Women in Chess

One of my favorite topics has come up in the media again, as GM Nigel Short has made some rather provocative comments about women in chess and how they are “hardwired” to be worse than men.

Firstly I’d like to say that despite being generally a very smart guy, Nigel Short is obviously unaware of the fact that this is not a great subject to broach, especially if you are going to take the general position of “men are better than women”.

So what is the truth? Are women just worse than men at chess? Is there something in their brains that is going to cause them to be less likely to be good at chess than men? I have the definitive answer to this extremely popular question:


Let me ask some more pointless questions:

Is it possible for a non Russian to become world chess champion? Statistics in the 1970s would certainly have said “NO”. Bobby Fischer didn’t care.

Is it possible for an African American to become president? The 43-0 ratio of white presidents to non white presidents made it pretty clear that the answer is no. Barack Obama didn’t care. Hillary Clinton obviously doesn’t care about the 44-0 she’s now fighting against.

Let’s talk about a few things that are obviously true that no one can argue against:

1. Is it possible for a woman to be one of the top ten chessplayers in the world? Yes, as Judit Polgar held this ranking for many years.

2. Is it possible for a girl to be one of the top 5 for their age in the United States? Is it also possible for a different girl to hold this ranking for the 11, 12 and 13 year old age group? Yes, as currently Jennifer Yu (13), Annie Wang (12) and Carissa Yip (11) are all ranked number 4 for their age in the United States.

So yeah, who knows, maybe there is some scientific reason that women are statistically less likely to be good as men in chess on average. Personally I don’t care, Judit Polgar didn’t care and it seems that Jennifer Yu, Annie Wang, and Carissa Yip have learned at an early age not to care either. Once you start teaching a girl how to play, and you see that she has talent, all of this statistical nonsense becomes irrelevant.

When I run my U.S. Chess School programs, I don’t look around the room, see a talented girl and think to myself “oh wow she’s really talented, too bad her brain is wired wrong and she’ll never be any good”. When you are dealing with individual people this kind of generalizing to an entire group serves absolutely no purpose.

Let me just state this one more time so it’s very clear:

Absolutely no one benefits from the discussion of whether or not men are hardwired to be better at chess than women.

Nigel Short said that we should “gracefully accept it as a fact that men possessed different skills to women that made them more able to play chess at a high competitive level”. For such a smart guy, it’s really dumb to think that you are doing the world a favor by publicly broadcasting this opinion. No individual person gains anything from being told that one of their potential heroes thinks their entire group is at a statistical disadvantage. My sister made a similar point as this in the first chapter of her book: “Chess Bitch”.

The only thing that matters and should be talked about is the following:

If a girl is talented at chess, has desire and she is willing to work very hard, she has every chance of being a great chess player.

The end.

12 thoughts on “Women in Chess

  1. One fact correction: “Is it possible for a woman to be one of the top ten chessplayers in the world? Yes, as Judit Polgar held this ranking for many years.”

    That is just not true. She was in the top ten on the following lists: 4/2003 1/2004 4/2004 7/2004 1/2004 4/2005 7/2005 10/2005, but on four of those lists, she actually played 0 games.

    No question she is the greatest woman player ever by far, and was a solid top 20 competitor, but she was not a perennial top-10 contender.


    • If that was directed at me, then it is clear that YOU missed the point. You read too much into it as I was just correcting a factual inaccuracy, which is important to journalism. Pretty simple point.


  2. Because it´s from the Royal Society 2007 UK, as distiguished as Short. They made a study with 120000 german players. It shows that the under-representation of women at the top end in chess is almost exactly what would be expected, given the much greater number of men that participate in the game at all… (I don´t know, if they are right)

    As a fan a would say that Judith showed in her teens the talent auf a WC contender, but could not make it to the real top.


  3. The thing is, with the Royal Society study, that the researchers made a central error in their initial assumptions that weakened their claim quite a bit – as was pointed out by another researcher. This was picked up by a third researcher, who conducted a study on FIDE ratings (published in 2014), and arrived at substantially different conclusions. The final scientific word on this topic has definitely not been said.
    However, despite of referring to all of these research accomplishments in his column, Nigel Short makes the mistake of jumping to conclusions to an extent that the scientific evidence cannot bear.
    On the individual level, Greg is absolutely right – WHO CARES. But living in a country where only 3% of the members of the chess federation are females, I must say the discussion is on, no matter if we like it.


  4. Absolutely agree, the discussion is kind of pointless but at the same time it shouldn’t offend every person every time the subject is brought up, it should be interesting to talk about differences in types of intelligence and skill in men and women and not cause an outrage. It’s like everytime people talk about it some people think they are saying: “women are dumber haha” when they don’t, chess is not a measure of human intelligence.
    Also the debate of differences in male and female skill in chess is something to talk about when we look at women’s titles and only women tournaments. Maybe we shouldn’t hold them because a goal of a 50 50 m f ratio in professional chess could be unrealistic (we’ll never know without discussion and research) and maybe women have already the same opportunities as men in terms of chess and they don’t need more cookies along their career with silly women’s titles like WGM which its requirements are lower than an IM. The chess comunity can’t defend that women and men are equally capable in chess but still defend something like a Women GRAND MASTER title which is a joke when we compare it to regular GMs and IMs.


  5. “Absolutely no one benefits from the discussion of whether or not men are hardwired to be better at chess than women.”
    I personally don’t think there is any evidence that Short is right, but I find it incredibly distasteful that you think you are the arbiter of what is or is not an appropriate discussion to have. What’s next? Should scientific inquiry into the differences in men’s and women’s brains be subject to the same limitations you want to put on informal discussions? There is always potential value, there is always a potential benefit. Perhaps you personally lack the imagination to see the potential value of Short bringing up this subject.
    Something as simple as Short being answered in such a way that his opinion changes.( which is of obvious value) or maybe his words will motivate the first women’s true world champion. Who knows, maybe he’s right ( I don’t think so), and knowledge will be it’s own reward. The seeking of truth is important in it’s own sake.
    If you don’t like what he espouses, enter the fray, compete in the marketplace of ideas if you dare. But to just say the discussion shouldn’t happen? You can shove that right up your whatsit.


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