Women and Chess

“There’s a reason why women themselves do not excel at the game,” Garry Kasparov once told me over dinner. “Chess is a combination of war, science, and art, areas in which men dominate and women are naturally inferior.  Not by choice but by design.  I tell the truth, even if it is not what people want to hear.” 

In King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, I devote a forty-page chapter called “Female Counterplay” to women in chess.  It’s not so much a theoretical discussion as it is a portrait of the chess experiences of Jennifer Shahade and Irina Krush.

At Chess Life Online, Jennifer recently posted a fascinating interview she did with Elizabeth Vicary, a chess expert and legendary junior-high-school chess coach in Brooklyn.  Vicary just finished her masters thesis on girls and chess.  Her discussion with Jennifer is a must-read for anyone interested in the contentious subject of cognitive differences between men and women.  Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

JS-What surprised you most through your research?

EV- How sexist I was as a teacher. I thought I was enlightened, feminist, etc. and that I didn’t favor boys over girls at all. But after a couple days of watching myself, I realized I have a lot of work to do. Even though I call on both genders a similar amount, I found that I ask girls much easier questions. And honestly, often it was because I didn’t think they were capable of answering the harder ones and I didn’t want to embarrass them….

JS-I blushed when I read the part where you discovered you asked girls easier questions, because I also consider myself an enlightened feminist but, I definitely also ask girls easier questions… I didn’t consider this habit critically till I read your thesis… I always did it consciously,  hoping to get more girls involved.

EV-There is some superficial value in it, but it’s infantilizing, and just perpetuates any actual skill difference. It’s naïve to think you’re fooling them. Kids pick up on things like that quickly….

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