Monday, October 19, 2009

A patronizing attitude: abolish lower standards for women in chess

by Kelsey Zimmerman

There was a great op-ed in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week about a game that seems to be an unlikely candidate for gender discrimination: chess. Unlike other competitive activities, chess is one where very few people could argue that sex matters. It is not an issue of physical prowess, where males are generally stronger and faster than females and standards are adjusted accordingly for women. Chess is a wholly intellectual activity; its main requirements are excellent strategy and timing skills. So it would be logical for there to be no disparity in how men and women are judged in the realm of chess.

Sadly, this is not the case. The World Chess Federation persists in having anachronistic rankings that insult women by having lower point standards for attaining the ranks of grandmaster and international master. Instead of giving the all-encompassing titles of grandmaster or international master, they receive the titles of “woman” grandmaster and “woman” international master despite the fact the “male” titles have no preface of “man”. Ultimately, it is significantly easier to attain these “female rankings”. This is not only unfair; it is downright demeaning to suggest that women should aspire to a lower standard than male chess player. The bottom line: the WCF seems to think that women are less intelligent than men.

The woman’s international master and women’s grandmaster titles were originally instituted in 1950 and 1976, respectively. The idea that women were intellectually inferior to men was more acceptable in the 1950’s, and it’s understandable, if not particularly palatable, that this “woman’s” title was instituted, as least in 1950. But by 1976 the perception of women had changed radically enough that we can reasonably ask why the second sexist standard was instituted. Either way, it’s unacceptable, in 2009, to allow the same sexist and degrading standards to continue in this modern age of equality and women’s rights. Chess rankings should be decided on the basis of ability; gender should not factor into the equation at all.

A separate but no less crucial issue is the dearth of women in the chess world in general. It wasn’t until 1991 that a Hungarian chess player named Susan Polger finally became the first woman to attain the lauded title of grandmaster by meeting the performance standards for women. Strangely, the proliferation of Internet chess, where gender is more invisible, has allowed many women to have the access to expert training and practice. This was more challenging before the advent of online chess because of hostile attitudes within male-dominated chess clubs. Still, women only make up 10% of the WFC and only 2% of its top 1000 players. High-ranked women cite several reasons for this, from lack of funding for female chess players from sponsors, to the uncompetitive nature of women, and to the solitary nature of chess, which is apparently undesirable for women. But whatever the reason, it’s clear that competitive chess is one area in which women still have far to go.

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