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Chick Chess

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At dinner after the Accoona rapid match between Zhu Chen and Irina Krush, I swapped women's chess thoughts with Ninja contributor Jennifer Shahade and Krush. A while back, in reponse to the oft-heard "women players are more aggressive," I wanted to see if statistics could back it up. Of course you can't really measure aggression, but the standard metrics of drawishness and length of draws would suffice to start.

What I found was that the top women's events indeed had a much higher percentage of decisive games than tournaments like Corus and Linares. But when I corrected for Elo, it was the same. That is, the top women (Judit Polgar excepted) are rated 2450-2550. They play the same number of draws as men in that rating range, which is naturally a lower number. Weaker players make more mistakes, don't prepare as deeply, and rarely chicken out with short draws.

Jen postulated that the reputation for aggressiveness still might not be an urban legend. Putting 2500s in the spotlight (normally reserved for top juniors and 2700s) where they feel obliged to put on a show could lead to explosive play. To that I'll add that many women in chess � as with minorities in other fields � feel pressure to perform because of the closer scrutiny. The freedom to be mediocre comes with establishment and equality. Since most "women's chess" is affirmative action in one form or another, there would be little tolerance of the short draws seen in places like Linares.

On the other hand, that might only go for high-profile matches and exhibitions. In the first "women's supertournament," the 2004 2nd North Urals Cup won by Almira Skripchenko, 20% of the 45 games were drawn in 25 moves or fewer and 53% were drawn overall, more than average for a category 9. Maybe some people believe women's chess is more aggressive simply because we wish it were true. [After some comments I'm explaining my "affirmative action" remark below.]

I don't say there's anything wrong with it, and in fact I'm in favor of affirmative action in chess for women and other minority groups. Diversity is good for the game even if you must encourage it artificially. It's another way of promoting the game and its expansion.

"Women's chess" is affirmative action pretty much by definition. In a sport, this means paying prizes and holding events for weaker players, and barring Judit Polgar they are. (A slight exaggeration. Several women play in the Bundesliga, etc. Certainly many have won prizes in open tournaments.) Many leagues have a women's board, most countries hold a women's championship, and FIDE has women's titles (a joke), women's championships and Olympiads.

I don't think the titles are a good idea because they encourage lower standards of play. Events make more sense because they help bring women into the game with a toe in the water, at least at the junior level. But women's titles and women-only events at the professional level are somewhat bizarre and perpetuate both real inferiority and an inferiority complex.

Not all women's events fall into this category, but they can also be a mixed blessing. Take the Zhu Chen - Krush match. Accoona wanted bang for the buck and hired three young women (Skripchenko played Krush at the start). This wasn't to do them a favor but because it was judged better value for the money. When marketing to a world that knows little about chess anyway (the USA in this case, and China), having a 2700 in a suit isn't any better than a 2500 in a dress. The objective merit of chess strength is irrelevant in that case, just like it is with star juniors like Karjakin and Carlsen. There's nothing wrong with this, especially as it allows women to stay in the game.

That some women's chess events can support themselves by marketing the women players commercially is good and bad. Tennis and golf have gone through this, and still do. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that in a sport where women can play as well as men, and play with them equally, is it is long-term healthy to be emphasizing appearance instead of quality chess? It is very hard to do both. You try to find a balance and extol excellence in sport without being ghettoized or stereotyped.

This is a normal phase of development. Marketing a sport through personal appeal isn't wrong. It's all good for a while, but at some point you want to be able to have an unattractive female sports star. Attractive ones will still get more attention and better sponsorship deals (just like with men, to a far lesser degree), but you hope to have the balance tilt from hemline to Elo line.

While they have their own problems because of the Swiss format, I favor events like the UK and US Championships that mix the men and women. Women face strong competition and so improve as players, while there are special prizes to encourage their participation and careers as pros. Money talks.


Could it also be that these "affirmative action" engagements also pay better than the typical 2400-2500 male-dominated tournaments?

As a side note: I would like to see less supertournaments and more tournaments that matched players of different rating ranges. I remember someone complaining here about the last US Championship having expert level players but partly because of that (I think) it was an exciting tournament. If all the K's and A's and L's and so on in the top 50 had to play some 2500 players once in a while we would see some decisive results because the winner of the tournament would be the one who crushed the fish most mightily.

I wonder if there are any statistics regarding whether there are more decisive games or more draws after correcting for rating when the game is male vs. female.

We have the Chess Olympiad. Super GMs play ordinary GMs and yes it is a fish-gutting race half of the time, but it is exciting.

On the other hand, it is possible to have Uber-elite tournaments and still have exciting chess. A perfect example is the 1994 Linares tournament won by Karpov. He was +9(!!) at 9 wins, 0 losses and 4 draws, finishing ahead of Kasparov, 8-time Linares winner, Ivanchuk, 3-time winner, Shirov, Anand, Polgar, Kramnik, Topalov, Kamsky, etc. There were 91 games played in a field of 14 players, 33 games were drawn for a drawing percentage of 36.3% - the lowest ever drawing percentage of all Linares since its inauguration in 1978.

Drawing Percentages of total games, Linares:

1979: 45.5%
1981: 47.0%
1983: 58.2%
1985: 57.6%
1988: 56.1%
1989: 50.9%
1990: 43.9%
1991: 41.8%
1992: 42.9%
1993: 41.8%
1994: 36.3%
1995: 53.8%
1997: 47.0%
1998: 57.1% **** The start of Double-Round Robin Format ****
1999: 64.3%
2000: 76.7%
2001: 63.3%
2002: 64.3%
2003: 64.3%
2004: 78.6%

Figures computed from:


The first Linares was in 1978 but no Super GMs played.

As you can see from the above, the explosion of draws began when Linares went Double-Round Robin. Or maybe because Karpov and Ivanchuk lost their energy. When you have Karpov, Ivanchuk, and Kasparov in the same tournament, mucha blood is spilt. From 1991 to 1994, all three played and those years hold the record for the lowest draw percentages. Karpov's last Linares was in 1995 and the draw percentage began to climb after that. Ivanchuk's last Linares was in 1999 and the draw percentage exploded after year. It could be the double-round robin format or it could be key players missing (Karpov & Ivanchuk getting old or losing energy).

If you look at Ivanchuk's games of late, in Calvia and Aeroflot, he seems rejuvenated. Maybe there's hope of an exciting Linares if Ivanchuk is invited again.

Anyway, Uber-elite tournaments can be exciting.

My post was in reply to Charles's second paragraph. Sorry, didn't mean to go off topic (Chick Chess).

Speaking of Chick Chess, there is Judit Polgar and her ultra-aggressive chess of course, but I played over many of Chiburdanidze's games (she played in Linares '88, first appearance by a woman) in Calvia and noticed she is well-prepared with full of fight. Kosteniuk is also an exciting player. Loose on the chessboard, is she loose in real life (dreaming is allowed)? Actually, I can't think of the female equivalent of Kramnik, but I don't play over too many games by women players.

Very strong statement, Mig:

"Since most "women's chess" is affirmative action in one form or another..."

Care to back it up?

I added some comments on the "affirmative action" remark to the main post.

I think it's just a matter of semantics. Any woman in the US and Europe can walk up to any open tournament, pay her entry fee, and play. (I did this for years.) She might be one of only two or three women in an event of 200 players, but there was no "affirmative action" aspect--she was a chespslayer playing in a tournament, same as all the other players.

As soon as you say "women's chess," though, you tend to mean "events where women are treated differently than men," usually by having a separate invitation list. If (as is almost always the case) the standards for qualifying for the special invitations are lower than for the general invitations then, yes, by definition that's "affirmative action."

By the way, I did a profile at Chessbase of Chouchanik Airapetian, the first woman in history to qualify for a gender-neutral invitation to the US Championship.


If you consider that a "women's chess" story, then, true, there's no "affirmative action" aspect to it. But I tend to think of that as a "women in chess" story instead.

For what it's worth...


Chess is not about scoring rating upsets or finishing at 50% to win an "embedded" championship, like Goletiani did in San Diego.
Women should play women only to determine who's the best. Disagree?
The how about incorporating the US Championship into some hypothetical giant FIDE event and award the US Champion title to the highest finishing American (who'd likely to score about 50%). Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

Yah, the US format needs changes. "Zatonskih got robbed" is a poor headline. Pulling the leading women out to play each other at some point is one suggestion that's been making the rounds.

I don't much mind there being some randomness because it's an affirmative action title anyway, and two storylines are better than one. Finding the best female player in the US isn't really a burning question to me. It's a successful way to generate interest for both events and give the women some experience against top players.

There's sufficient tradition for each nation holding a championship. Jamaica probably has a national bobsled champion. I'm glad more is being done with/for the US women players than tossing them in a room together and giving them some money and a pat on the head for a tournament nobody pays attention to. The head-to-head aspect is missed; perhaps it can be added back to some degree.

GM Yermolinsky's point is a fair one--the format is odd.

I think the real point is that the whole concept of giving much of anything to "the best woman" is pretty silly.

I would prefer to see a single championship with a single invitation standard. Then if you want to give the big prize to the overall champion and a small medal to the "best man" and "best woman," fine.

But any system which tracks only two rewards, one for "best" and one for "best woman" is inherently assuming that women won't win the best overall, whether the women are playing in the same field or off in their own event. Which is a subtle but poisonous message.

As long as you are inviting 2300 level women and 2500 level men, you perpetuate the image that men are better players. When in fact 2300 level men would fare no better, and 2500 level women would fare no worse. And I think that's the real message we need to convey.


It has to be goal-based. What is the objective of supporting women's chess? You have to start there if you want to do it in the best way. Throwing money at it blindly is resented, and justly so.

You want to promote chess in general, support women currently playing, encourage more girls to play, improve the level of play of the women. Rating is rating, people know a 2500 man is stronger than a 2300 (or 2100) woman with or without them being in the same tournament. Ghettoizing them in separate events doesn't help anything. It's certainly much worse to have them playing at the kid's table. As for "best," it's just a tournament. But it's a very big one for PR and having the women in with the men maximizes that opportunity.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on March 4, 2005 7:14 AM.

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