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Chess Beauties, Again

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Only eight months behind the curve(s), the de facto chess guy at the NY Times, Dylan Loeb McLain, has an item today on women chessplayers and physical attractiveness. Nothing new if you survived the epic thread linked to above started by an item by Jen Shahade, who is quoted in the Times piece. The beauty contest site run by several GMs, which I thought defunct, is brought up again.

Men like looking at pretty women and combining it with chess is just an excuse to do so. Many women enjoy being admired by men and throughout history many of them have managed to make a buck at it too. In other words, nothing new. I'm not a fan, but it only bugs me when it gets in the way of the chess. It's an old and interesting discussion, but please read through Jen's item and the comments to it before reinventing the wheel here.

This allows me to drop in an item four people sent in last week from a Chilean news site. There's a new cafe in the middle of Santiago with scantily clad women who wait tables and occasionally dance. Nothing new so far. But they are also available to play board games, including chess, against the patrons. If the customer loses he has to buy an overpriced drink or two. If he wins she, dances. (From the description, this wagering system allows them to avoid some types of blue laws about caberet clubs.) One of the women is described as being quite strong. In case you can't read Spanish, here's the link to the photo gallery you were looking for.


I could be wrong, but in the first photo the 'patron' appears to have already taken the woman's King - and they're still playing.

Must be some chess variant I haven't heard of. ;)

Mig, thanks for bringing this up. This is my response:


Best wishes,
Susan Polgar

Nice pictures of the guy. I can hardly see the girl.

Today's edition of NYTimes also has an op-ed from Jen Shahade, where she suggests chess borrow some of poker's techniques.


Chess is dead. Long live chess.

At least some people can still have fun with it and the people in it.

So what, there are some women who are playing chess who are very attractive. Hate to break it to you, but that's going to generate more interest than anything anyone else can do for the game.

And as much as we want to think that "women's sports" come along because of people actually promoting the game (like Susan), I have yet to see a popular women's sport where sex appeal isn't the #1 draw for these sports.

Sorry, blame genetics.

The sort of 'interest' being generated by the wcbc wesite is typified by following link:


Not exactly an effective promotion of chess.

It's not as if sex appeal was why the women's tennis bloomed under Navratilova. It's still about economics and television viability. Sex appeal gets tacked on, but the popularity of women's golf is not about sex appeal. Or track and field, etc.

As for generating interest, I'm far from convinced that chess pin-up girls do much to promote the game in a way that benefits the sport in a lasting way. We get the occasional "aren't they pretty" matches but this sort of thing also turns some people off. Sport and winning is still going to matter first, which is why one Judit Polgar is worth twenty Kosteniuks. That of course only if you differentiate between types of publicity and what they mean to the game and its players, and I do.

Like it or not, sex is one of the greatest human motivators, and possibly the single largest motivator for young men. Since young men are the main population at most chess tournaments, the issue of sexiness in female chess players must not be trivialized or dismissed: It is part of the great future of chess.

My perspective is one of a lifelong tournament player and organizer in the four-corners area of the U.S. Until recently, Southern Colorado has had one of the prettiest young women imaginable in our tournaments, and her presence galvanized the young men of the area, increasing attendance, participation and the swashbuckling spirit of true competition at local tournaments.

The same has been true for the last few years in the Northern Utah area where the woman's state champion is an attractive and vivacious young woman, as are her friends and peers. The presence of these pretty young women undoubtedly stimulates interest in chess among young men, and the chess world is much better off for the presence of Kosteniuks and Shahades.

Now to the important topic: "What is sexy?" Certainly to the unreflective and inexperienced young man, sexiness is purely an external quality, defined by the ads and media of the day. But to many of us with enough years behind us, sexiness is ultimately more of an internal quality than an external one. It's often said that the brain is the most important sex organ, and from this perspective the Kosteniuks and Shahades of the world are a hundred steps above your average Victoria's Secret model.

I had the good fortune of talking at length with Susan Polgar this summer, before being whipped by her (pardon the allusion) in a simultaneous exhibition game. Even the small details of our conversation still linger, many months later. I was in the presence of a kind of greatness that I personally will never achieve or even understand. This recognition created an edge of intrigue, perhaps even a proclivity for adoration.

In moments since this encounter I have remembered her wit and wisdom, and especially the almost superhuman, fluid precision of her eyes. The world that lies hidden behind those eyes is filled with a kind of power and complexity that is forever inaccessible and mysterious in a way that is truly significant to me as a lifetime devotee of chess. From this point of view, Susan Polgar, though not a pin-up calendar girl by current Hollywood standards, is indisputably one of the sexiest women alive.

I invite male chess players around the world to stretch their definitions of "sexy" to include the mind, and to realize that someone who can "outfox" you in a complex position really is a "fox." Perhaps, if you allow the opportunity to happen, she may also "outfox" you in other areas, keeping your life unpredictable and fascinating. My wife does this for me daily, bringing me a joy similar to -- and even exceeding(!) -- the thrill experienced from a close and brilliant contest over the board.

The mind is the place where sexiness originates and resides. The more that young male chess players allow themselves to be intrigued and stimulated by the intelligence of women, instead of just their physical presence, the more opportunities they will open up for profound interpersonal relationships in the future. Not only this, but the better it will be for the future of our game if young men who value intelligence allow this value to enhance their definition of what is "sexy."

PS -- To get a direct experience of what I'm talking about, go to AtomFilms.com and search for "chess." The two short films, Checkmating and Endgame, both pulse with a kind of sexual tension that is more mental than physical. This is a lovely kind of world to live in, and one readily accessible to strong chess players of both genders.

Well, it's that sort of "intelligence as sexy" that the viewers want to pretend they are endorsing while looking at still photographs of female chessplayers...

As for positive coverage, here is Slate's very popular Today's Papers on the NY Times piece today:

"Calling all potential "Check Mates" … The World Chess Beauty Contest is looking to sex up the board game's stuffy image by posting pictures of the world's most attractive female competitive chess players in revealing outfits, reports the NYT. The NYT likens the collection of bikini-clad rook-pushers to tennis star Anna Kournikova, in that while all the women on the site play competitive chess, most of them don't play particularly well."


As with women-only tournaments, this sort of thing just reinforces the idea that women can't play as well as men. (Not don't, but can't.)

Scantily clad female chess players? I am shocked and appalled! I say, “Good day, sir!”

By the way, could somebody please provide a link to the website for…uh, er…my research purposes.

Hey Mig.

It seems you're missing my point, so perhaps I was rambling.

The external, celeb-photo aspect of the World Chess Beauty Contest is entirely different from similar competitions, because the entrance requirement is that the participants must have developed exquisitely capable and fine-tuned human minds. This dramatically increases the the sexiness of the whole person, as opposed to the external aspect only.

Therein lies the excitement that separates the WCBC contest from rest. By way of analogy, in a typical beauty contest one may see Corvettes and Camaros -- cars with nice curves and and appealing exterior. But one must look into the world of the ultra-intelligent to find the Koenigseggs (i.e. Kosteniuks) and the single-edition Maybachs (i.e. Susan Polgars).

This important distinction puts the WCBC in a completely different league of "sex appeal," and I'm glad the world is noticing.

Vivre la difference!

PS -- Women reading this please forgive the utterly unforgivable analogy between fine women and fine cars... the male brain is a strangely wired contraption.


I understand your point but I disagree. The association with chess is distraction and rationalization. Star Wars fans love to look at pics of Princess Leia in her metal bikini even though there are countless pages of free porn of far more attractive women. It's the tangential association to something else they are into that does it. (Car magazines with bikini babes on cars are another example. Or the women in gun magazines.) Chess fans looking at a female chessplayer's chest aren't doing it because they admire her Elo. This "and hey guys, she's smart too!" is piffle, and piffle that prevents women from being accepted on a basis other than appearance. Using sex to sell chess should not be confused with selling chess on its merits, or with those intrinsic merits.

To be fair, Anna Kournikova was an extremely gifted tennis player who was rated in the top 10.

Rather amusingly, just this month the beer industry, facing declining market share vis a vis wine and hard spirits, are looking into changing their own marketing away from (their term) "bikini babes" in an attempt to capture some of the market inevitably turned off by (again, their term) "frat boy" advertising.


Scantilly clad women may sell well to a particular market niche, but it's not necessarily the winner overall.

And there are a number of people who believe that poker's recent increase in popularity comes from a change in its image. There's a reason "celebrity poker showdown" appears on the same channel as "The West Wing."

By all means, study marketing--just do so in terms of facts, not preconceived beliefs.


Mig will you please do an article on historical chess and sex.

In the Middle Ages it was not allowed for men and women to be together for long periods of time. therefore they played chess. that was allowed.

now the women were the superior force in playing chess. the chess games might take all day. the longer the better.

Chess was so popular because it gave the men and women the opportunity to be with each other and to fall in love.

viva la chess


Interesting Tommy, but perhaps there's a difference between playing chess and "playing chess"...

I notice that the NYTimes omitted the title of Shahade's new book at the end of her op-ed piece. Is that Times policy or are they embarrassed to print "Chess Bitch"?

At the end of the piece: "Jennifer Shahade, the United States women's chess champion in 2002 and 2004, is the author of a recent book about women in chess."

Whenever sex (sexuality?) and women becomes the topic of the day, it's like kicking an anthill.

You get the men who are split on the issue. You get the the mother hens, like Polgar, who believe chess is some sacred rite that has to be protected from the world's evil influences.

It's a losing battle. You can't popularize chess, then be outraged because you can't control its image.

If you want money and sponsors and participants, then chess will be mainstreamed and will become sexualized, corporate-ized, and whatever other -izes you can dream of.

If you want to keep it "pure", then just make it the domain of nerds and geeks. Then have some priestess attend to it (Polgar?) so that we can all feel that chess (the game and all that is attached to it) has nothing to do with economics, culture, gender, or politics.

To clear up why the NY times didnt use my title, Chess Bitch. According to my editor there, who liked the title, they try to avoid curses unless necessary. It was a policy from above, she explained. However, they certainly have used it in the past as early as a few weeks ago in quoting a song called "Queen Bitch." It probably depends on how powerful the writer and editors are, as well as the section of the paper, and even the day it's published.
Ironically, the controversial title was one of the reasons they invited me to write the oped. Live and die by the sword in this case. Perhaps there will be a published correction or letter of some sort because naturally, the people at my publisher, Siles Press are not happy about the ommision. I'm also annoyed, but my dissapointment is minor compared to being published in the Times as well as getting great exposure for chess.

Honestly, I was more annoyed at the ommision of my title in the Sunday Styles section, cause I think it would have added much needed hell-raising into the piece.
Recently, the Times has been really turning an anti feminist corner, and also getting a lot of heat for it. Maureen Dowd is the only regular female oped columnist. Every week, it seems there is an article about the great "revolution" of women staying at home, to care for their mothers or daughters and sons. The Sex and Chess article seemed in this vein to me. Very uncritical... I was the only critical voice in there and they chose two of the tamest quotes I would ever say. I wasn't particularly displeased by this, because out of context, critical quotes about the Chess Beauty Contest could sound catty and jealous. But I do wish there was a stronger counter argument in the piece.

Jennifer Shahade

This news appears to have been picked up by a number of news services world wide! Wow! I took one of those pics!


What? The normally liberal NYT shied away from "Chess Bitch" title? What a joke!!

"It's not as if sex appeal was why the women's tennis bloomed under Navritilova."

Actually, it bloomed under Navritilove AND Evert, and you bet Chrissie's sex appeal was a big part of the attention.

PS Misspellings of Navratilova duly noted after the fact.

hey... super funny mainstream coverage... scroll down to the "crush of the week"....

On the WC 2005 web site, Vladimir Malakhov shares some interesting ideas about female logic (see the end of his interview at http://www.worldchesscup2005.com/main.asp?id=605 )

And perhaps demonstrates even more about the illogic of some males... :)

As often happens, people confuse "don't play" with "can't play."

For example, in the US, fewer than 5% of US tournament players are women. Remove the foreigners from the top 100 overall list, and there are usually 5 women represented.

At most of the events in which I played, I was the only woman playing. With a rating of around 1740, I was rated considerably above the average male player. So statistically, the average woman at those events was rated higher than the average man.

Of course, it’s silly to try and draw statistical conclusions from such small samples, but that is rather the point.

We know that more men play tournament chess than women (yes, even in Georgia). That still doesn’t tell us anything about whether men are stronger players. (It's a matter of math education that many people have so much difficulty with that statement, but it is still true.)

The best way to test the hypothesis, of course, would be to draft a random 1,000 men and 1,000 women who didn't already know chess, teach it to them, give them the same training, and set them to playing as a combined group. Then and only then might we be able to say something about "how well women play."

But statistically, Judit Polgar isn't proof that women can't play as well as men. Quite the opposite, since her presence in the top 10 means that women are overrepresented relative to their presence in the general population.


(That is, relative to their presence in the general population of tournament chessplayers. My apologies if that omission was confusing.)

Chess is like life, 70% curves and rest straight lines.
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