Chess Olympiad: Gender disparity out in the open
Attitude of society, stereotype threat and emotional differences some of reasons behind underrepresentation of female gender in chess, feels some of the leading players.
CHENNAI: When chess first emerged in the medieval period, there was a piece called 'Vizier'. He was the King's trusted lieutenant, a schemer of sorts, but he had no real powers. He was only able to move diagonally, one square at a time. When the game started travelling to different cultures, the Vizier was airbrushed. In his place came the Queen but her powers were also limited.
Sometime in Europe in the last vestiges of the medieval era — historians aren't too sure why or how — she had a moment. Overnight, she went from being the weakest piece on the board to the strongest (some have likened this transformation to the emergence of very strong women rulers across Europe). Over the last five centuries or so, the Queen has remained the undisputed powerhouse of the board game. The objective is to defeat the opponent's King but if you lose your Queen, you are handicapped anyway. The Queen is also the only piece on the board that symbolises the female gender.
This underrepresentation of the female gender isn't limited to the pieces on the board. It even extends to the players, both recreational as well as at the elite level. The game is ideally suited to see men and women competing against each other. However, the reality is vastly different. According to the International Chess Federation (FIDE), the participation rate puts the board game as one of the worst across all major sporting bodies having an affiliation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The global average, according to a document released by FIDE, puts the participation of women at 11 per cent among all ELO-rated players. It's grim by any metric you want to focus on. Women make up only two per cent of all GMs. In the world's top-100 rated players, there is one woman (Hou Yifan , 2650). There has not been a single world champion. Ironical considering, chess is one of the very few games where men can play women in the biggest match possible: to decide the world title.
Why is this the case? Hungary's Judit Polgar, at one time the youngest GM ever, says it's to do with the society. Broadly, how society looks at boys and girls. "The starting point is basically the mindset," Polgar, the only woman to have ever been in the top-10 according to ratings, tells this daily. "Not their mindset but what society puts them into. Parents, grandparents, coaches, expectations of the society. For a boy, it's very clear that people are paying attention and emphasising their smartness. For a girl, it's not that. It's their outlook and how much 'whether you are going to be around home'. That makes a lot of difference, right?"
Koneru Humpy, one of India's only two GMs among women, supports this argument. "Not just the case (lack of young women playing chess) in our country. Percentage is very less (world over). It's not as easy as the boys. They (men) can travel for months and years. It's not easy to stay away from home for such a long time as well (for women)." It's why a lot of girls drop out of chess before they become adults. This being the case, it's very natural to see why there are more men than women in the game.
That's just one part of this very skewed underrepresentation. While it partly explains why very few women have gone on to become GMs or even play in the Open section — at the ongoing Olympiad, only 13 women play in this section — it doesn't explain why so few of them have a rating of over 2500. Out of the 770 players who have a rating of 2500 or better as of today, only 13 are women.
Alina Kashlinskaya, one of the 13, mentions a variety of reasons for this trend. "There are differences in some aspects, for example," she tells this daily. "History (men started to play chess much earlier), amount of men/women playing chess, and probably some physiological and emotional differences also," the 28-year-old, part of the Polish women's team at the Olympiad, explains.
A study that came out in 2007 did suggest that emotional differences also play a role. The paper, titled 'Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport', published in the European Journal of Social Psychology' said: "42 male-female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via the Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents."
In psychology, this term is called 'stereotype threat'. The likes of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, two of the most famous players to have ever played the game, contributed to it with disparaging comments back when they were playing the game. While the former called for women to stay home, the latter, who has since gone back on his comments, labelled them weaker fighters.
The perception of stereotypes was also a finding in the document FIDE released a few months ago. "Men," the study held, "take longer to resign against women. They also play riskier openings against attractive females."
Polgar is one of the few women to have consistently challenged this stereotype threat. The only woman to have been rated above 2700, she has the record of beating at least 10 world champions, including the current one, Magnus Carlsen, in either Classical or Rapid. It's possible the theory of stereotype threat didn't apply to her because her parents raised her in a specific way. Period. "My parents raised me by not limiting me," she explains. "They were always emphasising that 'we give you the same conditions what we would have if we were a boy. So you have everything to excel in the Open section and in chess'. They didn't limit me." The Hungarian, who is in Mahabalipuram commentating on the event, has never been the women's world champion. That's because she made a conscious choice to only compete with men.
Pia Cramling, the fifth woman to become a GM, is another to have made a conscious choice to play in the Open section. The 59-year-old, playing for Sweden women at the current Olympiad, played several Olympiads in the Open category in the last decade of the 20th century. "I played in the Olympiad in the Open section from 1990 to 2000," she tells this daily. "In the first three, I did well. In 2000, I did badly. Then, I said to myself 'time to step back. I'm not strong enough in the Open section'.
Cramling, who had a peak rating of 2550, is also passionate on the issue of underrepresentation, a bigger problem in Sweden. "Out of all ELO-rated players in Sweden, women constitute only 2.9 per cent." While she's hopeful of a better future, she is worried now. "The problem is women can come but don't do anything for women to feel welcome. All the tournaments are made by men, they are made for men. Some of the girls are winning when they are 10-11-12. Some of them are winning boys tournaments. Then they become a bit older, 15-16. They are stopping."
This discrimination — subtle or in your face — faced by women's players has existed for a long time. Earlier this year, Jersey's Tallulah Roberts reported an incident of harassment at the Reykjavik Open. While Kashlinskaya has never experienced any harassment, she has read about these issues. "Recently, I have read about some situations with women being discriminated in chess, but honestly I have never experienced it myself or heard anyone close to me has."
But the Pole wants one thing to change. The unequal prize money. "As a woman of course I would be happy if the prizes in women's events would be increased to the men's tournaments standards. Especially that this year is supposed to be the year of women's chess."
The 2020 winner of the Women's World Championship — China's Ju Wenjun — took home 300,000 euros. The winner of the 2021 World Championship — Magnus Carlsen — got richer by 1.2 million euros. Technically, women can take part in the latter so they can access that same prize money but you can see the Pole's argument.
Viswanathan Anand, who is contesting for the post of FIDE vice-president, reckons the primary challenge is to get more women into the game. "I don't know what specifically can be done," the 52-year-old, one of the former world champions to have lost to Polgar, says. "We need a Women's Championship because otherwise too few of them get to play in the first place. Hopefully, the gap will close. But the main thing is to get more women to play the game." He also reckons that one of Humpy or D Harika could have featured in the Open category. "Yes, you could have done Humpy or Harika into one of the Open teams but then you want the women's medal as well so you want the strongest possible women's team."
All the women who spoke on this issue — Kashlinskaya, Cramling, Polgar and Humpy — reckon the first thing that needs to change is the participation of women. The rest will follow. History, after all, shows that the weakest piece can become the strongest.