Where Are the Female Chess Players?

BlogHer Original Post
NINGBO, Aug. 11, 2010 Russian grandmaster Kosintseva Nadezda (L) competes against Chinese grandmaster Tan Zhongyi at the 7th China-Russia Chess Match in Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province, Aug. 11, 2010.(Xinhua/Xu Yu.

Google "female chess players" and you'll find the entire front page filled with sites promising you the sexiest female chess players, the most photogenic (complete with a rating system), and a beauty contest. The word "hottest" is tossed around on several of the links, their earnings are discussed on one, but nowhere on the first page of Google is any mention of a list of the smartest, most cunning, or gutsiest. If you want to hear about chess player's accomplishments over the board, you'll have to Google "male chess players."

Which, of course, is the point of NPR's coverage on the "gender divide" within the game. The piece points out:

Women have been competing with men at top chess events since the late '80s, but there's still a big performance gap. In the most recent list of the Top 100 chess players, only one was a woman. While the gender divide in sports like hockey makes sense in some ways — men are generally bigger and stronger — chess isn't a physical game, it's a game of the mind.

The article states that one of the possible problems is that the very thing created to level the playing field and invite more women into the world of chess -- the creation of women's only chess tournaments -- is the very thing that some believe are holding women back. It's a catch-22, eliminate the women's only chess tournaments and you lose a subset of women unmotivated to start out in the good old boys club of competition, a group who would rather hone their skills against other women. Because if it is a game of the mind, it is also a game of the heart, a game based on intuition and strategy as well as a keen sense for knowing other people. It is understandable that some women would want to enter the world of competition playing against others who will show them a modicum of respect (you know, such as critiquing their moves instead of writing things such as "my bishop needs stroking" in reference to their performance at a tournament) and approach the board in a similar manner.

It's a feeling I find akin to why so many female bloggers enter blogging conferences via BlogHer rather than one of the male-dominated tech conferences. It isn't that women don't attend those other conferences, but BlogHer creates a harbor, a place to set sail your figurative blogging ship amongst like-minded women who frankly -- and I fit this category -- would not have attended a first blogging conference at all if not for the creation of a women's blogging community.

According to NPR, "Research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that when girls aren't outnumbered, they play just as well as boys." So why aren't more women playing? Not just in tournaments, but simply playing at all? A quick search of the term "chess" on BlogHer yield twice as many hits for "chess cake" than it did for the game, and when the game was mentioned at all, it was in reference to others playing it.

BlogHer has an online chess club, but it's only populated by two members ... and one of them is me. When I headed the chess club as a teacher, the students who played were boys. It wasn't that girls weren't encouraged; they simply didn't show.

I am currently parenting boy/girl twins and trying to teach them the game. And it's interesting the way my son has taken passionately to learning strategic thinking, while my daughter is more interested in learning the history of the game and making up stories about the pieces on the board. One chess-passionate mother giving equal playtime and education to two children, and one is picking up on that spark while the other is mildly interested as she contemplates the crown on the Queen's head.

Which just tells me that I need to work that much harder, use different tactics, and appeal to a different element of my daughter's personality to get her passionate about the game. I can tell that the interest is there -- I had that princess-loving daughter the second I started talking about Kings and Queens -- but I can't use the same approach for both children.

Which is why, like many quoted in the article, I approve the removal of "women's" titles, but not the removal of women's chess tournaments. Because there are women like me who need to hook up with women like that to discover how we appeal to more girls and get them into the game. And the only way we can do that is by having women form communities that we can tap into in order to share support and knowledge.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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