There has always been a large ratings gap between the top men and women chess players. Conventional gender roles or unequal access, in a sport of the mind, what’s holding women back?
When she first started participating in chess tournaments at age 7, Koneru Humpy would play in both draws—of boys and girls. “They considered girls as ‘underdog players’, so I was allowed to participate," she recalls. “But mostly girls themselves didn’t dare do that because the competition (in the boys’ draw) was very tough."
Humpy was no underdog. In 1999 and 2000, she won the Asian under-12 and national under-14 titles at ages 12 and 13, respectively, both in the boys’ category. Her performance against girls was even better: She swept up the top prize at the under 10, 12, 14 and 20 world championships. At the age of 15, she became a chess grandmaster (GM), the youngest woman in the world at the time to enter the elite club. She even broke the record of Judit Polgár, the highest rated woman chess player ever—she was three months younger than Polgár was when she became a GM.
Some couldn’t digest her meteoric rise. Humpy recalls an instance from 2003, when her automatic selection for the top-level Men’s National A tournament met with disapproval from some of her male peers. “They didn’t think I deserved it. They said I didn’t have the strength to play the higher event." To prove herself, she entered the men’s draw in the qualifiers’ tournament. She finished second.
There are no men’s tournaments any more. These have been expanded to “open" contests where players are chosen on the basis of their rating points, or “ELOs". Over the years though, Humpy’s success rate at such tournaments started dipping. Today, at age 33, she is the world No.2 in women’s chess but No.283 overall. The No.1 in women’s chess, Hou Yifan, is world No.86 overall.
The sharp gender divide among the best—a phenomenon with a historical precedent—has often had people scratching their heads: If chess is a sport of the mind, why don’t women match up to men?
Some of the answers are obvious. Professional chess is mostly a boys’ club. Only 15% of all the licensed players in the world are women,according to the International Chess Federation, or FIDE. India is no different: Its 13,365 women chess players make up 16% of the total registered, according to the All India Chess Federation (AICF). Fewer participants at the entry level results in fewer chances for the top slots. But Humpy has a different theory, a more controversial one: Men are just better players. “It’s proven," she says. “You have to accept it."
The numbers seem to support her hypothesis.There are only 37 women GMs in the world, compared to1,683 men. No woman has won the World Chess Championship in the tournament’s nearly 134-year history (not counting the women’s-only event). Polgár, who retired in 2015 and remains the best of them all, was world No.8 at her peak. But she too never made it through the Candidates Tournament that decides the challenger for the world title.
Of course, structural biases contribute to this. Centuries of patriarchy and the enduring emphasis on conventional gender roles have deprived women of opportunities and an even playing field. Today, FIDE organizes several women’s tournaments to encourage participation. It also has a slightly lower entry qualification for women’s titles such as Women’s Grandmaster (WGM), Women’s International Master, Woman FIDE Master (WFM) and Woman Candidate Master (WCM).
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the rating points of its women’s tournament winners don’t match up to those of their male counterparts.There is a difference of 205 ELO points between world No.1 Magnus Carlsen and women’s No.1 Hou Yifan. Many elite chess players, in fact, scoff at the abilities of their female peers.
Bobby Fischer, the American who ended the Soviet dominance at world championships in the 1970s, would derogatorily dismiss his women rivals as “weak" and “stupid". Garry Kasparov, the Russian who was world No.1 for nearly 20 years, from 1986-2005, said once, “Women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players; they are not great fighters." Nigel Short, a GM from England and vice-president of FIDE since 2018, has said women must “gracefully accept it as a fact" that they possess different skills, a conclusion similar to the one reached by Australian psychologist Robert Howard in his 2014 study, Explaining Male Predominance At The Apex Of Intellectual Achievement.
“I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do," Short told the New In Chess magazine in 2015. “Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage." A Sky News anchor subsequently pointed out to Short that he, like Kasparov, had once lost to Polgár. “Did she bring her man brain that day?" she asked.
The Polgár example is often cited to contradict the theory of men being better players. Her father László Polgár, a psychologist from Hungary, believed that he could turn any healthy child into a prodigy. He taught his three daughters—Susan, Sophia and Judit—chess from a very young age. All three went on to be pioneers in the game, even though Sophia bowed out eventually. “Girls can learn how to play just as well as boys but they often approach the game differently," Susan told the Psychology Today magazine in 2005. For instance, she said, women liked solving chess puzzles while men preferred competing. But this didn’t affect either’s ability to excel. “My father believes that innate talent is nothing, that (success) is 99 per cent hard work," said Susan. “I agree with him."
With instances like these, it is easy to dismiss the opinions of the likes of Fischer and Short as the sexist ravings of privileged men who equate women’s limited successes and opportunities with intellectual shortcomings. Where it gets complicated, however, is when elite women players like Humpy agree with their assessment. And when she’s not the only one.
I interviewed over a dozen people for this article. This included former and current Indian chess players, their coaches, sports psychologists and representatives from chess bodies, both Indian and international. They all pointed to a combination of systemic and societal factors, and a dollop of sexism, that hold back women from realizing their potential in chess. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and an overwhelming pay gap in the sport were further deterrents. Ju Wenjun, for example, won €500,000 (around ₹4.3 crore) after she won the 2018 women’s World Chess Championship. Magnus Carlsen won €1 million for winning the “main" Championship.
But many also said the game needed some innate traits, and that crucial “killer instinct", which most women “lacked". “There are some qualities in men that are more in connection with the game—creativity, intuition and the ability to take risks," says Aarthie Ramaswamy, a former national champion and trainer at the Chennai-based Chess Gurukul. “If you see, there are more sacrifices (of chess pieces) for advantage or attack without concrete or winning variation. Men would take that risk. For women, it’s much more calculated. If they are winning for sure, only then they would take the risk."
Eva Repková, chief of FIDE’s Commission for Women’s Chess, who is tasked with ensuring higher participation of women in chess, says the 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." Women, she adds, are “sensitive" and often let their emotions get the better of them in games. It doesn’t mean they aren’t smart enough, or that they don’t work hard enough, she continues. “But that we should embrace the differences."
Will there never be a female world champion then? “We have come a long way and improved a lot. A hundred years ago, it would be unheard of that woman can match top (male) GMs." The world champion feat, says Repková, is not impossible but it is unlikely. “It might not be what you like to hear but I am being honest."
To be sure, there have been no studies that account for the effects of the biological differences, neurological capabilities and societal conditioning that shape chess players’ minds. The truth may well lie somewhere in between. What cannot be denied, though, is the historical disadvantage women started off with, forced as they were to make a mark in a male-centric society.
Take India, the birthplace of the game. Women’s skills in chaturanga (as chess was called) can be traced back to the 15th century. King Udaya Varma from north Kerala, the legend goes, was once stuck in a particularly crucial game. His queen, who was quietly watching the game from the next room, softly started singing a lullaby, weaving the winning variation in it. The king cracked the code and won the game.
It would take another five centuries for women’s chess to get its first Indian role models. These were the Khadilkar sisters from Mumbai—Vasanti, Jayshree and Rohini—who dominated all women’s national championships from 1974 onwards. It would be a decade before Bhagyashree Sathe from Sangli bested them to win the title in 1984.
Sathe’s journey was far from easy. “When I started playing nationals, I had no coaching, no sparring player," she says. “When my brother saw this, he decided to get male chess players to Sangli (to train me). He would put them up in a hotel, pay for their lodging and boarding, and gave them a salary of ₹2,000 a month" (the average salary of a clerk at a public office at the time was around ₹1,000).
Things got better. Aarthie Ramaswamy from Chennai, who rose to prominence a decade later, trained at a chess coaching centre from the age of 10. She was the only woman in her class. She would find herself working harder at the game than her peers and get bullied too. “The boys used to say, ‘You have long hair and you don’t have a brain.’" Frustrated, she once snipped her locks.
Both Sathe and Ramaswamy married their trainers—GM Pravin Thipsay and GM R.B. Ramesh, both rated higher than them. A couple of years later, they had children. Chess took a back seat. “After a particular age, women become family-oriented," says Sathe-Thipsay.“After I gave birth, my priorities changed. Pravin wanted me to play but every time I went (out of town) for a tournament, it was a torture."
Humpy shares a similar story. Her husband, businessman Dasari Anvesh, “always gives freedom, which is required by a women", she says. But married life comes with its social compulsions. “Earlier, I had no work apart from chess. Now I manage my house. I can’t continue practising if there’s some family function or relatives’ scene. As a married woman, you have to socialize." Humpy’s daughter, Ahana, is three years old. Looking after her takes up most of the day. Unlike the 9-hour practice sessions earlier, Humpy can only spare 4 hours a day. Sometimes, not even that.
The early 2000s saw the rise of several other women chess players—Harika Dronavalli, Tania Sachdev, Soumya Swaminathan, all of whom continue to be active today. A clutch of teenagers, including Vaishali Rameshbabu, Divya Deshmukh and Rakshitta Ravi, are considered today’s rising stars. But there is a pattern of promising names dropping out, preferring academic or vocational courses to chess.
The dropout rate in women’s chess is high, says Ramaswamy. “I remember there were four-five players from Tamil Nadu a few years ago who we thought would be the next Olympiad team. But they went off... Compared to the men’s team, the women’s team today doesn’t have the new blood."
Take Kruttika Nadig, winner of the Indian women’s championship in 2008. Nadig quit professional chess in 2013, studying journalism initially and eventually getting a job as a data scientist. “Fortunately," she says, “I didn’t experience sexism in the chess world. But for some reason, I found women are a lot more cagey. It was hard for me to find female practice partners. (I would find) guys working with each other, playing with each other...but not that much camaraderie among women."
Nadig doesn’t dispute the statistics but is wary of linking the differences to women’s overall performance in the game. “There’s loads of pseudoscience in this domain," she says. “Because the average rating of men is much higher, people come up with all sorts of theories to explain why. But it’s one thing for people to have (opinions) based on longitudinal studies or sociological research and another for chess players to just air their opinions. The truth is, no one knows. But when people make it seem otherwise, it becomes a psychological block for girls that you can’t be as good as boys."
It is for this reason that many feel the need for gender-specific categories in chess, at least in the formative years. Susan Polgár, who organizes such tournaments at her coaching institute in the US, says it is necessary to raise and train girls in a conflict-free zone. Ramaswamy adopts a similar approach at her coaching centre in Chennai. “Young girls between 8-10 are very confident today," she says. “They think they can even beat Carlsen.I just make sure I don’t break their confidence. I know how hard it is to change our own mental makeup and come out and play."
There are examples of affirmative action in other sports too. Organizers of major tennis, volleyball and surfing tournaments are offering equal prize money to men and women. In India, Real Kashmir Football Club, a team that ranked fourth in last season’s I-League first division, recently announced the formation of an all-women’s team to compete in national tournaments.
This approach doesn’t mean indulging players for their gender. Or victimizing them for it. Good grooming, says Pravin Thipsay, starts early, from the time a child is in the crib. “It starts with the stories we tells kids: that Sita wouldn’t be abducted if Lakshman was around, that King Arthur was a warrior but Rani Laxmibai an anomaly."
Thipsay has seen the gender divide in his own family. “My grandma would give pista (pistachio) and almonds (considered good for the brain) to us boys in the family but not the girls. She would say, ‘but they will get married and go anyway.’" He argues that the children he has coached over the years show the same aptitude when young. “If you make them both play in the same tournament, if you train your mind to push itself, girls will get better."