Explaining the Gap

Why are there so few women in competitive chess? Why are only two per cent of grandmaster title holders female? One apparently explains the other. In a journal article from ten years ago Fernand Gobet and his coauthors calculated that the lower participation rate accounts for 96 % for the performance gap. He later acknowledged a flaw in their calculation and estimated the explanatory power of participation to be closer to 60%.

In his recently published book The Psychology of Chess (Routledge 2019, GBP 9,99) Gobet has included a chapter “Men vs. Women”, in which he also considers biological, sociocultural and motivational factors. He mentions psychoanalytical explanations but calls them the least likely.

As keynote speaker at our conference on “Scientific Explanations of the Performance Gender Gap in Chess and Science” (on Sunday 1 December at 11) Gobet will go beyond chess and make comparisons with other fields. Male performance is usually more variable, and the standard deviation is higher for men than for women.

The Swiss International Master was briefly a chess professional in his 20s, before he started a PhD in cognitive science. Working with Herbert Simon, a most versatile social scientist and Nobel Laureate in economics, put Gobet on track for an academic career. His specialty is the study of expertise. Chess is a neat test case thanks to the availability of performance data. Gobet´s impressive publication list is including many more chess-related papers.

Gobet has spoken at most of the London Chess Conferences. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the ECU Education Commission. Both, scientific advisors and commission members, will meet ahead of the conference as in the past years. Gobet is currently on leave as Professor of Decision-Making and Expertise at the University of Liverpool and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics.

The Psychology of Chess is a new book by conference keynote speaker Fernand Gobet

More Diverse than Ever

Participants from more than thirty countries are confirmed, and we expect to have up to forty countries present. We have always had a higher share of women than other not gender-segregated chess events, and female participation will be even higher this year thanks to our theme Chess and Female Empowerment. We are fairly optimistic that the tickets will be selling out, so we recommend you to register before it is too late. If you are a contributor you are prompted to register, so please check your e-mails.

Besides our usual keynotes, workshops, debates and software presentations, not to mention all the side meetings and training courses before and after the conference, our most diverse conference programme so far will introduce book presentations and film screenings. In the exhibition we are adding a book table. Another first is that we will present our main findings to the public on the Monday at 11 at the London Chess Classic together with our Honorary Director Judit Polgar, with Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen, who switched profession from chess to politics, and with other speakers.

Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen, Opposition Leader in the Lithuanian Parliament, joins the conference (photo: Clément Bucco-Lechat /Wiki Commons)

Our opening session will feature female perspectives on chess in education and its competitive version. We will invite you to World Café style debates on propositions ranging from “Should Every Chess Team Have a Female Player?” to “How Can Chess (and This Conference) Become Greener?”. Three round tables are scheduled. Their topics are inclusion, FIDE and women’s chess. We have close to twenty workshops. As each will have two or more presenters you can imagine the richness and diversity of

Our programme table is so rich that we are adding lunchbreak offerings. On our first day Jonathan Rowson will talk and answer questions about his new book, while on day two we will screen a new documentary on the four Georgian women who dominated women’s chess before the Polgar sisters took over.

We can still accomodate select contributions: Are you up to present the debate, if women chess titles should be abandoned, or if chess federations should focus on improving the performance of female players or on increasing their membership numbers? We can still accomodate a presenter or two in our workshops on “The Parents´ Role”, “Chess Programmes for Girls” and “Online Teacher Trainings”. Please write us at info@chessplus.net

Judit Polgar Joins the Conference Team

We are pleased and honoured to reveal that Judit Polgar is part of the London Chess Conference as its Honorary Director. She has been consulting us on various aspects of the conference, its programme and its communications. As she will receive a Golden Pawn Award from the European Chess Union in Monte Carlo on 30 November, she will join the conference on the second day. She will be a discussant at the concluding round table “A Century of Women´s Chess: What have we Learned?”.

The best-ever female chess player has strong views on chess and gender. These are well-founded in her experience from growing up in a chess family to a successful career as a professional player. Even though she lead the women´s rating list for 25 years, she never aspired to win women´s titles. Instead she strived to compete with the very best regardless of gender. At her peak she was among the ten best players in the world. In the media limelight from a young age, she has sharpened her views over many interviews (one was just published on chess.com a few days ago) and public appearances.

She excelled as the main commentator of the last two world championships in 2016 in New York and in 2018 in London. The last time she participated in the London Chess Classic was in 2012 when she was interviewed by The Guardian.

Judit lobbied the European Parliament to support the introduction of chess in the education system and her country to make chess an optional subject, and most Hungarian primary schools have introduced it. Since ending her competitive career she has been promoting chess. She built a foundation and developed acclaimed teaching materials with her team. The Chess Palace Programme is already in practice for the seventh school year. Among its special features is artwork contributed by her sister Zsófia.

Judit is also the initiator and organiser of the Global Chess Festival in her home town Budapest on which we reported earlier. Among the many aspects of this wonderful festival is a conference. She has spoken about chess and education at numerous conferences and on other occasions in dozens of countries. She repeatedly visited China, where her curriculum and books are now widely in use.

In 2018 she has accepted the position of Honorary Vice President in FIDE with a focus on chess in education and on gender. “I am very pleased to see both topics united in this conference, so I feel that I must be part of it”, Judit told us when she accepted to be Honorary Conference Director.

What Can Chess Teach Us About Life?

Jonathan Rowson is a grandmaster, three times British champion and an applied philosopher. Many players know him as the author of The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras in which he provided deeper insights into the psychological traps of playing than any other chess writer. Yet, Jonathan is neither a professional player nor a coach. His studies in philosophy at Oxford and Harvard led him down the classical road of exploring wisdom on which he wrote his doctoral thesis. His core theme is the ecological crisis and mankind´s failure to act. He has been working for an influential London think tank for many years and has spun off his own project Perspectiva.

Jonathan has never completely stopped playing and continues to follow top-level chess as attested by his twitter feed. Now he has returned to chess with another fascinating book. The Moves That Matter will be released in the UK next week and is out in the USA this Tuesday. To mark the occasion he contributed an op-ed to the New York Times.

He digs deeper than former writers in his comparisons of chess and life. “Chess simulates the meaning of life because it is a ritual encounter with death in disguise, where we experience the responsibility to stay alive one move at a time”, writes Rowson. On the pursuit of happiness which is fundamental to political philosophy in America and elsewhere, he comments: “So if we are pursuing happiness, both in terms of process and outcome, chess does not look like a good way to do it.” He rather thinks “of chess not so much as a path to happiness as a ritual where we free each other from the pressure to be happy”, and his best guess is that we are seeking joy in chess and in life.

Jonathan Rowson will present The Moves That Matter at our conference on Saturday, 30 November, from 1 pm to 2 pm during the lunch break. He will be interviewed by Stephen Moss from The Guardian, himself author of a unique chess travelogue. Jonathan Rowson will also answer questions from the audience and sign copies of The Moves That Matter which will be available at our book desk.

The Moves that Matter

A Day for Chess

The World Chess Federation FIDE promotes the day of its foundation 95 years ago, 20 July, as “International Chess Day”. In the Spanish and Portuguese speaking parts of the world, chess afficionados celebrate 19 November, the birthday of the third world champion José Raúl Capablanca. About 50 000 Danish pupils participate in chess activities on Skolernes Skakdag, Scholastic Chess Day, which Dansk Skoleskak, one of the leading chess in education providers, runs on a Friday every February, again on 7 February 2020. Judit Polgar has picked yet another date, the second Saturday every October, as Global Chess Day that just saw its fifth edition.

The Hungarian activist has encouraged organisers all over the globe to run chess events on this day under the motto and hashtag #ChessConnectsUs to create a Global Chess Festival in thirty countries. The biggest of these events took place in Budapest, where Judit Polgar and her team set up an impressive programme in the prestigeous National Gallery. Competition, which is dominating most chess events, was just one of many aspects along with learning, creativity, cooperation and inclusion. This video nicely captures the spirit and atmosphere.

Our conference team member Rita Atkins, who ran four mini workshops on chess and maths during the event, reports “there was a great buzz to the festival with a great crowd attending”. Among the visitors were chess dignitaries such as FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich and London Chess Classic Director Malcolm Pein as well as international chess in education experts.

A journey for a fairy tale

Tatyana Ogneva

When I started teaching chess to primary school children after all the basic lessons, I had to face the problem of children’s fatigue. Tired children and chess are incompatible. Taking into account that chess lessons are conducted in the afternoon, some children tend to sleep. Other children are too tired to keep their temper in line, and they are not able to sit quietly at the table. In both cases, all these conditions hinder chess teaching since children’s attention is distracted. 

I started searching for a resource that would open up a source of energy for children. Finally, I found it. It turned out to be children’s imagination. I animated chess pieces and pawns, endowing them with aspirations and goals that children were able to understand. In this chess kingdom, pawns were children, and chess pieces were adults taking care of these children. Once upon a time, the pawns-children came up with a cunning plan, which resulted in a chain of events. When I told these stories to pupils, I noticed that their fatigue disappeared without a trace. Their faces brightened up, there was interest in their eyes and their only desire was to get to chess as soon as possible and play these stories themselves. They turned into characters of these chess stories and were completely immersed in the game activity. I was very surprised by the fact that children who had just got to know the rules of moves played the game very reasonably. It was obvious that they did it mindfully, with an awareness of the purpose that they understood through the image that lived in their imagination. However, the surprises did not end there. In addition to playing out these stories, pupils solved chess problems presented in the form of a hunter’s struggle with a monster trying to take possession of a treasure chest. The biggest challenge for me was to make children walk and not run when they went to the classroom. The children, burning with impatience, often broke into a run.

Since then, working with children’s imagination has become my main method for teaching chess to beginners.

Once, I saw on the FIDE website an announcement about a chess conference in London dedicated to chess and mathematics. The organizers of the conference arranged a competition for the best chess mini-game. I sent my game called “chess football” and a description of the exercise about the hunter and the monster to take part in this competition. John Foley sent me a letter with his comments about “the hunter and the monster”. The point was that to fight for treasures is very mercantile and is beneath a real hero. One must save the princess; this is the mission the hunter must fulfill. John Foley, the organizer of the competition, invited me to the conference. As a result, my game “chess football” won the competition. I was happy to personally attend this event and receive congratulations from the audience.

Football Chess

John Foley’s remarks haunted my mind. I started thinking about the princess. At first I was confused: “Where did she come from and how did she find herself in the monster’s cave?” I thought. The more I thought about the princess, the more I began to imagine the circumstances leading up to this sad event.

Eventually, she was rescued and it ended well. As a result of these reflections, the fairy tale “The Adventures of Alex in the Chess Kingdom” was born. The idea of the fairy tale unfolded in front of me in its entirety, but there was one problem. I did not know how to start it. The main character’s motivation to learn the chess game was not clear for me. “Why will he do it? What will be the driving force behind his intention?” I asked myself and could not find the answer.

I received the answer to this question when I took part in a Skype conference organized by the Nizhnevartovsk Methodological Center where I presented a report about my trip to London. Vladimir Poley from Belarus, who now works in Sweden, also was among the speakers. He spoke about the annual school championship of classes, where everyone’s participation is valuable, as it can have a decisive influence in the fight for the title of the champion of school teams. This information helped me to understand what could be the driving force for the hero of my fairy tale to learn chess. He did not want to let his classmates down, because they prepared for this competition. So he decided to learn to play chess.

The Prince’s Adventures

Last year I submitted this fairy tale to the competition among chess teachers of Russia and became one of the winners. This year I published a textbook on teaching chess to children, which included this fairy tale. To date, I have written four educational chess fairy tales with beautiful illustrations by the talented artist Tatyana Bogacheva. I am very grateful to John Foley for the incentive that I received when I took part in the conference in London.

“While Chess Brightens up Life, Women Brighten up Chess”

The lower pick-up-rate of chess by women and the male dominance in competitions have been a matter of discussion since ages. Many commentators treat the topic with galantry as has Savielly Tartakower in the above quote. It is taken from an impressive collection of statements, arguments and clippings that were excerpted by Edward Winter, the eminent chess historian, and span from the 19th century to the present day.

Apart from the male dominance among the commentators one can also observe that the disregard of chess by women is rationalized. Places and social circles where chess is played are not welcoming for women. On the other hand “Lasker´s Chess Magazine” warns in 1906 that the creation “of ladies’ chess clubs is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members.”

It has often been asserted that women lack the recklessness and ambition required to succeed on the board. Hermann von Gottschall, the Deutsche Schachzeitung´s editor, argued in 1893 that the typical female tendency for intrigues should empower their play. In the same light hearted fashion he went on to claim that their preference for light chatter should not at all hinder women, because in the usual café or club game talking takes precedence over the actual moves.

Von Gottschall wrote for a nearly exclusively male audience, as did so many after him. More recently, explaining the male dominance in chess has become a minefield, and that can also be established from Winter´s collection (which also contains the above photo from a book on the German Chess Congress 1905 showing an actress performing Caissa in the opera “The Royal Middy”, which features a notorious checkmating trick).

Inclusion on Board

Is chess the ultimate inclusive sport? Physical differences due to age and sex do not prevent us from competing with each other. Even physical impairments can be overcome. A chess set that enables visually impaired players to recognize the position of the pieces was invented in London as early as 1848. Theodore Tylor, who was among England´s leading players in the 1930s and drew Alekhine and Capablanca in regular games, was nearly blind. Chris Ross, a blind player who spoke at our conference earlier, gave a simultaneous exhibition in Belfast. The Global Chess Festival in Budapest on 12 October has a fascinating programme on how visually impaired and deaf players train and compete.

Nowadays there are international associations for blind, for physically impaired and for deaf players. Each is a member in FIDE and represented in the Chess Olympiads with an international men´s and women’s team.

Just as there are more and more female only tournaments, there is also an increasing number of separate competitions for disabled players. A few months ago the first World Championship for Physically Disabled took place in New Jersey. CNN produced a moving report. But maybe there are already too many separate competitions. The World Disabled Open, Youth and Cadet Championship that was scheduled in Cardiff for the week of our conference, has just been cancelled due to a lack of registrations.

Alessio Viviani, a young player with amytrophia who cannot move a piece without an assistant, caused a sensation in Italy by winning the Open in Porto San Giorgio in 2015 ahead of several professionals. The Italian insists that he would not participate in a separate competition. This begs the question if resources should rather enable players with impairments to participate in mixed, open competitions and thereby increase their participation and visibility.

The ECU recently ran a workshop on Equal Opportunities in cooperation with FIDE´s DIS Commission in Thessaloniki, where guidelines for organisers, recommendations for federations and training needs were worked out. Inclusive Education is the focus of the latest edition of the ECU´s First Rank Newsletter.

We are looking for discussants for a Round Table on Inclusion and Equal Opportunities. We are also inviting contributions for a workshop on Chess for Children with Special Needs. Please write us at info@chessplus.net

Parallel Streams (and a bit of Overlap)

We have been asked about the structure of our conference. We have parallel streams throughout both conference days on our title theme “Chess and Female Empowerment” as well as on Chess in Education with a bit of overlap. Here is our planned schedule:

Saturday 30 November
9.30-11.00 Registration
11.00-12.45 Opening Plenary: Female Perspectives
12.45-14.00 Lunch
Book Presentation
14.00-16.00 World Café Debates
Round Table Inclusion and Equal Opportunity in Chess
Workshop
Software Presentations
16.00-16.30 Coffee
16.30-18.00 Parallel Workshops
18.30-20.30 Games on 8×8 Evening
Sunday 1 December
9.00-10.30 Parallel Workshops
                      Software Presentations 
10.30-11.00 Coffee
11.00-13.00 Keynotes
World Café Debates
Parallel Workshops
13.00-14.15  Lunch
14.15-15.30 Round Table The Woman Question in Chess
Parallel Workshops
15.30-16.00   Coffee
16.00-17.30 Parallel Workshops

This doesn´t mention the numerous side meetings that are informal or by invitation only nor the planned film screenings.

The world class action in the Grand Chess Tour final will start on the day after the conference on Monday, 2 December. If you participate yourself in the London Chess Classic, your playing schedule will allow you to attend a part of the conference on Saturday, 30 November, and most of it on Sunday, 1 December. Several bus lines run between the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and the Olympia Kensington. It is just under a mile or twenty minutes to walk. Considering that you won´t be able to attend the conference at full length, as a registered participant of the FIDE Open or Weekender you are eligible to attend the conference on both days with the purchase of one day ticket.

Please keep our call for contributors in mind contact us with your suggested presentation or debate topic.

Call for Contributions

The London Chess Conference (30 November and 1 December 2019) is looking for your contributions related to the theme of “Chess and Female Empowerment”. Don’t be shy to present or debate. You may contribute an article, a poster about your project, research or experience. We want to have a lively informed debate which give people the opportunity to embrace new ideas, make new contacts and develop new projects.

Workshops typically comprise 10-20 participants exploring a topic in detail. You may wish to contribute as a workshop chair or presenter. Potential workshops titles are:

  • Making clubs and competitions more welcoming (not only) for women and girls
  • Increasing the role of women in chess organisations
  • Empowering female teachers in school chess
  • The growth mindset in junior chess
  • Prejudice, sexism and how to fight it
  • Innovation and diversity in chess organisations
  • Project evaluation
  • Conducting surveys

Another cherished format of the London Chess Conference is the “World Café Debate”. All debates take place simultaneously in the main hall. Each debate is moderated by the same person. The participants will be invited at (30 minute) intervals to move along to another debate. Possible debate topics include:

  • Should girls have separate competitions?  
  • Should women-only titles (WFM, WIM, WGM) be abandoned?
  • Policy focus: decrease the performance gap or the participation gap?
  • Equal pay for woman players?

We are also planning two round tables with discussants and questions from the audience. Are you up to debate this:

  • One century of promoting females in chess: what have we learned?
  • Inclusion and equal opportunity in competitive chess

Please contribute your suggestions to us at conference@chessplus.net

Note that we already have several sessions lined up with speakers and debaters. The call for contributors does not detract from currently planned topics.