Most women work below their level of competence

Tom Schuller author of The Paula Principle

London Chess Conference, Day 1, 30 November 2019

I had an unusual, and enjoyable, invitation last month, to speak on the Paula Principle – to a conference on Chess and Female Empowerment. The primary focus was on encouraging girls not just to start playing chess but to continue after the age of 11. 

Until that age, there are as many girls as boys playing, but apparently there is a very steep drop-off as they enter puberty. Why? Of course, in part, it’s because girls find other things to interest them. I assumed the main reason was that they dislike individual aggression, the hand-to-hand combat of chess. Well, we were told that girls are just as competitive. But they are interested in problem-solving as much as winning and in the social aspects of the game. So when it’s only about winning, and with little social interaction, they lose interest.

Be that as it may, there was convincing evidence from other speakers on the diverse positive benefits of playing chess. Some of these were fairly obvious: the mental discipline, concentration and logical thought. But I was impressed by convincing accounts of other improvements: in young people’s decision-making, in taking responsibility for their own actions, and several other life skills.

As I say, the focus was on young people, but I had the chance of talking with one participant who runs chess classes for adults as well as children, at the Acorns Chess Club. She impressed on me the value for every one of playing, and how chess improves people’s empathy and communication abilities, as well as the enjoyment of the game. But here’s a life-course gender difference: apparently men who have played chess as children quite often come back into the game in mid-life, but women rarely do. This means girls have few adult role models. It’s not clear why this should be – maybe just busyness – but it’s something that would be worth knowing more about. I wonder how far this is true of other sports and pastimes.

Before the conference, I had wondered how far the Paula Principle would be relevant. I assumed that the individual-combat nature of chess might exclude many of the potential lessons. But the discussions convinced me that it’s a game which for all its intense single-mindedness and competitive concentration also brings many other qualities – provided the context and culture are right.

This article is extracted from Tom Schuller’s blog.

The Paula Principle that most women work below their level of competence mirrors the Peter Principle in Organisational Development that people (mainly men in the 1960s) rise to their level of incompetence.

Game Changer – The Alpha Zero programme

Each of the sessions at the London Chess Conference 2019 contained a wealth of wisdom none more so than the presentation given by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan on their book Game Changer published by New in Chess which has received glowing reviews. The book won the English Chess Federation Book of the Year award and so we were pleased to invite them to explain what the book is about and why AlphaZero has been such a “game changer”. AlphaZero is world-beating chess software developed by Google’s Artificial Intelligence specialists at DeepMind.

The commotion caused by AlphaZero in the chess world relies upon the coincidence of two extraordinary factors. Firstly, there is the revolutionary “self-learning” software. This comprises a suite of algorithms that evaluate game performance and provide automatic feedback to update the move decision parameters. With fast processing, it only took 9 hours to process 44 million games which was sufficient to reach the pinnacle of chess strength – and to crush Stockfish. Until then, Stockfish was the top chess engine in the world, incorporating expertise from generations of chess players. By contrast, AlphaZero did not include any prior knowledge of chess. This is the significance of the suffix “Zero” – there is zero human chess expertise. In fact, the technical programmers of AlphaZero are not chess players.

The founder of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis, invited his old friends Matthew and Natasha to look over the games that had been generated in a private experimental match between the “machine learning” AlphaZero and the “expert system” Stockfish. Former British champion Matthew Sadler doesn’t play chess professionally nowadays but nevertheless remains (at the time of the presentation) the 2nd ranked player in England. He retired from chess pre-Magnus for a career in software architecture but keeps abreast of developments and practises on chess engines. His co-author Natasha Regan is a titled chess player and also a player of Go and Shogi. AlphaZero had emerged from a previous implementation (AlphaGo) in the game of Go where the world’s top player Lee Sedol from South Korea was comprehensively defeated – drawing the world’s attention to the potential for deep learning – the multi-level approach to machine learning.

The second extraordinary factor is the nature of AlphaZero’s games – brilliant and dazzling – a giant step for mankind. We are familiar with chess engines exploring deep and wide to analyse variations. What we get extra with AlphaZero is strategic vision. All of a sudden, the middlegame tomes have to be rewritten. Themes which were previously disparaged are now centre stage. AlphaZero has unearthed a new range of themes as described in Game Changer. The byword is strategic flexibility – e.g. being able to switch plans depending upon the position.

Perhaps the most visually striking theme is advancing the rook pawns as far as it will go. We tell beginners to keep their rook pawns back lest the king’s position becomes compromised. AlphaZero shows that this traditional advice is too cautious and that there are attacking possibilities as well as defensive advantages e.g. allowing room for the king to escape. AlphaZero also drew attention to the advantages of opposite-coloured bishops. The fear of draws is outweighed by the offensive capabilities. AlphaZero is much less materialistic than conventional theory. Pawn and exchange sacrifices are commonly used to increase piece mobility and open up long term attacking chances even though the justification may not seem obvious for several moves. Conversely, AlphaZero seeks to restrict the mobility of the opponent’s pieces.

Game Changer is their second book together. Their previous book was called Chess for Life and contained fascinating analyses, augmented with statistical analysis, of how to play against particular people and positions. I asked Natasha whether AlphaZero made them reconsider their opinions. She freely admitted that AlphaZero has led to a complete re-evaluation and gave the example of the Carlsbad pawn structure which typically arises in queen’s pawn games. White is conventionally expected to launch a minority attack. However, AlphaZero was much more inventive and just as inclined to launch a kingside attack. Whether ordinary players are able to follow these new precepts is debatable. In the video below there is a cameo from Magnus Carlsen in which he admires AlphaZero but recognises that he is not a computer.

Carlsbad Structure

We have Matthew and Natasha to thank for having brought to the world’s attention the breakthrough represented by AlphaZero. Clearly chess authors have a new lease of life as they update the theory of the middlegame. You can find more Game Changer videos from Matthew and Natasha on their YouTube channel.

Top Women Benefit Most from Federation Spending

Alice O´Gorman´s brilliant and insightful presentation during our plenary session is a must-see for everyone involved in policies for women and girls in chess. It contains preliminary results from a survey that Alice is conducting on behalf of the Women’s Commission of the European Chess Union. So far 44 of 54 European federations have responded – which is actually good compared to historic response rates. The results if confirmed have some striking implications. See below for the video of the presentation.

Most European federations focus almost exclusively on their top players. This applies to women as much as men. Resources for women are primarily devoted to the elite level – the biennial international Chess Olympiad, the annual national women’s championship and training their top players and junior internationals. Only one federation has mentioned a goal that goes beyond winning female-only titles – in this case, the goal was a woman winning the open national championship.

The survey found a mismatch between federation spending on women´s chess and closing the gender gap. Pumping more money into women’s chess has not brought more women into the game. One reason for this is that women’s championships are usually held a the same time as the open championships. Consequently, women are drawn into the women-only event at the expense of their participation in the open event.

Very few federations pursue explicit policies of increasing the number of girls and women who participate in chess. However, the survey indicates that there is one sure way in which federations can increase female engagement: female-only training. By creating a friendly environment such as a girls training camp, whether for beginners or improving juniors, girls engage more enthusiastically with chess. Alice, who is a medical student in Dublin, herself got interested in chess as a result of a chess camp.

The survey results are a salutary reminder that current policies regarding women’s chess are unlikely to bring about improvements in either female participation rates or performance levels. In fact, a notable finding is that female participation and performance are no worse, and on average slightly better, in those federations in which there is no separate funding for female chess. The policy challenge becomes one of targeted funding especially at the under 14 level.

The video includes Questions and Answers.

Does Chess Empower Girls?

The opening speaker at the London Chess Conference 2019 was April Cronin. April is a recently retired primary school headteacher and former Irish woman’s chess champion. She has been running chess in schools for many years where she has served as a role model for girls.  Nowadays she is devoting herself to extolling the benefits of chess in primary schools (age 7-11).  She is therefore uniquely qualified to make observations on what children gain from chess and to make informed observations on gender differences.

April Cronin opening plenary at the London Chess Conference

April’s main argument is that chess empowers all children and encouraging girls to play chess allows them to participate in this most enriching of activities. However, there are certain aspects of the way that girls engage with chess that we should accommodate if we are to give them the best experiences.

She acknowledges that there is a preponderance of boys in the school chess team, at the top boards and as participants in the school chess club. She notes that the after-school club comprises 75% boys. She estimates that at the adult level around 5% are women. 

April says that chess was very empowering in her own life and strongly believes it to be empowering of the children she teaches. Extra-curricular activities have protective effects in terms of social development and staying in school. She says that all children should be given the chance to learn chess at school which can turn out to be “incredibly empowering. Chess is empowering in ways we do not fully understand. 

She notes that kids love chess. The common experience of schools is that chess starts small-scale, perhaps focusing on the less sporty children, but then the chess programmes expand rapidly. Parents are usually delighted because chess is seen as developing the brain e.g. through improved concentration. There is also widespread social approval.

There is a reason chess so effective: simulated decision making. A child needs to make many decisions during each game. They have to evaluate options. No chance is involved – the child is responsible for the result of the game. Whether they win or lose, children enjoy this freedom of choice 

You can hear April Cronin present her analysis in the video below.

Don´t Make Us Play in a Zoo!

French clubs that are not wheelchair-accessible will soon no longer be allowed to host league matches. In the directory of the French Federation, pictured above, a wheelchair symbol shows which clubs are accessible. This regulation goes back to a bitter dispute after a cup match between Noyon and Eybens in 2011. The venue was only reachable via steep stairs. Eybens refused to play without their disabled top player.

This story was told at the round table on inclusion by Bernard Sojka, a French arbiter with failing eyesight. Making chess accessible on every level is what inclusion means to Sojka who successfully lobbied the French Federation to adopt higher standards of accessibility. He is opposed to any segregation and stresses that “we have to all play together”.

Chess has overcome barriers to women, people from lower classes, other ethnic backgrounds or with less education. Now segregation makes a comeback from above, and not only in women´s chess. FIDE has introduced championships for the disabled, even a championship for disabled youth. A world championship was planned in Cardiff to coincide with the conference, which gave us the idea for this round table and our announcement here. The FIDE event had to be cancelled for lack of registrations.

Recently, FIDE announced a Chess Paralympics on 30 July to 4 August 2020 in Khanty-Mansisk. This may be partly due to accommodate the Siberian town that does not have enough hotel rooms for a full Chess Olympiad, which has been moved to Moscow. The biggest chess competition ever for players with impairments does not make all them happy though.

For Chris Ross, a blind player, who is active in the English Braille Chess Association, a team of all visually impaired players or a team of all physically disabled players competing at the Chess Olympiad is the maximum he considers acceptable. “The Chess Paralympics cannot be compared with the Paralympics where the athletes are competing in the same venue just at a different time.” A disabled French player had once explained to Bernard Sojka why he didn´t want to travel to Dresden to take part in a disabled-only championship: “I would feel like playing in a zoo”.    

Ross and Sojka would much rather see the chess federations investing to make venues accessible which they see as real inclusion. Philippe Vukojevic, the moderator of the round table, added that in his seminar to become a FIDE-accredited “International Organiser” course he heard nothing about accessibility and inclusion. The same is true for most arbiter training.

Bernard Sojka, who is highlighting the issue of inclusion in France, pointed out another issue: Some players are unable to record their move without an electronic device. FIDE had even promoted a handheld device called “MonRoi” in the past. All such devices have now been banned due to anti-cheating measures. Sojka hopes that a compromise can be reached in the interest of inclusion. For example, “There is no chess software for Linux, so why not accept a Linux-based device?”

Why Fewer Girls Play Chess and What to Do about it

Sandy Ruxton is an Independent Consultant and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Durham. He is undertaking research on gender norms for the UK Government Equalities Office, together with Nicole Westmarland and Stephen Burrell, which will be published in 2020. At the conference he presented a survey on what tutors say about girls in the chess classroom which he conducted on behalf of Chess in Schools and Communities. The following article reflects his personal views.

Much discussion at the 2019 London Chess Conference understandably focussed on how to present chess as an attractive game for girls, and promising practices in engaging and sustaining their participation at all levels. But less attention was given to how wider gender norms influence the attitudes and behaviour of girls and boys from a very young age, and how they can undermine or support involvement in chess.

It is still common in the chess world to hear it said that girls’ brains are just not hardwired for chess and that their absence is merely a reflection of this biological fact. But in academic circles the notion that the differences between girls and boys in terms of skills and capacities are predetermined and fixed is increasingly discredited[4]. Modern neuroscience shows that there is very little difference between male and female brains. Indeed, the brain is very ‘plastic’, and the wider environment has a huge influence on any gendered differences [5].

Translated to the field of chess, this suggests that it is not that girls can’t play chess, rather that there are social and cultural influences that mean that they don’t. For example, parents often create a gendered world for young children by providing different play environments, toys, and clothing for boys and girls[6]. They also tend to encourage girls to engage in ‘feminine’ play and boys to engage in ‘masculine’ play[7]. So if parents see chess as a boy-dominated activity, they are unlikely to inspire their daughters to get involved.

School and nursery practitioners report that they often unknowingly treat children differently based on gender[8]. Boys are often paid more attention than girls in class, even when there are fewer of them[9]. Practitioners often reward ‘gender appropriate behaviour’ and use gendered language to refer to boys and girls in stereotypical ways. A combination of factors such as these can influence children’s play preferences, and hence their attraction to chess. This may be reinforced by the preponderance of male chess tutors, for whom gender issues may remain largely invisible as they are part of the dominant norm.

Children and young people are not just passive sponges of gender norms, but actively perform and learn gender through social interaction with their peers. They often police one another too, ridiculing those who behave in ways that do not conform to certain gender norms and rewarding gender-typical behaviour from their peers[10]. In practice, this can lead boys (and sometimes other girls) to undermine and/or dismiss girls’ participation in chess.

The weight of these influences can seem overwhelming. So what can be done? In some ways, it is impossible to divorce measures to address gender norms that affect girls’ participation in chess, from those that seek to raise the position and status of girls more widely. Within primary schools and other early years settings, teachers and tutors need to check their own unconscious biases and challenge stereotyping, and gender training has a role to play here as part of a whole-school approach. In the same way that gendered language can reinforce gender bias, it is essential to audit the use of language and imagery in leaflets, websites, and information for parents. Another important step is to ensure that staff and tutors feel able to engage and talk with children about not excluding themselves or others from certain types of play, such as chess. It is also vital to listen to and discuss girls’ (and boys’) own perspectives on what they would like to change so that they can all enjoy all aspects of school life, including chess. Finally, it is crucial to engage with parents and carers to help them explore and challenge gender stereotypes too, and thereby open up opportunities for their children that they might not have otherwise considered.

Footnotes:

[1] The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life. In 2019, Fawcett launched an expert ‘Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’ to build a new consensus on the impact gender stereotypes have and how they can be ended.

[2] Martin, C., & Ruble, D. (2004) ‘Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development,’ Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2)

[3] Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian, (2017) ‘Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests’, Science 355

[4] Fine, C. (2011) Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences, London: Icon Books

[5] Rippon, G. (2019) The Gendered Brain, Bodley Head: London

[6] Etaugh, C. & Liss, M.B (1992). ‘Home, school, and playroom: training grounds for adult gender roles,’ Sex Roles, 26

[7] Etaugh & Liss, ibid.

[8] The National Unions of Teachers (2013) Stereotypes stop you doing stuff, challenging stereotypes through Primary education, https://www.teachers.org.uk/files/stereotypes-stop.pdf

[9] Chick, K., Heilman-Houser, R., & Hunter, M. (2002) ‘The impact of childcare on gender role development and gender stereotypes,’ Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(3)

[10] Martin, C. L., Kornienko, O., Schaefer, D. R., Hanish, L. D., Fabes, R. A., & Goble, P. (2013) ‘The role of sex of peers and gender-typed activities in young children’s peer affiliative networks: A longitudinal analysis of selection and influence,’ Child Development, 84

Quality Issues

Can quality in school chess be measured? This was one of our debating questions on the first conference day. Sarah Kett, who lead the debating group (pictured above), reports: “The desirability of measuring school chess depends on the context. In Armenia, where all children learn chess for several school years, there is definitely a need to justify the use of taxpayers´ money.” Another key aspect was whether the students should be measured (as is usually done in research projects) or the teachers, respectively their teaching materials and methods.

If the pupils are measured, chess-related measures would be relatively straight-forward (such as ratings, proportion of children in chess clubs, proportion of children to play outside their school, proportion of children continuing to play as teenagers and later as adults) compared to measures ofeducational benefits.

There followed a workshop Quality in Chess in Education with participants from the Educational Commissions in ECU and in FIDE. Vahan Sargsyan from the Pedagogical University Yerevan, who is advising FIDE, differentiated four domains where quality can be evaluated: The quality of the curriculum, the assessment of pupils, the learning environment, and the qualification of the teachers.

The Armenian psychologist stressed that quality cannot be measured once and for all, but should be thought of as a permanent process “plan, act, check, improve, plan, act” and so on. He differentiated between universal standards that apply everywhere, and quality standards that depend on the context. Everyone in the workshop agreed that chess-related outcomes don´t matter and that educational outcomes are crucial.

Karel van Delft has captured segments from the workshop´s key speakers (in order of their appearance) Jesper Hall (ECU), Kevin O´Connell (FIDE), Vahan Sargsyan, Mads Jacobsen (Danish Scholastic Chess) and Smbat Lputian (FIDE).

64 Life Lessons

Jonathan Rowson came to discuss his acclaimed new book. In The Moves that Matter the Scottish grandmaster with a PhD in Philosophy and a very active twitter account reflects the life lessons chess taught him in 64 chapters. Stephen Moss from The Guardian, whose book The Rookie was published in 2016, also by Bloomsbury, interviewed him during the lunch break of the first conference day.

Jonathan was later on also interviewed by Karel van Delft.

Judit Polgar promotes chess for girls and women in the media

Judit Polgár made a splash at the London Chess Conference when her perspectives on Chess and Female Empowerment caught the attention of the media. Until her retirement from competition in 2014, she was one of the top players in the world, competing in open tournaments, never in women-only events.

First up was the Guardian which on the opening day of the Conference published an opinion piece which called for a review of the segregation between male and female chess players. Judit regards such an arrangement as patronising although she recognises that many women place value on women’s titles.

At the final round table, Judit fielded a wide range of questions from the audience. In the extract below (2:10) she explains why boys and girls diverge due to small differences in how they are treated when they are young and the different level of expectations.

Extract from the final round table
Judit Polgár and Emma Barnett

The full video of the round table is available here.

After the Conference, Judit was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 by Emma Barnett who is one of the most popular broadcasters in the UK. They had an amiable and informative discussion for 20 minutes in which Judit talks about her life as a chess player.

The recording is available on BBC Sounds (1:40) for 28 days. Time to put on the headphones.

Judit was a top player and now is a top ambassador for chess. Her deep love of the game shines through her interviews in which she is invariably confident and charming. Her passion is to bring chess to children and women. If anybody can succeed it is Judit.

Chess brought her back to science

We have interviewed key speakers of the conference. First up is Delia Duca Iliescu. In Romania, she is well known as the presenter of a weekly chess show on TV. She conceived and pitched “Strategy in Black and White” herself. A promising player as a child she went on to win junior titles but hated to study opening theory. At tournaments nowadays you rather see her as an arbiter than as a player.

Recently Delia has become a lecturer of computer science at the University of Brasov after ten years as a software engineer. AlphaZero inspired her to start a PhD in machine learning. She is connecting Artificial Intelligence with her chess speciality: chess problems, particularly chess compositions. In our interview, she tells more about this.

Delia Duca Iliescu was interviewed by Stefan Loeffler.