Science

The Real Reasons All the Top Chess Players Are Men

Beth Harmon shakes a male opponent’s hand in a still from the show.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Phil Bray/Netflix

The Queen’s Gambit has been conquering Netflix viewing records much like its protagonist, a chess player named Beth Harmon, conquers the chess world. The story is gripping and inspiring. The chess content has been expertly curated, which is pretty rare for a piece of popular entertainment about chess. Nevertheless, one aspect of the show is wildly unrealistic, as Monica Hesse, writing in the Washington Post, and Dylan Loeb McClain, writing in the New York Times, have pointed out: The men Harmon encounters are largely supportive of her chess career.

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A real-life Harmon would have had to deal with all kinds of comments about women’s inferior chess abilities. Misogynist digs are common in the top ranks of the game. “I guess they’re just not so smart,” world champion Bobby Fischer said in 1962. Chess is “not for women. … Women are weaker fighters,” world champion Garry Kasparov said in 1989. “Men are hardwired to be better chess players than women,”  vice president of the world chess federation FIDE and grandmaster Nigel Short said in 2015, adding, “you have to gracefully accept that.”

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It is not just men who think like this. Eva Repková, an international master who heads FIDE’s Commission for Women’s Chess, recently commented, “This game doesn’t come naturally to women. Some people might not like that it’s more natural for men to pick chess as an interest or women to pick music or arranging flowers.” India’s top female player, grandmaster Koneru Humpy, said that “you have to accept” that men are better players—in an article titled “Why Women Lose at Chess.”

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Yes, these comments are harsh and discouraging. But many believe that it is the cold hard truth that women are worse at chess than men. The facts seem indisputable: There has never been a female world champion. The best female player has always been ranked substantially lower than the best male player and would probably lose to him in a match. And of the top 100 players in the world, only one is a woman (Chinese grandmaster Hou Yifan).

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However, as a chess player and an academic, I can tell you that none of this justifies the conclusion that women are inherently worse at chess than men. The fact that top male players are consistently ranked higher than top female players may have nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with statistics and external factors.

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Let’s start with the statistics. A 2008 study led by psychologist Merim Bilalić points out the logical flaw in citing differences in top rankings as evidence of inherent differences: If one group (female chess players) is much smaller than another (male chess players), then just by chance, one would expect that the best member of the larger group outperforms the best member of the smaller group.

To explain this, I like to use a thought experiment. Imagine that you gather 12 people and randomly give 10 of them a blue hat and two a green hat. You then randomly assign to each person a number between 1 and 100. You declare that the score of the Blue Team is the highest number held by a person with a blue hat and that the score of the Green Team is the highest number held by a person with a green hat. It turns out that the Blue Team will, on average, score substantially higher (91.4) than the Green Team (67.2). Obviously, this is not because of any inherent differences between the Blue and Green team members (who were, remember, given hats randomly). It is only because of chance: The Blue Team, having 10 members, simply has more shots at a high score than the Green Team, having only two. The takeaway: If one group is much bigger than another group, than comparing the top performers in the groups to each other is fundamentally unfair.

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The same logic applies to chess: For example, on the FIDE rating list, out of the players who had played in 2019, only 10.1 percent were female; in the United States, this number was 8.2 percent. I recently calculated that the male-female participation gap alone could account for the rating difference between the top male and the top female Indian player. In other words, the top-level gap in India can be fully explained by the participation gap. When we correct for the fact that way, way more men play chess than women, there is simply no evidence that men, on balance, perform better—at least, in India.

High-profile, sweeping statements about men being superior at chess typically do not include the necessary statistical analysis and should therefore not be trusted. But what if one were to do the right analysis for countries other than India—is the top-level gap only due to the participation gap the world over? Jose Camacho Collados, a computer scientist and international master, and Nikos Bosse, a statistician, asked exactly that. They found several countries in which the participation gap cannot fully account for the top-level gap. That being said, the former always can partially explain the latter, and therefore, glancing at the top-level gap by itself will still leave you with the wrong impression.

Even if the participation gap does not fully explain the difference in top rankings, that does not support the notion that women are inherently worse at chess (nor do Collados or Bosse claim it does). There are many external factors—social, cultural, and economic—that could make the top female chess player rank lower than the top male player, even with the participation gap corrected for. Top female players are often relegated to women-only invitational tournaments, most likely limiting their ability to increase their ranking. It is possible that national federations invest less in top female players than in their male counterparts, for example, in terms of training or finding sponsors. It’s much easier for male players to make a living from chess. Among top players with children, women might be more burdened with child care duties than men and therefore have less time to play in and prepare for tournaments. Top female players might fall victim to stereotype threat (where a member of a negatively stereotyped group underperforms due to the pressure or anxiety induced by the stereotype), which indeed seems to manifest itself in the results of chess games.

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It is also likely that top female chess players face a particularly hostile environment, leading them to drop out in higher proportions than lower-ranked women. Social psychologists, including my New York University colleague Madeline Heilman, have shown that successful women in traditionally masculine roles are often derogated and disliked. For concrete examples, check out woman grandmaster Jennifer Shahade’s art project, Not Particularly Beautiful, an oversize wall-hanging chessboard filled in with misogynistic insults she and other female players have been subjected to.

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All these factors are external, and none of them have anything to do with intelligence or natural ability. They can be hard to untangle; for example, you cannot isolate young chess players, raise them around people with different belief systems about gender, and then see how they do in a tournament. But in math—a field much like chess in several ways—a fascinating “natural experiment” occurred when Germany split into East and West Germany. The gender gap in math ended up being much smaller in East than West Germany, arguably because the East’s radically egalitarian system encouraged girls’ self-confidence and competitiveness in math. This demonstrates that gender differences in intellectual performance can be caused by society-level beliefs.

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In chess, breaking down the components of the top-level gap is challenging, has been a topic of academic study for decades, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It is very difficult to quantify all of the social, cultural, and economic effects, and how they might make otherwise star-women players a bit worse. But chess players often turn to a simpler explanation than statistics or treatment: biology. Recall that Short spoke of hardwiring and that Repková said that picking up chess just wasn’t natural for women. “Probably the answer is in the genes,” Kasparov mused in 1989. He has now disavowed that statement, but one only has to look at chess forums to know that kind of thinking is alive and well. Chess has a culture in which raw, innate brilliance is seen as the driver of success, and chess players tend to explain gender differences in chess performance in terms of inherent or biological differences.

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Let me state unequivocally that there is currently zero evidence for biological differences in chess ability between the genders. Of course, that does not mean that there are certainly no such differences. But what would be the point of research focused on detecting them, given that those are exactly the differences that nobody can do anything about? To me, it is instead worth asking why chess players have a predilection for biological explanations. Psychologist Andrei Cimpian, another colleague at New York University, has reported that “inherent explanations” serve to reinforce hierarchies. That works out conveniently for those in high-status positions—who, in the chess world, tend to be men. It is harder to acknowledge that external factors, such as an unfair distribution of resources or a hostile environment, have held top female players back. Of course, vehement denial of privilege by the privileged plays a role in pretty much every battle for social justice.

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The idea that innate chess ability is critical for success—rather than a commitment to studying the game to get better and better at it—might itself keep the participation gap wide in the first place. Andrei Cimpian, Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie, and colleagues studied 30 academic disciplines in the U.S. and found a strong negative correlation between the pervasiveness of innate-ability beliefs and the proportion of female Ph.D.s. Moreover, very young children already internalize beliefs that men are more brilliant than women. A 2017 study showed that 6-year-old girls in the U.S. are already less likely to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart,” and that they begin avoiding activities that are said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” There we have it: a shockingly early start for the participation gap in chess.

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The result is a vicious cycle: Men believe that women (and girls) are not innately brilliant and therefore bad at chess, the resulting toxic attitudes drive women out, the participation gap increases, the top-level gap increases, and statistically challenged men believe even more that women are bad at chess.

As in other arenas with brilliance culture and a stark participation gap, such as physics and computer science, this cycle is incredibly difficult to break. Yet, we must try. The Women in Chess initiative by the U.S. Chess Federation throws money and support behind tournaments that cater to girls and women. As Sarah-Jane Leslie explains, emphasizing the importance of hard work over brilliance might help prevent girls and women from dropping out. Projects like Not Particularly Beautiful forcefully call out biased statements and shine a light on the role that culture plays in keeping women out. Even a Netflix series that paints a slightly rosy picture of life in the chess world might help. The Queen’s Gambit seems to have given female participation an impressive boost, at least in online chess. But those gains will be fleeting in the absence of systemic change.

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