Greengard's ChessNinja.com

Women Competitors

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This isn't flame bait, really. The question of why there aren't more women in chess, and why there are so few among the elite, has been around forever. It's something I've delved into on many occasions as well. A recent NY Times article covering the giant girls' championship talked about how friendly the girls were and how much friendlier the atmosphere was without any boys around.

The most popular article at NYTimes.com in the past week was a Tierney op-ed on an experiment that showed very different attitudes toward competition in men and women. This is something that many would call obvious, at the risk of being called politically incorrect, so it's interesting to have it illustrated by such an elegant experiment.The article will disappear into the Times archives in a day or two, so here's an excerpt. Please read the whole thing if it's still up.

Economists recently tried to find out in an experiment in Pittsburgh by paying men and women to add up five numbers in their heads. At first they worked individually, doing as many sums as they could in five minutes and receiving 50 cents for each correct answer. Then they competed in four-person tournaments, with the winner getting $2 per correct answer and the losers getting nothing.

On average, the women made as much as the men under either system. But when they were offered a choice for the next round - take the piece rate or compete in a tournament - most women declined to compete, even the ones who had done the best in the earlier rounds. Most men chose the tournament, even the ones who had done the worst.

The men's eagerness partly stemmed from overconfidence, because on average men rated their ability more highly than the women rated theirs. But interviews and further experiments convinced the researchers, Muriel Niederle of Stanford and Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh, that the gender gap wasn't due mainly to women's insecurities about their abilities. It was due to different appetites for competition.

"Even in tasks where they do well, women seem to shy away from competition, whereas men seem to enjoy it too much," Professor Niederle said. "The men who weren't good at this task lost a little money by choosing to compete, and the really good women passed up a lot of money by not entering tournaments they would have won."

The working paper that the article was based on includes much more of interest and is here (PDF). That a combination of less testosterone and a culture that raises them to get along makes women less competitive than men is hardly big news. And it's not about "curing" them. As the study also shows, men are competitive even when it goes against common sense. Just about any management book you pick up tells you women make better managers because they tend to want to work together and encourage others more than men do.

In the very competitive game, and world, of chess, you have to really enjoy competition for its own sake to want to stick around long enough and work hard enough to make it anywhere near the top. As many wits have pointed out, it's to the female gender's credit they put so little interest into something as trivial as chess! (But what about the shoe thing?)


Mig, I'm surprised you haven't seen the notes of a meeting between the ACP and FIDE. Apparently, women like the shorter time controls, and that's why FIDE will keep it! So, maybe this is why we have so many good women players today - the shorter time controls!
Ciao, Jonathan

Very few women volunteer for lab experiments relative to men (a fact known since the 1950s), so any lab experiment is going to be pulling from a non standard population of women to begin with. (And, yes, it's a problem in medical science, too.)

So experiments that start with lab volunteers aren't much use in telling us what's going on.

Moreover there's another big problem with college experiments...they almost all involve young single people who are still in "dependent mode," that is who have not yet reached the point of suppporting themselves financially. Drawing psychological conclusions about social behavior from such a group is hazardous at best.

As for the "shy away from competition" thing, it's simply not true in games. For example, almost all data shows that about 60% of bridge players in any competitive league are women.

And some kinds of Internet games, notably the Pogo site, attract as many as 70% women including in the competitive leagues.

And of course we already know that in today's world, girls tend to get higher grades (a highly competitive task in many schools) in all subjects, including science (where these days 50% of physics students are female according to the American Association of Physicists).

Then there are very public competitions like American Idol, where female applicants at least equal males in each season.

Hmmm again...

In my experience, many women play chess, but very very few play tournament chess. So perhaps the real question is what is there about the atmosphere in many chess clubs and tournaments that makes THOSE PLACES unattractive to women as opposed to, say, bridge clubs.


Anyone who is around children or young adults, as I am teaching. Or anyone with both sexes of children already know all this. Capability is not a question. Fewer girls enjoy competition hwere ego is a stake than do boys. Period. I've seen it at all ages as they grow up through adulthood in thousands of people. I'll only add there is another factor in that women don't encourage other women to be competitive and look down on those who are. Recently, our staff of 95% women where asked for input on a new building principal. Lots of ideas and characteristics were put out as to what the new boss should be like. But there was only one near-unanimous quality - no woman boss!!! And this from mostly all women :)


you said:
As for the "shy away from competition" thing, it's simply not true in games. For example, almost all data shows that about 60% of bridge players in any competitive league are women.

But competitive as bridge is it is game where first you partner up, joining with another in a competitive endeavor. That's a lot different than chess and most non-team competitions. Otherwise, much of what you said sounded right.

Bill C

The studies, and other similar ones, also use classes of university students and high school students, not just people volunteering off the street. And while any volunteer sample might be somewhat skewed away from the general public, that doesn't mean it will be skewed in a way that contradicts the results. I.e., why would the type of woman who would volunteer for an experiment also be markedly less competitive than the type of woman who wouldn't volunteer?

I was a classroom teacher for five years at the high-school and university level. I quickly learned that competitive learning games, as opposed to cooperative ones, were a disaster because (some of) the boys were over-enthusiastic to the point of intimidation and the girls lost interest almost immediately. But team competitions were much better, if still problematic. Chess is exactly the sort of one-on-one, win at all costs contest that bored and annoyed most of my female students (and most motivated the boys).

Duif's point about women playing chess but not playing in tournaments fits in with this perfectly well. They enjoy the game but don't see why they can't do that without being in an antagonistic, competitive atmosphere. And as much as we try, and I don't think we necessarily should, tournaments are always going to be competitive, by definition. Perhaps team events could be tried? It's still an individual game of course, but perhaps playing on a team would decrease the personal, antagonistic element many women shy away from.

Testosterone is just the gravy. Men are raised from year zero to be hyper-competitive and women to be cooperative. This is reflected in things as fundamental as their speech patterns as early as age four. Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand" is a bible for anyone (men in particular) who has ever had difficulty communicating with the opposite sex. Brilliant book.

No one is saying that women aren't or can't be competitive. It's a discussion of relativity, situation, and majority. Some women are as competitive as the most competitive men. Anyone who has played Scrabble with my sister could attest to this! And in certain situations perhaps most women are very competitive (regarding other women would be a good place to start in my experience!) But the overwhelming majority of women, in most situations, are not as competitive-minded as men. Vive la difference!

I'm not sure how much is shared opinion about this stuff. There is an interesting (relatively old) paper provocatively suggesting that the rapid evolution of X chromosome, with its preponderance for genes influencing cognitive abilities, is driven by sexual selection. (Trends in Genetics Volume 17, Issue 12, 1 December 2001, Pages 697-701 A high density of X-linked genes for general cognitive ability: a run-away process shaping human evolution?) In March, the complete human X-chromosome sequence was released, and there are many experiments underway to attempt to identify genes that contribute to desirable or undesirable cognitive human traits, at least superficially. I’ll be awaiting the identification of the “competitive” gene and I’ll bet that the “shoe-buying” gene escapes X-inactivation in women, as Mig says. As you can see, I think nature plays more to do with this sort of thing than nurture.

I personally believe that women are inherantly less competitive than men, though there are many anecdotes to the contrary, as Mig says. A politically incorrect statement is that women are often highly competitive with other women (whether they hide it or not), an observation seemingly anomalous with the friendliness in female chess circles. I’m female, btw and sheepishly agree. This was not addressed in the Pittsburgh study. Mig just posted words to the same nature I just realized, but I thought I’d repeat.


Yes, Mig, this particular study uses undergraduate students from the University of Pittsburgh. And, no, that's not a representative group. The study set up groups of 4, 2 males and 2 females. Of mostly 20 year old, single, financially dependent college students. The notion that the behavior of those women would represent the behavior of all women simply doesn't make much sense.

Just one example: most of the people in that study pool are people to whom $20 is a lot of money at that point in their lives. The rules of the game said "Do you want a guaranteed $12 or a chance at $36" or something to that effect. (Piece rate vs winner takes all tournament.)

In that circumstance (2 men, 2 women, all likely single) the women did what they joined the study pool for--guaranteed payment. The men took the opportunity to try to do better mostly because (as the study mentions) the men were more likely to have an unrealistic appraisal of their likelihood of being the single winner.

Note that the women did NOT choose cooperative behavior over competitive behavior. They chose guaranteed payment over a winner-takes-all opportunity.

So the conclusions of the study simply don't match what actually happened. It might be about risk, or even the ability to assess risk accurately, but it wasn't about willingness to compete.

In order to truly measure preference for competitive activities, the study should have offered an EQUAL prize for both types of activity, rather than mixing in the risk and risk assessment issues.


(Mig, even the shoe thing gets old: Nike makes most of its money off of young men aged 15 to 30 who have closets full of expensive shoes bought as style statements.)


I can remember being told in high school that law school, for example, would be a "harsh competitive envirronment, not really appropriate for a girl."

In 2001, for the first time female applicants to law school (according to the ABA) outnumbered males, and in 2004 most law school campuses are about 50-50 male/female.



SATs are taken, by definition, by those who are going through a highly competitive process of selection to colleges that don't use open enrollment. The majority of those signing up for the test are female.

Women can and do compete, both for leisure (as at Pogo) and for grades and career opportunities. The real world data shows that clearly.



GM Maurice Ashley once said that the question to be asked wasn't if there was a difference in women's interests, but rather how was our sport failing to reach out to women?

The single most important step to making women comfortable at chess clubs and online servers is to stop making any female who shows up go through long explanations of why more women don't show up! :) Don't tell her about Polgars, or how nice it is to see a female there, or ask her for her opinion of why so few women are in tournament chess.

Don't talk to her about testosterone or Freud or whether women are naturally less competitive. Just let the girl play.

And if you see some other guy harassing her (intentionally or not), pull him aside and tell him to give her some space to be an ordinary player.

Take care of the simple things, like making sure there's a women's restroom the same distance from the playing hall as the men's, and a safe place to park.

If you really want to see more women playing, then take the spotlight OFF the ones who do show up! When the experience of a 1200 level female is comparable to the experience of a 1200 level male, more women WILL show up.


When I was coaching chess in elementary school, most teams in our area had about 12 members, around 90% male. Our teams almost always had 20 members, about 10 boys and 10 girls. We never did anything special to attract or interest girls, or change the "chess experience" in any way for them. We didn't offer gender-restricted events or titles or prizes. We just let the girls play, and kept any one (boy or girl) from harassing another kid.


Why do we all play competitive chess, after all? Because it's fun to do so! Why don't more women go to the chess clubs and tournaments: because so many guys there make it NOT fun for a woman who walks in the door.

Most of the women that I know on the various chess servers do NOT self identify as women. Because if they did, they'd never have any time to play chess! Think about that, because that's the real reason you don't see more of them in person as well.

If every guy reading this did just two things: step up when you see sexual harassment and occasionally invite a female acquaintance (of any age) to play chess at a local club while protecting her from endless discussions of why females don't go to chess clubs, I can pretty much guarantee that within 3 years you'd start to see more women (of all ages) playing in public events.


I live in India,where chess is probably much more popular than it is in U.S.A, certainly in India chess is very popular and in comparison to U.S.A is not percieved as being a strange geeky activity or whatever.
If in the U.S.A girls are brought up to be "cooperative" in India girls are brought up to be "cooperative" and to "adjust" beyond all reasonable means and even at the cost of tremendous physical and mental pain. However in India there are significant numbers of girls playing chess in regular open tournaments and I havent seen any of them being hassled. I very much doubt all this has anything very much to do with competitiveness though clearly chess by definition is an antagonistic competition.
B.T.W congratulations to Duif for articulately pointing out the multiple holes in that "study".

And now, for a question that may seem stupid on the surface: is chess actually competitive? I contend that the course of the game itself, the actual creation of geometric and mathematical art, is not competitive at all. Quite the contrary. Each participant DEPENDS on the other to create.

If chess is not competitive, then nothing is! I play chess for one reason- to crush my opponent.

In my experience nobody goes out there aiming to "create geometrical and mathematical art" I want to win and in the course of doing that I may be forced to create art, but the basic goal is to win and the opponent also has this goal.This game is the most competitive any game can get.


Totally untrue. Winning may be the primary goal, and the sting of losing may be sufficiently great to discourage pointless "artistry," but many players have the creation of beauty as an important goal when playing chess. I have read interviews with world-class players who feel the same way.

Not so very totally wrong, Prabhat. In fact, very nearly totally right.

"[Chess] can't be an art, because every brilliancy depends on the fuddled collusion of the opponent."
-Author Known

"It's DEFINITELY not an art. If I have a choice between a beautiful combination and a mundane way of wrapping up the game, then I'll wrap up the game. You must win. It's not an art, it's a fight. It's a fight."
-Nigel Short, 1986


Nice work.


In reference to your comments: It's not a strong enough argument to say (A) Law school and the SATs are competitive, (B) More women go to law school and take the SATs than men, thus (C) Women are therefore competitive.

If somebody were to give me ten million dollars to chop the last one-third of my pinky off, I would probably do it. It's not an experience I would enjoy, having the hatchet come down, but the rewards outweigh the discomfort of the process. The same is probably true for your average female law school student.

Yes, some women are competitive. Mig's argument, however, is that, ON AVERAGE, competition does not agree with women as much as it does with men. Given an alternative, women would rather not be competitive if they had a choice to be cooperative. When going to law school or taking the SAT, for your average woman, the rewards of being competitive far outweigh the nuisence of having to be so.

It's a complicated issue. On a person by person basis, one can draw no generalities, and this adds to the statistical complexity of the question.

The facts, however, are indisputable: More men play competitive chess (and probably non-competitive chess) than women do. The question is why.

Howard goldowsky


My apologies if I was confusing. The law school and SAT examples were given to show areas where the original argument was that women couldn't/wouldn't do them because they were "too competitive"--now women are the majority there.

Mah jong is usually given as the classic example of the cultural acceptance issue. In Hong Kong, mah jong is almost exclusively a game of men. In New York, it is played much more commonly by women. Same game.

The current question is why don't more American and European women go to chess clubs and tournaments, and why don't most of them self-identify on chess servers. I think the answer is simple. It's unpleasant for them to do so.

Fix that, and you'll get more women playing tournament chess in those areas.


p.s. (If you want me to give details, I will, but I think most people already know the problems even if they don't want to dwell on them.)

It seems to me that whether we look at the top or the bottom of the ratings, we will find a mix of chessplayers with very different personalities in the ranks at every level.

Here's an interesting point. The United States has a population of around 280 million, and has produced 1 native born grandmaster (Patrick Wolff) in the last 20 years.

The Netherlands has a population of 15 million, and has produced 10 native born grandmasters in the same time period (van Wely, Piket, van den Doel, Nijboer, Stellwagen, Smeets, Reinderman, van der Weide, de Vreugt, Jonkman).

Belgium, with about 10 million people (and which shares a border with the Netherlands), has produced none.

Greece, with the same population as Belgium, has produced 6 or 7. (I'm not sure if Nikolaidis became a GM before or after 1985.)

Yet Italy, with a population about 6 times greater than Greece, and 4 times greater than the Netherlands, has produced only 1.

I don't know what brings people to chess as a competitive activity. I don't think there are any easy answers, or any single one. It's clearly more complex than just personality type. (Does anyone want to argue that Dutch culture is inherently less cooperative than American?)

I suspect it's one of those "all environment is local" issues. A lot of people enjoy learning the game. Whether they go on to play tournaments has much to do with the atmosphere at the local club.


I believe one reason for the difference may be our the difference in natures. Men love combat and are socialized to be competitive. Chess is very combative where you are bent on crushing your opponent... breaking his/her will to fight. Of course, Judit Polgar has crushed many an ego in her day, but I believe women are socialized very differently... they are socialized in group activities which require negotiation and cooperation.

Chess is about a raw form of mental combat as there is... no negotiation or cooperation. You are merely out to destroy an opposing army using all types of stealth, trickery, deception and brute force. There was an admitted street tough who took up chess because he said it was the most violent game he could find and he became an International Master. This is not to say that women cannot exhibit these qualities, but their instincts are not wired for plundering. It makes this debate all the more interesting as in the U.S., the "Women in Combat" debate has been raging.

Take any sentence you want to use to "explain" men and women in chess and substitute "Dutch" for men and "Americans" for women and see if the sentence still makes sense to you.

For example, would you say that "Dutch love combat and are socialized to be competitive....This is not to say that Americans cannot exhibit these qualities, but they are not wired for plundering." ?

Chess is a game. Not a personality test.



Yes, there probably is a cultural dependancy, too. And the way women and men interact with their respective national cultures is also a dependence.

"Women in Chess" is a very interesting topic. I hope we all keep an open mind when studying the reasons why women do not play chess as much as men, and how we might be able to "fix" this. I think Larry Sumners, the president of Harvard, was given a bad rap when he said that there needs to be more research done about why women don't excel in the hard-sciences and activities like them such as chess. All he was saying is that "abilities and interests as a function of gender" is a complicated issue that needs further study. In my opinion, it's premature to jump to conclusions.

Duif has a good point (but it is only one of many important points). Whether from cultural origins or "personality of gender" origins, women who play serious chess are unfairly viewed as a bit weird, or even sometimes as merely just eye candy. We've all been to tournaments where there is a single girl playing; if she's pretty, her figure often draws eyes that should otherwise be staring at chessboards. When there are 99 men and one woman cramped up in a room for four hours, this stuff happens. (And I'm not always innocent myself.) Many of the women who play chess immunize themselves to this type of environment, but many women can't. This phenomenon is all part of the dynamic interaction between men and women, and is just one factor in a myriad of factors responsible for the low percentage of women in chess. So yes, Duif, getting men to behave themselves at tournaments will help, but I don't think this is the final solution.

Coincidentally, Susan Polgar's new book, BREAKING THROUGH, is supposed to be released tomorrow, and Jen Shahade's book, CHESS BITCH, will also be released soon. Both of these books (Shahade's in particular) will celebrate women in chess, and hopefully shine a positive light on the topic, encouraging more women to enjoy the 64 squares.


Above, Mig mentioned team chess. I've always had the idea of litereally assigning groups of girls to play against each other as teams. Teams of girls would sit in seperate rooms and discuss their next move before sending it out via messanger. This way the girls feel like they're all cooperating as a team to come up with their best move. I wonder if Susan Polgar does anything like this with her all-girls classes?

Howard Goldowsky

I've never (seriously, never) had any difficulty getting girls to play chess on exactly the same terms as boys.

When I coached in Atlanta, most teams in our area had 12 kids, usually 10 boys and 2 girls.

Our school's team typically had 20 kids, 10 boys and 10 girls. This happened consistently over 6 years.

We didn't plan it that way. We didn't do anything special to attract or keep girls. We had 2 adult women and 2 adult men volunteers.

We just made sure that there was no harassment, intentional or otherwise, of any child.

Honestly, that's all it took.

There's no reason to overcomplicate the issue. Chess is a game. Chess is fun. Girls will play if the environment is welcoming to both boys and girls. Women will play if the environment is welcoming to both men and women.

And "welcoming" does not mean special treatment, or pink chessboards. :) It means not having to explain oneself or one's gender for choosing to play or not. It means feeling physically safe. It means being able to make the typical 1200 level mistakes without having 20 players watching the game (when they aren't watching any other 1200 player's game).

It's just not that mysterious.


Thinking back on my high school chess club days, I can't remember a single girl ever being badgered, questioned, or harrassed. In fact, I can't remember one ever showing up to a club meeting! At least from my experience you need to look further than "just give them a chance" because nobody tried to take a chance.

I'll make one methodological argument: while it's true that "college students who participated in our study" may not be a representative group, neither is "students who chose to go to law school." If I were going to poke a hole in the study's conclusion, I would point out that the behavior they're studying is arguably gambling, not competing. It's only their "personal interviews" that led to that conclusion.

I find it most interesting that neither sex made a rational choice. What ever the male/female difference, both are doing it wrong.

Clubfoot and Greg:

Er, so quoting two players (one of them anonymous) on what the primary aim of playing chess is, somehow makes it true for all players?

I was a girl who played in my high school chess club. :)

In most places in the US, the barriers are there, although you won't see them unless there are girls there.

In my experience, to create a welcoming atmosphere for girls in school, a chess club needs to have at least two adult female coaches. And some adult male coaches. Looking into the room and seeing adult women will automatically make the place feel "safer" in a lot of ways.

I apologize if I was confusing. I didn't say "just give them a chance." I said the guys reading this should do two things:

1. Invite a female acquaintance (of any age) to go with them to their local chess club occasionally.

2. Protect that person from harassment (intentional or unintentional).

The "let them play" applies to the females who DO show up. Avoid conversations like, for example, this thread. ;) Make sure the place is physically safe. And step up if you see harassment of any kind.

Most of the women that I know who play tournament chess had fathers who played. When Dad was along, the atmosphere towards the girl was very different.

(In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when I went to a big tournament one year when I was in my twenties and ran into none of the usual "tricky situations." I commented on it to a friend on the 2nd day, who said, "They think you're GM X's daughter." I asked him why they thought that, and he said, "I told them you were, when one of the guys got out of line." All I can say is, it worked.)

Duif, Howard:
I doubt that a chess club could be more intimidating for a pretty (or otherwise) girl than any other situation. I'm sure that the vast majority of geeky stereotype chess players do not harrass or badger female players. Women do not spend their life feeling unsafe when men look at them. Some women would in fact relish attention, others of course would not. I just don't think it's as simple a problem that females do not like the attention.

The women are probably overwhelmed by the typical chess tournament's assortment of bad clothes worn three days in a row.


Chess is much, much more than a game. It has a significant social psychological element of which personality is a part. Otherwise, this debate wouldn't be needed.

There are many studies which point out the differences between gender and the proclivities for certain activities. These studies are across the board and this recent discussion of "Women in Combat" has brought light to some of these questions. If you think that particular debate is merely about physical differences in gender, then the point will have been missed.

For chess... you may deny that psychology/personality is not a factor, but then what would be your explanation to the difference? You say chess is "fun" but I only hear that uttered to U.S. scholastic players to motivate them.

In the U.S., girls make up a good portion of the scholastic members, but what happens after that? Why the big drop-off? Is it that chess becomes less fun to girls. If so, why does it become so much less fun for girls than boys? You imply that they may not be comfortable any longer. Maybe but the women I've seen in chess clubs appear to enjoy the attention... almost too much! The women I see at national tournaments seem to be dressed in ways to draw attention.

Could expected norms for young women discourage them from playing? Should they be thinking of other things? School? Family? Work? Yes... but young men have to think of those things too!

I believe there are formative changes that take place between gender. As they mature, they learn the REAL deal about chess. Chess is combat... it is confrontation... it is war... it is a battle of wills. People play chess for competition... to win... they won't go easy on you... they will crush you and your ego. We need to give scholastic players a balance of advice... not only the "chess is fun" stuff.

I've played Alisa Melekhina once and by her father's bearing, I don't think he told her the nice "chess is fun" story. She is a tiger. I also believe Jennifer Shahade got the real deal early as well. She saw enough blood and guts from watching her brother and father to realize what chess is. She has become a great player as a result. I would also guess the Polgars were spared the "chess is fun" story.

Of course, boys are given a different language... both spoken and unspoken. Be tough... be strong... don't cry... be a man... survival of the fittest. You know the language... different from girls. Chess is the ultimate form of mental combat where even the 98-pound weakling can flog a 225-pound musclehead on the chessboard and make him feel like a wimp. This is not as much of an issue for girls. By the way, bridge is not a simulation of combat, so that analogy is not a strong.

I believe we have to point to other exogenous factors to get an answer. There is not a simple answer Duif... and it IS quite a mystery. The debate of "Women in Chess" may lie with psychological and socialization factors, not mere chess factors.

"Er, so quoting two players (one of them anonymous) on what the primary aim of playing chess is, somehow makes it true for all players?"

The first quote was not written by a professional chess player. Moreover, the goal was not defining the primary aim of playing chess but to isolate what chess is not, thereby eliminating the impossible and so forth.

and Duif...you have enough exegesis for an MA thesis on this subject. Rock on.

Oh, I should also explain that I was somewhat unusual among the top 100 women players in that my husband (at the time) did NOT play tournament chess and did not travel to events with me. And in fact before I got married I went to my very first USCF event completely on my own.

Most of the women that I know who do play regularly travel with a husband, father, or boyfriend, and I expect they avoided some of the more extreme experiences.

Duif, I'm really sorry you have had to experience behaviour like that. I am female but have never played competitive anything and would never ever have imagined behaviour like that possible. Certainly, what you have said will deter me from participating in the future. After all you said, I agree with you wholeheartedly that the atmosphere in competitive chess should be made less sexually intimidating for women.


I certainly didn't mean to discourage anyone from playing...in fact, I had already asked Mig to remove that particular post for other reasons.

I will say that, for the time being, you'll probably have an easier time if you go with a friend.

But I think tournaments are a very exciting and enjoyable experience overall, and definitely worth the effort.



Unknowingly or unwittingly, you have touched on the point about the psychological makeup between genders. I read confrontation, control, power... all things men tend to crave and chess is a microcosm of these outward expressions. Many of these issues have nothing to do with chess per se, but are part of the socialization process.

Duif... I don't know what to say. You've really had some bad fortune at tournaments. Some of those are really horrible incidents! However, some of them have nothing to do with gender. I've seen fistfights, boards tipped over, clock-slamming, pieces cleared, people shouting, a guy make a legally-blind man move an accidentally touched piece, GMs make racial epithets (not to me), etc.

I don't recall hearing a player make an improper female comment, but of course many will talk about how nice so-and-so looks and such. I did hear of a 13-year old girl (I was a family friend) being stalked in France while competing in the under-14 many years ago. I'm not sure when your incidents happened, but women appear to be a welcome site at tournaments... and I play in the major tournaments. This weekend, I saw two Indian females and several women playing at Chicago Open... few girls though. Why? That's the question.

When I play females, I don't feel anything special... not sympathy, not admiration, not pity... just someone I have to engage in a chess debate... and I want to win the debate! I rather enjoyed playing Shernaz Kennedy... we did post-mortem and she is very pleasant.

I have a perspective to offer based on my Wife's gradual changing view of chess players at U.S. swiss tournaments through our 25+ years of marriage. In the late 70's/early 80's she watched me play as little as possible. She was overwhelmed at the geeky assemblage of white males in the pacific Northwest chess scene. She thought the tournament rooms smelled very badly to be honest. She was favorably impressed once though..when I was fed to Yasser in the early round of a tournament in Portland Oregon. She thought he was a class act..above the rest. I retired from chess for over 20 years soon after. We've played music on stage together to very aggressive punk rock audiences to date. I've never heard her complain about the music club denizens..believe it or not...whether we played the east or west coasts. She's helped me sell collectable vinyl at record shows in places like NYC and here in Texas. She thought some of the record geeks were disgusting..but always compared them favorably to chess tournament denizens from "back in the day". She still can remember after all these years that special funk that was capable of making breathing difficult at those old N.W. tournaments. I made a chess "comeback" at the 2003 National open. She noticed that there were quite a few players besides the old usual white male geeks in attendance. We discussed this phenomena and were both pleased. Competitive chess has changed in the U.S. over the years..for the better. I'm delighted to say that she recently took up her first chess book to study (a beginners book by Yasser! She hadn't forgotten what a charming figure he cut evidently). She'll be likely watching me play with more interest than ever at the upcoming National open. She knows there are plenty of strong female players around who could dismantle me or anybody else on any given day. I'm not sure if she'll ever cross the line and compete; if she does I pity the sexist fool who tries to intimidate her. She's dealt with every form imaginable of insult playing music live. If either of us observed a female being bullied in any manner at a tournament by some jackass we'd intercede. One more thing. My wife has also attended quite a few live professional wrestling events with me; she's never bellyached about wrestling geeks like she did those chess hounds from a quarter century ago.

Hey Whiskey, is Kevin Von Erich still active?


Women and girls also engage in "ranking" behaviors--there's a lot of data on that. (From the "mean girls" phenomenon to "monster in law," it's well known in contemporary culture.) Certainly you can see it in gymnastics and other female-dominated sports, too.

The point is that sports cultures have to work actively to avoid these behaviors. And in general the chess world, while trying on the one hand to encourage more females to participate has, on the other, generally tried to ignore any sexual harassment that did occur. This is the step that needs to change, I think.

But overwhelmingly my tournament experiences have been positive, or I wouldn't have kept playing. Many of my best friends are chess people--many chess people have been extraordinarily kind, and most have been pleasant.


One of my parents' friends was an African-American professor who graduated from a mixed college in the 1950s. He once told me that during the late 50s and early 60s it was almost impossible for him to meet new white people without their immediately beginning a conversation discussing the supposed "intellectual inferiority" of African-Americans. They wanted HIM to explain the issue, to discuss the issue, and in particular to discuss why so few African-Americans voted in the South.

He said the answer always seemed obvious to him: an intimidating environment. It was the behavior of white people, not the pychology of black people, that influenced the voter turnout. But no matter how many times he gave that answer, the people who brought up the subject wanted to discuss far more intricate psychological or cultural theories.

He told me, many times, "We are all essentially far more alike than we are different."

In the US, adult women are the majority of tournament players in Scrabble, Mah Jongg, and Bridge. They are less than 5% of the tournament players in chess.

We can argue over the fine distinctions between these games, but they are, in essence, far more alike than they are different. As are the people playing them.

The reason that more women don't play tournament chess isn't because of differences in the psychology of women. It is because of differences in the way the women are treated by a minority of the men.

Most men are perfectly open to the idea of women playing chess. But most men also deny that there are any harassment issues in clubs and tournaments. (Sort of like the man who said in the 60s "Oh, we don't have a racial problem in our club. We only have white members.") And even now most men ignore the behavior when it does arise.

That's why the most important thing male chessplayers can do to get more women to play is not to "investigate the psychology" of women, but rather simply to bring female acquaintances to chess clubs and make sure they are not harassed.

I would suggest that you do this in an organized fashion. Pick one meeting per month, perhaps the first of the month, and encourage all members to bring a female guest on that day. (So there will be a number of women guests, rather than just one, but that each will have a specific host.) Ban all discussion of Polgars or "female psychology." Assume ahead of time that some of the guests will get more interested, some less, some will come only during a similar "open house." Just play chess.

Think of it as a lunch counter revolution. :)


I have to confess that I once experimented for about a year on ICC with a female-identified ID. Other than the ID name (and answering "yes" to the question of whether I was really female) I kept all my comments and conversation as gender-neutral as possible.

What I found was 1) guys who lost to me were much, much ruder than when I win as a male; 2) I received constant tells trying to flirt, which then turned to amazing vulgarity when I didn't respond; and 3) some people were much *nicer* to me than usual (like the Swiss IM who played me regularly and gave me free lessons in various openings).

So I realize there are females who play on the various chess servers, but I also realize they put up with a lot of nonsense that they probably would rather do without. Other than the free lessons, anyway.


Interesting comments.

However, we HAVE to go back to the psychology of why these phenomena exist. We cannot hope to understand it otherwise. Bringing women to a chess club is fine and good, but even if it is comfortable environment, will women continue to play chess? I personally don't believe women have the same passion for this type of war-like, in-your-face, combat competition. Men do... we crave the combat and challenge. We are socialized to compete... and win!

If you created a perfect environment for chess were everyone was equal and no harassment, I would bet you'd still have significantly fewer women. The question is why. Maybe Jennifer Shahade's book will shed light on this topic. She is certainly admired by a lot of male players and may have had her share of stories. However, with an IM brother and a hulking FM father, no one would dare try anything... lest they be flogged in full view of a chess crowd.

Again, I rarely hear of the cases you've highlighted, but since I'm not a woman, I may not have exposure or sensitivity. My exposure to women in tournaments have been effusively positive. In fact, I have never seen an incident personally... have only heard of a few (until yours). I could however, tell you many, many stories about racism in chess... slights, insinuations, blatant comments, etc. Chess wreaks of all types of discrimination including age.

"Intellectual inferiority" has been debated for centuries (usually initiated by whites), but I'll agree that harassment and other social discriminations and exclusions do cause a decline in performance. Anyway, I never understood what "losing to a girl" had to do with anything in chess. However, I think people are used to losing to girls/women now. If not, then we'll call one of the Chinese players or Polgar sisters and give an orientation.

I still believe that these are social psychological questions. Why is there harassment and social discrimination in chess? Does it effect the chess population negatively? Has the problem lessened over the years? Interesting questions for research. We have to examine the cause, not the effect.

I am not surprised why more women do not compete in tournaments.
Women certainly have psychological problems. Like men, they do not have that mental and physical stamina. Chess is a wargame. You need to think like a Commander/General. You cannot panic during trouble. You need to show courage and optimism in the face of danger. Its hard to imagine these qualities in a woman. Just imagine having a woman General? What will happen? These qualities are inherent in a man. So its natural for a man to fight. On the other hand, woman's great qualities are tenderness, care and love. Bridge and other light board games might suit them. But Chess for fun is Ok. But otherwise Chess is definetly not for women.

I partially disagree Ryan. I believe there are a large number of women in this day and age bursting with qualities that in the past have been viewed as being "manly". Also, I think a healthy percentage of male chess players are in short supply of "courage and optimism"..although I grant you those qualities are likely fairly common amongst players of both sexes at high levels. The old line about girls being full of "sugar, spice and everything nice" is outmoded. It's a new day...at least for a significant % of females. Yeah, my sweet old Mother would have been a poor competitive chess player..but I have a hillbilly Granny who can shoot weapons, hunt and operate a commercial fishing boat (NO! I couldn't handle a week doing that). Granny was a tender Mom to her kids although she was blessed with a few alleged "manly" qualities. I recently met a team of women-only roller derby skaters who would likely take issue with your questioning the tenacity of a female General.

Hello whiskeyrebel:
Ofcourse there are some exceptional women in any field!! For example Polgar sisters in Chess. But in general, most women by nature do not inherit those manly qualities to be a serious Chess player. On the otherhand, by nature, women have a passion for beauty, fashion etc. So, we know that the main cause is due to their nature, and its not about harrassment. Are night clubs where more women visit on a regular basis are better than the Chess clubs? Women are mostly talkative and thats why they tend to like team games etc. On the otherhand, sadly a Chess player's life is a lonely life.

To me, it is simple to explain why women don't play chess.

The reason women don't play chess is that if they did, life would be too perfect.

Thank you.


Interesting thread and too deep to ever compartmentalise as a matter of black and white. Everything is grey, but some things are darker than others.

It was a long time ago in this thread, but I take issue with your example of SAT exams as a way in which women were competitive.

Exam success is a matter for quite satisfaction when the results come out months after the exam was sat. More women are successful in that field, probably because in general they are better at realising what is important in the long term.

Chess is different - there is immediate satisfaction in the context of a freshly fought battle. As another example, in any office on a Monday morning, you'll spot several blokes gloating or crushed due to their favorite sports team's fortunes at the weekend. Here, in New Zealand it takes on a sinister feel. Calls to abuse hotlines go up 500% after an All Blacks defeat. Such trivial things are important to (alcohol-fuelled) males.

Apologies for the ramble- shouldn't post while pissed...

I don't want to reduce everything to hormones, since clearly socialization processes contribute to gender-specific behaviours, competitive attitude included. However, there is a study (I don't know how well known it is) that actually studied male testosterone levels after winning or losing chess games. It is one study, among many that have led to the current opinion that cognitive power motivation and satisfaction modulatates testosterone levels in males. Winning social conflicts (fist fights, chess) increases short-term testosterone levels in male-male competitions, but not in female-female competitions. Testosterone levels even increase in the lead-up to a competitive event. Studies have not yet been conducted between female - male competitions. There has probably been an evolutionary drive for this to occur in males.

If women (or men) do not enjoy competition, it is not a bad thing, though it would be nice to see more women at chess clubs. However, if certain women are being deterred from doing things they like because of aggressive and hyper-competitive males, then it's no more than discrimination and a shame.

Interesting. Are there no other men in this community who wish to respond to Ryan's comments?

(hint: there are women police officers, fire fighters, heart surgeons, heads of state, ship captains, fighter pilots. They run into burning buildings and enemy fire to save other lives. They serve with honor, courage, and coolheadedness under stresses most of us can only imagine.

You might also consider the role of the Queen on the chessboard, and whether she represents Artemisia, Boadicea, Samsi, or Zenobia. I doubt if the Trung sisters were considered, but their army, which drove China out of Viet Nam, included 36 women generals.)

Chess means different things to different people, and I will not dispute someone else's interpretation in that sense. To me, Risk (which I play) is a war game, Grand Theft Auto (which I don't) is stylized thuggery, and football is combat practice. Chess and Go (both of which I also play) seem to me to be pattern games. If it means something else to you, OK. The more people who play, whatever their reasons, the better. :)

But any comment made about an inborn feminine lack of honor and courage by guys who are, after all, just pushing plastic pieces around a board, seems a little foolish considering the very real women who dedicate their lives to facing very real danger to "serve and protect." And allowing that kind of foolishness to go unchallenged is unlikely to attract more women to our sport.


Duif: I'm glad I've been exposed to a strong wife and Granny and some other key female friends over the years. I don't claim to have perfect understanding of what it's like for women who play chess publicly, but some of these guys posting here seem to be living in a 1950's "I love Lucy" time warp. I wonder how they react to a female boss at work..or a lady holding a door open for them...or perhaps smoking an "un-lady like" cigarette openly on the street. Maybe the kernel truth here is that male chess buffs are indeed largely the stereotypical daffy nerds (with overloaded pocket protector's) and mad scientist types that the masses have assumed them to be for many years. I guess one good stereotype deserves another, eh geeks?

The point is that we cannot relegate the shortage of women in chess merely because of harassment from male players. Again... I don't know when these incidents happened to Duif, but it would be interesting to know. Online chess is a whole different matter. I read a book once called "Psychology of the Internet" which talked about online gender identities, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about women playing in tournaments with men.

Has anyone ever done a survey on the harassment issue in chess tournaments? We should find out how pervasive it is and why women aren't speaking up and why it's not on the agenda in chess deliberations. However, if we believe that sexual harassment is the only problem with the shortage of women in competition, we'll be having this discussion in 50 years.

I believe there are a lot more factors that are inherent in this difference... many of which are natural proclivities toward specific activities. Why is bridge dominated by women and poker by men? What is the difference here? Same deck of cards... different psychology in the games.

I don't believe that simplifying the dearth of women in chess to sexual harassment is getting at the real problem. However... what is the root of sexual harassment? It's a psychological phemonenon brought on by male chauvinism and patriarchial societies.

I believe Duif description of chess as merely a "game" and being "fun" is revealing. Men tend to take these games a lot more passionately. Why? Because a buring desire to prove themselves and the way they are socialized to compete and win... which differs from the way women are socialized. Any social psychology book will highlight these differences.


The point of whether women can perform dangerous jobs is not in question, but really... do you really think chess is about "just pushing plastic pieces around a board"? These are the types of things I hear non-chessplayers saying.

No disrespect, but that trivialization of chess may be part of the reason that women may not view chess in the same way as men. As I said before, men appear to be a lot more passionate in this regard and are attracted to these competitive debates.

To you chess is merely a game, but I remember a casual conversation with Maurice Ashley in which he said something interesting to me. He said when you reach a certain understanding in chess, you don't see wood or plastic anymore... you see forces of energy that require manipulation.

How do I see chess?

Chess is a war of opposing forces... an engagment of your internal dialogue. It's a war of will... war of wits... war of psychology... management of time and resources. Demonstration of force... demonstration of resistance... it is martial art. It's a battle of nerves... harnessing of energy... an outward expression of your metaphysical makeup... revelation of internal defects... a test of how well you can make decisions under pressure.

Chess merely a game? Pushing plastic pieces? Try again.


We're talking about 4 or 5 different things here (not surprising, of course).

First, the incidents happened to me throughout my chess career, including as recently as 2001 in OTB and as recently as yesterday in an online server. (I have played very little since my illness, as you may know.) They are certainly still happening OTB today, as I hear from other woman. More about this at the end of this note.


Also, it's important to remember that up until the early 1800s, upperclass women in Europe DID play chess just as frequently as men. Benjamin Franklin, for example, had no difficulty finding female chess partners in Paris. Both Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I played regularly. During the 1600s and 1700s cards were considered too "risque" for women, because of the gambling aspect, which was not considered to apply to chess.

In fact, Jefferson once wrote that Benjamin Franklin was popular in France "because he plays chess with beautiful or powerful women"--supposedly it gave him an entree into the best salons. Paul Morphy also played chess with noblewomen in Paris.

So it's often a matter of fashion, just as mah jongg is a "man's game" in China and a "woman's game" in the US.





As to harassment...I don't know how much of a factor it is, but why not work on stopping it, and then see what happens? Unlike most of the other suggestions for bringing more women in to chess, it costs nothing and does not affect the game.


The thing is...there are guys in every chess club who share Ryan's opinion. And most of them are NOT shy about sharing that opinion with any woman who happens to walk through the doors. In fact, they're pretty assertive about it.

So what happens? Well, I think we all know that one of the truisms of chess is that EVERYONE is a bad player to begin with. Capablanca said to get to be a good player "First you have to lose a lot of games." And losing hurts. With no one to blame but ourselves, most of us can get pretty down.

So imagine a woman who's just starting to get serious. She'd be around 11 or 1200 if she'd played a tournament. She plays a game badly--because that's what happens when you're rated 1150. And Ryan comes along to explain not just to her, but to the club, just why she lost. Why she'll always lose. Why she shouldn't really be there to begin with.

And all the other guys are silent.

Until somebody finally mentions a Polgar sister or two, and Ryan says, "But that's the exception." And more silence.

And somebody brings up hormones again. And Ryan nods his head. And the woman goes home and decides to play on the Internet using the name WildBill174. And the chess club never sees her again.

You can't expect a woman who's well below the national average (as ALL beginners are) to confront some guy who's explaining that "all women will always be below the national average except a few rare exceptions." It's not fair. It takes enough courage just to keep playing when you've just gotten good enough to know you're playing badly.


It's up to you guys to confront sexism and harassment if you want more women to hang out with you. It really is that simple. Stop talking about the psychology of women and start addressing the behavior of men.

You can easily test the issue anytime, as Aimless describes above. Simply sign on to any chess server using a clearly female handle, and tell people who ask that you are female. Then play chess for a week. If you find that the chess experience is as pleasant as a female as it is as a male, I will be very surprised.

Then do the same thing at a backgammon or bridge server.

If you find there is a difference, and if you believe it is a difference that would discourage a newcomer from continuing, you have something you, as a man within the chess community, can work on fixing.

Again, I think that the majority of men are very nice, and certainly not sexist. But within the chess community, they are mostly willing to let the sexist men go unchallenged. And that in itself often creates an atmosphere of harassment.

By the way, Grandmaster Jan Timman, many times champion of the Netherlands and a former world class player, has said he plays chess "because it's fun." So maybe it's just a Dutch thing. ;)




There's a survey online by Dr. Tor Rønnow that asks people why they play, and gives results based on rating.

The choices: 1. Because it's fun. 2. Because it's a game. 3. To win 4. I'm just addicted. 5. It's part of my lifestyle.

Almost all respondents are male.

Even of those rated above 2400, 20% chose "because it's fun." And above 2400, 60% said "lifestyle" with only 13% saying "to win."

Of the under 1600s, 40% chose "because it's fun."

In the 1600-1899 group, more said it was "fun" than wanting to "win."

The only levels where "win" was a more likely answer than "fun" was 1900 - 2399, presumably because that's the group most anxiously trying to move up.


Since I believe your rating is 2100 and mine is 1730, we are both clearly "rating appropriate" in thinking chess is "fun" (or not). You don't need to apply gender to expect a difference in our reactions. :)

Well, folks, I'm worn out! I expect to be offline for awhile.

Ryan, look for a biography of the Trung sisters, you should find it interesting. (This is a good place to start: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine10.html )

Daaim, my apologies for misspelling your name last time! Prabhat Mukherjea, thank you for the information on India.

Howard, thank you for the notes public and private, and the very important comment that this is all probably multifaceted and more complicated than any of us like to consider at one time.

WhiskeyRebel, Aimless, soldier on, and thanks for listening. Mig, as always, thanks and thanks and thanks again. :)

All: Take care, play well.


Hello Daaim: It was a great post.
yes I believe that to a serious Chess player, Chess is no entertainment, no drama. It is a great struggle. It is a real
war between two minds. It can create blackest melancholy, and invisible wounds in you. It can also can give you
that pure delight and joy, only music and love can surpass.

Duif, thanks for -The Newcomer's Experience- story, especially enjoyed my villainous character. Frankly, I regret
getting into this debate. Its too much for me to answer. Believe me, I am not like that one who discourages
any woman to take chess. If Chess is fun, then it is great! Let the women take the game.

Women are welcome at the Chess clubs! BTW I have really nothing against them. There is no question about lot of women
serving as fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, etc. Again these jobs are man's jobs.
If there is a choice to be made, being a good mother and a wife at home is better than all these. Ask any married man.
A man and a woman are two different human beings altogether. A woman is made for a man.
You might know that a man's strength, passion, courage
and optimism are totally different from the woman's. They have totally different qualities, and natures.

Its true that all the qualities of a man are needed for serious Chess. If women can acquire these by work, its a great thing to celebrate.

Thanks Duif...

If someone gave me the five choices to choose from, I certainly may choose "because chess is fun," because it's a logical and agreeable answer... but not from a good array of choices. However, if someone asked me, "how would you describe chess" I wouldn't say, "Oh it's fun." I'd describe chess the way I described it above because it's an open-ended question. These are two different types of questions.

I do believe men view chess (and sporting games) with more passion than women, not because women are perceived as inferior or weak, but because their proclivity for certain activities are different. It doesn't mean that a woman's nature is inferior, it merely means that men see certain challenges differently.

I'm going to check that online study, but again testing sexual harassment on an online server will not give us the information we need. We need to know why women are not in competitive tournaments. If women's first exposure to chess is online then I can say that we have something, but that is not the scenario you laid out and not what we are debating here. My only point is that psychology of men AND women play a huge part. As long as you look at the effect of harassment (as oppose to the cause), you will not get the real answer.

Women may lose a game of chess for the same reasons we all may lose a game of chess. The question remains, why do women/girls not stick with chess with the same passion as men? I'm not going to make the same arguments about the roles of women and men because that is treading on other topics.

Duif... our rating difference is not relevant. (smile) I'm not a Grandmaster in chess, but I hope to present a reasonably-informed opinion on psychology of men/women since I deal with these issues as a professor. Your view brings us valuable insight and should be investigated... actually I think the issues of why girls drop out IS being investigated, or a least Susan Polgar has made it an important issue.

While I don't necessarily agree with Polgar's approach, she is exposing more girls to chess. However, from observing her All-Girls tournaments (and attending one), there is too much "warm and fuzzy" rhetoric and participants do not seem to get the impression that chess is a serious activity. There is too much shielding and coddling.

I don't believe young players like Alisa Melenkhina want to be coddled... she wants to compete. Maybe the purpose for the girls is to have "fun," (walking around with crowns and the whole bit) but if that is so, we can forget about producing another Susan Polgar... or Jennifer Shahade. That is not the REAL world of chess and it is precisely what the Polgar sisters avoided.

We are discussing more of a social phenomenon than chess.

Thanks for the links!

One of the reasons there are not many good female chess players (on male standards) is almost certainly biological. It rests on the male superiority in spatial skills that have been identified by psychologists over the last 20 years. The difference is very substantial and also explains why you see very few female pilots or mathematical geniuses

No linky no cookie. Any why would that necessarily be biological? If girls are discouraged from entering those subjects and professions, certainly historically the case with math and chess, we haven't even started to reach biology.

Biological differences between the sexes obviously exist, but it take a lot more than a survey of the professions to prove anything about natural superiority. Even if you could show an advantage in male spatial skills at the age of two, there is no way to say that would lead to better chessplayers.

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