How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Started a New Debate About Sexism in Chess
At last month’s Emmy awards, Netflix won a whopping 44 awards compared to HBO’s 19 showing how streaming TV had come around to dominate. A quarter of those came from the brilliant limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” about a female chess player and the struggles she faced on her path to glory. This article in the NYT which came about at the time the series was originally streamed, talks about why women don’t do well in chess despite being a sport which doesn’t give any natural advantage to men – although as the article says the legendary Gary Kasparov once believed that chess wasn’t in women’s nature (however he is now actively championing the cause for women in chess and was a consultant for the production of The Queen’s Gambit as well).
The piece begins with the conquests of one of the world’s greatest chess players (men and women included) – Judith Polgar who “stood out during her career because she regularly beat the world’s top players, including Garry Kasparov in 2002, when he was ranked No. 1.
Polgar, the only woman to ever be ranked in the Top 10 or to play for the overall world championship, retired from competitive chess in 2014. Watching the series, which she described as an “incredible performance,” gave her a sense of déjà vu, particularly in the later episodes.
But there was one respect in which she could not identify with Beth’s experience: how the male competitors treated her.
“They were too nice to her,” Polgar said. When she was proving herself and rising in the world rankings, Polgar said the men often made disparaging comments about her ability and sometimes jokes, which they thought were funny but were actually hurtful.”
Whilst Polgar stood out, the numbers throw a bleak picture of women’s standing in world chess: “Among the more than 1,700 regular grandmasters worldwide, only 37 are women. Currently, only one woman, Hou Yifan of China, ranks in the Top 100, at No. 88, and she has been playing infrequently, even before the pandemic.
The superiority of men in the game is so well established that the best female players have freely acknowledged it. In a recent issue of Mint, in an article titled, “Why Women Lose at Chess,” Koneru Humpy, an Indian player currently ranked No. 3 among women, said that men are just better players. “It’s proven,” she said. “You have to accept it.”
But not all women accept that: “…women think the overriding reason is cultural expectations and bias.
Polgar said that society and even parents can undermine their daughters’ efforts to improve…[Elizabeth Spiegel] believes that cultural stereotypes definitely affect how people learn and play chess. She noted that boys tend to be overconfident, but that is more of a strength than a flaw in chess. On the other hand, during class, when girls answer her questions, they often begin, “I think I am wrong, but …” Krush said that the cultural cleaving between boys and girls happens at a young age. Scrolling through the lists of the top players in the United States who are 7, 8 and 9, Krush pointed out there are only a small handful of girls in the Top 10.
That creates and reinforces another problem that discourages women’s participation: too few social contacts. Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. Women’s Champion who has written two books about women in chess (“Chess Bitch” and “Play Like a Girl!”) and is the women’s program director at the U.S. Chess Federation, said teenage girls tend to stop playing chess because there are so few of them and they want the social support.”