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.