All posts by Stefan Löffler

Good Intentions

Prize funds in women-only competitions have increased considerably in recent years. Half a million Euros were at stake at the recent World Championship match. Ju Wenjun and Alexandra Goryachkina gained more than any woman or man at any chess competition in 2019. At the Women Candidates Tournament, 200,000 Euros were split among its eight participants; at the ongoing Cairns Cup in St Louis, ten invitees share 180 000 dollars. Female professional chess players are earning more than ever and are doing much better than men with similar ratings.

Organisers and sponsors have certainly the best intentions to promote women in chess. But in spite of all the resources flowing their way, top female ratings have been stagnating over the last 15 years. Is this due to the incentives for top female players to focus on women-only competitions? How this hypothesis could be proved or disproved was a matter of discussion at the Conference. There seem to be enough results and rating data available and such a study would not require many resources.

The argument would be that in female-only competitions the top players face many weaker or even much weaker opponents, and those games will not serve to help them develop. Judit Pólgar is the only female who focused on facing the strongest possible opponents throughout her career. She is the only woman who competed on equal terms with the world elite.

An optimal tournament for female professionals seems to be the Gibraltar Open. This is the only place where they can play several opponents rated above 2600. At the same time, £55,000 of the prize money is reserved for them. However, this year many top females skipped Gibraltar, as the World Championship overlapped and the Cairns Cup started only a week after.

The chess federation of Mar del Plata in Argentina considers female-only competitions as discriminatory and does not organise them any more. However, female players have become immured to female-only competitions and some would retire from competition play if they were scrapped.

Chess federations should consider where they want to be in the long run: establish a female-only circuit or help top women players to compete equally with men? Shall chess be inclusive or segregated? And how much prize money should be devoted to female-only competitions.

Girl Power – Sarah Hurst reporting for Kingpin

When I heard that the theme of this year’s London Chess Conference was going to be ‘Chess and Female Empowerment,’ I wanted to be there. I didn’t know what chess and female empowerment was, exactly, but it sounded intriguing. The organisers accepted my proposal to give a talk called ‘Chess is My Passport’, about how chess had taken me all over the world and brought me into contact with interesting people, who sometimes gave me non-chess career opportunities.

Once the other opening talks were under way I started to feel that I hadn’t taken the subject seriously enough. Other speakers had devoted years to bringing more girls into chess. I had only tried to get my daughter to play chess at primary school, and she gave up. But that makes her one of the majority of girls who try chess and give up at age 11, as we learned from the presentations. The question was why?

Continue reading at Kingpin

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.

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.

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.

“Girls Are not Treated Right”

In an Op-Ed for the Guardian our conference co-director Judit Polgár argues for changes at a young age. “Girls in chess are not treated the same way as boys. Coaches and officials are guided by potential successes in girls competitions, which are comparatively easier to achieve. Parents tend to follow what the experts advise. The point is that a talented girl should be inspired to compete in all competitions, just as a boy would.”

When she is organising children’s tournaments, she continues “I make a point of never separating girls and boys, nor awarding special prizes for girls”. All in the interest of not limiting girls and encouraging them to go for the maximum, as she had in her own career, during which she became the eighth highest ranked player in the world.

“I could never have reached those heights if I had only been interested in winning women’s titles. In fact, I was only a teenager when I last participated in a women’s tournament”, writes Polgár, who was awarded a Golden Pawn for her career achievement in Monte Carlo on Saturday and is to join the conference on Sunday. Here is her full article.

Please spare 5 Minutes!

What is the main cause in your country why fewer girls and women pick up our game? What is your best explanation why so few females reach top levels at chess? What do you think about some of the measures federations use to promote females in chess?

Our short online questionnaire takes only five minutes to complete. You are welcome to participate regardless of your sex and if you attend the conference or not. Your input, if in by this Saturday lunch-time, will inform our debates and ultimately our results and recommendations. Here you go.