In September, the high-stakes world of elite chess was rocked by a new cheating scandal. Grandmaster and world champion Magnus Carlsen accused teen prodigy Hans Niemann of cheating, an accusation that has led to layers of conspiracy theory and speculation.
That debacle mostly drowned out a separate controversy happening in a different corner of the chess world. Last week, Israeli grandmaster Ilya Smirin was fired from his commentary gig after questioning the need for gender parity during a live broadcast of the Women’s Grand Prix.
Why are we, yet again, being forced to explain that women are just as capable of men when it comes to playing the game?
As a female chess player and teacher, these types of comments are as dispiriting as they are exhausting. Why are we, yet again, being forced to explain that women are just as capable of men when it comes to playing the game? We certainly lack the exposure and support that men enjoy. But we shouldn’t have to defend our basic abilities or biological bonafides. We shouldn’t have to push back on men who say women’s brains aren’t capable of functioning at the same level as a man’s.
Smirin’s comments were not an isolated event, although they were relatively highly publicized (for chess). Back in February, the Marshall Chess Club (one of the world’s top chess clubs, and one that has lately worked to better represent its female members) published a joke about sex with underage girls that no one seems to have noticed (or at least, not minded). At the 50th U.S. Amateur Team East tournament earlier this spring, a chess team named itself “She Said She Was 1800,” a pun on both chess ratings and the age of sexual consent that led to “defeaning applause,” according to the Marshall Chess Club’s newsletter.
Both examples occurred against the backdrop of a supposedly great year for female players. In January, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) declared 2022 to be “The Year of the Woman in Chess.”
It was a bold claim — and some female players might disagree. Chess is still primarily segregated by gender. In a recent article in Grid, grandmaster Jennifer Shahade — a two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion and the director of the United States Chess Federation’s women’s program — points out that tournaments for girls-only can keep girls engaged in the game for longer by connecting them with female peers as well as scholarships.
But Yifan Hou, the top female player in the world, has refused to play in women’s chess tournaments since 2016 because of the disparity between the world championships for men and women. This excellent article published in Sports Illustrated in 2018 covered the gender disparity in depth, noting that by holding the two events simultaneously, all press was diverted away from the women’s championship.
Judit Polgár — who, as the only woman to cross the 2700 rating barrier, is believed by many in the chess community to be the greatest female chess player of all time — only played in male events. And she defeated a total of 11 world champions, all of them men. As she says in this article for The Guardian: “I might never have become a chess grandmaster if I’d stuck to women-only tournaments.”
Growing up, I was a scholastic chess champion who never played in any girls-only events. (I also don’t think many existed at that time, although I doubt their existence would have changed my mind.)
Polgár in particular is no stranger to sexist rhetoric — including from the sport’s top luminaries. In 1986, Gary Kasparov, perhaps the world’s second most well-known world chess champion after noted sexist Bobby Fischer, said “some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly.” Kasparov went on to say that women were “weaker fighters” and since “chess is the combination of sport, art and science … you can see men’s superiority.”
After losing to Polgár in 2002, Kasparov eventually changed his tune. “There was no epiphany,” he told The New Yorker in 2021. “I just got older and wiser, and can only apologize that it took as long as it did!” But while such mea culpas are welcome, they are not enough. Polgár and other female players say men routinely treated them as second-class players — even when they won.
I also experienced that type of treatment as a former scholastic chess champion who went on to play street chess and teach for decades both in person and online.
“You mean checkers?” Men would tell me, straight-faced, when I explained I taught chess.
When some fathers of my students realized I was a woman, they’d drop by the classroom and demand to play.
When some fathers of my students realized I was a woman, they’d drop by the classroom and demand to play. I’d do so without my queen. As early as age 12, when I began coaching chess, male players and other coaches hit on me and even subjected me to physical harassment. My butt was smacked, and womanizing commentary was routinely laughed off.
Thanks in part to the pandemic and the Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit” (which Kasparov consulted on), chess has seen a mainstream resurgence. But Beth Harmon is fictional. When the show referenced a real and groundbreaking female chess champion, Nona Gaprindashvili, the showrunners also fictionalized her career, wrongly stating she never played against men. She promptly sued them, with both sides coming to an agreement just last month.
To quote Rebecca Solnit: “Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear.” It’s a sentiment that chess trailblazers like Gaprindashvili, Polgár and other female grandmasters certainly understand well. More women are playing chess than ever before, and online chess has created more opportunities for women to play. But world chess champion titles are still separated by gender, and plenty of female players say they still feel belittled and even harassed — both online and in person. Comments like those made by Smirin are now criticized, but that doesn’t mean they are rare.
If 2022 is really the year of women in chess, what message does this send?
Sari Caine is a former scholastic chess champion who’s chess taught for the last 25 years, focusing on the special needs world and online. She writes about chess and life and lives with her husband in a cabin in the woods.
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