Ten years ago, if you said that there would be a new sport that involved lots of weightlifting, everyone would have told you that this sport would be filled with almost all men. You’d hear people tell you that no matter what you do, men are just more naturally inclined to weightlifting, and sometimes you just have to accept it.
I hear these same things all the time in the chess and poker communities but I think that the phenomena of CrossFit proves that this line of thinking may not be true.
CrossFit is very close to 50% male/female participation. At any CrossFit location around the world it’s not surprising to see a dozen women in the room throwing around heavy weights. If CrossFit solved the problem of “women just aren’t that into weightlifting” and has become a worldwide phenomena with hundreds of thousands of athletes from around the world, maybe chess and poker can do it too.
What makes CrossFit so appealing to women? The first thing that stands out to me is the way that female CrossFit athletes are treated by those who have the most power in the CrossFit community. When you watch the CrossFit games, you will never hear a disparaging word about a woman from the commentators. You won’t hear little quips about her outfit, how the fact that she’s on her period might affect her performance or how she looks like some girl you’d expect to be hanging out at the mall.
All you will hear is appreciation and respect from the announcers and when the people at the top of the food chain treat women with respect, it trickles down to the community as a whole. When a participant from the Bachelor recently had something misogynistic to say to CrossFit women he was immediately crucified by the entire CrossFit community. The message was clear: Do not degrade our women, it will never be tolerated.
There is no such ethos in either chess or poker. The latest insult to women’s chess was dealt today, as FIDE, the international governing body of chess, decided that the World Women’s Chess Championship tournament would be held in Iran, and that the women attending would risk imprisonment or violence if they didn’t wear hijabs while they played. The chess world is already no more than 5% women, and when the people in power make decisions like this, it’s not hard to figure out why. However this is not the only insult that female chess players go through on a regular basis.
It’s normal for top commentators for a women’s world championship tournament to dismiss a bad move by saying “oh what do you expect, it’s women’s chess”. Maybe a few people will say “hey that’s not cool”, but the thought will quickly pass by and the commentator will continue getting top level gigs. In fact the very top players in the world have said pretty nasty things about women in chess chess.
Gary Kasparov, one of the best chessplayers in history, said this about women:
“Women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players: they are not great fighters.”
Bobby Fischer said: “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat”
and more recently, Nigel Short, a one time contender for the World Championship, had this to say: “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact”
We see all of the strongest and most powerful chess players saying the most degrading things imaginable about women in chess, yet we sit around and act surprised that there aren’t many women playing?
Meanwhile at major televised poker tournaments they often have scantily clad women as the hostesses. Poker Pro Cate Hall, who refused to have her photo taken with them at the final table, had this to say about them from an interview with Card Player magazine: “Few things so clearly signal that poker is a man’s game as the Royal Flush Girls. I think that the poker community in general is a bit retrogressive in terms of gender issues. It is really hard for people within the community to see that because it is all they know. When I bring up things that I have a problem with at the table I’m frequently met with, ‘That’s just the way it is’ as an explanation,”
On Facebook, Maurice Ashley, one of the top and most influential chess players and commentators in the world, posted a photo of himself at the beach, standing beside three attractive young female chess players, aged 21 or younger. The photo got about 100 comments from male chess players, with the majority of them being misogynistic. Here are a few examples and keep in mind these were mostly men aged 30-60 and they are talking about much younger women.
- Wow, is the girl on the right single?
- Is that a bishop I see in your swim trunks Maurice?
- Maurice got game
- Wow looks tough Maurice, if you need anyone to help give me a shout.
- I want to go to the beach with the one wearing pink.
- Are there little chess pieces on your bathing suit? I was really hoping to see a little bishop or knight.
- Are U sure the Royal Queen at Home won’t find out that “King” is messing up his position.
These men are all active chess players and therefore are the same men these women would expect to see at chess tournaments. Is this a world you should expect lots of women to want to spend time in? The chess world is so messed up that I was literally the only person to speak out against the behavior.
I think that it’s really important that we do something about this type of behavior and try our best to bring the ratio of female players up as much as possible. As someone who is involved in the chess, poker and CrossFit community, there is absolutely no question that the CrossFit community is a more positive and healthy place to be. When I am at an adult poker or chess tournament, I feel like I’m surrounded by a few too many antisocial weirdos, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling that way. I almost never feel this way at a CrossFit class.
Chess playing men have made many women uncomfortable during tournaments. All of my close female chess playing friends have been stalked or harassed multiple times during their chess career. Quite a few have even been molested or raped.
At one of my U.S. Chess School programs, the young girls in the class spoke to the legendary chess coach, Elizabeth Spiegel, about all the different kinds of harassment they face at chess tournaments. This was a group of 10-17 year old girls spending 1-2 hours at a chess camp talking about how to deal with harassment. Meanwhile many men in the community typically act as though it’s not a big deal and that things are just fine for women. That is not a positive community, it’s a toxic one.
Meanwhile here is a eye opening blog by well known poker pro Justin Bonomo, outlining some of the horrible mistreatment that women endure in the poker world. The blog details how women poker personalities are constantly insulted for their physical appearance on poker messageboards, tales of sexual harrassment, and even attempted rape. The poker community, for more reasons than just this one, is a really toxic community.
Of course I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make real true and lasting friendships in chess or poker, or that it’s not possible to have a very healthy experience in these communities whether you are a man or a woman. For certain women, the lack of other women can be seen as a positive, and these are probably the few women who stick around. Here of some of the plus sides of being a woman in a male dominated field, as pointed out by 12 year old chess master, Carissa Yip, in the New York Times:
“It’s much better to be a girl,” she said. “In chess if you’re 2200 and you’re a guy, that’s not really important, but if you’re 2200 and you’re a girl, that’s pretty good. You get more publicity if you’re a girl and you’re the same strength.”
Also let me make it clear that I am not saying that there’s never been any sexism at all in the CrossFit community. You can find a few examples here. However I don’t think any sane person would compare the typical female CrossFit experience to the chess or poker experience. At my gym I asked a few female athletes “have you ever felt any sexism at the gym”, and all of them said “no not really”. Good luck finding a group of female chess or poker players who would say the same thing.
Now it’s time to talk about solutions. Here are mine:
- People should continue to speak out, and speak out loudly. The sexist bullshit needs to be relentlessly crushed. Yeah, sure you’ll annoy a few people with your constant social media posts, but staying silent is never going to help. Every single sexist comment by any authority figure needs to be dealt with head on and the men of the community must join in as well. When a community is already 95% men, then if you don’t have the male support, this type of behavior will continue forever. Anytime men start saying to a woman “oh you complain too much” or “you should fight against sexism this way instead”, they should be shut down.
- There need to be consequences for people who say or do sexist things. If you want to say some sexist crap about women on air, then sorry, you don’t get to do commentary in major events anymore. If you’re a top player and you want to make a degrading comment about female chess players, well then sorry, you’re not going to get invited to the top chess tournaments for a little bit because the organizers of those tournaments find your comments tasteless and bad for chess.
- We must have hope that it’s possible to equalize the gender gap. The idea that we are so sure of what women like to do has already been proven wrong by CrossFit and other activities (rock climbing is another good example). A lot of the time when you start debating about how we need to do X in order to get more women into chess, a bunch of guys will respond “listen, it’s obvious that you’re never going to have lots of women playing chess, so I don’t see the point of spending so much energy on it”. And like I said, if I told you I was creating a sport in which there was squatting, deadlifting and a whole bunch of other movements involving heavy weight, you would have said the same thing. And you would have been wrong.