Sex and Chess

For chess geeks (like me), it’s an exciting week.   Tomorrow will see the start of the London Chess Classic.   It will feature the first, second and forth ranked players in the world.   Apart from their prowess over the 64 squares, all the competitors share another characteristic: they’re all male.

The world’s chess federation, FIDE, awards several titles: the highest is Grandmaster (GM).  There is also a WGM title, given only to elite women chess players.  

While the London tournament gets underway, another 64 chess players have gathered in Turkey.  They’re competing for the title of women’s world champion.   None of the London competitors had the option to play in Turkey – for an obvious reason.   Had any one of them been allowed to compete, he would have been the bookies’ favourite.

Last year I wrote about sex and tennis.   In tennis it is widely accepted that if women did not have separate tournaments there would never be a female champion – and that this would be an undesirable state of affairs.   The real debate has been over whether men and women should receive equal prize money.

In chess the debate is different:  whether there should exist female-only tournaments at all.

There are two relevant distinctions between tennis and chess.  The first is that in our culture discussion about cognitive skills is far more sensitive and value-loaded than that about physical prowess.  The second is that in tennis women are excluded from men’s tennis and vice versa.  But in chess, while men are excluded from women’s tournaments, no woman is ever excluded from a chess tournament simply on the basis of her sex.   The best female chess player in history, the Hungarian Judit Polgar – who at one stage reached the world’s top ten – has eschewed female-only tournaments.

Why men beat women at chess is a contentious question.  Some answer nurture, others nature, still others, a combination of the two.   But the science has to be worth undertaking: any rationale for all-female tournaments ought to be responsive to its findings.   If ‘nurture’ is the main explanation, then the justification for all female chess tournaments will be similar to the justification for sex separation in tennis.  But if the main explanation is nurture, and we can look forward to a possible world in which there is no significant gap between the chess accomplishments of men and women, then the issue becomes how best to reach this world.   

And here there’s a delicate weighing up of factors.   In the short term, all female tournaments may offer the opportunity for girls to win trophies, and provide female role models for young hopefuls.   On the other hand, there’s a real danger that they may stigmatize female chess, and convince girls that they will never be able to compete on equal terms with boys.

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5 Responses to Sex and Chess

  • Peter Wicks says:

    What does the science actually say? Have empirical studies been done? If so how were they designed? Do we trust their conclusions?

    I would like someone who currently believes (preferably: who currently believes very strongly) that the answer is “nurture” to suggest an experiment, if there is one, that could convince them otherwise, and under what conditions.

    I have my own ideas on the subject but for the moment I choose to keep them to myself.

  • Chabris and Glickman has a paper, “Sex Differences in Intellectual Performance: Analysis of a Large Cohort of Competitive Chess Players”, Psychological Science vol 17:12, 1040-1046. They report that “(a) the ratings of men are higher on average than those of women, but no more variable; (b) matched boys and girls improve and drop out at equal rates, but boys begin chess competition in greater numbers and at higher performance levels than girls; and (c) in locales where at least 50% of the new young players are girls, their initial ratings are not lower than those of boys.” They conclude that “the greater number of men at the highest levels in chess can be explained by the greater number of boys who enter chess at the lowest levels”.

    Bilalic, Smallbone, McLeod, Gobet, “Why are (the best) Women so Good at Chess? Participation Rates and Gender Di erences in Intellectual Domains” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2009, reach the same conclusion.

    As an aside, Bilalic, McLeod, Gobet, “Does chess need intelligence? — A study with young chess players”, Intelligence 2006, shows that intelligence is not the determining factor of really high chess skill among young chess players: in fact, there was a negative correlation in the elite subsample. This is likely because the really smart kids find other interests.

  • antonia says:

    when i first saw the topic, i was like..wtf?! there’s a new fetish, having sex after playing chess, or on a big chess table, gets people on?lol. nice article,anyways.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Well, if you google “sex and chess” you come up with some pretty interesting stuff!

    But back to the article: based on Anders’ synopsis it’s not clear to me how Chabris and Glickman’s conclusion follows from their findings, and even if it did it doesn’t prove that nature doesn’t also play a role. The most intriguing finding from my perspective is the third, given the first and especially the second. It’s not immediately obvious to me what is the explanation for this discrepancy, from either the nature or nurture perspective. I’d welcome other views on this.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Actually I think Robert asks an important question here. A more general and precise version of it would be: to what extent, and in which areas, should we be aiming for absolute equality between men and women? So far in relation to this post I’ve been focusing on the empirical aspects, but in relation to the ethical issues there does seem to be an unquestioned assumption in Anders’ post that this is indeed something we should be striving for, with regard to chess in particular). There are two obvious reasons we might wish to question this assumption: either because we think that proficiency at chess really isn’t important enough (i.e. women have better things to do), or because our answer to the general question is more complex than, “yes we should always aim for equality”.

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