beth

Why There Are So Few Female Chess Grandmasters

4 ¾ min

Only those of very hard hearts can fail to admire Beth, the heroine of Walter Tevis’s magnificent novel, and now a popular television series, The Queen’s Gambit. We love the idea of her, a girl who makes good, starting off from very modest beginnings. She overcomes alcohol and drug addictions and rises to the very top of her profession: chess.

But Beth’s story raises the question as to why there are so few female champion chess players.

At time of writing, there are 1,731 chess grandmasters, the acknowledged leaders in their field. In order to enter this honored company, a player needs to have attained a 2500 Elo rating from the International Chess Federation at any point in their career, and earned two favorable tournament results, referred to as norms. For some perspective, my own rating was around 1700 when I played in tournaments, which means I barely know which way the knight moves, so any grandmaster who couldn’t beat me with queen odds ought to be ashamed of himself. 

How many women currently hold the grandmaster title? Only 37 as of January 2021. That’s just 2 percent. There are several hypotheses bruited about to account for this gargantuan disproportion.

1. Sexism

Sexism is the explanation offered by all too many reviewers of The Queen’s Gambit, yet there was only one instance of it in the book. Namely, when the then unrated Beth Harmon entered her first tournament. Relegated to the female section, her first two opponents were women. That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the sexism hypothesis.

Are there any “male only” chess tournaments? Not to my knowledge, at least not for the last three decades. There may be a few ignorant parents who tell their daughters that chess is unfeminine and that nice girls do not do that, but this hardly explains the phenomenon mentioned above. (Hint: For single women wishing to meet a guy, enter a chess tournament! The odds are fantastically in your favor!)

2. Less Participation

Considering my hint above, this is indeed correct, but this is at least as much an effect of this phenomenon as it is the cause. Females are perhaps just less interested in this nerdy game than males, many of whom are effectively addicted to it.

3. Differing Testosterone Levels

With testosterone comes competitiveness. Even including chess’s many draws, this Game of Kings is highly competitive. Although the players sit on their rears for hours on end, their heart beats are similar to those of marathon runners. They sweat bullets with no obvious physical exertion. Boxers do too, but theirs is not merely a mental exercise.

4. Geography and Spatial Awareness

Chess is a game of geography. Good players keep their eyes riveted on 64 spaces. It may well be that men are, to a far greater degree than women, hardwired topographically.

An obvious instance of this is that men generally have a better sense of direction than women. Why should this be? One hypothesis stems from sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology. When our species was living in trees or caves long ago, women stayed close to home base, picking berries, washing, cooking, and cleaning.

Men, by contrast, went a-hunting. This activity took them dozens, perhaps scores of miles away from their starting points. If they didn’t have a good sense of direction and a good feel for geography, they perished, leaving less genetic material to the next generation. The environment selected in favor of geographical expertise for men to a far greater degree than for women. As chess is a geographical game, males have a decided advantage.

5. Variance

The standard deviation of male abilities is far greater than that of females. Women are God’s, or nature’s, insurance policy. Men are His, or its, crap shoot.

We find very few women in mental institutions, prisons, or homeless shelters. These places are far more often inhabited by men. People of this ilk often lie two, three, or even four standard deviations below the mean. Similarly, we see very few women on the outer reaches of STEM, economics, and, yes, chess.

Former Harvard President Larry Summers was once forced to vacate his office by the wokesters of the day for musing on this subject, but that does not render this hypothesis false.

Make no mistake, chess, at top levels, takes a lot of brain power. You have to memorize hundreds of opening moves. Success does not come by seeing into the future of the game by a mere half dozen moves. Triple that, and you are closer to the miracles these brainiacs often perform. But there are very few women with abilities two, three, and four standard deviations above the mean.

Does this mean girls should not be taught chess and that women should not play this game? Of course not. That would be preposterous. Everyone should enjoy whatever pursuits ring their bells. But we should not be surprised at male dominance at the leading edge of this quintessentially intellectual sport.

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Image Credit: 

YouTube-"The Queen’s Gambit | Official Trailer | Netflix"

Walter Block

Walter Block is an economics professor at Loyola University and a Mises Institute senior fellow. He is author or several books, including Defending the Undefendable (1976). 

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Educheated
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Interesting article - I'm glad it was written. I learned to play chess in elementary school but with hindsight, i (even to this day) have a difficult time concentrating. Thus, something as demanding as chess, requires concentration. Part of the issue is this: Walter mentions standard deviations - I think his comments are accurate. For example, It would appear the women are less inclined to pursue physics than biology. Hmmm. And for all the early feminist pushing for women to go into "men's" areas, I know a number of them who pursued engineering, math, etc. only to drop out. There is something more than brain power driving what humans do with their lives. And, shocking to say: Males and females are different.
 
 

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davemeyr
In general men and women likely have differing abilities. The problem is that this too easily becomes, "all men are this and all women are that and no variations will be approved."
cybervigilante
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It cuz wimmens be dum!
 
 

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Shawn
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Perhaps it is because women can't stop talking for the amount of time it takes to play a game of chess because typically one remains silent and focused for an extended period of time. Cell phone companies have found that women DO talk more than men, even if it isn't an excessive amount. It certainly seems that they enjoy conversing more. Then there is the fact that women have a naturally "soft heart," and they don't like the "battle" aspect of chess.
 
 

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davemeyr
You clearly don't know my sister and several of my female friends or or any of the women in my dojo or any of the female wrestlers and basketball players back in college or anyone in Women's MMA.
sshive73
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I read this because I loved both the premise behind and the actual story in The Queen's Gambit. The musings in this article by Professor Block are worth considering. This is true of so many enigmatic or curious things we encounter in life. There is much to consider, though I would easily toss out #4. Though there seems to be much truth in the spatial and geographical imbalance between the sexes. But to submit only one hypothesis is short sighted. Especially when that hypothesis has essentially zero proof or data to support any facet of its tenuous assertions. Origins, such as in #4, are not repeatable or observable phenomenon. They arise from worldview and epistemology. Another hypothesis is that there was, and is, a Designer behind what we see in the physical world and concerning bipeds; the Crown of Creation.
 
 

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swamp yankee
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Let's not forget that there was a time when it was commonly accepted that women did not have the brainpower to become doctors, lawyers, pilots, and so forth. We now know that this is not true. What else might we be mistaken about?
 
 

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TimW
Women do not create anything of value. Unless they are tightly controlled by men, they destroy. Their MO is in the realm of "feeling", and so logic and intelligence have no interest for them. They are better placed in the trealms of acting, and attention-seeking, where they excel.
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