4

Facebook Chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 4, 2016 in Chess, Non-chess

Towards the end of one of my recent economics tutorials at university, I asked my students if there were any questions. There was a brief discussion (in Dutch) among three boys in the front row and then one shot up his hand and said, “Sir, can you help us?” while waving his iPhone with the other hand. It’s not unusual for my students to have the lecture notes or even textbook on their phones, so I wandered forward to see what was up. To my surprise I saw that he had the Chess.com app open on the screen, and as I came closer he continued, “I’m playing a game against my Dad, and we googled you and saw that you’re a grandmaster, so we thought…”

The rise of the smartphone has given chess players a new lease on life when it comes to the chess world, with a whole raft of apps available for following tournaments, learning and playing. And quite a few of my friends outside of the chess world use apps to play ‘correspondence’ games with their friends or family, usually playing at most one move per day. I had a similar thing set up in my old share house where my housemate would write his move every day on a scoresheet we stuck on the fridge, and I’d reply in kind when I got home. And recently we set up a board in the living room of my new place and Sabina and I played a similar game (a surprisingly high quality one, too) over the course of a month.

And now there’s a new way to play while virtually ‘hanging out’ with your friends: Facebook Chess. There are over a billion people connected to Facebook and personally I use it for short messages to my friends far more often than email, text or even WhatsApp. The clever people at Facebook have now added an ‘easter egg’ – a tech term for a hidden computer function – to their messenger program. And despite it being pretty basic, it’s totally cool.

Using it is very simple: Just type  @fbchess play  to one of your friends as a Facebook message. That will automatically start a game in your personal chat thread with them (the computer will work out the colours, but if you want to get ahead, type instead  @fbchess play white ). After that, it’s just like one of those old-school command-based chess programs from the nineties. Just write the commands using algebraic notation, and don’t forget that they’re case sensitive too. So for example,  @fbchess e4  works, and so does @fbchess Bg7 , but not  @fbchess bg7 . Each move appears on the board in the messenger window so you can see where you’re up to.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 21.58.32

Anyway, if you make a mistake, it’ll tell you, and you can always type  @fbchess help  if you want a list of commands. Useful other ones include  @fbchess undo  (but your opponent has to accept the takeback, naturally!)  and – let’s hope not –  @fbchess resign .

You’ve probably already worked it out, but every chess-based command starts with  @fbchess ; if you want to just write a normal message (like “Ha, didn’t see that coming, didya?!”), just write it as you normally would.

Okay, it’s no Fritz, but I still think it’s kind of a cool hidden feature of something I probably use about thirty times a day. And you know those awkward Facebook chats where you can’t think of anything to say and are desperately looking for a suitable yet harmless emoticon because it’s your turn to write? Well. Now you can just play a move.

 
1

Hottest 100: My top ten

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 24, 2016 in Non-chess

“You know, you’ve only got a day to go to write a certain annual post, mate.”

So said my mate Fitzy at breakfast this morning. I’m on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a serenely picturesque region that encompasses glorious surf beaches, wildlife-filled swamplands and spectacular rainforests. I’m only here for three days (it is a work trip, after all), so why would I think about sitting on my computer to write a blog post?

But Fitzy was right: Every year before Australia Day I religiously get in my votes for Triple J’s Hottest 100. Triple J is Australia’s premier commercial-free radio station and at the start of each year it hosts the world’s largest music voting poll, ranking the top 100 songs of the last twelve months as chosen by its listeners. Then on January 26 (“Australia Day”), it plays the countdown starting from number 100 at midday through to the grand unveiling of number one. The countdown’s an integral part of an Australia Day experience, and I – an avid Triple J listener even from Amsterdam – never miss it.

It’s also the one day each year that I write with my ‘pretentious music critic’ hat on.

This year, for no good reason, my entries have taken on a decidedly more electronic flavour than in previous editions. I’m not sure why, as the bulk of my 2015 listening stuck firmly in the indie rock genre, as per usual. But somehow the cream that rose to the top had a bit more bass and beat than your typical glass-and-a-half alternative. Perhaps it’s because last year I finally tried my hand at music creation, and EDM (electronic dance music) is certainly the easiest genre to produce on a computer. Or perhaps it’s because I spent last summer in Greece, the mecca for deep house and annoyingly boppy dance tunes. Or perhaps – most likely – it was just the luck of the draw. Anyway, let’s get into it, starting with a couple of your more bread-and-butter indie ballads.

 

10:       SAFIA – Embracing Me

Readers of previous years’ editions will know that I’m not against voting for a track largely due to an exceptional video clip. This one is no OK Go (if you haven’t seen an Ok Go clip, click on this one immediately. And then block out the next half hour from your schedule as you find yourself on a whirlwind YouTube adventure of pure magic), but it’s encapsulating nonetheless. The song itself is nice in itself, though it probably wouldn’t have made my list if it wasn’t for the heart-warming video romance between two Amish youths. For that reason, I don’t imagine it to feature highly or even at all in the final countdown, but it’s a nice change for a bit of emotional depth in a charting song these days.

 

9:         The Meeting Tree – I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself)

‘The Meeting Tree’ is made up of a bunch of Sydney boys who first got noticed last year with their debut urban EP entitled ‘r u a cop’. In general I loathe song titles that deliberately misspell words, so seeing that sin in an entire album title really made me shiver. But I have to admit, the deliciously quirky self-loathing of the lyrics in I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself) is unexpectedly catchy. I didn’t recognize the lyricist Janet English so I was surprised to discover that she’s better known as a member of Spiderbait, while Seamus from Sticky Fingers also has a hand (ha!) in producing the track. Despite the chorus sounding almost like a somewhat depressing school camp fire, the roaring, heavy synths somehow manage to turn that title’s frown upside-down. And in a year where I had to fill out two tax returns in two countries, I had to giggle a little. You’ll end up singing along whether you like it or not.

 

8:         Jai Wolf – Indian Summer

I love all things Indian, and music is no exception. The oriental theme runs strongly through the entire piece, but meets an interesting musical fusion with massive synth chords and spliced vocals. This track begins with charming finger clicking and basic piano synths to accompany the beautiful pitched-up vocal melodies, but when the slow beat is dropped, the track morphs into a more euphoric piece that almost musically defines “feel-good”. It wouldn’t at all feel out of place on the wonderful Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, one of my favourite film-based albums, but the young New York producer has given the genre an electronic twist of his own. This is, incredibly, his very first musical release, although the backing of the Foreign Family label is already a strong indication of his musical talent. When I first listened to Indian Summer, I found my imagination reaching for the long train montage from Slumdog, and I can definitely see the track being sampled in future films. Definitely watch out for more from this guy.

 

7:         The Cat Empire – Wolves

From one type of wolf to another; but I must confess to being biased in next this choice. I’ve loved the Empire since they rose from the depths of Melbourne’s Fitzroy to take the international stage by storm, perhaps due in part to the fact that lead singer Felix liked to frequent the same café on Brunswick St as me. Blending a mix of South American street carnival vibes with grungy Aussie hip-hop, these guys are just the bomb. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times now, most recently a few months back in Amsterdam when their manager gave me some free tickets to celebrate our engagement. Seriously, how awesome is that?! But personal biases for the band aside, Wolves is an awesome track that sends a strong signal for their upcoming new album, which will have to do well to beat the outstanding Steal the Light from 2014. Having listened to a couple more tracks in the concerts that I assume will make the final record, I can tell you that the whole thing’s probably worth adding it to your wish-list already.

 

6:         Foals – Give It All

Moving away from electronic fusion for just a moment, Foals are a band that capture the lyrically deep indie vibe that is desperately lacking from the popular charts these days. Give It All is soft, dark and compelling. Both the lyrics and the moving video clip tell the story of a man suffering the deep aftereffects of a breakup, so pick your mood wisely when deciding to go all-in on this one. And particularly if you end up stumbling upon the music video director Nabil’s ‘Director’s Cut’, which has a somewhat more ‘intense’ finale. It’s probably not a song to get the party started, but like all good art, you’ll think, and you’ll feel.

 

5:         Set Mo – White Dress {Ft. Deutsch Duke}

Ok, so that last description was too pretentious even for me. Let’s lighten the mood somewhat with some classic summer house: Heavy bass, deep male baritone vocalist, simple harmonies, basic lyrics, and a couple of earthy synths thrown in for good measure. Think sandy beaches and cocktails, late nights and Mediterranean cuisine, sun, sea and summer romance. Get your deep house on.

 

4:         Vallis Alps – Young

The opening bars of Young sound suspiciously like Gooey by Glass Animals, the #12 hit in last year’s countdown. The high-pitched riffs are soon replaced by the sultry whispers of lead vocalist Parissa Tosif. Parissa is a good old fashioned Canberran, and she paired up with Seattle-based musician David Ansari to work on their breakout EP that took Triple J Unearthed by storm last year. Since then they’ve decided to work together out of Sydney and I’m really excited to see what they manage to come up with in the future. Take a listen to their flagship track and you’ll soon be, too.

 

3:         RÜFÜS – Innerbloom

RÜFÜS has been a real find this year, and the Sydney group’s alternative dance style has really endeared themselves to my eclectic music tastes. Their debut album Atlas reached number one in Australia featured a whole bunch of classy alternative-dance tunes of a similar style. But the released singles of their very recent second album Bloom, cleverly marketed to hit the virtual shelves just in time to get some heavy airtime during the countdown voting, are amazing. I expect all three of You Were Right, Like an Animal and Innerbloom to make the final 100, but even though the latter is supposedly the weakest on other popular metrics, it is definitely my favourite. It reminds me a little of Flight Facilities’ Clair de Lune (#17, 2012 Hottest 100) in that it’s a long, epic piece that hits the smooth notes and keeps a steady emotional grab. In fact, at almost 10 minutes long, Innerbloom will almost certainly be the longest song to enter the final countdown – and it’s worth every minute.

 

2:         Major Lazer – Lean On {Ft. MØ/DJ Snake}

What’s to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already? Major Lazer continues to impress in both the mainstream and indie charts, giving the guys wide airtime across multiple genres and earning them many fans from different backgrounds. By their own admission, their styles mixes EDM with features of reggae, dancehall, electronic, reggaetron, house and ‘moombahton’. No, I don’t know what it is either. In any case, their 2013 hit Get Free was a classic dance-chill track that also got a sniff into the Hottest 100 of that year, but they’ve outdone themselves with Lean On. The oriental harmonies are coupled with a similarly themed video clip, but for me it’s the the huge synthed beat drop in the chorus that wins the day. Expect to see Lean On finish in the top three on Australia Day, and possibly even take out first prize.

 

1:         Jamie xx – Loud Places

Although Lean On will almost certainly finish the highest of my votes, it would be disingenuous of me to claim it as my favourite track of the year. That honour goes to a song that’s slower, sultrier and sexier. I’ve been partial to the dulcet tones of the enigmatically named ‘Jamie xx’ since his remix of “Islands”, the huge 2009 track by – wait for it – ‘The xx’. Confused? Don’t be; The xx is made up of Jamie’s schoolmates, and the lead vocalist, Romy Madley Croft, is the voice behind this classic. She features a few times on Jamie xx’s album In Colour, which is all-round gold in terms of mood and background music. But the beat behind this track, coupled with groovy percussion bells and well-crafted lyrics, turns Loud Places into much more than just a chill-out track. It was even voted the UK’s ‘Anthem of the Summer’, and with good reason. Press play, hit repeat. You won’t be disappointed.

 

If you want to see how my picks end up faring in the countdown, you want to feel some Aussie love this Australia day, or you’re just a fan of good music, tune into Triple J on January 26. The countdown starts at midday Australian Eastern Standard Time.

 

 
1

Leaping into 2016

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 21, 2016 in Non-chess

The worst thing about taking a long hiatus from a blog is all the spam.

That aside, I’m back, and looking forward to a big year. It’s always nice when the chess and regular olympics coincide, and in a leap year no less. I was trying to find something more mathematically special about the number 2016 than the simple fact that we get an extra day in a few weeks. I struggled. It looks similar to the supremely addictive “2048” game (click the link at your peril – hours will be wasted!). But it’s not. The best I could come up with was that if you add its square to its cube, you get a number that contains every digit from 0 to 9 exactly once. Hardly dinner-party conversation.  [EDIT:  We can do better. Get your math geek on below.]

So instead, I’m finishing my Triple J Hottest 100 votes. Forthcoming.

Happy 2016!

 

(…turns out 2016 is quite cool after all. It’s triangular: 1+2+3+…+63=2016. And if you take the square root of the triangle of these cubes, √(1³ + 2³ + 3³ + • • • +63³), we’re also back in 2016-land. But the coolest is probably its binary representation:  2016 = 11111100000)

 
0

Uptown Funk in 100 Movies

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 23, 2015 in Non-chess

The fact that I knew every single movie reference does suggest I should be spending more time on my studies…

 
5

Finally!

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 9, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess

2015-09-09 13.03.35

 
1

Pirate Week

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 27, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Three strange pirate-related things happened to me last week.

Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day. Admittedly, some of the links to buccaneering are a little tenuous, but it still makes for an unusual theme.

It started when I found out about some trouble one of my German friends had gotten into. Having just started university, he, like many freshers, soon discovered the shady world of movie downloading – or ‘online piracy’ as it’s more commonly known. He’d downloaded a grand total of 12 movies before he got sent a letter from a law firm representing a media corporations demanding almost a thousand euros for one particular movie. Another demand following on behalf of a different corporation, for a similarly jawdropping fee.  If he pays the fines, it’ll have cost him roughly 150 euros on average per movie he watched. And that’s assuming no more fines follow.

Now, I have lots of friends. And some of them illegally download media from controversial ‘activist’ sites like The Pirate Bay. Some of them have been doing it for years. My old college’s intranet literally had terabytes of material (…at which point the law gets a litle fuzzy. If a pirate buys you a drink with his stolen loot, are you also culpable?).

But in all these years and of all these people, I’ve never heard of anyone having to answer. At first I thought my friend was particularly unlucky, but then I googled anti-piracy laws in Germany. It turns out Germany is the Stockfish of online piracy: no mistake goes unpunished. Literally millions of letters are sent to perpetrators, and the law allows little leeway. (Not that I’m bagging out Germany’s techno laws in general, mind you; their mobile phone services are so impressive that it’s actually cheaper to call within the Netherlands on my girlfriend’s German phone than my Dutch one.)

A full post about online piracy will have to wait for another day, however, because it’s time to move on to pirate event number two. We’ve recently moved apartments to the north-east side of Amsterdam, and by coincidence we look out over the Ij (“Eye”) harbour where last week the Amsterdam Sail Festival took place. Held once every five years (or “quinquenially”, if you’re feeling fancy), it’s one of the largest maritime festivals in the world.

“Honey, what’s that outside our window?”

I’m not really a ‘boat’ person, but this festival was phenomenal. About two million tourists crammed into tiny Amsterdam to check out the ships, which were, I have to admit, stunning. They came from all over the world, these huge sail boats from various centuries, including a small Aussie one that had sailed all the way from Down Under with most of its crew barely out of high school. But it was the collection of older boats that really stood out in my opinion. Some of them were huge. Some, such as the Russian, French and South American vessels, were immaculate, with the crew dressed in exquisite, colourful garb. Other crews were literally dressed as pirates, for no good reason that I could discern. My favourite was the Nao Victoria, a replica of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships from the early sixteenth century, and the first to circumnavigate the world.

Hanging out near the Aussie boat “The Young Endeavour”

On the final night of the festival, my girlfriend surprised me with tickets to a screening of Pirates of the Carribean ‘in concert’. But not just any screening; it was set up in a huge open-air marina, and you could either have grandstand tickets or ‘ship tickets’, whereby you just moor your boat next to the screen. Most importantly, however, there was a large Dutch orchestra playing all the music from the movie live – and if you know the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, you’ll know that’s quite a big deal. The movie/concert finished with a bang, literally, as we had front-row seats to the huge final fireworks show. By the end of the festival, I’d been transformed from a non-boaty person to someone who perhaps could finally understand the romantic appeal of a life at sea. After the movie, I kept coming back to the cheesy words of Johnny Depp’s pirate character, Captain Jack Sparrow:

 

“Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails; that’s what a ship needs, but what a ship is, what a ship really is, is freedom.”

And then, the next day, I was called a pirate.

Really. I mean, fair-dinkum, life-goal-achieved, called a pirate. Twice, and in print, no less, by the UK’s The Times.

So, as I recently mentioned, I’ve just finished writing my first book. This post wasn’t really meant to be a plug for it, but there you go. And GM Raymond Keene, a widely read chess journalist, has started publishing reviews of it. This is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, I have no idea how he got a hold of it, seeing as even I haven’t seen a copy of the book yet! But secondly, Keene’s gone for a pirate-themed approach to colouring the ‘swashbucklingly’ exciting style of the gambits I cover. Here I get called a pirate, and here, a buccaneer. Keene then branches out in his other column in The Spectator by going for a viking comparison, before reverting to more pirate-related descriptions the following week. This final column is so colourful that I can’t help but reprint my favourite snippet in full:

 

“In my mind’s eye, I visualise Smerdon as some swashbuckling buccaneer of the chessboard, complete with eyepatch, wooden leg, tricorn hat and probably a parrot.”

My parents must be so proud.

 

At least he was right about the parrot

 
0

A Chess Dispute

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 15, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess

I can’t believe I haven’t come across this before. Over a century old, a minute’s worth of chess-related slapstick, and now I really want to buy a hat.

 

 

 

 
2

Micro movie review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 29, 2015 in Non-chess

My ten-word review of the much-hyped Wachowski brothers’ sci-fi flick Jupiter Ascending:

 

Expectation:  The Matrix meets Star Wars.

Reality:  Sharknado meets Frozen.

 
25

Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 24, 2015 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess

SUMMARY:

  • Short’s article was not as controversial as it has been made out to be
  • Short based his claims on two recent academic contributions – one statistical comment and one study on FIDE data – that suggested that gender gaps cannot be explained away by participation rates
  • There are several technical issues with these papers that cast doubt on their conclusions, particularly for the majority of the population
  • Overall, the scientific evidence does not suggest a biological basis for the gender gap for the vast majority of the population
  • There is some evidence of a gap at the very highest professional levels; an open question is whether this is due to maternal reasons

 

I have gotten a lot of feedback on my recent post about GM Nigel Short’s NiC article about gender differences in chess. My previous post was meant to be informal and light on technical analysis, so as to put the gender debate more in the light of what is and isn’t important for us as a community to talk about. Still, the feedback I have received has indicated that there is at least some demand for an explanation of my views from a more scientific perspective. Also, given the amount of unsubstantiated rubbish reported in the media about Short’s article, there’s probably good cause for an objective academic review of his claims as well. What follows will be a little more technical than my regular posts, so for an easier read on the issue, refer back to my original response.

 

But let’s take a step back for a minute. In my opinion, the main powder keg for the surfeit of angry reactions that this story has incited is the lack of a well-defined question. What’s really the issue being discussed here? Here are some of the different angles that various media reports have claimed is Short’s main point:

  • Women are worse at chess than men
  • Women’s brains are naturally less suited to chess
  • Women shouldn’t play chess
  • Women aren’t smart enough for chess

…and some other things about driving.

 

Reading these reports, it became very clear to me that almost none of the journalists actually read Short’s article (you can see it in full here, if you like). Some journalists even went so far as to ascribe blatantly sexist but entirely fabricated quotes to Short in their reports – the most cardinal sin of Journalism 101.

 

In fact, Short says nothing about intelligence in his article, nor makes any normative claims saying that women shouldn’t play chess. In fact, his final sentence begins, “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a high level.” The two claims that do come out are as:

  1. There is a gender gap in chess
  2. This gap cannot be explained by participation rates

 

To back his claims, Short quotes a recent academic study by Robert Howard, an Australian psychologist and leading expert on chess research. (Actually, Short quotes Howard’s synopsis in a ChessBase article, which has several important differences to the original published study – see below.) Up until Howard’s study, the gender debate had pretty much been put to bed in the academic community thanks to the widely accepted ‘participation hypothesis’: that the gap in performance disappears once one accounts for the fact that far less females play tournament chess than men. The definitive article is Bilalic et al., 2009, which found that 96 per cent of observed performance differences between men and women at the top levels of chess can be explained by participation rates.

 

Short is highly critical of the participation hypothesis, elegantly lambasting the authors:

Only a bunch of academics could come up with such a preposterous conclusion which flies in the face of observation, common sense and an enormous amount of empirical evidence too.”

 

While the vast majority of academic literature, and hence ‘observation’ and ‘empirical evidence’ on the topic, supports the participation hypothesis, there are two studies since 2009 that back up Short’s rebuttal: Howard’s 2014 work, and an academic comment by Michael Knapp that criticised the statistical reliability of Bilalic et al.’s study. Yes, only a bunch of academics! Semantics aside, though, it’s time to directly address these articles.

 

The Knapp comment, despite Short’s claims, can hardly be said to be backed by ‘common sense’. Instead of assuming that the population of chess players follows a normal distribution (as is the case for IQ, height and many other natural phenomenon), Knapp adopts a ranking-preference approach that employs a negative hypergeometric distribution.

 

This doesn’t sound very logical to me. Knapp’s motivation is that the original Bilalic et al. model has a lot of problems forecasting ratings at the tails of the distribution; that is, the model’s accuracy at predicting the strength of the very best players is dubious. This is true, but the same can be said for almost any population where a normal distribution is assumed; IQ tests, for example, are notoriously unreliable for extremely smart (or vice-versa) people.

 

Moreover, it seems to me that a ranking mechanism, as Knapp suggests, faces similar problems at the tails. Ordinal ranking mechanisms don’t distinguish strength differences between ranking positions, so essentially a lot of information that we have via ELO ratings is being ignored. For example, the difference in strength between Carlsen (ELO 2870 as of April 24) and Caruana (2800) is assumed to be the same as between Caruana and the current world number 3, Nakamura (2799). I can’t say for sure that one approach is necessarily better than the other at the extremes – my knowledge of the negative hypergeometric distribution is a little shaky – but for investigating performance gaps for the average population, I don’t find Knapp’s rebuttal very convincing.

 

It’s a similar story with the Howard study, which I found very interesting. The study itself makes only modest claims: At the very top levels, the difference in performance cannot be fully explained by the participation hypothesis. Short seems to exaggerate this result:

 

“Howard debunks [the participation hypothesis] by showing that in countries like Georgia, where female participation is substantially higher than average, the gender gap actually increases – which is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would expect were the participatory hypothesis true.”

 

I don’t know what Short is referring to here, because there is nothing in the Howard article that suggests this. Figure 1 of the study shows that the gender gap is, and has always been, lower in Georgia than in the rest of the world for the subsamples tested (top 10 and top 50). Short may be referring to Figure 2, which, to be fair, probably shouldn’t have been included in the final paper. It looks at the gender gap as the number of games increases, but on the previous page of the article, Howard himself acknowledges that accounting for number of games played supports the participation hypothesis at all levels except the very extreme (Chabris and Glickman, 2006). If anything, this figure seems to suggest that the often-quoted statistic of a gender gap of 250 ELO points is vastly inflated. (There is also a third figure in the paper, showing that the career progression of Judit Polgar was similar to that of Gary Kasparov. I have no idea what this is meant to demonstrate.)

 

 

There are a couple of issues with the Howard study. The first is that it uses only FIDE ratings data, which does not account for drop-out rates and is statistically biased towards the top of the distribution. The serious problems of using only FIDE data to make inferences about the population are highlighted in an excellent (but rather dry) paper by Vaci, Gula and Bilalic in 2014. In short, the bottom line is that analysis based on FIDE data messes up performance differences with the question “Which gender is more likely to drop out of a chess career?”, which introduces a whole new set of explanations.

 

The second issue I have is that Howard restricts his sample to players who have played at least 650 FIDE-rated games. That is a heck of a lot of games! Howard has good reasons for doing this from a statistical perspective (see above), but it casts some doubt on the representativeness of the sample. Once we move into this range, we are beginning to talk about gender differences between people who play chess as their profession, rather than just general ability differences among the broader population.

 

Judit Polgar, the most successful (and famous) female chess player in history, suffered uncharacteristic rating slumps in the period immediately following the birth of each of her children. Professional chess in the open category is a full-time commitment, requiring a rigorous and demanding training regime. Peak performance is usually registered in the age range of 30-40. Should we be terribly surprised that there is a small but persistent gender gap among this extreme subset of chess professionals? I wouldn’t expect anything less.

 

The final issue I have with the Howard study is in regard to the Georgian data. Howard’s claim is that the very high percentage of female players (around 30 per cent) gives us a good opportunity to test his theory. Unfortunately, as he himself mentions, the sample here is extremely small. There are only 12 Georgian women that met the criteria of 650+ games during the period, and so the power of the comparisons is very weak. (Note that the majority of these women are/were also professionals, and thus subject to the maternal pressures mentioned above.)

 

However, the data is useful to answer a different question: Given that the chess culture in Georgia has historically been much more supportive of female players than other countries, how does the gender gap compare to the rest of the world? One would assume that if there is a large social component to the gender performance gap, then the most successful country for producing professional female chess players should have less of a gap than the average. Figure 1 of Howard’s paper shows that this is indeed the case. This supports a nurture argument to the gender gap, but again, the sample size is too small for anything definitive to be concluded.

 

In saying all of the above, let me finish by stating that I quite like the approach taken by Howard and Knapp in their analyses. I think that it is all too easy for people to approach gender issues from a resolute emotive or philosophical base, rather than being open to new scientific arguments. The participation hypothesis has certainly not been debunked, but neither can one say for certainty that neurological differences don’t play a role, particularly at the highest level. It seems to me on the basis of the current evidence that if we took a newborn boy and girl and asked the question, “Which is most likely to become world chess champion?”, the boy’s chances are slightly higher. But we are talking about minute differences to incredibly minute probabilities to being with. As to the much more significant question of which would be more likely to beat the other in the future, cultural effects excluded, nothing to date has managed to convince me that there should be a difference at all.

 
9

Men, Women and Nigel Short

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 21, 2015 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess

(See also the second, more technical follow-up: Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response)

 

Much to my amazement, chess has hit the front pages of the mainstream media for the third time in a fortnight. This time, however, it’s more a case of old wine in a new bottle. The always controversial English GM Nigel Short has come under the spotlight for claiming that male and female brains are differently hardwired when it comes to chess. Never mind that the article for New in Chess magazine was published three weeks ago; today was the day, for whatever reason, that the story went viral.

As you might expect, the English tabloids had a field day, covering angles from claims that Nigel said that women shouldn’t play chess at all, to claims that women have lower IQs than men, as well as branching out to the issue of general sexism in chess. While Nigel’s article didn’t hint at any of these claims, there are admittedly several strong players who believe the first two of these points, while the third – a male-dominated chess culture – is undoubtedly true.

I don’t want to get into these issues too much. I’m an academic, and for anyone familiar with scientific publications on gender in chess, the issue has really been done to death: After accounting for sample size – the fact that far fewer women play tournament chess than men – there is no significant evidence whatsoever that men are better than women. This has been shown in countless academic studies (although not a single one was quoted in any of the media reports today). I don’t claim that there aren’t relevant gender differences to professional chess – for one, men have been found to be on average more competitive than women – but this specific question, at least, has been answered some time ago.

If one really wanted to definitively test nature effects, the ideal hypothetical experiment would go something like this:

  1. Get some twins – one male, one female – and whisk them off to a desert island
  2. Raise them in identical conditions with no exposure whatsoever to gender influences
  3. Teach them both chess in identical training environments
  4. Test their chess strength
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with a thousand other sets of boy-girl twins

Not such a convenient experiment to run. But for many people, this is not the real question anyway. For most parents, what they really want to know is whether the answer to “Should I teach my daughter chess?” differs from “Should I teach my son chess?” Many parents are likely worried that the environment for success in chess is more difficult for girls than for boys – and to some extent, this is true. On the one hand, there are fantastic opportunities for female players in today’s chess society, with many more lucrative female-only competitions than there used to be. On the other hand, there remains a lot of sexism within the world of chess, as there seems to be in many gender-homogenous communities.

I’m not a parent, and I’m not qualified to give any advice on this. All I can say is that my future children will be given the chance to take up chess as soon as they are able, regardless of whether I sire little Smurfs or Smurfettes.

One final remark on the issue, specifically related to the common human fallacy of underestimating ‘non representative samples’. It sounds like a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo, but bear with me. I heard a comment with regard to today’s gender issue that “Of course men have higher IQs than women. If you saw a man and wife walking down the street and someone offered you a 50-50 bet for $100 over which one had a higher IQ, would you bet for the man or the woman?”

Interesting bet, but it’s crucial to realise that this is not the same question as if we had randomly chosen a man and a woman from the broader population, say the national census. We’ve been given extra information that restricts our sample: the man and woman in question are a couple. Why does this matter? Well, social scientists have well established that women traditionally value intelligence highly in a mate (either directly, or because they value wealth, which is strongly correlated with IQ). That’s not to say that men don’t like intelligent women; on average, however, men place higher priority on…other factors. So our man and woman are not representative of the broader population.

Of course, it would be possible to work this out if one really wanted, just as it would be possible to study whether male ballet dancers have lower IQs than female ballet dancers, or whether a gay hairdresser is better at parking cars than a straight hairdresser. But honestly, at some point the question we really need to ask is: who cares?

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