Gender Differences Among Chessplayers

Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young reports on a major study into the reasons for the dearth of women among competitive chessplayers. His conclusion:

I am going to make an analogy to make this data make more sense. Why does it seem like the US has substantially fewer good soccer players than the rest of the world? We clearly have good athletes. We play other sports well. We train athletes just as well. Why do other countries do so much better?

The answer is that when you are a good athlete in the US, you do not play soccer. You end up playing something else like football or basketball. The difference in performance is related to a difference in participation.

This data strongly argues that the difference in performance of women in chess is also a problem of participation. The problem is not that women can’t play chess well. The problem is that enough women who play chess well are not choosing to play chess. There may be several reasons socially why they choose not to do so or are discouraged from doing so — I will let you speculate about that at your leisure. However, this data strongly supports the participation rate hypothesis.

Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time hanging around chess tournaments, I can say with some confidence that this explanation is correct.

I know a lot of people whio enjoy playing chess but who have no interest in participating in rated events. Most major chess tournaments take place over holiday weekends. They require a large investment of time and money. They also typically involve a lengthy trip to the playing site and a significant hotel bill while you are there. Your meals will consist largely of fast food scarfed down in the short break between rounds.

When you arrive at the playing site, you quickly make the discovery that chess players, let’s face it, are not big on personal grooming. In fact, they’re pretty disgusting. I’m talking about morbidly obese people wearing T-shirts so threadbare that nothing is left to the imagination. T-shirts that are one big armpit stain. People with the BO ramped up to such a level, you figure it’s probably a deliberate tactic. People who probably haven’t done laundry, ever. God help you if the AC goes down. You’ll dream about hanging around in a men’s locker room. I once played a game against a charming gentleman who sat down and placed an empty beer bottle next to the board. He needed it for a spittoon. As the game progressed I had the pleasure of watching the level of expectorated, tobacco flecked spittle climb up the sides of the bottle. (Yes, I won the game). You’ve got to really love the game to put up with that.

I really do not think it is so unlikely that a relatively small percentage of women relative to men would find it appealing to spend their holiday weekends in such a fashion.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    January 30, 2007

    Leaving aside the tobacco spittle — which is not a problem I have noticed at professional gatherings of physicists — mightn’t the analogy presented by Jake Young also pertain to the Women In Science question?

    (message brought to you by the Department of the Obvious)

  2. #2 Dave M
    January 30, 2007

    I heard somewhere (don’t ask me to document it) that while most (but by no means all) of the highest-level bridge players are men, at the club level, women rule. My only experience with this is (naturally) anecdotal: when (at 30 or so) my partner and I went to a bridge club, we sat down at one table with a pair of blue-haired (not really) middle-aged bourgeoises straight from Central Casting, who greeted us with “my, aren’t you boys handsome!” … whereupon they proceeded to clean our clocks quite efficiently indeed.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    January 31, 2007

    Sean Carroll has a nice take on this over at Cosmic Variance.

    How about that? It’s not any differences in innate ability, it’s just that women are “choosing” not to play competitive chess. Choosing is put in scare quotes because there’s obviously going to be a great deal of influence from parents encouraging/discouraging their kids at a very young age, but whatever. It’s a shame if young girls who would have been enthusiastic about chess are pushed away by social pressures of one form or another, but for most people chess is not a central part of their lives.

    It’s a much bigger deal when women (or whomever) are enthusiastic about choosing something as a career, and are pushed away by an impressive battery of systematic biases. Which is what is clearly going on in science, especially in physics. If girls are given just as much encouragement and opportunity as boys are, and nevertheless choose to become truck drivers or gourmet chefs rather than scientists, that’s fine with me — the goal has never been equal representation of the genders, it’s equal chances for everyone to do what they find interesting. But we have a long way to go before we get there.

  4. #4 Joe
    February 1, 2007

    According to the article “The problem is that enough women who play chess well are not choosing to play chess.” This is a strange statement- How can they know this when they don’t have a measure of how many women, not playing, nonetheless play well? I know, they extrapolated from chess-beginners who progressed as well as their male counterparts and then dropped out. That’s quite an extrapolation.

    I agree with Blake Stacey- this is the same as the women in science problem. On January 19, 2005 NPR broadcast two stories on this. On topics that are widely tested among the general population, it seems males dominate the top echelon in math and females dominate in language skills. If the tests given to school kids are valid, then there are aptitude differences between the sexes for intellectual pursuits.

    Since chess aptitude is not widely tested, we cannot know how this sorts out.

  5. #5 Polymath
    February 7, 2007

    and may i suggest that the dearth of top-level mathematicians may be for a related reason: again, not a lack of ability, but a lack of participation.

    though this time, not for grooming reasons, but for developmental reasons. as a teacher of students of ages 12-18, my anecdotal observation is this (generalizing, of course): at precisely the age when boys’ brains are developmentally different from girls’ (about 12-14), they go into hyper-number/algorithm mode. think obscure baseball rules and statistics, which boys love at that age. at about that time, girls suddenly become much more socially adept, and spend their time in hyper-socialization mode. think crying at school dances, which (one of my principals observes) happens at almost every dance.

    this isn’t a criticism of girls…both experiences are equally geeky in their own way. but it’s during this time that boys start to separate themselves from girls in math participation at the very highest levels.

    this is totally a just a guess, and i have no proof. and i certainly have as many capable girls as boys in my classes. but the ones who accelerate to study post-calculus in high school are almost always boys. any thoughts?

  6. #6 Joe
    February 26, 2007


    This is my first time checking out your blog. As an avid chess player, I largely agree with your observations about some of the players. However, I have lucked out in that most of the people in the tournaments I’ve played in have pride in their hygiene and dress. (Most GMs and IMs seem impeccably dressed.)

    I prefer playing rated tournaments over casual play or playing chess on the Internet, but the time spent over a weekend playing the royal game is quite taxing. I’m sure that contributes to keeping many people away, men or women.

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