Boycott Iranian Chess? A reply

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 4, 2016 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

EDIT:  Nigel Short responded with an addendum that “the Iran bid was not mentioned in the FIDE General Assembly Agenda. It was sprung on Delegates as a surprise.” This procedural anomaly is worth mentioning in light of my shielding FIDE from blame in the text below.


Too-long-didn’t-read version:  I don’t support a mass boycott of the upcoming women’s world chess championships in Iran, or removing Iran’s right to host. My reason is that it will hurt, not help, gender equality, particularly in Iran. This will probably make me unpopular.

The chess world has been rocked in the last week by a fresh controversy, this time the awarding of hosting rights for the Women’s World Championship to Iran. The main tinder box was US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze issuing a statement that she will boycott the event rather than wear a hijab and acquiesce to sex discrimination, a provocative comment that was irresistible to the mainstream media (see these articles in Fox News, The Telegraph, CNN and of course the Daily Mail). Other notable chess celebrities, such as Nigel Short, Emil Sutovsky, Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabrina Chevannes, have strongly and angrily come out in support of her boycott.


This is a tough issue for me, and I’ve sat in nervous silence for a week while deciding whether to write about it. As many know, I’m a strong defender of equality and women’s rights, particularly in the chess world. And yet try as I might, I cannot support the proposal to withdraw Iran’s hosting rights and move the championship. My main reason for this, as ironic as it may seem, relates to defending and empowering women.


My opinion has landed me on quite an unfamiliar side of the political divide. Across the gorge are friends and others whose beliefs I generally respect, while some of those besides me are traditional ideological foes. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, particularly seeing as this debate seems to have brought out the worst of ad hominem in people, so I will tread carefully.


I’ll start with an obvious clarification. I’m not a supporter of the Iranian governmental regime, and many of its policies that engender the oppression of women are simply indefensible. Neither am I a ‘defender of Islam’, just as I don’t specifically promote any religion. (And let us not forget that almost every major religion, taken at its fundamental level, demands gender discrimination, with the notable exception of Pastafarianism.) Several of the public criticisms of having Iran as host seem to be well-intentioned, but use the guise of “defending women’s rights” to champion an anti-Islam agenda (thereby employing another logical fallacy, that of tying). Opposition to freedom of religion has no place in this debate. Others have argued that FIDE has put women’s lives in danger by awarding the host to an unsafe country, a not unreasonable objection, but also one not supported by precedent.


I do not at all oppose the right of an individual (or team of individuals) to boycott this or any other event, nor their right to publicly state their reasons for doing so. But here we are talking about a mass, organised boycott and potential removal of Iran’s hosting rights, and as such, it’s important not to conflate the issues above. First, many international events (and here I mean world championships for both genders, European championships and world senior, youth and junior events) have been held in countries that are predominantly Muslim, are suffering unrest, face high crime rates, have a historically bad record on human rights or have deep political conflicts with other nations. Players from thirty-four countries were not permitted (by their own nations) to participate in the 1976 Olympiad in Israel. In 1978 at the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, some players could allegedly hear the shots of executions of political dissidents by the Argentinian junta as they played their games (it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed during the Dirty War of 1976-1983). At the 2006 World Student Championships in Lagos, participants were not allowed to leave their hotels without armed guards. There are many stories of corruption and human rights abuses carried out by the Aliyev-led government of Azerbaijan, a great supporter of international chess and host of the recent 2016 Olympiad. (Incidentally, former Olympiad champions Armenia could not participate for fear of violence.)


And of course there have been similar moves in other sports: many objections were raised to China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympiads for reasons of its human rights record, while the US famously boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. My point is that one cannot simply exclude a country as host due to political or religious objections, or because the conditions aren’t favourable to a particular country. That’s not the way of international sport. So let’s turn now to the one viable issue at stake: whether a participant should be forced to wear a hijab.


The hijab is a head covering worn predominantly by Muslim women, originally as a symbol of “modesty and privacy” (Wikipedia). Less than 50% of self-professed Muslim women wear one, though statistics here are unreliable. Iran’s government is somewhat unique in that it follows what is commonly (though inaccurately) called Sharia Law, in that the principles of Shia Islam are hardwired into the Constitution. Practically, this means that citizens can be arrested for breaking those principles, including with regard to dress. Men cannot wear shorts in public places. Women must have their hair covered by a scarf or hijab, though for tourists and foreigners, the punishment for forgetting is usually a request to get one. As with men, legs should be covered, but all the way to the ankles (sandals or bare feet are allowed).


At the championships in Iran, the female players will be required to adhere to the Iranian dress code. This has been the case at all international chess events held in Iran (including the 2016 Women’s Grand Prix, in which 12 of the world’s top female players took part). Many other countries have strong cultural norms that follow these principles, although there may not be legal punishments in play. At two world junior championships in India in which I competed, both foreign boys and girls felt some cultural pressure to dress to cover our legs; in fact, refusal to do so actually led to the male and female events being segregated into different rooms!


After that very long setup, we come to the key point. The main question is whether or not FIDE’s awarding the hosting right to Iran, which means women must wear hijabs during the games, constitutes gender discrimination. First, 165 member nations of FIDE had a chance to vote against Iran’s bid, and none did, so I’m not even sure FIDE or its Commission for Women’s Chess could be blamed in any case. (This issue really does make for strange bedfellows.) Secondly, the wearing of the hijab is an Iranian law, not a rule made by the organisers. And finally, covering the head is by and large a reflection of the cultural values of the host country that are admittedly tied to its religion, in much the same way that a woman would take off shoes before entering a Hindu temple, remove her hat at a Christian church or funeral, or refrain from touching a Buddhist monk. To some individuals, I can understand that a hijab might symbolize oppression, but only if that is one’s stance against Islam; in that case, a personal boycott is the appropriate action. If the players were required to drape themselves in the Iranian flag, that might be another issue. But here, the players aren’t being asked to do anything more than what any other tourist or visitor to Iran is asked.


(As an aside: A good point was raised by IM Elizabeth Paehtz, who wondered how women would be permitted to be alone with their male trainers, which may also defy Iranian principles. This is something that could materially affect the players’ preparations as it has done for Iranian girls competing in events, and I hope a solution is found.)


Finally, why does this issue matter, if at all? The truth is, it matters a whole lot. Iranian chess has seen something of a revolution in the last decade, and the national team at the Olympiad was one of the standouts. The federation has organised several large tournaments and events, including the aforementioned Women’s Grand Prix earlier this year. While women do suffer oppression in everyday life in Iran, as has been well documented, chess is a medium through which they can travel, engage in bilateral cultural exchange with their western counterparts, earn respect and standing among their male peers at home, and potentially even foster an independent career. For girls, it provides a complementary source of education, along with all the associated benefits, as well as rare opportunities to interact and compete with boys on a more even footing.


I’m not the only one who thinks this. GMs Adly and Al-Medaihki, for example, have spoken out strongly on this matter. But on this point, I can’t do better than re-quote the statement of Mitra Hejazipour, a women’s grand master from Iran and winner of the 2015 Asian continental championships. She pleaded:


“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past. It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”


In an interview with The Guardian, she went on to say that such a move would ‘isolate Iran and ignore progress that Iranian women have made in the country.’


I agree. For me, the key test is to consider: Would the lives of Iranian women and girls be better or worse if all major events were banned in their country? I have carefully weighed the evidence, and I believe it is in the best interests of promoting equality and lifting Iranian women out of oppression for the championships to go ahead. This is probably going to make me unpopular among some of the more opinionated in the chess world, but I can’t compromise my beliefs on this. Individuals such as Paikidze may wish to boycott it, as is their right. But please, let’s keep sight of who the real victims are here, and look at the big picture: supporting equality for women, everywhere.


Do women play less beautiful chess? A rebuttal

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 28, 2016 in Chess, Economics, Gender, Non-chess

I generally try to avoid the Chessbase news site, as experience has demonstrated that reading its articles generally leads to me hitting my own head more than is considered healthy. But this morning I stumbled across what on the surface seemed an incredible article. Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, wrote an article claiming to have found evidence that women play less beautiful chess than men. He recently presented his scientific findings, based on his own advanced computer software, at the reputable International Congress on Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Science.


Readers will know that I’ve previously weighed in on the “gender in chess” debate (see here, and in a more academic sense here). But I like to keep an open mind about things, especially if they are backed by scientific evidence, and so I made myself a coffee and sat down to dissect the groundbreaking research of “Azlan Iqbal, PhD”, as he himself writes under the title.


Despite my general rule of distrust for anything written by someone who feels the need to write “PhD” after their name, the fact that his paper was accepted at an international conference was heartening, and Iqbal also provided the slides from the conference and the academic paper for reference. The Chessbase article summarized the main findings, which seemed to conclusively demonstrate that women play less aesthetically than men in his exhaustive analysis of Chessbase’s “Big Database 2015”. It seems somehow absurd on the surface that this result could even be measured, let alone whether it has any truth, but I pressed on, eager to see the real analysis. As the coffee slowly made its way into my system, I decided to start with the conference slides and then move on to the more technical scientific article.


The introduction of the presentation starts with the smiling photos of Magnus Carlsen and Mariya Muzychuk, together with their ELO ratings and the comment that “Statistically, a player rated 2882 has an 88% chance of defeating a player rated 2530 in a game.” Of course, every chess rating system only gives the expected score in a game, and says nothing at all about the chances of winning. Not a great start, but an easy mistake to make and so, excuses made, I moved on. The next slide started with the bold statement “Research suggests that men are better at chess than women.” Ugh! As I (and many others) wrote about extensively, this is certainly not the academic consensus. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion –  even though in this case it was hardly framed as one. I quickly moved on, and – ah! – the next slides have actual chess diagrams in them! Iqbal presents a simple example of a famous mate-in-three:


Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.48.38


Seen this before? Of course; it’s a beautiful and famous chess puzzle. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s next slide, purporting to show the solution, begins “1.Nxh6+”. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Naturally we can excuse this as a simple double-typo, although the little errors by now were beginning to accrue.


I hastily moved on to the real analysis. Iqbal describes his methodology as follows: He wanted to compare all mate-in-three sequences by men and women in the Chessbase database of games, ranking them with his patented software ‘Chesthetica’ for aestheticism. Now you might immediately be struck by one obvious questions here, as I was. What evidence is there that executed mate-in-threes can reflect general beauty in playing chess? Unfortunately, the only justification given is that three-move mates give the most consistent testing results from his software. The natural follow-up question is then to ask: how do we know Chesthetica is really measuring chess beauty? Ah, but here Iqbal preemptively counters with that often-used and curiously vague ‘get out of jail free’ card: Chesthica has been “experimentally validated”!


Confused? Never fear; now we get to the real data. Of the 6.3 million games in Big Database 2015, Iqbal extracted a sample of 1069 games by women and 115 games by men. Wait, what? Less than 1200 games out of over six million, and only 115 games by men? What’s going on?! There’s nothing in the slides to explain this inconceivably small sample, so I finally delved in to the full academic paper. And that’s when things got strange.


The first incomprehensible feature of the data collection is that Iqbal extracted only the games where White checkmated Black. This shortcut immediately threw out half the sample. The only reason I can possibly think of for this is that he didn’t want to have to modify his Chesthetica software to be able to flip the colours when it analyzed the Black-checkmating-White games – although given that Iqbal’s profession is computer science, this seems highly unlikely. I honestly have no idea why half the games would be discarded in this way, especially as Iqbal goes on to make the excuse many times in his paper that the analysis suffers from too few suitable games.


But how is it possible that he ended up with fewer male games? Well, the second baffling component is that the sample was split by gender using an incredibly rudimentary method: by filtering for tournaments with “women” or “men” in the game data. And surprise surprise, there were very few men-only events. I have to say that this seems like an astonishingly lazy way to filter the data. Why not just cross-reference the sample against any standard database of female players? Or hey, even just sort manually over a day or two? After all, I guess this is what Iqbal next had to do anyway, because he goes on to write that his team “managed to identify enough additional games between males to bring the 115 set to 1,069 as well.”


I found the term ‘managed’ a bit comical, seeing as he would have had literally tens of thousands of candidate games to choose from. How did they select the games? Were they random? And why limit this to exactly 1,069? Any basic statistical comparison can handle uneven numbers in the samples, and practically always in science, ‘more data is better’ from an academic perspective. It it very strange to say the least to limit one’s sample to an identical match (and highly unlikely that this came about by chance).


The eagle-eyed observer, however, will have noticed an even stranger term in Iqbal’s last sentence: “between males”. And indeed, closer inspection reveals that the database includes games by males only against other males, and games by females only against other females. Why?! Is Iqbal testing whether women play more beautifully against other women, perhaps as an extension of the famous Maass, d’Ettole and Cadinu paper of 2008? Well, no, and in any case, this would still require a sample of checkmates by women against male players.


I can think of no sensible explanation for this restriction, except that perhaps this was what came out of the primitive “women” and “men” tournament search. The result of this piece of academic lethargy is a bit more serious than just reducing the size of the data sample, as in the above cases. It adds an extra potential bias to the data, which is most likely a serious one given that – as Iqbal himself quotes in the paper – research has shown that women play differently against men than they do against other women.


By now I was on to my second coffee and getting slightly worried: I hadn’t yet reached the main results of the analysis and already the data set was (a) unnecessarily small and (b) most likely corrupt. With more than a degree of trepidation, I turned to the slide with the chief experimental results, and breathed a sigh of relief:


Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 14.26.45


“Elo & Age Independent”! Yes! That was a huge relief to see; after all, the average Elo, a crucial component to aesthetic chess, is most certainly different between the male and female samples, and there’s almost certainly an age difference as well (although how relevant age is to chess beauty is debatable). But the fact that these factors had been excluded was absolutely necessary for the results to have any worth at all.


But I did begin to wonder how Iqbal had done this. After all, it would have required a reasonable (though not infeasible) amount of work to extract these variables from the Chessbase dataset, and all evidence so far had suggested that he was against excessive effort if it could be avoided. I turned back to the academic paper to find out the details. I took a sip of coffee, turned back to the paper, and almost spat it out as I read in black and white:


“There was no filtering based on age or playing strength as this study is concerned more with gender differences and aesthetic quality of play…” 




At this point, I considered whether I should even bother to read the rest of the article. It was of course possible that Iqbal had run multiple econometric regressions to try to control for the influence of age and Elo. But this would have run into all sorts of technical problems, such as the relationships between gender, Elo and age, as well as what we call ‘endogeneity’ – for example, one would have to prove that trying to play ‘beautiful chess’ in all your games doesn’t affect your rating. There are econometric techniques to deal at least in part with many of these concerns. None are mentioned. In fact, the explanation about Elo and age independence is curiously missing entirely from the scientific paper.


Not to worry; we shall persevere! I continued reading. Iqbal’s next result is to show that checkmates by strong players (Elo 2500 and above) are statistically more beautiful than average, according to his software. I doubt this surprises anyone. A major problem with this analysis is that checkmates that actually appear on the board in games are far more likely to occur in much weaker level games. It is very well ingrained chess etiquette for GMs to resign before checkmate is delivered, especially if it is forced (and forced checkmates are the only types Iqbal considers – don’t get me started about this).


So when might a forced checkmate actually be seen in a GM game? You guessed it: when it’s exceptionally beautiful. That’s the only time chess etiquette dictates that a player shouldn’t resign but allow the mate to be played out, if he or she wants. So this means that testing the relationship between Elo and checkmating beauty is inherently, inseparably flawed. GMs allow other GMs to deliver mate only when the checkmates are already beautiful – unless of course it happens during blitz, but no sensible study would include those games.


Well…it turns out Iqbal’s sample does include blitz games. And rapid, and exhibition games, and also – wait for it – games from simultaneous exhibitions.


I could go on, but you are probably already at the limits of your endurance. But allow me to leave you with just a few pearls of wisdom that can be found buried within the discussion in the paper. Iqbal is obviously proud of his main finding that females play less beautifully than males, as he extrapolates this to an insight into the psychological preferences of women, writing:


“Do the results then imply that women have less artistic appreciation of the game? Perhaps.”


He also suggests some keen intuition into the depths of – you’ll like this – the psychology of computers.


“This suggests that computers, regardless of their playing strength or ‘experience’ (if any), …perhaps [have] just no conscious or unconscious appreciation of art…”


All I can say to such shrewd perceptions is: thank God we have men.


It is not all bad news for females. Iqbal does, in a rare concession for the paper, offer the following caveat to his analysis:


“Logically, it would also follow that there are likely domains where women fare better aesthetically than men.” 


One or two do come to mind.


Reading over what I’ve written above, I feel a little guilty for the harsh and dismissive way I’ve criticized Iqbal’s work. So let me conclude with a positive note: In general, I am optimistic and supportive of scientific efforts to use chess as a tool to analyze different questions. There have been several interesting academic works in recent years that have done this, and I genuinely think that Iqbal’s Chesthetica software has its role to play in the future of chess research. But such research has to be conducted in a thorough, industrious and attentive manner, especially if it purports to lofty claims in areas such as gender. If not, the methodology is prone to stern aspersion or, even worse, outright dismissal.


I finished my second coffee just as I came to the concluding paragraphs of Iqbal’s paper. And here, finally, I agreed wholeheartedly with one of his generalized statements, and so it’s a good note on which to finish this rebuttal:


“In general, what we have demonstrated should not be taken too seriously…”


With that, I shut down my computer.




Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response

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


  • 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.


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?


Is Tony Abbott a Misogynist? Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

Well, my attempts to break down the Tony Abbott gender issue into simple, undisputable mathematics proved anything but uncontroversial. On my Facebook page, the comments came thick and fast, quickly turning my wall into rigorous debating forum.  The post received so much interest that for a couple of days in a row last week, it came up as one of the top Google hits of searches for “Tony Abbott gender bias one woman cabinet” (although, as Roger Emerson cheekily pointed out, it was also the top Google hit for “David Smerdon misogynist”).

There was quite a lot of support for my post, but of course, those aren’t the most interesting comments…everyone loves controversy! Criticisms largely came in three categories: emotive, philosophical and mathematical. A brief summary follows, after which I offer a small correction to the statistical analysis.


A small percentage of the comments fall into what can generously be termed “emotive” arguments – in other words, arguments based more on emotion than substance.

Some comments implied, directly or indirectly, that I was supporting or defending Tony Abbott’s sexism, with one commenter going so far as to dispute my own claims to promoting gender equality. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have for many years been active in my pursuit of gender equality, both in Australia and abroad, and I certainly would not call myself an Abbott supporter in any form. In fact, the main reason I imposed significance criteria ex-ante was to ensure that my own biases against Abbott didn’t massage the statistical results to suggest a gender bias that wasn’t there.

Furthermore, one of the driving factors for wanting to check the statistics is that I believe public criticisms in the media from feminists must not misrepresent the facts if their wielders truly want to further their cause. Gender equality is an emotion-charged topic and often provokes fiery reactions, but how can the voice of equality be trusted if it is found to have misrepresented, deceived or used false facts in the past? Proponents for change have to be especially careful in this regard, and I don’t think being factually careful is worthy of vilification from members of one’s own cause. As I said in response to one such comment, “Just call be Galileo.”

A further emotive criticism was that the analysis was irrelevant because it wouldn’t be understood by “about 99% of the population.” If this were true, I shudder to think about the future of science (as well as chess, making soufflés and speaking Swahili, come to mention it).


Elements of rational debate were employed by quite a few commentators seeking to invalidate the analysis. Two of my acquaintances pointed out that a prior belief that Tony Abbott is sexist would not be refuted by a statistical significance between 5% and 10%, and therefore his sexism could not be disproved. These and other comments led me to realise that the title of the article was a bit misleading. In the end, the analysis measures gender bias in the appointments; I make no comment on Abbott’s sexism per se, which is more of a personality assessment. However, the point about prior beliefs applies equally to gender bias in the Cabinet. If one believes beforehand that Abbott would choose a biased Cabinet, then the statistics do not disprove this belief, and thus it can be continued.

Quite a few others focussed on outside factors that could have confounded the analysis, such as ministerial and geographical quotas in the Liberal-National coalition – quotas I must admit I wasn’t aware of.  Coupled with heterogeneity (in other words, other differences) in pre-selection, electorates, merit and experience of the candidates, etc, it was claimed that the analysis was not valid and did not disprove the gender bias.

My response to both of these criticisms is the same. Confounding factors only serve to reinforce that one cannot claim a gender bias in the appointments from the facts. These arguments use what is known as “Burden of Proof Reversal”, a cardinal sin in rational debate, but unfortunately a commonly employed one in politics and the mainstream media. The approach usually claims that something is true simply by stating that is cannot be proved it is not true. Preaching that the earth is flat in an age without astrological tools is one example.

However, in science as well as law, the proof should be on the claimant. If a man is accused of murder, the onus is on the accusers (or their representatives) to supply the evidence to support the claim. Such ‘presumption of innocence’ should also apply to public vilification in the media. In this case, the claim is that Tony Abbott exhibited gender bias in the Cabinet appointments, and the evidence supplied is the ratio of women to men – nothing more (this was the case in, for example, media reports by the ABC, the Australian, the Huffington Post and Adelaide Now, among others). The fuzzier the evidence, then, the weaker the claim, and therefore more shame to these media outlets, in my opinion. My statistical analysis is meant as a rational attempt to clarify the factual ‘evidence’ supporting the claims, and my conclusion is that, even with confounding variables excluded, the numbers don’t stack up.


Finally we turn to the real embarrassment of this addendum to the original post: My mathematics was wrong! My thanks to Dave Mitchell and Melissa Hogan (two of my friends studying at the Australian National University and who I met from ju-jitsu, of all things) for pointing out the error. [EDIT: Since writing this, Barry Cox has also made the same mathematical point in the comments.] While the mistake does alter the analysis such that the chances of gender bias seem lower than they actually are, the bias is small enough that there still isn’t quite enough evidence to support the claim against Tony Abbott – although it’s now pretty close.

Before we get into the technical aspects, the problem can be summed up succinctly as follows: I chose an approximation to the true probability that wasn’t appropriate and systematically biased the analysis against there being a gender bias. Oops. The story of the error is a little bit amusing. I came up with the idea to do this analysis while sitting in my local café with nothing more than a pen, some napkins and my archaic mobile phone. When I started, I quickly realised that calculating the true probability, as you’ll see below, involves multiplying such huge numbers that I had no chance to work things out. Adopting a binomial approximation, on the other hand, meant that I only needed to calculate a couple of powers (e.g. 0.78118), which my phone-calculator was capable of handling. I never bothered to check things afterwards, much to my shame.

In fact, as both Dave and Mel commented, the binomial approximation can only be used in what is known as ‘sampling with replacement’. In other words, by using this approximation I was essentially posing the question, “If there is a 22% chance of choosing a women and I choose one person at random, and repeat this exercise 18 times, what are the chances of picking no more than one woman?”

Sounds reasonable – but it’s not quite correct. Melissa and her colleague backed up their criticism by running Monte Carlo computer simulations that showed the chances of randomly selecting not more than one woman in the Cabinet are roughly 5.5%. At first I have to confess I was suspicious of this claim, but I should have known better – Mel is one smart cookie J I ran my own simulations and got the same result (and about 6.3% with Bronwyn Bishop removed). Annoyed with myself, I did the proper calculations analytically doing the heavy calculations on a computer and, lo and behold, I got 5.49% and 6.29% respectively. D’oh.

This is still outside the stipulated 5% level, though it’s obviously much closer. Given the burden of proof on those claiming a bias, and given that three chief excluded variables – experience, a male-heavy Nationals party and the higher weighting of Julie Bishop’s portfolio – all systematically seem to move the analysis away from a significant gender bias, I think the main result still holds. Some commenters claimed, correctly, that a proper data set could be constructed to include most of these variables and thus get more accurate results. However, given I’m not paid for my writings and also the heat I’ve taken for the analysis to date, I’m probably not going to do it…but we’ll see.

Barry Cox also made the point that it could be argued Tony Abbott had little choice but to choose his chief Cabinet ministers, and in fact he could only exercise choice in the more minor positions. That rules out Julie Bishop, Warren Truss, Joe Hockey and whoever else one deems a ‘forced appointment’ from the analysis. Barry shows that the subsequent revised analysis would show above a 95% probability of gender bias unless one assumes Tony Abbott had a say in less than eleven Cabinet ministers (or, as I showed, in all 18 of them). This is a really interesting result in my opinion. However, my analysis has steered clear of political arguments for the most part, and so I have continued to assume that Tony Abbott chose his entire Cabinet, but this stream of analysis is definitely worthy of more attention.

Here is the correct graph of the probabilities for each possible number of female Cabinet members.


The correct distribution

For comparison, here is the graph I previously supplied.


The old, incorrect distribution, which places too much emphasis on the 'tails'


As you can see, they’re pretty similar, but if you look closely you’ll notice the correct graph is weighted higher in the middle section of the graph and weighted lower on the edges – so there is a marginally higher chance of more than women in the Cabinet.

What follows is the mathematical derivation of the correct probabilities. Feel free to skip it if it looks horrifying or hypnagogic.

(Note: In what follows, $latex n\choose k$ is the symbol for the so-called binomial coefficient. It is sometimes written as nCk or as $latex \frac{n!}{k!(n-k)!}$, which can be written in full as $latex \frac{n*(n-1)*(n-2)*\dots*2*1}{k*(k-1)*\dots*2*1*(n-k-1)*(n-k-2)*\dots*2*1}$. Looks scary, but a lot of numbers cancel out from the top and the bottom. For example, $latex 7\choose 3$ can be calculated as $latex \frac{7*6*5*4*3*2*1}{3*2*1*4*3*2*1}$, which simplifies to $latex \frac{7*6*5}{3*2}=35$.)

$latex Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman)$

$latex =Pr(0\quad women)+Pr(1\quad women)$


$latex =\frac{(\text{\#ways 18 men can be chosen})+(\text{\# ways 17 men and 1 woman can be chosen)}}{{\text{Total \#ways 18 Cabinet members can be chosen from 114 candidates}}}$

Then, breaking it down:

$latex Pr(0\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {18}}{\binom {114} {18}}$

$latex \qquad =\frac{89*88*\dots*73*72}{114*113*\dots*98*97}$

$latex \qquad \approx 0.0076$


$latex Pr(1\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {17} *\binom {25} 1}{\binom {114} {18}}$

$latex =\frac{25*18*89*88*\dots*73}{114*113*\dots*98*97}$

$latex \approx 0.0473$


$latex Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman)$

$latex \approx 0.0076+0.0473\approx 0.0549$


$latex \approx 5.49\%.$



Is Tony Abbott A Misogynist? A Statistical Analysis

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 27, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

[EDIT: Make sure you don’t miss Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections for an update on the analysis.]


Like many Australians, I was dismayed to read that the newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had appointed an incredibly male-heavy Ministry to the Parliament of Australia. Most news reports in the mainstream media, both at home and abroad, slammed the announcement by levelling a fairly routine string of sexist labels at our new head of government, the most common being “Misogynist”. However, I was a little surprised by the lack of any quantitative evidence suggesting that the appointments were based on sexism over, say, statistical chance, so I decided to do a rudimentary check myself. Below you’ll find the results of a basic statistical analysis to answer the question:

Is there a gender bias in Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet?

I should point out that this is hardly the first time Tony Abbott has been called this in his life. Throughout his political career, Abbott has regularly been called insensitive to gender equality and the concerns of women, as well as possessing views on gender issues more likely found among Australian males half a century ago. However, to me, none of those reports have been especially convincing, either. As a feminist as well as someone who strongly opposes a lot of Abbott’s policies (particularly with regard to climate change and refugee policy), I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally analyse some ‘hard’ data in coming to a conclusion about our new chief. After reading the initial reports that the new Cabinet contained only one woman out of 19 spots, I felt pretty confident. In the words of Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose, “You can’t have that kind of parliament in 2013. It’s unacceptable.”  How could the data suggest anything other than that the man is a raving chauvinistic pig?

However, it turns out that things are not so simple. For starters, the Australian media has a reputation for being (a) incredibly biased, and (b) terrible at statistics. First, a lot of reports link to the following graph, taken from the Australian Labor Party website:

The most obvious question that comes to my mind is: Why aren’t the values given as percentages? Of course, this doesn’t matter if all the cabinets are the same size…but a quick check shows that this is indeed not the case. For example, India’s cabinet (made up of ‘Union Members’) has 33 spots. My second concern was about the choice of countries, which seemed incredibly arbitrary. The ALP chose to compare Australia to such countries as Rwanda, Liberia and Egypt, but excluded the United Kingdom (our closest parliamentary sibling), most of the G20 countries, and in fact ALL of Europe! Show this graph to anyone with even the vaguest of quantitative training and they’ll start screaming “Data mining! Data mining!” before you can blink.

Comparing ourselves to other countries is a bit fishy in any case. If every country always did this, no women would ever have been elected to high office in any country, ever. No, what I really want to know is whether the election of one single female (Julie Bishop) to Abbott’s new Cabinet could have come about by chance, or whether it suggests deliberate sexist. To ensure that my own biases don’t interfere with the analysis, I established a threshold before I got into the numbers. In any sort of quantitative research, the standard measure is to be at least 95% confident of something in order to draw a conclusion (formally, ‘reject a hypothesis’). I therefore decided that Tony Abbott could be considered guilty of gender bias in his appointments if it could be shown that we could be 95% sure the male/female ratio did not come about by chance. To be perfectly clear, I decided beforehand (ex ante) the analysis would conclude that Tony Abbott’s appointments:

  • were gender-biased if the chances of them being random were less than 5%; or
  • were random, and the media reports should be condemned for factual inaccuracy, if the chances of them being random were greater than 10%; or
  • could not convincingly be shown to be gender-biased if the chances were between 5% and 10%.

So let’s set up the analysis. Now, Abbott was of course elected Prime Minister before he chose his  own Cabinet, so we should exclude him from the list – the relevant statistic is then “One woman out of 18 spots”. Not all of the seats had been officially declared by the time the Cabinet was announced, but according to the Liberal Party website, Abbott had a total of 114 Members and Senators to choose from to fill these 17 spots. Of these candidates, 89 (78.1%) are male and 25 (21.9%) are female. (Note that this excludes the appointment of Bronwyn Bishop as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, so called “the most important position in Parliament” Australia’s premier newspaper The Australian. If she is excluded from the list, the percentage of female candidates falls slightly to 21.2%.)

Further, let’s assume that each female candidate is equally as qualified as each male candidate to serve in Cabinet. Now, this has been a contentious issue in the media, with a lot of the justifications given to the male-dominated appointments revolving around the issue of ‘merit’. Former Liberal Senator and Ambassador to Italy Amanda Vanstone is quoted as saying, “I’d rather have good government, than have more women in the cabinet for the sake of it.” However, let’s ignore merit arguments and focus on the numbers. From a statistical perspective, the question then becomes:

“Assuming all candidates are equally likely to be picked, what is the chance that Tony Abbott appointed no more than one woman (5.6%) to the Cabinet?”

First, note that if we take the ratio of females from the list of candidates and apply it directly to the 18 Cabinet positions, we would expect roughly four women to be appointed (0.219*18 = 3.95). However, we would expect exactly four women to be selected around 20% of the time. We can model the random likelihood of any number of women being selected by what is known as a ‘binomial distribution’. Basically, if Tony Abbott was to put all 114 candidates’ names into a hat and take out 18 at random, and repeat this 100 times, the graph below tells us how many times we would expect each possible gender division to occur.

Therefore, the chances of no more than one woman being appointed – that is, the probability of appointing zero or one woman – looks to be around 7%. Indeed, calculations bear this out (‘P’ stands for ‘Probability’ in what follows):

P(No more than one woman)

= P(0 women) + P(1 woman)

= (0.781)18 + 18*0.219*(0.781)17

= 0.012 + 0.059

= 0.07

= 7%

So the answer falls within 5% and 10%, leading us to conclude that the actual Cabinet appointments do not convincingly suggest gender bias.

Still, you might think that finding only a 7% chance that a Cabinet with one woman was randomly selected is still something to think about. This may be true, but taking into account a few other factors dilutes the strength of the result even further. Excluding the new Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop, from the initial sample raises the probability of randomly selecting no more than one woman to 8%.

Furthermore, the one woman who did make it into Abbott’s Cabinet, Julie Bishop, has been appointed Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party as well as taking on the esteemed Minister for Foreign Affairs portfolio. Along with Warren Truss (Deputy Prime Minister) and Joe Hockey (Treasurer), she thus takes one of the three chief roles in Tony Abbott’s leadership team. One woman out of these three key positions is technically something of an overrepresentation, given the candidates available, and so our result weakens further if we weight the spots accordingly. For example, just for argument’s sake, assume that getting appointed to one of these roles is doubly as important as other positions in the Cabinet. That is, assume a woman earns one ‘point’ for each normal Cabinet position and two ‘points’ for one of these chief positions. Then the current Cabinet earns two points through its women (or woman, in this case). The chance of the Cabinet earning no more than two points with a random selection of the candidates is then a whopping 17%. Don’t be scared of the formulas…

P(No more than two points earned by women)

= P(0 points) + P(1 point) + P(2 points)

= (0.781)18 + 15*0.219*(0.791)17 + 15*7*(0.219)2*(0.781)15

= 0.01 + 0.05 + 0.11

= 0.17

= 17%

Even less convincingly, when I use this weighted approach in conjunction with excluding Bronwyn Bishop from the list of candidates, the chance that the current parliamentary Cabinet could occur randomly without gender bias rises to 18%. Statistically, such numbers mean we can basically rule out any sort of gender effect at all.

There are a couple of little caveats I’d like to point out before we jump to any conclusions. This very basic statistical analysis makes a lot of assumptions which may or may not be justified. For example, the men and women in our list of candidates may not be equally capable to serve in the Cabinet after all. For example, what if, all else being equal, older politicians are on average better suited to the Cabinet than younger politicians? This could be relevant because the male and female candidates’ average ages might be different. Judging from the photos on the Liberal Party website, it seems to me that the men are on average older than the women, but of course I should actually get the ages and then compute some sort of weighting scheme if I want to really work out the effect. My intuition tells me, however, that including this feature would produce less sexism in the results.

Secondly, my analysis assumes that Tony Abbott selected all Cabinet positions simultaneously. Of course, it’s more likely that he selected the most important positions first and then worked down the order. I’m not sure how this would change my results; intuitively it shouldn’t make much of a difference, except that Julie Bishop’s position again takes on a little more precedence.

Finally, I’ve assumed that Tony Abbott was essentially just given a list of elected candidates and told to choose a Cabinet. That is, I assume Tony Abbott had no say in selecting the Liberal Party nominees for the electoral seats, which may have led to the gender bias in the candidates in the first place. But that’s a topic for another project.

In the end, then (if you’ve managed to read this far), it does seem that the emotive journalistic style of the Australian media has again got something to answer for in its vilification of Tony Abbott on this issue. I’m not saying our new Prime Minister is taint-free on matters of gender policy – far from it, but my own opinions shouldn’t weigh into it. So here it is, finally: The bottom line, from a basic statistical analysis.

We cannot conclude there is any gender bias in Tony Abbott’s appointment of his Cabinet.






Peru Part IV – Mountains, Machu Picchu and Matrimonial Mix-ups

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 1, 2011 in Gender, Non-chess

Well, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, I eventually made it to the famed Machu Pichu.  I even managed to get there before the tourist hordes in

The ruins of Machu Picchu, at dawn.

time for the dawn.  I have to say, of all the things I’ve seen on my travels, I’ve experienced none more beautiful than watching the sun rise over the colossal tree-covered Peruvian mountains and illuminate the Inca ruins in some sort of beautifully silent and vaguely mystical occasion.

And, well, I didn’t vomit.

Together with my slightly concerned travel buddy, I touched down in Cusco still feeling nauseous, a little shocked by the altitude, and with no idea of whether we could get tickets to Machu Picchu.  The best chance Jessie and I had identified involved changing flight, train and bus tickets (to the tune of almost a thousand dollars) and hoping that the tickets didn’t get sold out in the meantime.  It seemed Lady Karma had all the ingredients to record yet another point in our never-ending blitz match.

But, would you believe, things finally started going my way.  The taxi we caught just happened to be the one that Mary, a local tour operator, jumped into to grab a lift back to her Mother’s new hostel.  And it just so happened, as we got talking, that her tour had two cancellations and so she had just acquired two spare tickets (rarer than one of Willy Wonka gold in this manic Peruvian Independence week).  Not only that, but the tour tickets came with a guided trip to the Sacred Valley, local markets and other ruins, bus tickets everywhere, and personal pick-ups from all our various transport interchanges.

All were quickly snapped up by Jessie and I when we stopped by the hostel – which, it turns out, was awesome and dirt cheap.  We changed reservations and booked ourselves in, whereupon, overwhelmed by illness, altitude, sleep deprivation and a little bit of touristic relief, I instantly fell asleep for a good sixteen hours.

Cue a montage of hitch-free vacationing, resplendent with clear blue skies and breathtaking scenery, ancient ruins, colourful markets, friendly locals, hilarious guides and enough decorative Incan chessboards to keep me grinning like a politician at a fundraiser.

It wasn’t all serendipitously easy, mind you.  Our 6am morning bus tickets to Machu Picchu were forgotten by one of our guides when we arrived in Aguas Calientes (the little town closest to the ruins) at one in the morning.  Not only that, but our hostel had mistakenly assumed (as did most of our hospitality services) that Jessie and I were a couple, and put us in a double room, ironically called a “matrimonial room” in Spanish.  Jessie is gay, but considering this continent’s generic homophobia, particularly outside of the major cities, trying to convince locals in broken Spanish that we were a man and a woman travelling as amigos was frustratingly difficult – and, at times, hilarious.

(Ironically, one of the most liberal places I encountered for this sort of issue was the fantastic Hotel Cataratas that Manuel and I stayed at when we visited the majestic Iguazu waterfalls on the border of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.  I mention irony because the hotels in general for this natural attraction are nothing to write home about and the service industry in general is notoriously poor, but this hotel was a little oasis, run by a couple of young guys with a refreshingly modern hospitality style and a savvy business sense.

When Manuel and I arrived, having booked via email as “two friends travelling”, we were given the matrimonial room, complete with one large bed, honeymoon decor and roses.  Our protestations were initially met with “But, it’s muy romantico, no?” by our receptionist, but we managed to convince them that two beds would be rather infinitely preferable.  Still, given the general reception Jessie and I encountered in Cusco, Hotel Cataratas deserve a rare bit of kudos.)

The "happy couple", at Iguazu waterfalls.

Still, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience, as we were up at 3.30am anyway to get in line for bus tickets on the street in the freezing cold (the ticket office doesn’t open until 5.15am).  It was all worth it, though, as we managed to get on the first bus and be at the ruins by opening at 6am, before the dawn.

After a lot of pleasantly crowd-free exploring with the obligatory thousand photos, a beautiful sunrise and a two-hour guided tour, Jessie headed back to sleep.  I, however, had been informed that Mount Machu Picchu (no, not the cute hill in the picture at the outset, but the other mountain of twice the height that towers over the ruins and surrounds) was “only a four hour climb.”

I should explain that I hate bushwalking, mountain climbing or in fact any sort of nature-based outdoors activity that doesn’t involve chasing a ball or some sort of organised competition.  (I have, at times, compromised with outdoors chess.)  This despite genetics suggesting the contrary – my family loves to hike, and my Dad just returned from six weeks of six-hours-a-day hiking in England.

And it turns out this wasn’t the greatest mountain to climb for someone adverse to the concept.  The steps are basically broken rocks, occasionally loose gravel and once or twice held up only by a stick.  The path is narrow and steep, and the high altitude makes breathing even more difficult than it should be.  It’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and a more leisurely pace (two hours each way, my guidebook recommends) and plenty of rest breaks would probably be moderately comfortable.

But my competitive streak took over, and despite my body’s protestations, I powered up in an hour.  Not wanting my efforts to go to waste nor for Jessie and the other volunteers to feel they’d missed out, I decided to take an embarrassingly over-dramatic, Crocodile-Hunter-style video en route to document my ‘torment’.  Alas, dear friends, it is even too embarrassing for me to post.

Instead, here's a shot from atop the peak, staked with the Cusco flag. The Machu Picchu ruins are in the background.


I have to say, until this week I thought the town of Cusco was just a sort of jumping point for tourists heading to Machu Picchu.  But after spending a few days there after visiting the ruins, I wish I could have stayed longer.  The town is just fantastic, and given my occasional cravings in Huaycan for the old backpacker life, it was a bit of an oasis for the tourist on a budget.

The highlight came on the last night, when I visited the Macondo restaurant, just off the main plaza.  If you ever visit Cusco, it’s in my opinion the coolest eatery/bar/music venue around.  Uniquely decorated in a bizarrely postmodern style, the cosy little joint sports a menu to match the decor, including my chosen dish – alpaca steak (much to the disgust of the girls sitting next to me, one of whom was vegetarian).

Not quite my dinner, but he did offer advice on a nice mushroom sauce.

As soon as I walked in, I ran into two guys playing a more than respectable game of chess on one of the tables.  It turns out the younger, Augusto, is one of the owners, and put up a reasonable resistance in a King’s Gambit when we later sparred over drinks.  Following the chess came the live music, a cool style of Latin music I actually enjoyed.  I put it down to the bongos.

Augusto, one of the owners and a more than decent adversary, unfortunately about to lose his queen...


On the right, the waitress is standing at our table. "Front-row seats" doesn't begin to capture our experience, but it made the alpaca taste all the sweeter.

The two girls whom I had previously disgusted with my carnivorous, ecstatic alpaca-munching turned out to be two pleasant Californians who were willing to forgive my culinary transgression, in exchange for Jessie and I joining them for a bottle of Argentinean Malbec after dinner.  Feeling a little homesick, I was very happy to head to The Real McCoy, an English-run cafe that is a bit of a haven for homesick Brits and Aussies in Cusco.  The four of us even kicked on to Mama Africa’s, possibly the cheesiest bar I’ve seen since my Amsterdam days, and a quaint little reggae bar that was having a DubStep night (a style of music that essentially takes a normal pop beat and completely destroys it half-way through the song.  An acquired taste, no doubt, but to my critics I have only one word: “Reggaeton”).

And even better, one of the girls, Stephanie, has a far cooler blog than mine on which she’s photographically detailed the evening, saving me having to put in any more effort.  There’s even a video of the dinner band.  Check it out at http://lostinperu.tumblr.com/post/8272555832/on-peru-s-independence-day-we-decided-to-treat , and click the left arrow at the bottom to cycle through her posts from the night.

So, all in all a remarkably successful trip, given all the signs at the outset.  Of all the towns and all the wonders I’ve experienced, this one has to get two llama-hooves up.  Karma, I thumb my nose at you.

My textbook poster-pic from the trip. (No, I didn't eat it.)









And before I sign off, I can’t resist one more chess/cafe shot.  I love this country!

Incas v. Spaniards, naturally.


Peru Part I – Arrival

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 12, 2011 in Gender, Non-chess

After a surprisingly successful chess-tourism jaunt to Africa, it seems like I’ve arrived on another planet.  Joining the volunteer organisation Light and Leadership Initiative on the outskirts of Lima is really a far cry from the Commonwealth chess championships at a resort named the “Emperor’s Palace”.  Peru is a reasonably developed country by South American standards, but the district in which the volunteer program resides, Ate-Vitarte, is a world unto its own.  Five-star hotels, autograph sessions and African safaris, exit stage left; cue shacks, dirt and…gangs?!

Yep, that’s right.  After ‘surviving’ the perils of late-night Argentinean muggings and the hair-raising intrigue of paying car guards in Johannesburg, it seems we’ve reached a new standard.  After explaining in broken Spanglish my plans and final destination to the Peruvian woman next to me on the plane, she replied with a look of horror and disbelief, “Much danger! Much danger!”  The town of Huaycan (pronounced “Why-kahn”) apparently has quite the reputation for housing Peruvian gangs, perhaps started back in the ‘90s when it was home for the Shining Path, a political terrorist organisation.
Armed with this somewhat frightening information, and combined with discovering at the carousel yet another (unsuccessful) attack on my luggage, I strode out into the Lima arrivals hall a little more tentatively than I’d envisaged.  Scanning the packed crowd of awaiting locals bearing handwritten signs, I spotted my name on one in the distance, held aloof by two tiny hands of, I assumed, some invisibly short, monolingual Peruvian.  In fact, with admittedly guilty relief, I discovered the hands belonged to Sarah, a petite, fair, red-headed American girl from Indiana who manages the volunteer house.

On the hour-long drive to our town, Sarah filled me in on a lot of the cultural surprises to be expected during my stay.  The local district mainly sits at and below the poverty line, with quality of living rapidly declining the further up the dusty hills you go.  There remains a general culture of ‘machismo’, an ingrained chauvinism, and our female volunteers are constantly subject to whistles, stares and obscene commentary (in multiple languages) as they walk the streets.

In fact, wandering the area late at night is considered unsafe for all of us, but particularly the girls.  Inconvenient, given the house is largely female.  In fact, when I arrived, it was the first time since LLI’s inception in 2008 that two males had been in the house simultaneously!  Chris, a wiry, erudite 27 year old from Maryland in the States, has had the male quarters (well, room) to himself since January, before my arrival doubled the testosterone.

History was rewritten again come my first day, with the arrival of the enigmatic Frenchman, Valentin.  Three boys is an unheard of amount for LLI, and with talk of a further male by the end of the months, the balance appears to be shifting.  But for now, there are just the ten of us (although Lara, the founder, lives in central Lima itself).  The volunteers are almost entirely American, with the exception of Ellie (an energetic and highly entertaining English lass who reminds me of home every time I see her wearing flip-flops and correctly pronouncing “banana“), and of course Valentin and myself.

The house itself is small but cosy, consisting of two levels with two girls’ rooms and a boys’ room.  Bunk-beds are the order of the day and sleep made more difficult by our overlooking incredibly noisy streets, central heating is absent (but the nights are reasonable), the one shower is fickle with not only its water temperature but also its volume, and the toilet doesn’t accept paper – used or otherwise.  But it’s been surprisingly easy for this aristocratic chess tourist (formerly in a posh Kingston apartment) to become accustomed to these things.  So far.

Although I arrived on a Wednesday night, the program runs Friday to Tuesdays so technically I’d arrived on a weekend.  My first day, though, was hardly Peruvian, and nothing like I expected.  The volunteers (most of whom have been here some time) had a craving for local cuisine, so we trekked into the Lima city centre for lunch.  Not as easy as it sounds: it took two hours and three ‘combi’ rides (like local buses, but actually packed, sweaty, decrepit mini vans where I usually stand hunched in the middle, reminding me of my schoolboy bus days).

Lunch was served at ‘Chiles’, an American burger chain, followed by my inaugural visit to a tattoo parlour to watch a volunteer get a permanent LLI memento (don’t worry Mum, I have no such plans…).  A brief stop for coffee in a very Western café was followed by a night out at karaoke singing ‘90s tracks in English, to round off an incredibly bizarre, unexpected and not-at-all Peruvian introductory day to my new home.

But the next day was different.

Some of our students with Chris and I (they call us "the twins")


A Feminist’s Lament

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 10, 2011 in Gender, Non-chess

March 8 was International Women’s Day, a day when (largely Western) society can come together to reflect on the advances made towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, and identify plans to pursue these ideals further.

(March 8 is also International Pancake-Flipping Day, but this fact often gets lost in the day’s priority issue. Perhaps the celebration of pancakes could instead replace International Humbug Day?)

I consider myself a feminist, which is an interesting position for an Australian male to be in.  Some Aussie blokes look down on the concept of male feminism, identifying the notion with other stereotypically ‘weak’ traits such as drinking low-carb beer, excusing yourself after burping, and exfoliating.  Meanwhile, ironically, some feminists (typically the more hardcore radical or separatist feminists) share this dislike of males who believe in gender equality, on the grounds that all men are ingrained in the ‘problem’.

But in general, these are minorities.  And in general, most Australians (male or female) believe in equal rights, equal pay, and an end to sexism in our society.  These are good things.  We have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor-General, a female head of our largest bank, and a woman in the position of Australia’s richest individual (though this is likely to change with our variable resource prices).  We’re making some serious progress.

On a global scale, though, things are far from clear.  Particularly in the developing world, efforts to promote gender equality have been poor, to say the least.  In fact, it’s by far and away the least improved of the Millennium Development Goals.  And adding to these woes is the fact that UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, recently got graded the lowest rank in terms of value and effectiveness of aid funding out of all multilateral aid organisations, according to the UK’s foreign assistance department.

So there’s work to be done, and initiatives such as International Women’s Day are both positive and needed.  And, indeed, there was a lot of publicity yesterday in the international media, including many news articles, reports and special pieces in our own Australian news services.  Raising awareness, sparking concerns, shocking people into action – who can argue with that?

I can.

This is where I take off my postmodern feminist hat (incidentally, I wonder what one would look like?) and ruffle some feathers.  Not only are some of the stats being brandished around dubious to say the least, and offer little to help the cause, but some of the more common quotes, it seems, could even be retarding progress.

Take, for example, news.com.au, Australia’s premier online news source.  Each article for International Women’s Day (such as this one) was headed with a FactBox of shocking statistics about the state of gender equality in our world.  And I shouldn’t single out News as, following a little research, it turns out these statistics are dished out like candy across numerous media outlets.  The problem is, not only are some of them unbelievable, but I’m almost certain they’re wrong.  And as far as raising awareness goes, the only awareness this will achieve is making people doubt the authenticity and integrity of the feminist movement.

Don’t get me wrong; some of them (quirkily, mainly on the left hand side of the box) are both confronting and accurate.  For instance, the fact that women in developing countries account for over 60 per cent of farming is quite unexpected, but backed up by the facts.  (The statistic is actually recorded as “60-80%, which is quite a ridiculous range for a figure and detracts from its believability).  The statistic that, on average, a woman dies every minute due to preventable birthing complications is deeply moving and should (I hope) provoke some positive action.  These two alone, perhaps with the easily verified fact that only 13 of the world’s largest 500 companies have a female CEO, would have been sufficient to really hammer the point home.

But then things start to get a little hazy.

For instance, what are we to make of the statistic that “66 per cent of the world’s work is done by women”?  On the face of it, this figure seems so unbelievable that I decided to do a little research.  In fact, one might well wonder how on earth anyone could even compute such a statistic.  The article quotes UNICEF as its data source, but unfortunately a visit to its website sheds no light on the matter.  In fact, while this statistic is perhaps the most commonly quoted gender figure (and became part of the informal feminist slogan for the Decade of Women), it’s surprisingly difficult to track down its source.

Eventually I got there, and discovered that the statistic is something of an ‘educated estimate’ by Richard H. Robbins in his book Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, published in 1999.  Moreover, the statistic includes uncompensated household labour (such as rearing children, housework, looking after aged parents, and tending to the veggie garden).  I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t be included as labour – they absolutely should – but I think this should be made clear if the point being made is to be given any degree of credibility.

Then we come to the second, and perhaps even more baffling, piece of gender trivia. “Australian women in full-time paid work earn 18 per cent less on average than men.”  I agree that this is shocking and completely unacceptable, and the fact that this has been incorrectly ‘rounded up’ from the actual official figure of 17 per cent is neither here nor there – the point is made.  But the quote then continues, “[This] equals $1 million less over a lifetime.”

This seems a little unbelievable to me, but let’s try and work it out.  If $1 million equates to 18 per cent of the total, then the average full-time employed Australian male’s lifetime earnings would be $5,555,556.  And for women, $4,555,556. According to the ABS, the average full-time Australian employee earns about $68,000 a year, so for this to be correct (and this is of course excluding tax), the average Australian would have to work full-time for between 67 and 82 years.  Given our retirement age is still 65, this seems fairly unlikely (some would say, impossible).  If we include tax into the equation to get a more realistic view of disposable income, we end up with an average work lifespan of between 79 and 103 years.  If we include the fact that women in Australia live longer than men, then again…well, you get the idea.

That’s not to say these issues aren’t important – they absolutely are.  But let’s not get carried away.  If we’re going to encourage real change in this area, we need to show the same professionalism, the same economic rigour and the same dedicated analysis that is expected in comparable policy areas.  Rattling off hysterical but blatantly dubious ‘coffeehouse’ statistics does the cause no good whatsoever. 

Instead, the focus, at least in developed countries, should be on cultural change.  For the most part, Australia has done remarkably well in instilling a wide-ranging belief of gender equality with regards to pay, legal rights and positions of authority.  (Arguably, we have been less successful in changing perceptions with regard to domestic violence, but that’s another matter.) 

However, the concept of the woman in the household being the default choice to do the unpaid family labour, such as bringing up the kids, remains.  Our own Prime Minister ‘sacrificed’ having children in her lifetime in order to further her career towards the top job – but should this really be the case?  Why is it not more accepted in society (by either gender) that families have the option of a ‘househusband’?  Why is the notion of maternal rearing so ingrained in society that it affects women’s careers, and extends as far as the courts in the guise of custody?

Food for thought.

The chess world is an interesting example of a ‘corporate ladder’ of sorts where sexism really shouldn’t play a role.  Women’s place on the ELO scale (compare this with a pay scale) is not determined by a “boy’s club” at the top, nor by a board of directors, nor by societal norms.  It’s a purely performance-based system, providing rankings that are effectively gender-neutral.  Indeed, some of the world’s top female players have resolved never to play in female-only events, considering that such divisions only result in introducing sexism into an otherwise neutral arena.  And women have been remarkably successful in cutting through the facade of male domination in the ultimate intellectual sport. (For a more detailed dissertation on this, see Jennifer Shahade’s excellent academic book, “Chess Bitch”.)

So the million dollar question remains, why are there so few women at the top of the chess world? 

Statistically, the question should really be asking why there are so few women in chess, as, proportionally, women’s performance in chess is very respectable.  And this latter question, I feel, has a lot to do with these more general cultural perceptions.  Women are perceived to have an obligation to child-rearing and matters of the household; a career in chess does not compute with this stereotype.  And these gender beliefs are even more pronounced in those countries in which chess is most popular and a chess career most likely: Eastern Europe, India, and China.

More food, more thought.

Having gotten far too heated about this subject (and easily breaking my record for longest post), I’ll leave you with a curious fact that belies my passion for the gender equality cause: my record in chess against women, as compared to men of equal ratings, is unbelievably poor.  Any theories?


Winning your chess Queen

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 12, 2010 in Gender, Non-chess

We are all aware of the age-old debate as to why there are so few top female chess players.  Nature versus nurture takes on a fundamental role in this argument, with scientific studies supporting both sides of the issue.  While I can’t see how anyone would believe there are innate or biological differences in the potential chess abilities of men and women, there are many among us in our (albeit largely male-dominated) sport who think differently.

But now there’s a different facet to gender biases in chess.  Two scientists from Stockholm have just published a paper that looks at the level of aggressiveness that males employ when facing a female over the chessboard. 

It has been well documented that males are generally riskier in strategic game behaviour than females, which is why male financial traders do better in ‘bull’ markets (when prices are going up) than in ‘bear’ markets – their risks pay off.  So it’s no surprise that the authors confirmed that chess-playing men generally play riskier openings than women (although, have you ever seen Natalia Pogonina play the Dragon?!).

But the real finding is that men choose to play riskier, more aggressive openings if they are paired with a female opponent than if they were paired with a male opponent – even if the more aggressive opening is irrational and decreases their chances of winning!

Why?  Is this because men subconsciously think women are weaker?  Or perhaps because men are subconsciously – or bizarrely, in at least a few cases I know, consciously – trying to impress females with their risky chess openings?

Because that’s of course what a woman looks for in a man these days.  Pawn sacrifices.  (Insert pun of choice here.)

I have no idea.  The authors themselves are pretty ambiguous about their hypothesised causality, stating:

“We believe that different outcomes across gender are not merely a question of deliberate discrimination on the part of men, but are at least to some extent due to deep-rooted mechanisms that surface in situations where competitors of the opposite sex meet.”

Of course, there are a number of ways to test the theories.  You could ask players to report on whether they thought their opponents were over- or under-rated before each game, and match that up with the level of aggressiveness in the openings.  To test for the effect of attraction, you could analyse a control set of the aggressiveness of openings chosen by homosexual males when playing other men – although, given the cultures of the most chess-populated countries, it’s unlikely you would get a large sample size of homosexual chess players willing to ‘out’ themselves.  (I myself know of only half a dozen or so, somewhat surprising for such a male-dominated sport).

This aside, there are a number of fundamental flaws in the study.  The choice of openings defined as ‘risky’ or not is poor.  Even accounting for this, there’s no guarantee that the choice of opening is reflective of someone’s level of aggressiveness – many people play openings they were taught from childhood, or play them because they are easier to remember and require less updating.  Furthermore, for many players, their opening repertoire is set, and they would thus not have the flexibility to be able to choose to play a different opening depending on the opponent.

Surely there is a means to check for ‘aggressive’ play overall in a game.  After all, many computer programs these days have settings on them in which the computer is trained to play extra aggressively, even irrationally so.  The formulas are already there.

These basic design flaws aside, the study is incredibly interesting.  And, if nothing else, it gives me some excuse for my horridly poor performance rating against women.  In my case it really is a mystery as to the root cause.  I’ve lost enough games against women to know that they should certainly not be underestimated (given my experience, in fact, I probably subconsciously believe exactly the opposite).  Neither do I believe that macho behaviour (on or off the board!) is a credible means of attraction in today’s modern society.  So, given the rebuttal of these hypotheses combined with my continued weak chess performance against females, there really is only one logical explanation:

Perfume allergies.

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