In the trenches of the chess board, as the kings take cover behind pawns on the corners of the board, waging war is an activity the queens take upon themselves. The queens are after all the most powerful piece of the checkered squares.
Off the board, in the real world, though, the sport’s top echelons are populated by men. Last week, Vaishali Rameshbabu became India’s 84th grandmaster, the highest title the sport’s practitioners can hope to achieve. Yet, it was telling that just three of those 84 GMs are women, with Koneru Humpy becoming a GM in 2002, Harika Dronavalli gaining the title in 2011 and Vaishali following in their footsteps this year.
There are currently 42 women globally who have become GMs over the course of time, as compared to over 2,000 men. Currently, in the FIDE’s standard ratings no woman finds a place among the top 100 ranks.
So are men better at the sport than women?
It’s a complicated question, one that has intrigued practitioners of the sport and researchers for decades. After all, it’s a sport that demands skills like visualisation, pattern recognition, evaluation and other allied attributes that no gender has a monopoly or a better grasp over.
“I can’t tell you how many half-baked pseudoscientific theories I’ve heard about how women lack the necessary aptitude for visual-spatial reasoning, or are deficient in some other cognitive ability essential for chess excellence. I never gave these ideas much credence, and neither did my parents. It may very well be true that female brains are different, on average, from those of men. But the notion that our biology somehow impedes women from excelling at chess, of all things, has always seemed to me like a crude stereotype dressed up in scientific language,” chess legend Susan Polgar writes in an edited excerpt of her upcoming autobiography that she posted on social media recently.
Polgar’s comments are almost a retort to misogynistic opinions about women’s players aired by some of the biggest names in the sport over the years: from vice president of the world chess federation Nigel Short’s “men are hardwired to be better chess players than women” to world champion Bobby Fischer’s “women are just not so smart” to world champion Garry Kasparov’s “chess was not for women as they’re weaker fighters”. (Kasparov later said he had changed his opinion after he lost to Susan’s sister Judit in a match in 2002.)
Susan Polgar was a ceiling-cracking pioneer for women’s chess, qualifying for the Men’s World Championship in 1986, but being barred from competing at the time because of her gender. In 1991, she became the first woman to earn the grandmaster title by norms and rating. But her earliest memories of playing chess are coloured with the furore caused when she competed aged five with boys her age or older and defeated them. There were media articles written back in Hungary about how she was being deprived of a childhood due to her intense focus on chess, a headline that would probably never be written about a men’s player in a sport that prides itself to be a playground of prodigies.
While Polgar’s parents backed their three daughters to soldier on and take on men’s players headfirst, the perceptions that a player’s inner circle holds does have a bearing on the success of a player. Earlier this year, researchers at the New York University psychology department teamed up with women’s grandmaster Jennifer Shahade to investigate bias among parents and mentors of women’s players in a study called “Checking Gender Bias: Parents and Mentors Perceive Less Chess Potential in Girls” which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The team interviewed 286 parents and mentors—90 percent of whom were men—and came up with startling findings like how parents and mentors often believe that girls have a lower potential in the sport than boys and how a significant portion of coaches believe female players would be more likely to stop playing chess due to lack of ability than male players.
“Such stereotypes that girls will be less good at the sport than boys hurts the confidence of women players,” former women’s world champion Hou Yifan, who is presently the highest-rated women chess player, had told The Indian Express earlier this year.
The way chess rating works is simple: if you beat a higher-rated player in a competition, you make significant gains in your rating. But if you are defeated by a lower-rated player than you, you also lose rating points. So for women players to make gains in rating points, playing in the open category at tournaments rather than in the women’s section is the only way forward.
Koneru Humpy, India’s first woman to become a GM, has seen first hand how different life is playing in the open section as compared to playing in the women’s section.
“When I started out, very few women players would venture into the open section. When I was younger, I would often be the sole girl in the open category. When there is just one woman in the open tournament, people will kind of target you. Nobody wants to lose to a girl, right?” she laughs. “So boys would play with more ambition against me, the resistance used to be very high! Even if you got an obvious winning position, the other player just wouldn’t surrender. They’d keep on resisting till the last moment.”
A fascinating study, called ‘Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport’ published in March 2008, explained how performances of women players could dip when playing men. The researchers explained this by having 84 players, half of them female, play two chess games online. They found that when the identities of players were kept anonymous, players of both sexes performed equally. But when the players’ identity was revealed before the game, female players performed worse against male players and better against other female players.
Humpy used to play regularly in open tournaments, but off late has started playing in women’s events so she could focus her efforts on qualifying for the Women’s World Chess Championship. She also paused playing in events for a while as motherhood took precedence for a couple of years, another factor that has never kept men away from the sport.
“I find that sometimes it’s very difficult to manage both things (being a mother and chess). Now, the hours I spend on practice have gone down. Unless I have a very big tournament coming up, I don’t push myself to work completely on the sport because I need to spend time with my six-year-old daughter,” Humpy tells The Indian Express.
While there are various theories as to what plagues women’s players in the sport, one thing everyone agrees on is that the problem at the top really starts at the bottom. Even at age group events, girls are a fraction of the players in the fray.
“The overall numbers in women’s chess are improving as compared to a few decades ago. But the gap is still very huge. If we can have as many girls playing the sport at the entry level as boys, I believe we will have stronger women’s players too. I’m hoping to see the gap reduce some day. Although it’s unlikely to happen in the near future. I can see the distance between me and the top guys like Magnus Carlsen reducing,” Yifan had added.
Yifan hails from China, which is one of those rare countries that has prioritised women’s chess. It’s a strategy that has seen them produce one world champion after another in the women’s event. Of the 42 female GMs in the world, the highest number — eight — are Chinese.
With less number of girls taking up the sport compared to boys, the attrition rate is higher for women for a host of reasons.
“When kids are young, parents are super excited to let them play in state and national-level events. But once they start improving, to get norms to become a GM, you need to play in international-level tournaments. There are a handful that happen in India. But lots happen in Europe, which costs a lot. Unless you have a sponsor or are financially well off, it’s not possible for everyone. And usually, when it’s a girl, parents choose to prioritise studies over sport after a certain age. They will take a step back from the sport. I’ve seen so many really good players not being able to reach the top because of sponsorship,” says Nidhi Bhasin, the mother of young chess player Shivika Rohilla.
Nidhi points out that for young girls even if the finances are sorted, travelling abroad for tournaments is contingent upon the availability of a parent to accompany them.
“In the case of boys, you can have a group of boys travelling by themselves for an event. The parents of girls usually are skeptical of sending them alone. No one wants to send girls all by themselves,” she points out.
But Humpy strikes a hopeful chord as she gazes into the future. She points at the rise of online chess and predicts it will propel more women higher.
“With technology becoming more accessible, preparations are available for even rookie players. Things are changing fast,” she smiles.
What country do the most women grandmasters come from?
Russia: 4 + 2 (there are two additional players who play under FIDE flag but were formerly representing Russia)
When Vaishali defeated Magnus Carlsen
R Vaishali, who is four years older than her brother Praggnanandhaa, became a grandmaster five years after Pragg did. But there was one major feat she can claim to have achieved before her brother: defeating Magnus Carlsen.
Pragg almost became a household name last year when he defeated Carlsen at the Airthings Masters tournament. But much before that, Vaishali had defeated the Norwegian when she was just 12. This has happened when Carlsen was in Chennai in 2013 before his World Chess Championships clash against Viswanathan Anand. Anand at the time was world champion, and Carlsen was the challenger. But before that battle, Carlsen had agreed to play 20 Indian kids at the same time (called a simul) at MOP Vaishnav College, Nungambakkam. Vaishali was one of the four kids who had defeated Carlsen. The soon-to-be world champion had also drawn against six kids and won 10 games.