October 14, 2009
Abolish Women’s Chess Titles

The Wall Street Journal

In 1991, Hungarian chess player Susan Polgar made headlines as the first woman to earn the coveted rank of grandmaster by meeting established performance standards. While competitive chess remains primarily a male activity, women have made impressive progress since then.

According to David Jarrett, executive director of the World Chess Federation, women make up about 10% of the organization’s estimated one million members, 7.6% of 100,456 rated players, and 2% of the top 1,000 players world-wide. More significantly, the caliber of the top female players is rising. In July 2005, grandmaster Judit Polgar, Susan’s youngest sister, was the eighth-ranked player world-wide. And prominent chess coaches predict that the number of women holding active grandmaster status—now 18 out of 1,028—will triple within five years.

Yet the federation, known colloquially as FIDE (pronounced fee-day), persists in the anachronistic and demeaning practice of awarding separate titles for women at lower levels of accomplishment. For example, to qualify as a grandmaster (GM) today, men and women must earn two or more “norms” (prespecified favorable results in qualifying tournaments) at a performance rating of 2600 and achieve a published overall rating (a system ranking relative player strength) of 2500. But female players attain the woman grandmaster (WGM) designation by earning two or more norms at a performance rating of 2400 and achieving published ratings of 2300. So it’s easier to attain the WGM title than to become an international master (IM), which requires two or more norms at 2450 and an overall rating of 2400.

…A number of aficionados claim that men have an edge because chess is a game of spatial relations, and some studies show men scoring higher than women in “mental rotation.” Chess teachers say that girls are usually not as competitive as boys, and that hinders their performance. It’s no accident, in my opinion, that many top female players were introduced to the game at an early age by their fathers. The three Polgar sisters—a middle sister, Sofia, reached IM status—were chess prodigies and pawns in their father’s educational experiment; he endeavored to show that children can become geniuses if provided rigorous daily training in a favorite activity. Ms. Krush, who learned the game from her dad at the age of five, observes that girls may not naturally possess the “killer instincts” that some boys exhibit, but they can be trained to be more attack-oriented if they compete from childhood.

She also pinpoints another possible factor in the dearth of women at the top. “Chess is a pretty solitary activity,” says Ms. Krush. “My feeling is that women overall are not as fanatical about it as men. The Polgar sisters worked very hard at chess from an early age, but it’s rare to see women being encouraged to do that or even wanting to do that. Women . . . [believe] there are other things in life.”

Here is the full article.

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