Women and chess: selling humanity Short
Grandmaster Nigel Short, arguably England’s greatest ever chess player, is almost as well known for his controversial behaviour as he is for his chess. From his outrageously inappropriate obituary of his rival, the late grandmaster Tony Miles, to his clumsy comparison between chess and slavery, Short is known for ruffling feathers. This week, he once again hit the headlines when he made comments about women’s aptitude for chess.
Short, speaking to New in Chess, said he believed that men are generally better than women at chess. ‘Perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact’, he said. The statement understandably provoked outrage among chess players, but also found its way into the mainstream media.
The initial reactions to Short’s comments were lazy, even from seasoned chess players such as grandmaster Judit Polgar and international master Sabrina Chevannes, who resorted to simply labelling him a sexist and remarking on the achievements of the few female champions. Few tried to address or refute his comments.
Certainly, the evidence of a gender divide in the highest echelons of the game could suggest that Short’s assertion is the correct. Only Polgar has managed to break into the top-10 ranked players in the world, and only three women have ever broken into the top-100 in the world. However, empirical evidence is not always what it seems – it often reveals as much as it hides.
According to a Royal Society study in 2009, the difference in achievement rates in chess is simply due to the distorting nature of the vastly greater number of men playing high-level competitive chess as compared to women. With larger population sizes, in this case segmented by sex, more ‘extreme values’ are found, meaning men make up more of the freakish-genius class of chess grandmasters than do women.
There is a similar debate as to when we will see a regular female Formula 1 driver, which many say could take another 100 years. But it isn’t because women can’t drive as well as men, or, in the case of chess, play a game as well as men; it is to do with participation rates. More men race cars competitively than women, and more men play tournament-standard chess than women. As Matthew Syed wrote in his book Bounce, exposure to high-level competition is what makes an elite champion. Given that fewer women participate at this level, it isn’t a surprise that the top 1,000 chess players are nearly all men.
The belief in biological determinism is one of the scourges of our time, but shaming those who make deterministic arguments, labelling them with some sort of ‘ism’, only holds back the debate needed to discredit these deeply backward ideas. Those chastising Short aren’t explaining why he is wrong. This is a critical mistake. Even if he does just provide us with a popinjay on which to sharpen our aim, Short’s comments provide a prompt for a discussion that can help put such simplistic and regressive interpretations of human ability to bed. In crying ‘sexism’ at the drop of a comment, we’re selling everyone short.
Rob Harries is a writer and researcher based in London.