The queen may rule the chess board, but women players get second-class treatment

Jul 29, 2015

After Team USA won the Women’s World Cup Soccer Championship, people started talking about money. The women’s teams competed for a fraction of the prize money compared to the men’s championship. This pay disparity is replicated throughout the sports world, even in chess. And the irony with chess is this is a game played with the mind. It’s a game that has nothing to do with strength or height.

This week 17-year-old Aiya Cancio travelled from Arizona to St. Louis to compete in an all-girl chess tournament. She says these tournaments are inspiring in the face of a male dominated sport.

“The all-girl tournaments really actually help just because you get to see how many other girls there are just like you. And it, I don’t know, keeps you going,” she said.

Cancio is competing in the 12th annual Susan Polgar Foundation’s Girls' Invitational this week in St. Louis. The event comes in the middle of a year that reignited the debate of sexism in chess.

Polgar herself says gender disparity remains a significant problem in the sport.

“It sounds crazy in the 21st century,” Polgar said, “but we’re still not quite there with equality when it comes to equal opportunities or equal encouragement with girls in chess.”

Polgar herself is no stranger to discrimination and the fight to combat stereotypes. For hundreds of years the highest level of play in the sport was limited primarily to men. But in 1991, Hungarian-born Polgar became the first female to hold the sport’s highest title through conventional completion rules. Polgar now lives in St. Louis where she runs the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence and the Susan Polgar Foundation at Webster University.

In February British Grandmaster Nigel Short published an article in which he promotes the idea that the differences, physiological and behavioral, between male and female minds could explain the differences in male and female chess players' skill. It took several months before the article received much notice. Then it was the focus of a piece in The Telegraph and shortly media outlets such as CNN, Huffington Post, and The Guardian began to examine what he said.

Many summed up his position with a quote from the article that positions male and female minds as suited for different endeavors.

“I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage,” Short wrote. 

Throughout the article Short attempts to justify a difference in male and female thought, suggesting that the social implications of his assertion that men’s brains are better suited to chess are not important.

“It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact,” wrote Short.

Ayiya Cancio competes during the invitational's first round in St. Louis
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Polgar says the gender gap in chess is really a product of base-level gender socialization. She says chess is often treated like toy cars.

“I think it’s a social question it’s not just a chess question, it’s more a question of our society that gets inherited from generation to generation,” she said. 

Boys are taught to play with toy cars and the chess board girls with dolls.  This mentality is exercised in multiple ways from a very young age going forward. Polgar said she thinks fewer girls are taught the game much less encouraged to pursue it professionally

Girls who are interested in the game face unique set of logistical challenges. There are fewer female coaches than male coaches, which poses a specific type of barrier according to Polgar. First, there’s a question of developing a bond with your coach, which can be hindered by traditional male communication styles. Additionally, Polgar says tournament travel, which is necessary to improve as a player and develop rank, is more expensive because parents would want male coaches to stay in separate rooms from female players whereas male coaches and students often share accommodations. This increases the cost of some competition necessities.

Often, women just aren’t given the chance to play against top ranked men.

Event invitations are often limited to female players. A sort of circular logic applies: Girls and women aren’t invited to play because of a lower ranking, without defeating players of a higher rank one’s rank doesn’t increase,  without rising rankings the player will not be invited to participate in additional competitions and have the opportunity to further increase their rank.

It’s a catch-22 of sorts, without certain rank you can’t compete at a certain level, and you can’t improve your rank unless you’re allowed to compete at that level.  It’s a question of opportunity.

According to Polgar, teaching more girls the game, inviting more women to major tournaments and providing equal prizes when they do play would help level the playing field. A general change in attitude would improve the game for women interested in the sport, she says.

Seventeen-year-old Cancio says anyone who disagrees better pay attention. 

“Girls are up and coming. Girls are getting better. Really a lot more girls are playing, and staying playing.”

And that dedication could mean a world champion who happens to be a woman in the future.

NOTE: A previous version of this article said the Grandmaster title existed far longer than it has. This has been corrected.