Category Archives: Women

Women and girls – the gender dimension in chess.

The Name of the Chess Queen in Different Languages

In accordance with the theme of the Conference, a closer look at the chess queen is essential. Why does the most powerful piece on the chessboard have a female identity? Chess is an abstract strategy game, so the naming of the pieces should be arbitrary – merely a polite fiction. Yet the name of the chess queen, seen in a historical and geographical context, reveals some fascinating aspects of European culture. Arguably, we are given the story of the emancipation of women.

Name of the chess queen in different languages

The “queen” was not always the queen. Asian and Eastern European languages refer to the queen as the “vizier” – a high ranking government officer – not necessarily female. Russian (ferz’) and Turkish (vezir) retain this derivation. The original vizier piece could move only one square in each direction.

As chess moved to medieval Europe the piece became more powerful – it could move any number of moves in any direction. During this period, it acquired a new identity – it became a queen, perhaps inspired by the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine. Norway, Denmark, the British Isles and Iceland use the terms “king” and “queen”, easier perhaps having lived under monarchies since the Vikings.

The most common name for the piece in Western Europe is “dame” (or its cognates). As in the musical South Pacific, there ain’t nothing like a dame. In French, the piece is called the “dame”. This change in terminology happened centuries before the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France – who might otherwise be blamed for depriving chess of its noble character.

Most European languages use more than one word for the piece – not only “queen” but also “dame” or “lady”. The subtle linguistic differences between queen and dame would require a more extended exploration of aristocratic and political history beyond the scope of this article.

However, we should not overlook one simple explanation. The advent of chess notation brought about the need to distinguish between pieces. In many languages, the word for king and the word for queen have the same root. For example, in Spanish, the word for king is “rey” and the word for queen is “reina”. Chess notation requires clarity and so a word with a different initial letter meets this requirement.

The Queen Names map is not intended to be definitive. It illustrates that chess terminology imports the history and culture of the world. Long live the queen, the lady, the dame and the vizier.

Two cultural groups held out against foreign influence and retained their own words to refer to the queen: Estonia (Flag) and Georgia (Jackal). The Flag and Jackal – a tempting title for a book on chess name history – or a club for the independent-minded.

An Unofficial Champion

Mary Rudge (1842-1919), who had been called the women´s world champion before the title existed, died today 100 years ago. She played her first competitive games by correspondence. This was no unusual start at chess for a woman in the 19th century. Rudge became Bristol Chess Club´s first female member after the club decided in 1872 to accept women.

Mary Rudge was the youngest daughter of a medical doctor who taught his children to play chess. She did not marry and worked as a teacher for some years. When she was without income, friends remembered her chess prowess and organised exhibitions for her to raise money. Rudge was most likely the first woman to give simuls.

The exclusion of women from clubs and competitions was still widespread when the first Ladies Chess Club was founded in London in 1895 and the first Ladies Chess Congress took place in London in 1897. Rudge who was already 55 years old won the main competition of the congress. The British Chess Magazine went on to refer to her as women´s world champion.   

Rudge died in 1919 nearly two years before Vera Menchik and her mother and sisters moved from Russia to England. Soon afterwards the world chess federation FIDE was founded and introduced official women competitions. Menchik won all championships until she was killed in a German air raid in 1944.

Source: Wikipedia

Explaining the Gap

Why are there so few women in competitive chess? Why are less than 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. Until recently Professor of Decision-Making and Expertise at the University of Liverpool, he has moved on to become Professiorial 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.

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).

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.

London Chess Conference 2019

Our 2019 Preview Video

7th Annual London Chess and Education Conference on 30 Nov – 1 Dec, Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith

The theme of the 7th Annual London Chess and Education Conference on 30 Nov – 1 Dec is “Chess and Female Empowerment”. The conference examines the involvement of women and girls in chess and presents insights into how to improve the gender balance. The conference will be of interest to women chess players, organisers and educators.  Primary and secondary school teachers will learn how to make chess a more engaging activity through its social and collaborative modes.  The conference will also provide ideas and initiatives for those striving to improve the engagement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

The Conference will present new findings from two major surveys on women and girls in chess.  A large study conducted by the European Chess Union presents statistics on women and girls in national federations throughout Europe. A study conducted through the US Chess Federation will provide qualitative insights into chess and gender issues. An analysis of online play in the Netherlands will provide details of how boys and girls compare.

The conference comprises plenary sessions interspersed with parallel streams comprising presentations, workshops, discussions, debates and demonstrations. Several speakers will relate their own personal experiences as a woman in a male environment whether playing, arbiting or organising. 

A wide range of issues will be covered including:

  • creating a safe and welcome environment for women   
  • successful women who played chess
  • why do girls give up chess?
  • how to make chess more accessible to women
  • challenges for women officials
  • lessons from other sports

Those expected to attend include:

  • Janton van Apeldoorn (NED)
  • Rita Atkins  (HUN)
  • Lorin d’Costa (ENG)
  • José Antonio Coleto Calderón (ESP)
  • James Conlon (ENG)
  • Julie Denning (ENG)
  • Alessandro Dominici (ITA)
  • Dr. Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (ENG)
  • Chris Fegan (ENG)
  • John Foley (ENG)
  • Tania Folie (BEL)
  • Fernand Gobet (SUI)
  • Ljubica Lazarevic (SRB)
  • Alice O’Gorman (IRL)
  • Maureen Grimaud (USA)
  • José Manuel González Guillorme (ESP)
  • Jesper Hall (SWE)
  • Alexis Harakis (ENG)
  • Jovanka Houska (ENG)
  • Sarah Hurst (ENG)
  • Jo Hutchinson (ENG)
  • Mads Jacobsen (DEN)
  • Ilaha Kadimova (AZE)
  • Stefan Löffler (GER)
  • Smbat Lputyan (ARM)
  • Sean Marsh (ENG)
  • Carol Meyer (USA)
  • Etienne Mensch (FRA)
  • Jerry Nash (USA)
  • Vince Negri (ENG)
  • Mikkel Norgaard (DEN)
  • Brigitta Peszleg (HUN)
  • Marcel Pruijt (NED)
  • Sophia Rohde (USA)
  • Jonathan Rowson (SCO)
  • Agnieska Sapkowska (POL)
  • Vahan Sargsyan (ARM)
  • Pep Suarez (ESP)
  • Mark Szavin (HUN)
  • Malcolm Pein (ENG)
  • Mike Truran (ENG)

We will also continue our focus on chess in education with parallel sessions.

In the week which follows, 2nd-6th December, there will be professional teacher training courses at the venue certificated by the European Chess Union. The courses cover Teaching Chess in Primary School (ECU101) and Learning Mathematics through Chess (ECU102). Further details can be found here.

Registration  

The conference fee is £65 for one day and £95 for both days. Participants of the London Chess Classic Open or Week-ender can take part on both days with a one-day-ticket. Female members of the English Chess Federation are eligible for free entry by sending an email in advance to conference@chessplus.net with your membership number. 

Lead Sponsors

The event is lead sponsored by FIDEChess in Schools and Communities (CSC), the European Chess Union (ECU) and the English Chess Federation (ECF).

Photo from Michal Vrba