Skip to content

Why Do Men Dominate Chess?

FIDE’s new policy governing who can compete in women’s categories highlights the persistent sex imbalance at the game’s elite levels.

· 27 min read
The only female contestant at the Hungarian OHRA Chess Festival, Susan Polgar, July 18, 1985. Alamy
The only female contestant at the Hungarian OHRA Chess Festival, Susan Polgar, July 18, 1985. Alamy

For years now, sports experts and culture warriors alike have been fiercely contesting the issue of whether transwomen (males who live and identify as women) should be eligible to compete in the female categories of numerous sports—including rugby, swimming, weightlifting, and disc golf. But last August, this debate entered an unexpected domain: the game of chess.

Under a new policy announced by the Switzerland-based International Chess Federation (widely known as FIDE, following on its French name, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs), for now, at least, transwomen will not be permitted to compete in official events reserved for women.

Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment
As a biologically male player continues a meteoric rise on the female circuit, women are starting to speak out.

Readers who aren’t serious chess players may be surprised to learn that the game—in which the most demanding physical movements consist of lifting small pieces of carved wood—even reserved a separate category for women in the first place. What could be the justification? And given that such a category exists, some might ask, why wouldn’t transwomen be allowed to identify into it? Some journalists and other commentators have been quick to suggest that the new policy is motivated by transphobia; but might there be sound reasons for the change? These are the questions I’ve set out to answer in this essay.

On a chess board, the queen is the most powerful piece. But in the human world, the fair sex accounts for only about two percent of the world’s chess Grandmasters. Even at lower competitive levels, males not only outnumber, but also outrank females by a large margin. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) made for great television, and inspired many girls to pick up the game. But contrary to what some Netflix viewers might have assumed, its world-conquering protagonist, chess prodigy Beth Harmon (actress Anya Taylor-Joy), is a fictional character: No woman has ever achieved the title of U.S. Chess Champion; let alone World Champion.

Some might take this as clear evidence for the inherent superiority of the male intellect. That was certainly the view of legendary Cold War-era chess champion Bobby Fischer (1943–2008), who told Harper’s Magazine,

They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds [i.e. play with the handicap of having a knight removed from the board at game start] and still beat.

Later in life, Fischer became an outspoken conspiracy theorist, so perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in his views about women. But the more level-headed Garry Kasparov, who reigned as global chess champion between 1985 and 2000, has also suggested that men have a natural advantage (even if he put things more politely): “Chess is a mixture of sport, psychological warfare, science, and art. When you look at all these components, man dominates. Every single component of chess belongs to the areas of male domination.”

It’s not just men who hold such views: the chair of FIDE’s commission on Women in Chess, Slovakia’s Eva Repková (a Women’s Grandmaster), has suggested that sex differences in chess come down to personality: “In chess, there are factors such as fighting spirit. You want to crush the other person; show you are better. [These] instincts, I believe, are stronger in men.”

But other, equally informed, female players argue that it really does just come down to sexism. Their ranks include Hungary’s Judit Polgár, the highest-ranking women’s chess player in history (by far), who’s declared that “it’s just as possible for a woman to become the best as any guy. But there are so many difficulties and social boundaries for women generally in society. That is what blocks it.”

According to nine-time British Women’s Chess Champion Jovanka Houska, the male tendency toward “single-mindedness” does “slightly favour” men. But she also believes that girls don’t have the same opportunities to develop an interest and confidence in chess:

When you are young, you get the constant comment that girls can’t play chess. Boys are very good at shouting girls down. And this is a problem because there aren’t so many girls playing chess. They become timid. They say, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll back off because this boy sounds very confident.’

Some experts believe that separate female categories only lead girls and women to internalize lower expectations for their performance, hurting their confidence. Ivan Salgado Lopez, a two-time winner of the Spanish Chess Championship, captain of the Spanish Women’s Olympic team, and coach to some of the top female chess players in the world, told me that women have what it takes to play at the highest levels, but lack the necessary confidence:

Most of the strongest and successful women chess players I’ve met have mainly men as friends, and don’t have a problem being around lots of them in a competitive setting. I believe separate tournaments end up reducing confidence about what they can achieve. [Having] separate categories, especially from a young age, [creates] a system that [may] limit women, instead of helping them.

But even if separate categories hold women back in some ways, they do seem to help in other respects; mostly by providing a space where female players can be free of what some describe as pervasive male harassment.

A 2010 study reported the experiences of young girls from Melbourne, Australia, who’d dropped out of their school’s mixed-sex chess club. Participation was voluntary, and the club started out with roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. But within a few months, only 10 percent of the original group of girls remained. Many of the girls reported that they’d left for banal reasons such as boredom. Some left because their friends left. But others reported feeling unwelcome, and even teased. One 11-year-old girl reported that “the boys tend to put us down by saying things about our playing…well, if we think we’re hopeless, well, then we’ll start playing hopeless, so, [you have to] just ignore them and keep playing for the sake of it.” Even veteran women chess players have reported similar experiences.

Social-media forums dedicated to chess also relate tales of a different kind of harassment. One woman, for instance, answered a question on Reddit about why she’d stopped playing in-person chess this way: “When I started college, I took chess classes and was very active in the chess club. After a while, I started getting a lot of unwanted male attention to the point I could not go to the club without a circle of guys being around me. It was deeply uncomfortable and I stopped going.”

Just a few months ago, in fact, former American woman’s chess champion Jennifer Shahade resigned from her position as Director of the U.S. Chess Women’s Program, claiming that the organization had ignored complaints (from her and other women) about sexual harassment, and even allegations of sexual assault.

Such reports should, of course, be taken seriously. But I’m far from convinced that sexism and harassment are the main reasons why men outperform women at chess. We’ve already come a long way in battling sexism during my lifetime. And yet, even as women have made great strides in such areas as medicine, law, engineering, and academia, the sex gap in chess has barely budged since second-wave feminism took off in the 1960s. This all suggests there’s something else going on.

Until the Middle Ages, chess was seen as a simulation of warfare—a masculine domain. But in the sixteenth century, as tabletop games became more popular among the newly affluent commercial classes in Tudor England and the rest of Europe, chess’ theme came to be seen as more abstract, and so more suited to the genteel environment of a salon or even a palace. It became socially acceptable for women to join in the hobby (which also provided a rare excuse for the sexes to mingle).

A thirteenth-century illustration of Knights Templar playing a game of chess, contained in a book produced under the direction of Alfonso X of Castile.

But it wasn’t until 1897 that an English tournament hosted female players exclusively (with 32 participants in total, five of whom came from abroad). Wilhelm Steinitz, the reigning men’s champion at the time, was no Fischer-style reactionary. He described his hopes that the trend of including women in chess would continue: “If we engage the queens of our hearts for the queens of our boards, and if we can enlist the interest of our connubial mates for our chessical mates, our intellectual pastime will be immensely benefited and will pass into universal favor.”

Steinitz’ hopes were eventually realized. In 1927, three years after FIDE’s founding, a group of women came together to compete in the inaugural Women’s World Chess Championship. As the expression goes, women now had a league of their own. The first champion was Vera Menchik of Russia (later Czechoslovakia), who reigned until 1939.

Vera Menchik, long-reigning women’s chess world champion, concentrating on a move during the International Chess Tournament which opened at the Central Hall, Westminster, London, 1 February 1932. Alamy

The establishment of a separate category for women meant that they could regularly compete and earn championship titles, as Menchik did. But it wasn’t until many years later that any women would have a realistic chance of winning against the men at the top. In 1986, Susan Polgár (Judit’s Hungarian-American older sister), who had eschewed competing in women’s tournaments and honed her skills by playing against men, seemed poised to breach the sex barrier. She performed so well (at just 17 years of age) that she hit the performance threshold required for admission to the Zonal Chess Championship (in practice, the “Men’s” championship), which would have given her a shot at competing in the World Championship.

Alas, she was lacking one crucial qualification: maleness. “The Hungarian federation and FIDE succeeded in stopping me from participating, even though I had earned my spot,” Polgár complained.

A few years later, FIDE gave way by replacing what was often called the “Men’s” category with an “Open” one, which would explicitly welcome everyone. In practice, males are vastly over-represented in the Open category. But the change did allow any qualified woman to have a chance to become a real-life Beth Harmon—that is, not just one of the best female chess players, but one of the best, period.

The creation of the Open category also set up the stark asymmetry in the rules that lies at the heart of our inquiry concerning the participation of transwomen in the female-only category: While women (and transwomen) are free to compete in the Open category, men have not been allowed to compete in the women’s category. This is the decades-long state of play that formed the background to FIDE’s aforementioned August 2023 policy “update”:

In the event that the gender was changed from a male to a female, the player has no right to participate in official FIDE events for women until FIDE’s decision is made. Such decision should be based on further analysis and shall be taken by the FIDE Council at the earliest possible time, but not longer than within 2 (two) years period. There are no restrictions to play in the open section for a person who has changed [their] gender.

Critics believe this is unfair, arguing that males who identify as women, and who have transitioned to living in a female sex role, have every right to compete in the women’s category, and should not have to wait up to two years for FIDE to decide whether they can do so. At least a few of the roughly 200 national chess federations have rejected FIDE’s new rule, including those in England, Germany, France, and the United States. The U.S. Chess Federation policy statement expresses clear support for any transwoman’s right to compete in women’s events, while also warning against those who might try to manipulate the policy to their advantage—that is, men who adopt a trans identity for no other reason than to bring home a trophy:

US Chess is committed to providing opportunities for everyone to play chess regardless of their race, ethnic or national origin, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. US Chess will recognize an individual’s gender identity that is consistent with the identity they maintain in their non-chess life (e.g. family, social, professional). Changing a gender simply to compete in a special category or single-gender event is against the intent and spirit of this policy. ‘Gaming the system’ will not be tolerated, and the member could be subject to US Chess ethics sanctions.

Quillette readers need no reminding that the issue of gender self-identification is situated on the battle lines that mark our left-right culture war. So it’s no surprise that FIDE’s pronouncement was picked up by that war’s usual combatants.

For instance, the National Center for Transgender Equality complained on X (formerly Twitter), that the new policy is “insulting to cis [i.e., non-trans] women, to trans women, and to the game itself. It assumes that cis women couldn’t be competitive against cis men—and relies on ignorant anti-trans ideas.” Chess influencer “Julesgambit” expressed a similar sentiment on X, asking, “Isn’t FIDE’s decision to ban trans people from all women’s chess events because they have an unfair advantage, just another way of saying men have a biological advantage over women in chess?”

That last (rhetorical) question gets to the unique aspect of the trans-rights debate as it plays out in the context of chess. In the case of athletics, the sexes are often separated into their own categories for obvious reasons that are based on robust scientific evidence: men are, on average, faster, bigger, and stronger than women, and these advantages are driven by innate biological differences. But when it comes to chess, making the case for protected female categories becomes more of a minefield. That’s because even if there is evidence that biology drives the underlying sex difference, no one wants to be seen as arguing, Bobby Fischer-style, that men beat women at chess because they’re just naturally blessed with superior, chess-relevant skills.  

FIDE, of course, has not made any such argument. All it offered was that its “update” had been prompted by an increasing number of “recognition requests from players who identify as transgender.” Its officials did not say anything about transwomen having an unfair advantage when competing in female categories. Rather, the organization noted (somewhat cryptically) that “a change of gender is a change that has a significant impact on a player’s status and future eligibility to tournaments.”

The word “status” here presumably refers to one’s ranking relative to other players. Chess ratings (more on that topic shortly) are, on average, significantly lower in the Women’s category than in the Open category. So if a player simply transfers from Open to Women’s competitions, that player may be in a better position to get a rankings boost.

For example, the top-rated “active” (i.e., having competed in a FIDE-rated game within the last year) female player, China’s Hou Yifan, boasts a 2632 rating—which is lower than that of every single player who appears on the top-100 list of male players. If any one of those top hundred male players started competing in the women’s category, they would have excellent odds of becoming the world’s highest-rated women’s player.

These four-digit ratings are properly described as a player’s FIDE rating, or “Elo”—an index named after its inventor, American physics professor and chess Master Arpad Elo. Anyone who registers with FIDE and competes in at least five games against rated players in FIDE-registered tournaments will be assigned an Elo rating. As you might expect, a player’s rating rises with wins and drops with losses. But the rating-generating algorithm is also weighted according to the strength of one’s opponents. Win a game against someone with a lower rating, and you won’t get much of a ratings bump; but if you beat a player with a higher rating, you will.

Chess players’ FIDE-published Elo ratings, as of March 1, 2024, range from a low of 1400 for beginners to a high approaching 2900. “Expert” ratings are those above 2000. “International Masters” boast ratings above 2400. And for “Grandmasters,” the threshold is 2500. World Champions over the past 40 years have generally had ratings in the 2700s and 2800s. (In 2014, five-time World Champion Magnus Carlsen set the record for the highest Elo rating ever achieved, at 2882.)

Men don’t just loom large as a percentage of FIDE-registered chess players overall, but also at the highest echelons of achievement. Of the approximately 171,000 active FIDE-registered chess players in the world, about 154,000 are male and 17,000 are female. Approximately 1,300 of all active players are Grandmasters, and only about 2 percent of these are women. (The data are easily accessible here).

The aforementioned Judit Polgár is the only woman to have ever cracked the top ten in the Open category, getting as high as eighth in the world in 2005, with a rating of 2735. But she is an extreme outlier: the next-highest overall rank for any female player in the Open category was 55. This was Hou, the current number-one female player, who achieved this with a rating of 2685 in 2015. (A bona fide prodigy, she won the Women’s World Chess Championship at just 16 years of age.)

The world’s top-rated chess players in four categories, as reported by FIDE on March 14, 2024.

The existence of female-exclusive FIDE categories allows girls and women to win titles, awards, money, and media attention at lower ratings than males. While a minimum Elo rating of 2500 is required for Grandmaster status, the title of “Women’s Grandmaster” is available to female competitors who attain an Elo rating of just 2300.

Indeed, the reigning FIDE Women’s World Chess Champion, Ju Wenjun, with her rating of 2560, would not rank among the top 300 men in the world. Any of those men would love to call themselves a World Champion, as well as claim the US$334,000 prize earned by the winner of the Women’s World Championship. But none of them are eligible—because they aren’t women. (The winner of the Open World Championship—so far, always a man—gets over US$1-million, three times the amount received by his female counterpart.)

All of these facts stir popular suspicions within the chess community that there is some biological difference at play. One relevant sex difference that likely has biological roots, for instance, involves intelligence: Although men and women exhibit equal average intelligence, males do tend to exhibit greater variation in scores on intelligence tests (and a range of other qualities). This means that, compared to females, there tend to be more male village idiots and more male brainiacs. So perhaps it is this excess of male brainiacs that drives the sex difference in chess.

When I began this inquiry, I’d assumed that possession of an extremely high IQ was the main factor differentiating those at the top of the chess world from the also-rans. I’d also suspected that even among the very best players, a higher IQ would drive performance differences. I now know I was wrong, having encountered academic papers such as this one, in which researchers found that “when an elite subsample of 23 children was tested, it turned out that intelligence was not a significant factor in chess skill.”

That doesn’t mean that a high IQ wouldn’t provide a benefit in a game that pitted randomly paired chess novices against one another. Rather, as discussed below, it suggests that, among those individuals who pursue chess seriously—a small self-selected group with above-average intellect to begin with—intelligence alone doesn’t predict performance in a straightforward way. For example, while an Einstein-level IQ would be an asset, even Einstein himself would likely lose to a smart player with the requisite experience. At least equally important as intelligence is dedication to the game, and immersion in a culture of chess education.

This means starting young (generally under ten and getting serious by twelve); spending many hours per day on intensive practice; and playing in hundreds of tournament games. It also usually means working with a coach (thus introducing a socioeconomic class element into our analysis). One occasionally hears about young players coming out of nowhere to take the world by storm. (Fischer won the first of his U.S. chess championships at age 14, despite being born to a then-homeless single mother.) But those are exceptions: Almost everyone who nears the chess summit will have invested many thousands of hours in the game.

chess24 | Judit Polgar beats Magnus Carlsen in 19 moves!
chess24 your playground | play chess, train chess, read chess news and watch chess live.

Take Judit Polgár, who recently beat Magnus Carlsen in an informal outdoor match that arguably paired the greatest female and male players of all time.

Presentation of the Golombek Trophy to Judit Polgar (L) and Evgeny Bareev (R). Foreign & Colonial Hastings Premier Chess tournament 1992/93. Alamy
Presentation of the Golombek Trophy to Judit Polgar (L) and Evgeny Bareev (R). Foreign & Colonial Hastings Premier Chess tournament 1992/93. Alamy

She and her two older sisters were born into a kind of experiment, run by their father, Hungarian psychologist Lazlo Polgár. He set out to prove that anyone could become a “genius” in a particular area if they were immersed in it from a young age. The sisters were all homeschooled. Judit’s sister Susan said that her father “believed in optimizing early childhood instead of wasting time playing outside or watching TV,” with the sisters’ environment taking the form of what one journalist described as a “veritable chess cocoon.” And it worked: Judit, along with her two sisters, became chess prodigies.

How To Become A Genius- The Polgár Experiment | Daniel Karim
In this article I write about the unbelievable story of the Polgár’s. The family who successfully created three geniuses on purpose.

But practice alone isn’t sufficient to get ahead, since smarter aspiring players get more skill bang out of their practice buck than others. If Einstein did take up chess seriously, he likely would have learned faster, solved problems in less time (think of those “White to move, mate in three” puzzles that once appeared alongside the comics and horoscopes in newspapers), and graduated more quickly to harder challenges. Those with a relatively high IQ will recall more from their lessons, internalize a greater number of chess patterns, and will apply that knowledge more consistently in competitive play. If anyone could become a master simply by putting the time in, we’d have significantly more of them.

Being smart, having a “killer instinct” (or whatever your preferred cliché might be), and putting the necessary hours into practice may not be enough. In addition, chess excellence may require a particular thinking style—a way of processing information. There are plenty of smart people who attack chess with great gusto from an early age, but never get past an intermediate level. In some cases, it may be because they can’t quite match the competition in some of the cognitive skills that would give them an edge, such as the ability to recognize and recall patterns, visualize and analyze options on a two-dimensional grid, and make decisions that balance multiple strategic considerations. Spatial ability, the subject of my own dissertation research at Harvard University, may be particularly important for success in chess. The lower ranks of FIDE’s lists, therefore, may be littered with chess enthusiasts who are destined to play out their careers in obscurity because they struggle to develop the particular kinds of cognitive skills that elite chess demands.

But, to repeat a theme, the evidence relating any single component of cognitive ability to chess skill is mixed. Such statistical correlations are relatively weak among more advanced players. And it is likely that complex feedback processes, which are difficult to analyze and quantify, are at play: Raw ability, personality, environment, and social factors all influence the speed of one’s progress, which, in turn, then affect one’s motivation, enjoyment, and training investment, which can then, in turn, influence pattern recognition and confidence. So it seems likely that sex differences in regard to purely intellectual skills, while potentially significant, fail to adequately explain the male advantage in chess.

The same is true of the “greater male variability” (GMV) hypothesis, briefly alluded to earlier, which reflects the phenomenon by which boys and men exhibit greater variability than females in a range of traits, such as height, intelligence, preferences for leisure activities, risky behavior, and competitive drive.

The GMV hypothesis is the explanation often given for sex differences in STEM fields, particularly the “hard” sciences such as physics. The idea is that even if there’s no male-female difference in average math or physics ability, there would still be more men at the very high (and low) end of the ability spectrum. These are the extreme outliers who are most likely to earn prestigious faculty positions, file many patent applications, and win career achievement awards. And there is, in fact, strong evidence supporting the hypothesis; many traits do tend to be more variable in men than in women.

But if the greater male variability hypothesis explained the male advantage in chess, then we should observe that Elo ratings for males would be more variable than those for females. That is, we would expect more male grandmasters not because males are better at chess, but simply because there would be fewer females at both the high and low end of performance.

But in most populations of chess players, that statistical pattern isn’t reflected in the distributions of Elo ratings. Those for males are not more variable than for females. In many cases, in fact, the variability among female ratings is actually higher.

Having dealt with the GMV hypothesis, we now turn to one of the most influential explanations for male domination in chess: the “participation-rate hypothesis.” This assumes no sex difference in skill. Instead, the male advantage is hypothesized to be a consequence of the higher number of males who take up chess in the first place.

The idea here is that data showing higher male Elo ratings don’t reflect any actual sex difference in the general population. Instead, the data reflect comparisons between only the most competitive male and female players—those who have already gone through a significant filtering process. These are the players who have the enthusiasm, time, talent, and social support to progress from casual play at school or in chess clubs, and into tournament chess, which is where they obtain a FIDE registration and an Elo rating. And there are many more males than females who get through to become members of this pre-filtered population.

Providing an analogy is the best way to explain how the participation-rate hypothesis could explain male-female differences in Elo ratings. Suppose you’re a basketball scout, charged with putting together two competitive basketball teams. For Team A, you pick 20 players from City A, where 100 players come to your tryout. For Team B, you pick 20 players from City B, where 1,000 players come to your tryout. All other factors being equal—including the average talent level of basketball players in Cities A and B—Team B will be a lot better than Team A. That’s because there will simply be more positive outliers at the City B tryouts—players whose ability is several standard deviations above the overall mean.

And so even if the average player from City B is identical to the average player from City A, in a tournament, Team B will trounce Team A. And when high-scorer lists get compiled at the end of a season, they will feature a lot more names from Team B than from Team A. In fact, if you statistically analyzed the season point totals from Team A and Team B players, you’d produce a graph with two peaks—one corresponding to the mean for Team A players, and another, corresponding to the (significantly higher) mean for Team B players—a graph that might look a lot like side-by-side comparisons of male and female chess Elo ratings.

To understand how the participation-rate hypothesis applies to chess, let’s now imagine the scout is now a middle-school teacher picking children to send to an upcoming chess tournament. And she’s recruiting Team A from the (relatively low) number of girls who show up for chess club; while recruiting Team B from the (relatively high) number of corresponding boys. Even if the girls and boys at this school exhibit identical average aptitudes for the game, Team A (the girls) will be weaker than Team B (the boys).

This explanation of the participation-rate hypothesis is over-simplified, but it’s enough to communicate the basic idea. The policy implication here is that all one need do to achieve performance parity among elite male and female chess players would be to get more girls (or, I suppose, fewer boys) interested in the game.

Unfortunately, this implication is undermined by what we know about sex differences in another popular game: Scrabble. 

Scrabble Champions Tournament director John Chew (left), posing in Prague with Nigel Richards (center), who’d just been crowned as world Scrabble champion for 2013 (a feat he’d repeat in 2018 and 2019). Richards is widely regarded as history’s greatest tournament-Scrabble player.
Scrabble Champions Tournament director John Chew (left), posing in Prague with Nigel Richards (center), who’d just been crowned as world Scrabble champion for 2013 (a feat he’d repeat in 2018 and 2019). Richards is widely regarded as history’s greatest tournament-Scrabble player.

In a game of Scrabble, as most readers will know, two competing players earn points for creating words using one or more of the seven lettered tiles in their inventory, which they place on a grid-spaced board. Like chess, Scrabble uses a version of the Elo rating system. But unlike in the chess world, women dominate the recreational ranks of Scrabble, accounting for about 85 percent of all recreational players. Even at the competitive level, women generally outnumber men (which isn’t that surprising given that Scrabble is all about words, and verbal ability is one area in which women tend to outperform men). So if the participation-rate hypothesis were correct in this context, then women should be dominating the elite Scrabble ranks.

But they’re not. Instead, men dominate Scrabble’s upper tiers, as they do in chess. And the same goes for Bridge, another game that’s dominated at the recreational level by women. 

Scrabble tournaments usually feature separate divisions, which are classified according to Elo ratings. Players with the highest ratings compete in the first division, in which there are few women. As the skill level goes down, the proportion of women increases, until you get to the lowest level, where women vastly outnumber men. No woman has ever won a national or World Scrabble Championship. (However, just last year, Ruth Li from Toronto did win the North American Championship in the High School division, becoming the first female to ever win any such regional championship.)

Of course, Scrabble and chess are different games that require different skills, and lessons from the former may not cleanly translate to the latter. But even if one confines one’s focus to chess, the participation-rate thesis doesn’t present a convincing explanation for the observed sex differences in performance.

First, an exhaustive, 2023 report on female participation rates in over 100 countries shows no relationship between female participation rate in FIDE tournament-level chess and female chess performance (the average female Elo rating as a percentage of the corresponding male rating).

Second, over the last 50 years or so, female participation in chess has increased measurably around the world—a fact that should, according to the participation-rate hypothesis, lead to a narrowing of the sex gap at the highest levels of play. And in a few cases, that has happened. In France, for example, the female participation rate increased from 6 percent to 15 percent from 1985 to 2015, and the sex gap in ratings also significantly narrowed. But overall, the evidence is mixed. In the mid-1940s, the Elo difference between the world’s highest-rated male and female chess players hovered around 150 points. Eighty years later, that figure hasn’t really changed. (Note that such comparisons are based in part on retrospectively calculated Elo ratings, as FIDE didn’t start using them until the late 1960s.) 

Highest Rated Chess Players by Birth Year, for Males and Females

 A more promising explanation for male dominance in elite chess involves motivation. A large body of research strongly suggests that the sexes differ in their preferences for competition. As both Kasparov and Repková have intuited, men are simply more competitive—that is, they have a stronger motivation not just to compete, but to win, in formal physical and non-physical competitions of all kinds.

Men are more likely to choose games that involve direct, one-on-one competition, in which the result is a clear winner and loser—such as chess. Women are less competitive even when interacting anonymously—for example, in online arenas such as massive multiplayer role-playing games. This applies even when players interact using avatars of the sex opposite to their own; situations in which social expectations and stereotypes should have a reduced influence on in-game behavior. Women’s performance and enjoyment tends to suffer when the competition intensifies; that is, when the stakes are highest or time pressure is applied. For example, the average male-female sex difference in “blitz” chess games, which allocate ten minutes or less for each player to make all of their moves, is greater than that observed in standard chess, in which each player has at least an hour and a half. Moreover, relative to men, in experimental and real-life conditions, women tend to opt out of tournament conditions. 

So it’s not surprising that females, being less focused (on average, as usual) on crushing an opponent in some future tournament, might be less motivated to go in for the kind of hardcore practice that’s necessary to develop elite skills (“deliberate practice,” as it’s called, as distinct from simply practising by playing).

In Scrabble, this could mean studying anagrams and word lists, which many people (understandably) find boring. There are 15 five-letter Scrabble-eligible words that feature a Q, but no U, for instance. A top-level Scrabble player will be able to list most (if not all) from memory. How many of us would set about engaging in this kind of memorization exercise? Likewise, how many recreational chess players are excited by the prospect of studying the dozen or so major variations on the king’s pawn opening, each of which comes with its own sub-variations?

If your instinct tells you that males will be disproportionately drawn toward this kind of intense practice style than females, you’re correct. Studies show that boys and men are more likely to exhibit a “rigid persistence in an activity,” by which “the passion controls the individual” (“obsessive passion” in the literature). In anecdotal terms, we are talking here about the man who drops everything to become, say, a 16-hour-per-day videogamer, or a day-trader, or chess addict. Yes, some women take on these kinds of fixations. But men do it more often, and with greater intensity.

Not only do males generally score higher than females in these areas, but there is also a positive relationship between obsessive passion and both chess and Scrabble ratings. The sexes don’t seem to differ in the benefits they gain from practice. But men do tend to enjoy practice more, and so do more of it; habits that are strongly associated with winning. The bottom line: Plausibly, one of the main reasons why there are more elite male chess players is that boys are simply more motivated to do what it takes to become an elite player.

Shahade, the first female player to win the U.S. Junior Open, and the author of Chess Queens, has explained that female-only chess tournaments “offer women a fun arena to face off and gain recognition [and] allow girls to make friends, increasing the odds they play chess for a long time.” They also supply aspiring players with role models, and give women the same kinds of incentives to succeed that males have always taken for granted, such as positive affirmation and money.

The best argument for including transwomen in female categories on a no-questions-asked basis is that everything Shahade is talking about here applies (at least to some extent) to transwomen, too. And if the welfare of transgender players were all that were at stake, such a laissez-faire policy would make sense to me, and I would support it.  

But the reality is that FIDE policymaking must not only consider transwomen chess players, but also those females who value a sex-protected category. It must also be forward-looking, in the sense of anticipating future controversies and disputes within the hobby.

In crafting their new policy, FIDE’s officials knew that if a single one of the top 100 Grandmasters—all of them being men—were to qualify to compete in women’s tournaments, that player could easily become the chess-world equivalent of Lia Thomas. Inevitably, this player would be the subject of official plaudits in media and activist circles, but also the target of resentment and even outrage—some no doubt, quite public—from fans and female competitors. Such a spectacle might also remind some chess-playing women that their preferences for female-only competitions aren’t being given priority. I’m not sure that’s the solution to building morale within the ranks of female chess players.

I’m not conceding an affirmative answer to Jules Gambit’s rhetorical question, “Isn’t FIDE’s decision to ban trans people from all women’s chess events because they have an unfair advantage, just another way of saying men have a biological advantage over women in chess?” I can’t comment on what was in the minds of the FIDE officials.

That said, I don’t see evidence for the idea that socialization alone explains the stronger male tendency to focus obsessively on doing whatever is necessary to win, even at board games. And there are good reasons to think that this tendency has an evolutionary basis: In the animal kingdom, males tend to devote more time, energy, and risk to status competition, since this tends to pay more reproductive benefits for males than females. So it’s not unreasonable to suspect that boys and men have some kind of biological advantage—possibly underpinned by higher lifetime exposure to testosterone—that helps explain their over-representation in tournament-level competition in general. (While this particular brand of competitiveness may have a strong evolutionary explanation, it is unlikely to be the wisest reproductive strategy in today’s world.)

Ultimately, sex differences in complex behaviors and skills are always a product of interactions between biology on the one hand (that is, our genes and their relatively fixed effects, such as hormone levels and body size) and our environment on the other (that is, factors such as our family circumstances, social dynamics, and cultural norms). Interactions between the two shape not only our skills and abilities, but also any emerging group differences. But none such complicating factors change the fact that the sex gap in chess is real and persistent. Given the circumstances that led to the creation of the female category, and the fact that many girls and women appreciate what this category offers, FIDE is correct to take the steps necessary to protect its integrity.

On Instagram @quillette