The Second-Place Sex

Reporter / by Holly Capelo /

Why chess may be an ideal laboratory for investigating gender gaps in science and beyond.

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Though they apparently share equal intellectual potential with their male peers, women in chess and the physical sciences aren’t reaching the top ranks and receiving the highest honors with great frequency. Perhaps, if women were to participate in large numbers for a sufficient period of time, might there arise more prize-winning women intellectuals? In 2010, Michael Knapp from the University of Bonn, Germany published an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society answering a decisive ‘yes’ to this question by statistically demonstrating that low participation rates keep women from reaching performance extremes and that there is some selection mechanism—biological or cultural or both—preventing women from joining in large numbers.  The factors that typically bar women’s progress are historical precedent coupled with preconceived gender roles that dictate the supposed inappropriateness of female participation and foster stereotype threat.

Both anecdotally and clinically, specialized chess knowledge and working memory emerge as the best predictors of chess ability, but motivation - although less predictive- contributes to success well beyond these factors. Two-time US Women’s chess champion and author Jennifer Shahade explains, “There may be some distinctions between men and women, but they’re really marginal compared to what really matters, and that’s spending a lot of time studying and practicing chess”.  The current model for understanding men’s and women’s brains holds that experience and cognitive development are interdependent and that ability levels fluctuate throughout a person’s lifetime depending upon whether abilities are cultivated or discouraged during early developmental stages. Courtney Jamison, a member of the UT Dallas Chess Team and winner of the Susan Polgar Woman’s Invitational attests, “I believe people play according to their personality and the history behind their chess career, which can have everything or nothing related to their gender.” 

Women’s chess has seen a steady rise in participation and competition in its short history, and it has yet to plateau. “There are a lot of girls who are fourteen and fifteen who are a lot stronger than I was when I was that age, and I hope that they keep playing,” says Marshall.  Considering chess integral to the scholarship opportunities that have advanced her academic career, Jamison speaks hopefully about the future of women’s chess, “because we have seen more women chess players and tournaments designed specifically for us, we are more likely to stay with chess as we progress through life. There is also more technology related to chess to make it easier for us to stay involved”.

Digitally-enabled access to archives of expert games and online opponents has boosted the number of matches being played, sped-up the pace of the game, and has given some female role models a platform for encouraging younger women to participate. At the same time that the free-flow of chess information has broken down the traditional chess networks, Social Psychologist Anne Maass of the University of Padova, Italy, has used online play to investigate stereotype threat against minority players by monitoring anonymous web-based chess games.  In a study where chess players logged in under gender-neutral names, women who falsely believed to be playing against another woman won about one game out of two. Those same women had less than a fifty-fifty chance of winning when they believed they were playing against a male opponent and, further, had good chances of beating the same male opponent when they were misled into believing that they were playing against a woman. This same study reported that women became less aggressive against male players, changing their style to prevent losses rather than making bold attacks.

However, “I would not say that I play defensively, I have a sharp tactical style. I don’t think that there’s this culture that makes women more afraid to lose. I just don’t think it really exists,” says Marshall. Then again, perhaps this attitude is what helped her, and not other women, make history.

The absence of stereotype threat at a woman’s tournament doesn’t advantage a female player in terms of over-all rankings, since women on average have lower Elo scores.  The atmosphere at women-only events can be less fiercely competitive and the players are known to show more sportsmanship than at open tournaments.  Marshall sometimes laments the expectation that she act congenial or socialize between matches, “At women’s tournaments there’s more camaraderie… it’s used in a way that puts the emphasis on making friends rather than on the tournament…. maybe that’s a gender stereotype, that it’s unacceptable for women to want to be alone and to win. ” 

The possibility for gender-specific biological distinctions has not been dismissed by researchers, but no demonstrable difference can be shown to affect performance outcomes. Attempting to exhaust the possibility of biological underpinnings to the gender gap, Mass has deferred to a long-standing discrepancy, that males tend to excel more at mentally rotating images.  She proposed that chess players, needing to switch their attention from the black to the white player’s vantage on the chess board, call upon this function and resultantly women may be at a disadvantage.  However spatial rotation has been shown to improve in both men and women with practice, and has never shown a correlation with success in chess. Abby Marshall says she’s not fazed by this demand: “What I do, and what most chess players do, is get up and stand behind the other person, to see the board from their perspective.”

The persistently high ability of foreign players illustrates how instrumental a culture’s value system can be in fostering a certain variety of intellectual excellence.  In chess as in other intellectual domains, abilities differentiate more definitively between cultures than along gender lines; as stated in a notice of the American Mathematical Society, “Some Eastern European and Asian countries frequently produce girls with profound ability in mathematical problem solving; most other countries, including the USA, do not.” The variation in male to female ratio ceilings from one society to the next points to local behavioral norms rather than to differences in raw ability between the sexes.

In the book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, Shahade profiles international women players and documents many of the personal aspects of being a successful female chess player.  From Shahade we learn how the US chess scene lacks the state support and cultural esteem found in Russia or China, which may partly explain why this fall, at the International Chess Olympiad, both the male and female US teams were almost strictly composed of immigrants from the former USSR.  She writes, “many talented American players quit chess because they cannot make a decent living at the game. The few who stay with it tend to be male.”

The insight emerging from studying women playing chess is this: For women in competitive professions, the opponent may no longer be discriminatory laws or entrenched institutional bias, but rather the imposed perception of female intellectual unfitness arising from superficial gender distinctions. Such culturally disseminated messages introduce an extra cognitive burden into activities that are already rivalrous and thought-intensive. Often in the game’s long history, chess has been used as a symbol of both elegance and rigor: “chess as war, chess as fairy tale, chess as life. It has been compared to a lot of things. I think what attracts me to chess is the harmony of it” says Shahade, who finds the game within reach of the human intellect, and just the same, a challenge to it.

Chess players know that becoming complacent in the middle of a game can cost them, that they must constantly adapt to the fluid circumstances on the board; in fields where women still occupy a token status despite having overturned centuries of formal bias, trouncing stereotype threat and pseudo-intellectual biological sexism will require active attention on interpersonal and organizational levels. The chess ranking system is simple enough to offer an idealized competitive model, but the play is complex enough to accurately represent mentally demanding situations. The game itself is characterized by great dynamism and by a wide range of action on the board—like managing all the pieces that go into a successful science career. Like the tricky interplay between the sexes. Like the many human activities which require a unity of the abstract and the concrete, the sensory and the logical. Limited by and emblematic of social progress, the age-old game forms a recursive bond with the societies where it is played—all at once chess exercises the human intellect and demonstrates the plasticity of our psyches.

Originally published November 19, 2010

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