Gender Battle Checkmate!

Towards the back end of last year, Netflix aired a seven-episode drama series called THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. It was based on a 1983 novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis (1928 – 1984) and centred around a 13-year-old female chess prodigy.

Thanks to the show – and also probably the global pandemic – chess had, and continues to have, a bit of a moment. According to eBay, the retail site saw a remarkable 273% surge in sales of chess sets in the first 10 days of the Netflix series’ release.

The world’s most popular game – made to feel fresh, kinetic and by all reports, damn near sensual by this most recent film treatment – seemed worth finding out a little bit more about. And so I set my sights on taking a tour of the quirky and completely brilliant world of competitive chess. I discovered some interesting things along the way.

My starting point was visiting the website

Like tennis, golf, athletics, swimming, darts, snooker and many other recreational sports, chess has its own world rankings system for elite players.

World chess competition is governed by a controlling body known as the International Chess Federation based in Switzerland. Founded almost a hundred years ago in 1924, this organization, usually referred to by it’s French acronym FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) publishes a list of the Top 100 Chess Players in the world every month.

The listing on stretches to the top 138 ranked players in the world. I started at the #1 position – Norwegian Magnus Carlsen – and began scrolling down, waiting to see when the first female name would appear in the list.

Nothing in the Top Ten so I kept going down. The Top Twenty and Top Thirty also came up blank for females. When I’d reached the 40th ranked player and still no female names had appeared, I scrolled back up, thinking I’d missed someone. Nope. No females listed in the World’s Top 40 ranked chess players.

Top 50 – no. Top 60 – no. Top 70 – also no. It wasn’t until I reached the name Hou Yifan from China, ranked as the 83rd best chess player in the world, that I was able to see a female included in the list. Hou Yifan, revealingly, is the ONLY female listed in the Top 100 World Chess rankings.

At just 26 years of age, Hou Yifan is a Professor at Shenzhen University in China. She is the youngest person ever to earn that accreditation at Shenzhen. She has been described as “an exceptional genius” and someone who is “leaps and bounds” ahead of her female contemporaries.

And perhaps most significant to the curious phenomena under consideration here, she is widely considered to be the second greatest female chess player who has ever lived (behind Hungary’s Judit Polgar (1976 – )).

And yet… and I say this with nothing… absolutely nothing but the greatest of respect and deference for a mind light years ahead of my own…she can ONLY make it as high as number 83 in the world rankings.

When you also take into account the fact Hou Yifan is only the third female to EVER crack the Top 100 World Chess rankings since official rankings have existed, then it’s clear something is going on. That ‘something’ is what might be termed a dinky di, boss-sized ‘gender gap’ in the world of competitive chess.

Leave it to your intrepid sleuth reporter SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK to unearth the inscrutable and in-no-small way enigmatic ‘How come?’

In a great many sports – name pretty much any sport you like – women are incapable of competing equally against men. Males have inherent physical advantages in the areas of muscle mass, speed and strength. This gender ‘superiority’ makes biological sense and is hard to argue against. Men are simply just generally bigger and stronger.

By contrast, chess isn’t a physical game, it’s a game of the mind. Some have labelled it the ultimate intellectual contest. And yet… males dominate at the top in chess. That’s not ‘just a little bit’ dominate. That’s completely, universally and unequivocally DOMINATE.

Almost all grandmasters are male, there has never been a female world champion and only one female, Hungary’s Judit Polgar, has ever reached the official top ten rating list (at her peak, Polgar reached #8 in the world in 2005).

Judit Polgar has also defeated the current World Number One Magnus Carlsen. At just 12 years of age she was ranked #55 in the world.

How then to account for this male dominance – with the very occasional notable exception like Judit Polgar – at the top in chess when physical strength does not enter the equation?

The first point of note is that male predominance in chess parallels that in domains such as mathematics, physics and engineering, which may tap some similar abilities and propensities.

Prior to the 20th century, it was a commonly held view that men were intellectually superior to women. Early brain studies comparing mass and volumes between the sexes concluded that women were intellectually inferior because they have smaller and lighter brains.

During the early twentieth century, the scientific consensus shifted to the view that gender plays no role in intelligence. And yet in so many fields of what may be characterized as ‘high intellect‘ – chess included – females are underrepresented, bordering on invisible.

The graphs below serve as but one example. Fields such as physics, chemistry and physiology would all be regarded as areas requiring high intellect. And yet, using Nobel Prize recognition as a measure, females hardly rate a blip on the radar screen.

A closer anaylsis of male brain and female brain intelligence reveals that while men’s and women’s average IQ is pretty much identical the distribution within each sex is different.

Let’s say the average IQ for both men and women is 100, well, the vast majority of women are on that average (obviously with some exceptions), whereas quite a few men can be way above it or way below it.

This is why we have so many male geniuses but on the flip side it is also why men fill the prisons. Some people would contend that men – generally speaking – are better analytical thinkers and problem solvers and since there is direct correlation between IQ and being good at chess, this is one, albeit, controversial explanation of the gender gulf between the sexes that exists in the world of top level chess.

Although there is a degree of truth in the simplified and perhaps slightly outdated gender stereotypes represented by the two illustrations above, I personally am more comfortable with the ‘mosaic’ idea of what is seen as typically male and typically female traits, as put forward in this 2019 book..

Having acknowledged the downside of gender stereotypes in their propensity to be in equal measure porous, blurring and simplistic, I’ll concede to finding playful truth in the depiction below –

Returning to the subject of chess, some researchers would suggest the under-representation of women in top level chess is due to social factors.

It can be argued social pressures discourage women from being competitive and, like snooker, chess is seen more as a male pursuit which means less females take it up as a hobby and so the talent pool from which to draw is much reduced compared to men.

This leads on to the question of the purpose and validity of female-only chess tournaments. In addition to publishing it’s monthly list of rankings for the Top 100 Chess Players in the World, The International Chess Federation (FIDE) also publishes lists for ” The Top 100 Women”“The Top 100 Juniors” and “The Top 100 Girls”.

Jennifer Shahade (that’s her with the pink hair above) is one person who holds strong views on the importance of female-only chess tournaments and separate titles and rankings for women and girl players.

Shahade holds the title of WOMAN GRANDMASTER and was at one time, back in the early 2000’s, considered the best American-born female to ever play the game. Her father before her was a chess FIDE MASTER and her brother is a chess INTERNATIONAL MASTER.

This is her in the ‘Hula-Chess’ video below. From someone who can’t play either chess or keep a hula-hoop twirling around my hips for anything more than a few seconds, this video is pretty impressive –

Shahade believes by introducing separate titles for women (with admittedly much lower performance criteria than ‘Open’ titles open to either gender) the world chess body FIDE has helped create female role models in chess.

This, she believes, has provided women a ‘leg up’ to help increase exposure for female chess with the flow-on effect of increasing participation at the grass roots junior girls level (see video below)

Other commentators have suggested separate titles for women (with lower performance standards) is mildly patronizing and that women-only tournaments assume that females are somehow intellectually inferior.

Former world #8 ranked player – not world #8 ranked female but world number 8 ranked playerJudit Polgar refused to play in anything but ‘Open’ tournaments. Her belief was and still is the end goal must be that women and men compete with one another on an equal footing.

Yet segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially and make friends with people with whom they have similar interests.

Considering the participation rate – probably due to cultural reasons – for woman and girls playing chess is so much lower than for men, separate rankings, tournaments and junior leagues for girls allow chess to grow and develop in an under-represented area.

Why are only two of the world's top 100 chess players women? — Hana Schank  — Aeon Essays | Chess players, Chess, Famous men


Little known and silly facts your thing?

Giddy excitement is yours for the taking as January the 4th marks WORLD TRIVIA DAY.

There’s nothing trivial about trivia if you’re an enthusiast of amusing yet useless information. Yet trivia has always been a ‘reader beware’ proposition. Mix one part urban legend with two parts impossible-to-prove-or-disprove ‘old wives tale’ then add in a liberal dose of exaggeration for extra spice and voila! There you have it…a perfect morsel of mind candy that may or may not have it’s base in fact. In the era of fake news you can bet a decent fiver this ‘truth is secondary to entertainment’ phenomena is even more a thing.

The old adage about never letting truth get in the way of a good story applies equally even more so to trivia. Try this fun ‘fact’ for example – nearly 3% of Antarctic glaciers consist of penguin urine. Not 4%. Not 2%. But exactly 3%. Like it’s been measured. Accurately. Probably has been measured for all I know. But measured how?

Some degree-qualified ‘scientist’ melted down a portion of glacial ice, analyzed the water content and found a level of penguin urine present that amounted to 3% of its volume. They then extrapolated from that figure that precisely 3% of all Antarctic glacial ice consists of penguin Budweiser. Well, that’s me guessing how the factoid might have been originally born anyway.

Speaking of which, it was American novelist Norman Mailer (1923 – 2007) who first coined the term ‘factoid’ back in 1973. Today the term refers to a piece of trivia or ‘fun fact’ but back then it had almost the opposite meaning. Mailer invented the word to describe a piece of information that isn’t true…but becomes accepted as true if enough people hear it or read it.

An example of this would be the commonly held belief about Mount Everest being the highest peak in the world. In actual fact the dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the world’s highest mountain – when measured from it’s underwater base. Ok, that’s probably a technicality but you get the point about the disputability and all-round rubbery-ness of a lot of so-called ‘facts’.

Doesn’t matter. If it’s fun you crave then the world of trivia can be a goldmine rich for the plundering. The following ‘facts’ are, I like to think, possibly a bit more believable and, going that one step further, maybe even verifiable than some other preposterously imaginative bits of trivia out there doing the rounds, but as usual… reader beware. And remember… knowledge is power (the power to make others feel stupid) – except when it comes to trivia!

Who knew that when you flip a coin, physics, not probability, determines how it will land. American mathematician Persi Diaconis (1945 – ) found that a coin is slightly more likely to land on the face that was up when you flipped it.

The way a coin lands is not ‘random’; in fact it’s easy, Diaconis contends, who, in addition to being Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Stanford University is also a former professional magician, that with a little practice anyone can manipulate a coin flip so that it lands the way they want it. What’s more, if you’re spinning a coin, it’s more likely to land tails up, since the heads side weighs slightly more.

Yessiree, ‘Go’ – all of two letters of it – is a grammatically correct English sentence. And for the grammar geeks, it’s only a sentence if it’s used as a command, then ‘you’ is the understood subject. Alternatively if you’d rather a sentence with a separate word as the subject, ‘I am’ is the shortest sentence, with three letters. Clear? Good. Don’t want to have to repeat all that!

Ever told someone you’d be back in a ‘jiffy’? You were definitely lying.

Though the English language has adopted it to mean ‘a short amount of time,’ it actually is a scientific term. In the physics world, a ‘jiffy’ is the time it takes light to travel a centimetre in a vacuum or around 33.4 picoseconds. (A ‘picosecond,’ meanwhile, is a trillionth of a second.) Now you know!

Someone was having a little fun when they came up with this. Technically, a ‘mickey’ is 1/200th of an inch. The speed can be measured in ‘pixels per mickey’, referring to how many pixels the cursor on the screen moves when the physical mouse is moved one mickey. Really.

The precious ball of fluff (if you’re a cat lover) pictured above is called a ‘Munchkin cat’ and, like the corgi and the dachshund, its short legs and long body are the results of a genetic mutation. The technical stuff is if a cat possesses the autosomal dominant gene, which causes the leg bones to grow shorter, it can pass the trait on to its kittens. You heard it here first. Or maybe you didn’t.

 Although they probably won’t grow back completely or to their original size. Not sure if that’s a comforting thought or not.

And finally, couldn’t resist finishing off with a dollop of homespun trivia.

The name of this blog – SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK – contains exactly 18 letters. Through a god-freakin’ coincidence that also happens to be the exact same number of letters in four of my all-time favorite movies – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) – FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) – THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) – and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979).

And if that ain’t the literal definition of information of little importance or value then I really don’t know what is.