Chess and gender

Judit Polgar (rated ELO 2710) is by far the strongest female chess player in history. A child prodigy, she took her first Grand Master (GM) scalp while aged 11, and achieved the rank of GM herself at an earlier age than Fischer, or anyone else up to that time. More remarkably, she is the only woman ever to break into the top 100 chess players list. In fact she was world #8 at one stage and has won a game off Kasparov. This game was historic, as not only was it the first time a female player beat the world's #1 chess player in competitive play, it was the first time in any sport that the No.1 ranked male player had lost to a female.

As well as being the only female player to have won a game against a Men's World champion, Polgár has defeated nine: Anatoli Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky, Vasily Smyslov, Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand, Ruslan Ponomariov, Alexander Khalifman, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov.

As well as striking some telling blows for the female cause, her story exemplifies the "10,000 hours of practice" theory of genius, also seen in Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff.

A male friend asked me about Judit Polgar: "Why couldn't she get to no. 1, does this mean men are smarter than women?" Here is my attempt to answer the question.

He is a brave man to raise this possibility! I think that male and female minds are different. Firstly, men seem to be better at the sort of left-brained logic (ie very focused, precise and sequential) that is the basis of chess, though right-brain thinking is also required to a degree. Secondly, it is rare for women to like chess, let alone to pursue it with the kind of dedication that is needed to get to the top. In general, women are rarely as interested in games as men are, though maybe bridge is a counter-example. I had a quick look at bridge champions and got the impression that the top players are also male. It's worth adding that Judit does not participate in female chess competitions, so that ironically, she is not the women's world champion.

Thirdly, there are cultural factors that discourage women from chess, much like the way they contributed to there not being any female composers of classical music of any note, until the mid 20th century. You may not have heard of Cecile Chaminade or Clara Schumann, but they were the most famous female composers until recently.

Finally, chess is very much a competitive activity. Women tend to be less competitive than men, preferring co-operation.

I think that chess prowess is a particular kind of mental ability, which may not necessarily translate into general intelligence or logical ability in other areas. It's a bit like with programming - you can be a very good programmer but poor at maths, and vice versa. It is a mistake, however, to believe that chess ability is just a matter of logical or sequential thinking. (It's not the case in maths or programming either.) It also relies on imagination and a kind of creativity. The chess master perceives and creates patterns that you and I do not. The chess master's strength is not due to thinking like a machine, ie quickly and efficiently. Rather than this, it is due to their insight, imagination and experience.

Another friend suggested that it is only the much greater amount of money, status and resources that are given to male chess competitions that prevent women's chess from reaching a similar level.



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