Unlike the wildly popular Netflix chess-themed series The Queens Gambit, female players have struggled to climb to the top of the real-life chess world. Just 37 of the more than 1,600 international chessgrandmastersare women. The current top-rated female,Hou Yifan, is ranked89thin the world, while the reigning womens world championJu Wenjunis404th.
Why? There are certainlyfewerfemalechess players to begin with, but itappearsunlikelyparticipation can explain the whole story.
The argument about chesss gender gap often follows the classic nature-versus-nurture debate. On one side are those who believe men are hardwired to play chess, such as former World Championship challengerNigel Short.
His commentscaused a media storm in the United Kingdom. Its true women have been shown to exhibithigher risk aversionandlower competitivenessacross many domains,including chess, possibly driven by differences intestosterone. However,evidence is mixedon whether or how these traits affect performance over the chess board.
On the other side are those who argue the gender gap in chess is mainly due to societal and cultural pressures that put women off the game. A commonly cited example is HungarysJudit Polgr, considered the strongest female player of all time, and the only woman ever to be ranked in the worlds top ten. Her psychologist fatherbelieved geniuses are created, not born. His three daughters, home-schooled in chess from the age of three, each achieved groundbreaking success in the game.
Judit Polgr reached a peak ranking of eighth in the world and shared the same view as her father when she retired in 2015, saying:
We are capable of the same fight as any man. Its not a matter of gender, its a matter of being smart.
Despite Judit Polgrs success, stereotypes about female chess players remain. Her older sister Susan, a former womens world champion, noted:
When men lose against me, they always have a headache I have never beaten a healthy man.
The American Bobby Fischer, on whom The Queens Gambits lead character is largely based, oncesaidwomen are terrible chess players, later opining that I dont think they should mess into intellectual affairs; they should keep strictly to the home.
Another former world champion, Garry Kasparov,saidin a 1989 issue of Playboy Magazine that there is real chess and womens chess.
These sorts of beliefs may induce a stereotype threat that can explain part of the performance gap.
Stereotype threat is where minorities underperform solely because theyre aware of a stereotype that people of their group do worse. Confidence flags, interest wanes and a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophesy follows. The stereotype threat effect has been observed in experiments involving women andmathematics performanceand in studies onlower representationof women in leadership positions.
In onestudy, researchers pitted male and female chess players against each other online. The sexes performed equally when identities were anonymous, but when the sex of the opponents was known, female players performed worse against male players and better against other female players.
Using a dataset of more than 180,000 players and 8 million rated tournament games, my colleagues and I recently found evidenceto support a stereotype threat effect for female chess players. Female players tend to perform worse against male opponents than against female opponents, even after accounting for chess strength.
The performance drop is roughly equivalent to a woman giving her male opponent the advantage of the first move in every single game.
There is still much to discover about what play the biggest roles in driving the gender performance and participation gaps in chess, what policies can be used to narrow them, and what these insights tell us about other male-dominated fields.
What we do know, however, is the chess world is starting to change. In 2001, only 6% of internationally rated players were female. By 2020 this hadrisen to more than 15%.
Part of this may be due to affirmative action policies, such as chess league mandates that clubs include at least one female player in their (typically eight-player) teams. This not only increases female earnings but also has a trickle-down effect for female participation.
Two economistsrecently lookedat the effect of this policy in the French chess league. The study, which is yet to undergo peer review, found not only that the share of female chess players in France significantly increased in subsequent years, but that the ratings gap for elite male and female players also narrowed.
Attitudes are starting to change, too. After hisfamous losstoJudit Polgrin 2002 the first time a female player had beaten a reigning world champion in a rated game Kasparov was asked about hispast opinionsabout womens chess. His reply: I dont believe that now.
The current world champion,Magnus Carlsen, said in arecent interview:
Chess societies have not been very kind to women and girls over the years. Certainly, there needs to be a bit of a change in culture.
Could The Queens Gambit spark that change? The show is Neflixsmost-watched scripted limited series, reaching number 1 in more than 60 countries.
Chess-related Google searches havesoaredsince its debut. And pastresearchhas shown popular television can have a significant impact on real-world outcomes related to gender.
As to whether well see a Netflix Effect on the chess gender gap, only time will tell.
David Smerdon is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland. Davids research involves theory and modelling, experiments in the lab and field, and microeconometric analysis in order to investigate topics such as social norms, the impact of refugee integration, the effects of income inequality, and female genital mutilation. Prior to academia, David was a chess grandmaster and represented Australia at seven chess Olympiads. Find David on Twitter @dsmerdon
A version of this article was originally posted at the Conversation and has been reposted here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS
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