeared in England in 1844 – it’s unknown for women to be forbidden from taking part in “male” tournaments.

Worldwide there are currently 512 861 players who have taken part in at least one rated tournament – 63 176 of them, or 12.3%, are women.

208 649 players have an official FIDE rating – 19 798 of them, or 9.5%, are women.

1 496 people hold the male grandmaster title – 33 of them, or 2.2%, are female.

Information correct on 1 May 2015

No joking matter

Nancy, August 2013, a press conference with the players before the start of the French Championship. Women and men are represented in roughly equal proportions – around five of each – all answering questions in turn. I’m among them, and respond with greater or lesser success, but in any case a striking black lady in the front row (it later turned out she was an assistant to the city’s mayor) nods her approval to all my attempts. Finally one of the journalists asked us to list the reasons for the male domination of chess. Unable to come up with anything independent I shone with someone else’s aphorism: “Women are inferior to men at chess because they can’t keep silent for five hours in a row!”  

Amid general laughter the mayoral employee began to shake her head sadly: “Oh la la la la, you’re sexist!” Once again I’d failed the political correctness test, and pointing out that the author of the phrase was the great Paul Keres did nothing to rescue the situation. The lady demonstratively ignored my remaining words.

How much had changed, after all, in half a century, or even less, since during my youth what I’d said would still have been a model of innocent humour.

Although, on the other hand, she was right – I never did actually answer the question. The time has come to repay that debt…

A retrospective

The idea that men as a whole play better than women is actually also a very recent one – dating from some point in the mid-19th century, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, how can you explain the ancient Eastern legend of “Dilaram’s mate” or the naming of the new form of chess in the 16th century as, “Game of the furious lady” (“Il guiccho della dama furiosa” - old Italian)?

It’s well-known that it was at the black-and-white board that unmarried young couples could and did try to meet in the past, even if their play itself suffered: “Till Lensky, too absorbed to look, / With his own pawn takes his own rook” (Eugene Onegin, Pushkin) It’s from those distant times that we got the supreme chess deity – a Goddess – Caissa.

Frau Ad. Keller of Elberfeld in the guise of Caissa in the prologue to the operetta “Der Seekadett”, 1905 | photo: www.chesshistory.com

In the 18th century chess comfortably moved into aristocratic literary salons, meaning you could rule out any talk of the superiority of the stronger over the fair sex: firstly, the strength of play was comparable, and secondly, it was of course women who presided over those intellectual training grounds. Moreover, no-one would have appreciated such a silly and ponderously logical design – ease and mischief were in fashion.

It was only with the emergence of the international sporting movement and interest in anthropology in the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries that a patronising tone began to appear in the declarations of male chess players:

“Lasker’s Chess Magazine”, 1906:

It seems quite clear that women have so far been unable to hold their own in open competition. Whether, or to what extent, it is a matter of physical constitution, we are unable to say. But a change in the spirit of women chessplayers might work wonders. The existence of “ladies’ chess clubs” is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members. Of course, if exclusiveness is more important to them than improved play, they will continue in this way. www.chesshistory.com

And why, incidentally, did women fail to rush to male chess clubs?

"American Chess Bulletin", 1908:

The home has been and still is woman’s chief stronghold, whence she can achieve conquests that keep mankind under permanent subjection. Surely the average club room, with its smoke-laden atmosphere, is not the magnet to attract her, and it is here where mere man obtains the foundation of his knowledge and experience which his “concentration, comprehensiveness, impartiality and originality” are destined, in isolated cases, to transform into the genius of mastership… www.chesshistory.com

Some comments sounded extremely harsh:

“St Louis Globe-Democrat” quoted in “American Chess Bulletin”, 1917:

Lady chessplayers are not so numerous as those of the opposite sex, probably chiefly due to the bump of reason not being as fully developed. www.chesshistory.com

But women didn’t always remain silent:

9-time US Women’s Champion Gisela Kahn Gresser, 1945:

I think maybe the reason they have more concentration... is that women are too intelligent. They have more important things to do than play chess. www.chesshistory.com

Meanwhile, by 1927 – soon after FIDE was formed – women had their first universally recognised World Champion, Vera Menchik, who constantly played in men’s tournaments and picked up a number of major scalps. In 1947 we also had the first regular Women’s World Championship, won by Lyudmila Rudenko. Her portrait now hangs in second place in the gallery of female champions in the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The same one that's located by Kropotkinskaya Metro Station. By the way, the anarchists led by Count Kropotkin were the only pre-revolutionary party in Russia that demanded equal rights for women. Was that a success? Opinions may vary, but for the following long 44 years no female champion appeared anywhere else.

It’s important to emphasise here that for the lion’s share of that time – from 1962 to 1991 – it was Georgian representatives of the USSR who dominated women’s chess: Nona Gaprindashvili and Maia Chiburdanidze. With one country so prevalent female interest in chess in other parts of the world found itself in a somnambulistic state. The same can be said for the question of why male chess players dominated elite chess.

But then, in the early 90s, something very important changed. How did it happen and why? We’ll get to that a bit later.

Vox populi honorum

It seems to me that all the existing scientific research on the subject in hand suffers from one common flaw – a lack of empirical data provided by the players themselves. Especially by players of a high level. So I decided to collect that by resorting to a tried and tested method – a survey among my colleagues of both sexes. The respondents were sent the following questions:

  1. How does male and female chess differ in preparing for a game, playing at the board and psychological aspects?
  2. According to a host of researchers the thought processes of men and women differ. I’d like to suggest you confirm or refute that point of view based on your own chess experience.
  3. Which reasons for the long male domination of chess do you consider fundamental: the psychological, physiological or social?

9 men and 7 women kindly agreed to take part – all well-known players and/or coaches: Nino Batsiashvili, Michail Brodsky, Vladimir Grabinsky, Murtas Kazhgaleyev, Artur Kogan, Matthieu Cornette, Alexey Kuzmin, Kateryna Lagno, Alisa Maric, Anna Muzychuk, Mariya Muzychuk, Sergei Rublevsky, Elizbar Ubilava, Harika Dronavalli, Bela Khotenashvili, Ruslan Shcherbakov. Another 1 man and 7 women didn’t respond to the proposal.

Anna and current Women's World Champion Mariya Muzychuk learned chess at a very young age from their parents, who were both chess coaches - and they also answered Tkachiev's questions | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, 2015 Women's World Championship website 

The replies greatly surprised me, since while differing in details and formulations to a large degree they coincided when it came to the main findings. It would be absolutely impossible to reproduce everything here – it would take up too much space and, besides, the majority of people categorically forbade me from quoting their opinion while revealing the source. I’ll attempt a summary myself:

1.

During preparation women are extremely reliant on the help of a coach. And, in general, the preparation is different:

…for women it’s more important they like the position they get out of the opening, while for men what matters is the objective evaluation    

Sometimes, in order to avoid unnecessary doubts, it’s better to slightly misinform your female student before a game…

Being confident is 100 times more important than concrete lines

It’s a well-known coaching secret that you need to praise women, support their self-confidence and even marvel at them. Such cheap tricks don’t work so well on men. For them it’s better to send a file and more in-depth analysis of the position on move 23

If you thought the answers reek of male arrogance then here’s the most radical quote:

I don’t know a single woman who works on the opening herself. She only entrusts such work to a male coach. Why? A woman isn’t interested in such drab and dirty work – it’s not for us. We’re immediately put off by the volume of it.  

During play itself men are

…more objective. Women often evaluate a position to be in their favour

When it comes to the style of play women think more concretely, hence the sharper character of play in games between them

Female thinking in chess is more concrete – men are much better at thinking systematically

Women are worse at getting their bearings in an unfamiliar situation. They more often try to act in a “standard” manner, using methods they’re already familiar with (or, for example, plans they’ve just looked at recently), even when the situation demands a different, concrete approach.

The difference between male and female chess is evident in the quality of their level of knowledge

From the point of view of psychology everyone almost unanimously stressed the same aspect…

Women are more liable to have ups and downs in their play

Emotional decisions often dominate. When it comes to choosing between “this or that” variation they pick the move which appeals to them more externally, even if a correctly calculated variation doesn’t support it

Women’s chess is much more emotional and women are hit harder by mistakes they make during a game. Hence mistakes often follow one after another. Men lose their heads much less often.

Female chess players more often lose control of themselves and the situation on the board – it can happen that the evaluation of the position changes many times during a game, from won to lost and back again. The difference with male play becomes even more evident in conditions of increased stress – at team tournaments such as the Olympiads or in knockout World Championships.

2.

Few of those surveyed showed any interest in the scientific side of the question. The general opinion is conveyed well by the following reply:

Of course the thought processes of men and women differ – it seems there’s scientific data on that topic and in everyday life we also see men and women adopt different approaches to solve different problems. It’s another matter how that applies to playing chess in particular. Does it play an important, an insignificant or indeed any role? It seems to me you can only guess at that.

And in general,

It’s by no means been proven that factor has an influence on chess

3.

Here a clear majority emphasised the social factor. It…

…has a huge, decisive significance. That relates not only to chess but also to the distribution of roles for men and women in everyday life.

The social status of women in society is the root cause of why women find it much more difficult to find the time and resources for systematic work, in this case in chess. If society is ready to create the same conditions and privileges for women as for men then I’m sure the gap between the creative strength and understanding (of men and women – V.T.) will gradually fade away in chess.   

Many noted the difference in the numbers playing chess, and from the very earliest age:

Among those starting to play chess the number of men is significantly higher than the number of women.

The main reason for the dominance of men in chess is that there are far more of them.

Some pointed out the family factor and the fact that it has much more influence on women:

Even if we imagine a scenario where there was far greater co-ordination and co-operation between the two parents at home, and women players were ideally placed to return quickly to professional chess, it is hard to believe that a mother would leave her child for lengthy periods in order to play in tournaments all over the world.

In the near future Alisa Maric and Ketino Arakhamiya are planning to release a new book: “555 ways to beat a man at chess”.

However, others countered with

Boys begin to outpace girls when no-one is yet thinking about a family

Moreover, the respondents unanimously noted that men spend much more time on self-improvement.

Women don’t have enough time for that

…they have better memories, particularly in the opening; finally, women lack a “killer instinct”. But as for concentration at the board, opinions differed: a relative majority were inclined to think that men do better, but not all agreed.

And that, I think, is enough. Armed with invaluable help from my colleagues I’ll turn, finally, to formulating my own response to the question posed in the article’s title.

Social reasons

It’s self-evident that society has put a lot of obstacles in the path of women: a clearly lower number of them join chess clubs at the very start of the path, parents aren’t so willing to support girls going on to have a professional career and coaches don’t put their main emphasis on them. Why? Until very recently it was almost impossible for female players to survive financially. Now, with the appearance of the Grand Prix and knockout World Championship, it’s become easier, but only for a couple of dozen players.

Xie Jun, Women's World Champion from 1991-6 and 1999-2001 with her former coach and husband GM Wu Shaobin | photo: ChessBase

The majority of the strongest female representatives still come from the countries of Eastern Europe, China and India. In the first case that can be explained by historical developments in the 20th century, while in the latter two cases it’s down to the national sporting policy of developing countries. But it’s precisely geography that will be the root cause of future problems: all of those are traditionally patriarchal societies, which means that we can expect a typical course of events – a girl starts to play chess, she posts wonderful results early on, she gets some support at a state or regional level, she grows and develops, she joins the ranks of the world’s leading women players, she gets married and… she stops playing – completely, or almost completely.

How many such cases do we know of? Xie Jun, Susan Polgar, Alisa Galliamova, Ekaterina Korbut – those are just the first names that come to mind. Two World Champions, one runner-up and a highly promising young chess player from Russia. We might also note that Zhu Chen conceded the title in 2004 for similar reasons.

In each case it’s not exactly a tragedy, but a great pity.

Biological reasons

When I put on my jacket I fasten the buttons on the right side. And the first movement is with my left hand, bringing over the lapel. My girlfriend does the same – but the other way around, first moving her right hand. We’re both right-handed, but different at a neuronal level – that’s hard to deny.

Men have more developed left hemispheres, while for women it’s the right, and the fair sex also have far more connections between the two (what’s unscientifically called intuition). Men are generally believed to be better at solving spatial problems, while women are better at verbal ones, i.e. those related to language. Men’s brains have more white matter, women’s have more grey. And so on, and so on, and so on.

And now for something truly important: numerous tests conducted by British scientist Simon Baron-Cohen show clear evidence of another dichotomy between the sexes – men are much more inclined towards systematisation while women favour empathy. How does that manifest itself? One-year-old boys already follow the movement of a mechanical mobile with far greater interest than they do a human face. That’s because it’s easy to guess the precisely formulated system behind the rhythmic movement of toys, while in the other case it isn’t. One-day-old girls, it turned out, usually react in precisely the opposite way, meaning that from the first minutes of life there’s a female tendency to read facial expressions and therefore emotions.

That seemingly insignificant fact leads to a large number of consequences, and one of them above all interests us just now. As you no doubt noticed, one of the first things our specialists unanimously stressed was the difficulties women have in independent (without a male coach) work on the opening. And now try to recall – have you seen a lot of theoretical chess articles written by women? In all the time I’ve been following relevant publications on www.chesspro.ru, www.chesspublishing.com or in the magazines “64” and “New in Chess” I can’t remember a single one offhand. Quite telling, wouldn’t you say?

There is at least some interesting theoretical material by female players!

And after all, this is where the difference in how the two sexes assimilate chess knowledge arises, despite standard memory tests showing no male advantage over women.

In my view, this represents one of the main competitive advantages, although I’d warn male chess players to be wary of arrogance – the general rule applies to far from all of us. The same goes for women as well.

Psychological reasons

To me these seem to derive from the previous two categories – social and biological. Of course we recall that overflowing female emotionality was given as the main reason for swings during play. And it was also suggested that a “killer instinct” was lacking. Just idle speculation? Or can that be explained from a scientific point of view?

It’s absolutely obvious that it’s the latter. So then, during pregnancy it’s the hormone testosterone that programs the male foetus in the womb. It determines a great deal, and in particular aggression. It also means a greater tendency towards competitiveness, risk and struggle than for girls. In order to convince yourself of that it’s enough to observe any children’s playground or school. Parents only reinforce that in the home environment: boys are less coddled and are talked to in a lower voice. That’s where the irrepressible male desire for leadership arises – from that genetic and social mix.

During experiments carried out with rats scientists came to the conclusion that, on average, male results only improve under the influence of stress, while for women they deteriorate. True, chronic stress is more harmful to male bodies.

And now, to avoid giving the impression that all my arguments are exclusively in favour of the superman-like essence of men, I’ll hasten on to the next section of this article, where we’ll focus on a phenomenon that’s very well-known to us chess players

XX vs. XY

A familiar picture: at the end of a game two elite grandmasters talk about how the encounter went, sharing opinions and answering journalists’ questions. Words stubbornly refuse to turn into articulate sentences. The abundance of interjections and gestures don’t do a great deal to help. The barrage of rapidly reeled off variations is understood by only two of those present. In general, the speakers try not to look at the public but rather the floor.

Welcome to the typical chess supertournament press conference.

Chess stars are often criticised for such performances, although that’s utterly in vain – if they were jokers or comedians they’d never have reached such sporting heights.

They’re different.

The same Simon Baron-Coen, whose work I refer to abundantly, introduces impressive statistics based on the number of those suffering from one degree or another of autism among scientists and IT workers in Silicon Valley. 

Chess players, of course, are also in the high-risk group, and Simon emphasises that separately in one of his articles.  

According to the calculations of the “American Journal of Psychiatry” in our day every 38th one of us has autism spectrum disorder, with the number of sufferers on the rise.

So then: the susceptibility to those disorders is very different for men and women: autism – 4.3:1, Asperger’s syndrome – according to various estimates from 1.6:1 to 4:1, savant syndrome – 6:1. In cases of the extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome the ratio is even more significant – 10:1.

At the same time, as many as 10% of autistic people demonstrate exceptional abilities. They’re capable of taking in significantly more information than a typical person. From an early age they tend to be obsessed with some kind of conceptual topics. Brilliant eccentrics.

The British psychologist who has cleared up so much for us formulated the theory that autism is nothing other than an extreme variation of the male mind-set, with an even greater drive for systematisation and even less aptitude for social interaction and expressing thoughts in words.

That’s just what the incredibly popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory” is all about. So how do you want to compete on an equal footing with them at the board?

It’s believed that the male Y chromosome is responsible for the existence of such a scourge, if the disorder is passed on genetically. Women, meanwhile, are protected by a “biological shield” intended to protect the bearer of new life.

So which is the “weaker sex”?

“You’re not born a woman – you become one”

A few pages ago we stopped in the early 90s. What was it that happened then that was so significant for the history of chess? In December 1991, at the age of 15 years and 5 months, Judit Polgar became the youngest holder of the male grandmaster title in history. The whole world heard about her, her sisters Susan and Sofia, their father Laszlo and his educational experiment.

The most incredible thing about this story is that it actually happened, although it sounds more like an artistically described utopia. So then, in 1965 Laszlo corresponds with a Ukrainian girl Klara, offering to let her become part of a joint pedagogical project after marriage. At the same time he publishes a book, “Bring Up Genius!” in which he creatively paraphrases a famous maxim of the great Simone:

Geniuses are made, not born

and he formulates how to achieve that. The centrepiece of the program is early specialisation for children. It’s best to decide on it by the age of 6, while the educational process itself should start before that, at 3 years old. And no secondary schools! They can only do harm.

It goes without saying that the main subject on which all the effort was focussed for the girls was chess, although a strong emphasis was also placed on learning foreign languages – no less than four of them: English, German, Russian and Esperanto (I recently read that such activity contributes to an increase in self-control, something female chess players often complain about lacking). We all know what happened next, while the most important thing for us to understand is why Judit – for the first and only time in modern history – managed to spend years as a member of the world chess elite.

Judit (left) and Sofia (right) play each other "blindfold" while their father Laszlo looks on | photo: Judit Polgar's official website

Firstly, due to breaking the social matrix in childhood, and secondly, due to intensive daily work:

These other girls aren’t serious about chess… I spend five to six hours a day on it, while they’re distracted by work at home and in the kitchen (Judit, at 12 years old)

Thirdly, I’m not aware that she had a coach who she entrusted key decisions to. Seconds – yes, but do you see the difference? Well, and finally, Judit always stressed the importance of the psychological aspect, and anyone who’s played her knows that’s the case. It’s worth remembering that women are much better versed in such things, as we already explained.

That, then, is the recipe for breaking all records as the most successful female chess player of all time. Ah, I almost forgot – she also always played only against men. But something tells me that she’ll break that vow for Hou Yifan. After all, there are now two of them in the men’s Top 100.

The mentality of a couple of female players has changed (Judit in 2011)

Apart from Judit and Hou Yifan, the 2600 barrier has also been crossed by Humpy Koneru and Anna Muzychuk - the first in 2007 with a peak rating of 2623 in 2009 and the second with 2606 in 2012.

I wonder if a Nobel Prize for Education was established whether Laszlo Polgar would receive it? I doubt it. His method is too much about undermining the very foundations of modern education. And therefore his ideological legacy also remains unclear.

Peace?

Mikhail Botvinnik once expressed a thought that really struck me. It went roughly as follows:

If you’ve decided to become World Champion you have to grasp how much you really want it.

It’s very easy to live with illusions. I, for instance, never fully strove towards it, and social obstacles were hardly the main reason why I’m writing this article now and not preparing for the tournament in Stavanger. In the absence of an unbridled desire I never had the will to action, and whether I had sufficient talent or not – no-one will ever know.

Albert Einstein’s brain was a little smaller than average, but that was neither a diagnosis nor a prognosis. As we train it our main organ changes, with new cells and connections between them emerging.

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work. (Charles Darwin)

The desire to be the best can probably be found more often among men, while for women it’s more about giving birth to the world’s best child. But society is changing, and along with it individual attitudes to life. True – it’s happening more slowly than many would like.

The main thing is not to feel obliged to look at all this in the context of a battle of the sexes. Of course that’s the longest confrontation in the history of mankind, but even it’s not eternal.


I’d like to express my special gratitude to Tatiana Vladimirova, without whose crucial help this article would never have seen the light of day.

GM Vlad Tkachiev

Vlad was born in Russia but grew up in Kazakhstan and now represents France. A Kazakh and French national champion and the winner of the 2007 European Championship, his first love has always been rapid chess, which he hopes will become the main form of the game. In recent years he set up the website WhyChess and now writes a blog, ChEsSay. | photo: Irina Stepaniuk


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