Monday, April 15, 2024
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Women and chess – a reality check


I HAVE been entertained over the last couple of weeks with the intellectual knot-tying resulting from the chess authorities banning trans women from taking part in women-only competitions.

The new rules from the International Chess Federation (FIDE) state that any player who has transitioned from male to female ‘has no right to participate in official FIDE events for women’ until further analysis, which could take up to two years, is made. The powers that be have got it in the neck from two woke brigades. The trans lobby are outraged that they/ze can’t put on a dress and sit down at a board with the real ladies. And the feminists are equally triggered at the suggestion that women are not as good at chess as men. Angela Eagle MP found time to rage that ‘there is no physical advantage in chess unless you believe that men are inherently more able to play than women . . . this ban is ridiculous and offensive to women’.

FIDE’s move in attacking two groups of snowflakes simultaneously is the sort of brilliance any grandmaster would be proud of. Of course, this is only the start of the fun to be had at their expense. If, as Angela Eagle claims, men have no advantage over women in chess then the only rational thing would be to have no women’s tournaments and no women’s world champion, but no one is proposing that. Now why might that be?

FIDE’s decision makes complete sense from a marketing perspective. Chess’s popularity has risen among women thanks to online games and the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. But with six times more men than women playing the game, one can understand why FIDE should be keen to promote chess to women, with their own competitions being a reasonable way to try to encourage more participation.

And despite the protestations of Angela Eagle, at the highest level men players trounce women. The nerdy world of chess has a very sophisticated means of ranking players, the ELO rating, an algorithm which takes account of not only of results but the quality of opposition faced. Top of the ELO ratings is living chess legend Magnus Carlsen (rating of 2835). The top female rated player, Hou Yifan (2628) is 99 ELO points below the 20th rated man, Veselin Topalov. In fact, the 12th ranked junior – under 21 – player (17-year-old Volodar Murzin) has a better ELO rating than Ms Yifan. So if Veselin or Volodar were to call himself Vanessa he would be the best female player in the world. There is a story which I hope is true that Bobby Fischer, another chess god, when asked why he played chess said it was to crush the other guy’s ego. Trampling on the chess hopes of a woman would have made Bobby so happy had he ever wanted to be Roberta, though there are plenty of men in sport calling themselves women who are enjoying do just that.

Zoe Strimpel can assert in the Telegraph that women will soon be the equal of men in chess but they’re not even closing the gap. The greatest-ever female chess player, Judit Polgar, playing between 1991 and 2014, was ranked 8th in the world at her peak (she refused to play in women’s tournaments, considering them not challenging). Yet based on her highest ELO rating (2735) she is only the 55th best player of all time. No other woman makes the top 100.

Beyond the stupidity of political correctness, two cold facts need to be explained: the relative indifference of women to chess and poor performance of those who do take part in this challenging cerebral activity. That women should show so little interest in chess would be no surprise to Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology at Cambridge University. In his book The Essential Difference Professor Baron-Cohen laid out the evidence that women prefer to empathise and communicate whereas men tend to prefer building systems. An emotionally empty set of pieces on a board is not going to interest women as much as men. Even Judit Polgar said: ‘Chess is my profession and of course I hope to improve. But I’m not going to give up everything to become world champion; I have my life.’Perhaps Judit was too emotionally well-adjusted to make it to the summit of chess.

But the relative lack of interest in playing games of pure intellect doesn’t seem enough to explain the complete absence of women from the elite ranks of world chess. One theory is that chess is a visual spatial activity, something in which men tend to be more proficient than women.  Given that there is reasonable evidence that chess ability is linked to IQ, I’d give more weight to the greater male variability hypothesis: that men tend to display greater variability in traits than women do. This tendency has been observed in IQ scores, where male and female average IQ scores show no material difference but men are more numerous at the extremes.

So if men appear better than women at chess, it may be only because all the focus is on those performing best, where men are more numerous. Ignoring those at the bottom is all too frequent. Feminists will cry patriarchy at the dearth of female leaders in business but no one mentions that men make up about 85 per cent of rough sleepers. However, if there are a disproportionate number of men at the bottom end of the intelligence spectrum – and thus less able to hold down a job and more likely to engage in habits with short-term attractions but long-term destructive effects – then one would expect they’re more likely to end up living on the streets.

And so FIDE – recognising that women aren’t the same as men – have behaved logically in banning trans women from women’s chess events. And the wokesters have behaved as usual in taking offence at rational conduct.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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