Baking Flans for Nigel

Well, there’s been a lot of chess in the mainstream press recently, hasn’t there? As usual, it hasn’t presented the chess world in a good light, but they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

First we had Wesley So and his motivational notes to himself. A rather heavy-handed decision by the arbiter, I thought. He should have been given a time penalty before a forfeit. But why on earth he thought he was allowed to write such notes I can’t imagine.

Then there was Gaioz Nigalidze (whose surname is an anagram of Aidz Nigel) and his rather unsuccessful use of the Toilet Gambit. If he really was consulting his mobile which was crudely hidden in the toilet cubicle he deserves, at the very least, a lengthy ban from competitive chess.

More recently, the media worldwide have been making plans for Nigel. Short, that is. You can’t have failed to notice that, several weeks after the article was published in New In Chess, Nigel’s views on women’s chess were picked up by an English newspaper and subsequently went viral.

Short’s concluding paragraph:

“Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

To be honest, although some might question ‘hard-wired’ it didn’t concern me too much. I was rather more concerned about Short’s gratuitous reference earlier in the article to Fischer and Susan Polgar (of whom he is no fan) as both being of Hungarian Jewish descent. But his views were taken out of context by the world’s media who interviewed various female players about the prevalence of sexism in chess. As he has a track record of making rather unpleasant sexist remarks in New in Chess and elsewhere I don’t really have too much sympathy for him in this case. I guess we could all agree with him, though, when he says that it would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess.

Here’s my take on the subject.

Anyone who has, as I have, spent any time in schools will be well aware that there are significant differences between typical boys and girls but how much is due to nature and how much to nurture is the subject of continuing debate. I have my views and, if you’re prepared to buy me a pint I might in turn be prepared to reveal them to you.

But what we are is not just a question of how our brain is wired. There are the genes we inherited from our parents. There are also a lot of chemicals floating around our bodies, most notably for our purpose, testosterone.

Now your view of the typical male might be one of macho testosterone-fuelled aggression and competitiveness, and, in one sense, this ties in very much with chess. At about the age they take up chess boys tend also to be obsessed with fighting and weapons, and the idea of chess as a battle is very appealing. Because chess is by its nature competitive it will appeal more to boys than to girls.

In his (controversial, and, in some circles, unpopular) book The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen puts forward his theory. “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” He goes on to describe what he means by a system. “I mean by a system anything which is governed by rules specifying input-operation-output relationships. This definition takes in systems beyond machines, such as maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, logic, music, military strategy, the climate, sailing, horticulture and computer programming. It also includes systems like libraries, economics, companies, taxonomies, board games or sports.” Baron-Cohen’s academic critics, most notably Cordelia Fine, dispute that this difference is hard-wired, instead believing it’s created by other factors such as social conditioning.

Well, I’m not sure about all Baron-Cohen’s example systems. Many women are interested in music and horticulture, for example. But chess is very much a system according to his definition which again might explain why it appeals more to males than females.

My view is that there is no evidence to suggest that males have inherently more (or less) chess ability than females, but that males are more likely to be attracted to chess, and more likely to want to excel at chess, than females. How much that is due to nature or nurture, well, you pay your money and you take your choice.

The other reason for the shortage of chess-playing girls is, in my opinion, socio-cultural. Chess is perceived by the public very much as a male activity rather than a female activity. In my part of the world, schools will typically offer two after-school clubs most evenings, often one which they perceive as being mainly for girls (perhaps dance or drama) and one which they perceive as being mostly for boys (perhaps football or chess). So most of these clubs attract mostly boys, and the few girls who come often get discouraged and soon give up.

Schools round here don’t seem particularly concerned about the shortage of girls in their chess clubs. Perhaps, as girls these days tend to outperform boys academically, they’re happy to promote chess as an academic-type activity at which boys may outperform girls. Perhaps they see chess as a constructive outlet for boys’ natural competitive and aggressive instincts. While I quite understand this it poses a big problem for the chess community.

So what can be done to get more girls into chess, to encourage them to try to excel at chess, and to maintain their interest as they get older?

Encouraging schools to put chess on the curriculum as a non-competitive problem-solving activity, as Chess in Schools & Communities are doing, is a step in the right direction. CSC’s evidence is that girls perform at least as well as boys in such an environment. Children with a talent for chess can then be identified and encouraged to take part in competitions, perhaps with separate events or sections for girls. Schools might also look at running different types of chess club, with the aim of learning and developing skills rather than taking part in low-level competitions.

The chess community could help by promoting positive stories about girls and women participating successfully in chess events (and, no, this doesn’t mean publishing lots of photographs of attractive young women who just happen to play chess) and getting the message across to both schools and parents that girls as well as boys should be encouraged to take up chess.

Finally, we need to ensure that sexual harassment in the chess world is just as unacceptable as consulting your mobile in the toilet. Let’s do everything we can to encourage more girls and women to play chess rather than staying at home baking flans for Nigel.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.