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?


Kajetan Wandowicz
Apr 21, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Quite right.

Also, I couldn’t agree more with the last sentence.

Apr 25, 2015 at 5:08 am

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

OK. I think it went viral after being published on Monday in the Telegraph which is the country’s bestsellling broadsheet (although it’s not of any importance, it’s probably inaccurate to say “the English tabloids had a field day” – it was largely the more serious papers). The journalist who wrote the story is a club player in London. It’s more than feasible that he wrote the article when he did because the previous Friday he had seen this blog piece, which I wrote.

The reason it took me three weeks (or whatever) to write about the Short piece is that I initially didn’t see how to write about it without challenging Howard, something that I don’t have the maths or science to do. So I researched it a bit, but put it aside until I happened to see the NiC piece again (because somebody mentioned the passage on Susan Polgar) and I thought the final section would provide a way of discussing it.

And so, apparently, it proved.

Daaim Shabazz
Apr 29, 2015 at 12:22 am

Gender in Chess… the long and Short of it

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:38 am

Hey man good article, you put into words what i thought but wasnt quite good enough to articulate. Judit Polgar reached the top five in the world despite all odds. Its possible for woman to reach the veery elite, its just the culture of chess and woman psychology that makes that difficult. Apparently woman like chess as much as men but would prefer to solve chess puzzles than a one on one competition.

Mar 29, 2016 at 5:35 am

hi David, i really did not know about this:

“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”

if you happen to read this comment, would you bother to mention some of these studies for me to take a look?

David Smerdon
Mar 29, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Sure; you can start with this one perhaps:

Mar 30, 2016 at 11:48 pm

thank you, i will take a look.
you see myself, as most of chess players and trainers are under the strong empirical belief that men ARE stronger than women in chess, but i would not care to have myself proven wrong…

Apr 18, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Well, I’m glad you linked to that study, thank you. Impressively clear and conclusive, at least at first glance. And, somewhat embarrassingly, it was news to me. At least, it’s hard to overcome the habit of thinking (e.g. looking at that women just are weaker at chess. Is the world ratio similar to the 16:1 found in Germany? You would do some good, I think, writing a piece in Chessbase about this, although I guess you think it’s been done to death, is boring anyway etc. But if that paper was somehow ‘news’ to me, I’m sure it would be to many others. People still come up with so many other explanations for what doesn’t need to be explained anyhow. I’d read your initial post before, but reading that paper, looking at the figures, really brought it home somehow. (I guess typical stuff would be from 2009, in which, as noted, neither the writers or commenters really landed on the ‘it’s just that more men play’ explanation) And knowing chess and statistics, you’re the guy for the job. 🙂

So the question is then, OK, so generally, why don’t females like to play chess?
I’ve always liked Donner’s answer from ‘The King’:
” ‘because there is something wrong with chess!’ … games are the opposite of human contact.
During their game, chess players are ‘incommunicado’; they are imprisoned. What is going on in their heads is narcissistic self-gratification with a minimum of objective reality, a wordless sniffing and grabbing in a bottomless pit. Women do not like that, and who is to blame them? They easily hold their own in games in which human contact is incorporated, as in bridge for instance, because in such games a feeling for an other’s intentions, throwing a bridge to one’s partner is of paramount importance. But they cannot keep up in the total isolation of chess. It only interests them when they are told about it. For unsolvable riddles, they have little patience.”
(I started thinking about this years ago, after a musician friend complained women are no good as musicians/artists. And I noticed that as novelists and singers, which have that human element that chess lacks, the best women are in no way inferior to the best men.)

Jun 3, 2016 at 9:17 am

An internet user calculated that the mean male rating was 1866 and female 1715 on the Jan 2015 rating list. The SD for males was 288 and for females 305. The total number of male players was 178969 and female 18600. Does this show that males are generally better at chess than females?



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