Monday, October 3, 2011

Searching for Bobbie Fischer (or, Why Can't Girls Play Chess?)

My daughter Sarah started playing chess at age 4, after being taught by her older brother and nanny. Within months, she was trouncing 11-year olds, and J.J. quit playing in frustration.  She's since joined a chess club and started private lessons.  Though I'm proud of her, I secretly wonder whether this will end up being a waste of time and money.  After all, only 5% of registered tournament players are women, and there is only one woman ranked among the top 100 players in the world.  The average rating based upon tournament wins is significantly lower in women than in men.  Are girls destined to fail at chess?

Let's start with the most discomfiting argument -- that men are better in chess because of their superior intellect.  In reality, the average IQ in men is the same as in women.  However, boys have a wider natural variability in intelligence than girls; there are more males clustered at the top and bottom of the spectrum.  The gender that produced the stars of Jackass is just as capable of producing a Fischer or a Kasparov.

And then there's a purely statistical reason why elite chess players are typically men.  (Math phobes, feel free to skip this paragraph.)  Even if men and women had the same average ability, with the same inherent variability, the larger group will have the very highest and very lowest performing individuals.  For those of you who are graphically minded, the bell curve for men would have longer "tails" on both sides than it would for women.  (Presumably, though, the lowest performers would get sick of losing and quit.)  Some number crunchers studied 120,000 registered players (113,000 of whom were men) and found that the higher rating of the top 100 men, compared to the top 100 women, was almost completely explained by this statistical phenomenon.  ("Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains.")

Still, this study of the highest end of the spectrum can't explain why the average tournament rating is higher in men.  There are other areas in which males outperform females.  Boys consistently score better in tests of visual-spatial abilities, including "mental rotation," as well as aggression.  All of these skills are vital in chess.   Performance in chess is also closely linked to the amount of practice and the number of tournaments played.  Perhaps girls are not as monomaniacal as boys?

What about the possibility of gender stereotyping and discrimination?  It doesn't help when superstars like Kasparov say things like, "there is real chess and there is women's chess....chess does not fit women properly."  Still, most chess clubs don't exclude girls, and tournament ratings are objective measures.

One fascinating study paired 42 female tournament players with 42 male players, matched for skill.  ("Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport.") The pairs played each other online.  In the first scenario, the men were assigned gender-neutral screen names.  Women won 50% of the games, as one would predict.  In the next scenario, the women were told they were playing other women, even though they were actually playing the same male partners.  Again, they won 50% of the games.  The women were then told they were playing against men -- again the same male partners -- but this time, they won only 25% of the games!  Not only that, but the women played more defensively and less aggressively when told they were playing men. 

So are girls being undermined by their preconceptions that they will play poorly against boys?  The lack of female role models and peers must have some psychological impact.  One study seems to support this theory:  In chess clubs in which at least 50% of the players are girls, boys and girls performed equally well.  In clubs in which girls are the minority, boys had higher ratings than the girls.  ("Sex differences in intellectual performance.")

The good news is that the number of girls playing chess is creeping upward, and interestingly, the gender gap in average tournament ratings is starting to shrink.  When surveyed, younger women are also less likely than older ones to believe the male dominance stereotype, which could only serve to raise their confidence.  Naivete on their part?  Perhaps.  But I don't plan on telling my daughter otherwise.


  1. Great post! A reminder in the power of belief and self-confidence.

    Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. ~Eleanor Roosevelt

  2. Just polled a 7 and 3 year old girl and they think chess IS for girls. Your daughter can excel at and enjoy chess and benefit without being a top 100 player. No waste, she is developing her brain and training in strategy, memory, etc! Great blog, just read a few and will keep reading. Thanks for your input on alcohol consumption during breastfeeding too.

  3. Good post. I had a few thoughts.

    First, at the beginning, you say, "I secretly wonder whether this will end up being a waste of time and money." The answer to this question depends almost entirely on what your goal is. Is your goal for her to become the first world champion at chess that is a woman? Is it for her to make her living at chess? Or is it simply to develop some skills in her that she has a talent for and some other skills along the way?

    It seems to me that even if your child were a boy that was talented at chess, the odds of him becoming the world champion are still extremely slim, and the odds of him even being able to make a decent living at chess are likewise very slim. Tal Shaked, the youngest American to reach GM, plays very little if any competitive chess anymore. He makes his living doing other things.

    However, there are all kinds of healthy goals that can go along just fine with developing your daughter's talents.

    Second, the psychology of playing your opponent is most certainly a part of the game of chess. Who my opponent is involves many other factors besides just gender, and playing the opponent is a part of playing tournament chess.

  4. Totally agree with you -- there are benefits to playing chess (learning strategic thinking, how to win and lose gracefully, etc.), even if you can't be the best. I'm always having to remind myself that it's the journey and not the destination when it comes to raising kids!

  5. "Alhough I'm proud of her, I secretly wonder whether this will end up being a waste of time and money. After all, only 5% of registered tournament players are women, and there is only one woman ranked among the top 100 players in the world."

    I hope your daughter does not lose interest. If so, it would still not be a waste of time and money. Women have been playing chess for many years I am not sure what are your concerns. It's a good game.