The Second-Place Sex

Reporter / by Holly Capelo /

Why chess may be an ideal laboratory for investigating gender gaps in science and beyond.

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Credit: Flickr user romainguy

Hands over temples and eyes closed, as if trying to contain the shifting permutations of tactical possibilities, a chess champion calculates twenty moves forward in her game. In the shop windows of Istanbul, there are chess boards for sale to tourists. In the common rooms of state prisons across the United States, inmates play endless rounds over black and white boards. Right now, many of the 7.5 million registered online chess players from 160 countries are sparring with one another from their computers. Researchers in the Brain and Behavioral Sciences Department at UT Dallas ask chess players to quickly memorize and re-identify positions on a chess board, and compare this ability to the capacity for facial pattern recognition.

Each chess game holds the promise of resolution by one player’s aggressive victory, by the other’s blunder, by a draw, or by the clock. The game therefore forms a closed system, with an objective ranking system, onto which researchers can map other, less resolved, quandaries. For some decades, cognitive and social scientists have used chess as a proxy to investigate how the interpersonal aspects of a competitive experience may affect its outcome.

Success in the world of chess requires strategic problem-solving skills that overlap with the business world and academia, such as performing highly-specialized tasks, thinking critically, and anticipating a competitor’s move, all under various degrees of time pressure.  Further, all three realms share an important characteristic: There remains a significantly low proportion of highly successful female players. Today, women represent less than 5 percent of registered chess tournament players worldwide and only 1 percent of the world’s grand masters. Women have been allowed to participate in men’s tournaments since the rise of the Polgar sisters in the 1980’s. But as put by female chess prodigy Abby Marshall, accustomed to being a minority in the chess world and recognized for being the first girl to win the national high-school-level chess championship, “Any tournament that isn’t an all-women’s tournament is basically a guys’ tournament.” 

Because expert-level chess competition displays the disparity in female participation found in other adversarial intellectual domains, chess play has become a type of laboratory for investigating the underlying causes of the gender gap in fields that require a high level of strategic and tactical thinking. Chess players make ready subjects because their relative abilities are straightforward to measure using the Elo scoring system, which gives the absolute rank of each player based on their past tournament performances, taking into account the strength of their opponents.  The results from such studies may offer insight into differences in risk-taking across gender, other cognitive distinctions between the sexes, and the way that achievement situations are affected by “stereotype threat”, a circumstance where minority players experience thought intrusions, or distracting ideas, that reduce working-memory capacities. Stereotype threat also negates a minority player’s training by redirecting her attention, in the middle of a critical operation, to motor processes that would otherwise be performed automatically.

Because chess is competitive and mentally demanding, yet objectively measured, the resulting studies of gendered performance can potentially be more conclusive and less contentious than other approaches to this subject have been.  Often, comparisons of male and female brains appear to pathologize the female condition in a manner reminiscent of the Victorian-era pseudoscientific sexism and racism that persisted in opposition to 19th century minority-rights movements. One argument, famously posed by Simone DeBeauvoir and periodically reinvented to support women’s equality, claims that the industrial revolution rendered superfluous the physical strength that long justified masculine dominance. Areas like sports and combat are reminders of male physical advantage, and lead to questions as to why there should not be a corresponding mental advantage.

Marshall responded to this distinction,  “In physical sports it’s obvious why there should be a separation. I don’t think that there’s something that shows that men’s and women’s brains are different in a significant sense. I don’t think that chess should be segregated.” She continued, referring to the highest ever Elo-rated players from their respective genders, “The top female player, Judit Polgar, has beaten the top male player, Gary Kasparov, but I don’t think that’s been done, say in tennis. But in chess, it’s been done.”

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