Good Intentions

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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.

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