Sat. May 28th, 2022

Ttowards the end of Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix show that helped boost the new chess boom, Beth Harmon crushes a number of the best male grandmasters before beating Vasily Borgov, the Russian world champion. Fiction, however, remains sharply separated from fact. As Magnus Carlsen was reminded before launching his world title defense in Dubai last week, there is not a single active female player in the top 100, now that Hou Yifan from China, who is ranked 83rd, focuses on academia . The lingering question: why?

For Carlsen, the topic was “too complicated” to answer in a few sentences, but suggested that a number of reasons, especially cultural, were to blame. However, some still believe it is due to biology. As recently as 2015, Nigel Short, vice president of the World Chess Federation Fide, claimed that “men are attached to being better chess players than women, adding:” You have to accept that with grace. “

That claim raises the eyebrows of the greatest female chess player, Judit Polgar, who was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world and funnily enough has a winning record against Short. “It’s not about biology,” she told the Guardian. “It’s just as possible for a woman to be the best as any guy. But there are so many difficulties and social boundaries for women in general in society. That’s what’s blocking it.”

Polgar, who defeated 11 current or former world champions in either fast or classic chess, including Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen before retiring in 2014, believes that an early start, encouraging girls to think big and better education is cruical factors. “All champions and big players start playing chess and become familiar with the game at a fairly early age,” says the Hungarian grandmaster, who is now a commentator on the website Chess24.

Hungarian Judit Polgar, the most successful female player in chess, pictured in 2017.
Hungarian Judit Polgar, the most successful female player in chess, pictured in 2017. Photo: Peter Kohalmi / AFP / Getty Images

Developmental biologist Emma Hilton also rejects the idea that the gap between men and women can be attributed to genetics. A crucial point, she says, is that chess has an “extremely skewed starting pool” – with far more boys learning to play the game than girls. That, she says, “makes it extremely unlikely that we will see a female world champion”.

English international champion Jovanka Houska believes that this smaller pool has a contagious effect in other areas, especially when it comes to being the only one or two girls in a group. “We have situations where the girls do not feel very comfortable playing, while the boys can hang around, make friends and play with each other and get better that way,” she says.

Is sexism also a factor? “That’s it, unfortunately,” says Houska. “It’s mainly because there are so few women playing. And it is reinforced by national federations that do not publish your performance to help you with funding. “When I look at the situation across Europe, I see a lot of top female players fighting against their federation for basic things.”

There is also a much darker side to all this. Last year, female Fide champion Alexandra Botez, who is also the most popular female chess streamer, spoke about her shocking experiences in the sport and warned: “In chess, so much predation has been normalized.”

In Botez’s view, it is all too common for men to use their age and position to go on the “hunt” for women and girls. “It’s been going on for so long and no one is blinking an eye,” she said. “It’s pretty creepy to what extent people never say anything and find things okay.” Other women have expressed similar concerns to the Guardian, but none of them wanted to publish.

The chessboard on which Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi play for the World Cup in Dubai.
The chessboard on which Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi play for the World Cup in Dubai. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Getty Images

Yet there are also encouraging signs. As Houska points out, it is far more common to see female chess players and commentators than just a few years ago. “It’s very important to have that visibility,” she says. “Because if girls have role models, they can start adjusting their expectations and goals.”

Fide president Arkady Dvorkovich also promises to push hard to make the game more inviting for women. He rattles off a list of changes he has made during his tenure, including more tournaments and increased prize money for women.

The organization has also designated 2022 as “The Woman’s Year in Chess,” but Dvorkovich agrees that more can be done to help women reach the very top. “Around 13-14 years, we experience that girls go, while boys continue to play in large numbers. We need to change that. Personally, I would also like to see more women in the top 10. But chess is not just about professional play. We have several women across the game now, including Dana Reizniece-Ozola, Latvia’s former finance minister, who is our CEO. “

Women’s chess also recently attracted its biggest sponsor – although Fide’s decision to partner with the breast augmentation company Motiva was described as “gross” and “misogynistic” by some.

“We consulted with a lot of chess players, 95% of them supported it,” says Dvorkovich. “We appreciate that there are some components in this business that do not look so attractive. But what they also do for the health and well-being of women is very important. I know, it’s a bit controversial, but there are more pluses. ”

Polgar also errs on the side of optimism, pointing out that the attitude among most men has changed from an era when the legendary world champion Bobby Fischer used to dismiss female players as “terrible” and told them to “stick strictly to the home “.

“Today, most of the top players would not even dare say – or even think that way,” she says. “Fischer was the most ridiculous. And another world champion, Garry Kasparov, also said some things because he grew up in that kind of environment.

“But when I came into the picture and I tortured Garry at the board, he gradually changed his vision. So that’s what I’re saying: a lot of people think that people – or society – can not change. But it’s possible.”

One question for chess, however, remains: are changes happening fast enough?

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