Women in Chess

“I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”-Marilyn Monroe

Women contribute to almost all communities; in particular, the chess club community, unfortunately there are times where we see some sort of controversy surrounding their presence. Chess is a popular game that levels the playing field for any two people playing the game but there seems to be an issue with the people involved. As I was observing, at the Ann Arbor Chess Club, I had noticed that there was a shortage of women chess players. This could have been for many reasons, but how noticeable is this issue? I believe there is more than meets the eye in unveiling the significance in the shortage of this gender in the chess club community. I’m sure we can all think of a time where we were treated unfairly because of the bodies we were given. This is why this issue is so important to me. I believe we should all fight for equality because when we close opportunity for some, then we close opportunity for everyone. Sexism is defined as “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles”. Do we still treat women this way? Is this still a problem? The Ann Arbor Chess Club allows for men and women to be part of the club, however, the amount of men outweigh the amount of women by an approximate 20:1 ratio.

As mentioned before, the field study took place at the Ann Arbor Chess Club located in Ann Arbor near to one of the University of Michigan campuses. The Ann Arbor Chess Club is an enjoyable and relaxed environment held within a café at the base of a tall building. When you walk inside the color scheme revolves around brown and tan colors. There is some subtle foliage strategically placed around the room that helps with the café ambiance. The two walls on the corner of the building are glass and look out toward parking garages and other typically lit buildings. On one of the other walls there are chess trophies, chess books, chess movies, chess clocks and full chess sets. There are sixteen indoor/outdoor sets of two seat black metal tables and two dinner booths for seating and playing chess on. Behind the counter of the café is a big black board with about thirty-two hand-written food choices ranging from club sandwiches to omelets to even sushi. When you look up you can see the unfinished ceiling with air ducts and a visible lighting grid. The temperature is always comfortable and you could smell the fresh foods cooking in the back. Other than the refreshing sound of the fan running, it’s typically quiet with light conversation usually centered on chess. On some of the tables you’ll find green and white checkered roll out mats and eight white and eight black chess pieces sitting on top with an extra queen for both colors off to the side.

I believe there is more than meets the eye in unveiling the significance in the shortage of this gender in the chess club community. I’m sure we can all think of a time where we were treated unfairly because of the bodies we were given. This is why this issue is so important to me. I believe we should all fight for equality because when we close opportunity for some then we close opportunity for everyone.

The members, who would stop in for some chess, all seemed to enjoy themselves during their visits. They were typically dressed according to their age groups. The older age group was usually dressed in business casual attire with some exception like the cook, who was always there running the kitchen, and the occasional stroll-in members that do not abide by these norms; and the younger age group was usually in their casual jeans and a t-shirt sort of attire again with exception to some. From my experience they were all a very polite optimistic and accepting group of people; for example, I watched many games end in laughter and a handshake, and I’ve seen a few cases when a member would insist on an observing member to sit and play their opponent. But what really struck me as interesting was the fact that there are no true members in this community. Anybody may stop by, grab a bite to eat, and play a game; however, I often saw many of the same people week after week stop in, almost like a routine.

My observations took place once a week on Wednesdays after around six thirty until about an hour later. The first time I walked in I received a polite smile from the male cook and noticed that all the members’ eyes were fixated on theirs and their opponents' pieces, I also noticed that during a typical Wednesday night, the male numbers outweighed the female numbers by a significant amount. Of course this struck me as interesting because I could not think of a reason for why this was so, but I looked past it for the moment to gather more information. At this time there were primarily the older age group and was fairly quiet. I introduced myself to a man observing a game; little did I know that he was a first timer like me. He was a taller individual with black hair and clean shaved face. He was very accepting and taught me a few pointers on the game. We played a couple times and, of course, he was much better than myself, due to his experience in chess, so the victories went to him except for a couple times when he did not realize that he was in check and neglected to save his king, which meant that the win went to myself by default. Being a beginner made me feel a little bit intimidated by the others. I thought for sure that if I had played some of the others than I would surely lose the game along with some of my dignity as a chess player. They seemed very experienced but again nearly all were males. I was confused so I set off on an interview to uncover what I could of the truth.

Because there are no real members, for my interview I have selected the club founder, “Claire”. I asked Claire how she got started in chess. “Ok, so, um apparently um my dad was the chess coach at Kearsley High School for a number of years and its in Flint, Michigan, and he um, sort of got hired as the junior high chess coach, so the, story goes, um that the day after I was born he went to a chess match for his school um the you know, I knew how to set up the board when I was two, I teethed on a king, you know all these like little kinda crazy things, and then I didn’t play in a tournament until I was probably, I don’t know, like eight or ten, and I didn’t actually start playing seriously, like more competitively until I was, um , probably until I was in fifth grade,” Claire explained, as she reminisced the past.

Claire grew up with chess being a big part of her life so she had a good enough understanding of how chess was dealt with at the national level to understand if there were some sexist issues that were present in this community. I then asked if she thought there were more women in chess than men right now.

“It gets, lower at every level you go up” Claire said.

"Fewer girls?" I questioned.

“Yes, so its like um for instance, from K5 sections to the elementary sections there’s like fifty percent attrition across the board so you lose, like for instance we had three, a 150 teams at our elementary tournament which is K through six you know and lots of, broken into lots of categories compared to about 40 maybe 50 at our junior high, granted the junior high only encompasses like four or four grades but a lot of the teams that were there were elementary so um you’ve lost you know essentially your third of probably half of your chess player population from elementary to junior high, and the people that you lose, you lose more girls than you do boys.” Claire assured.

I then started to see a pattern in the women chess players but still had no reasons for these happenings. So I asked, "Do you think there is a reason for that?"

“I think there are probably some social reasons for it, um more than anything else” Claire supposed.

From a chess player’s standpoint, I then asked, do you think that men and women chess play differs when it comes to style? “I think that I’m a more aggressive player than a lot of people, um the person who that I think is like Judith is an incredibly aggressive attacking player and perhaps you know like uh something’s have changed, like as she’s gotten older that sort of thing, but um I would uh I think that if you would favor Judith um then you would probably be an aggressive attacking player so if your um a girl and your growing up and you want to idolize somebody and you choose her then you’re gonna be more aggressive attacking player.” Claire explained.

Although very interesting, Claire’s answers did not reveal why the women abstained from chess so much as they did. Then I asked, “Is there anything that you would like to see in the chess community about like gender change”?

“In my chess club absolutely not, at the national level, I can’t get a directing job to save my life.” Claire spoke frankly.

This comment especially got me thinking about how national level chess could affect chess players, more specifically female chess players. I asked, “Does it have to do with you being a female”?

“It’s partly sexist and its partly because it’s an all boys club, ok so it’s not it doesn’t matter that I’m a female it matters that I don’t know the right people, and I, so but it does matter from an economic perspective because then they have to make sure that there is another female that I can room with. Ok so I feel discriminated against on that level and apparently there supposed to be doing um more to help that happen but I don’t really believe it I think they’re gonna, we’ll see” Claire spoke with disapproval.

I was surprised to hear that Claire said social reasons were the cause of the shortage in women’s chess! How could this be? Aren’t there social reasons keeping some males away from chess as well? Juliann Wetz writes about how girls stay away from chess because of the social repercussions that exist inside the chess club. In her article it implies this observation, “Sarah, 9, says that she hasn't learned to play because ‘it's a boy's game’” (1) or “Ashley, a 12-year-old who doesn't play, explained her lack of participation with this remark: ‘I'm not that smart.’” (1) Or even how one female player quit because of this issue, “11-year-old gift from Oregon who had just begun to win tournaments. ‘The problem was that at every tournament the boys would tease her,’ said Lieberman. ‘They would say things like, ‘Oh I get to play against a girl. Winning this match is going to be real easy.’ That does a number on a young chess player's self-esteem, and this girl ended up dropping out of chess altogether.’” (1) This goes to show the severity in the social reasons keeping women away from chess and that since these observations were taken from a group of kids at such a young age that the reasons may be originating from how we all are raised, like the social norms we grow up with.

Claire also talked about how the girls fall out as they move on to higher levels and only the really good girls stay for a longer period of time. Authors Christopher F. Chabris and Mark E. Glickman did a study on how little women stay for the later stages of their chess careers. Within their study population from ages five to fifteen there were only a mere 17% females in chess. When moving to ages fifteen to twenty the percentage drops down to 11.9% and when moved even higher to twenty-five to thirty-five it falls down to 4.9%, and from thirty five all the way to ninety five it ranges from 2% to 2.5% of women (1041). This reveals the rapid loss in women as you move up ages and move down in amount of women. Could this be a realization that the women experience of some social norm?

Because chess involves a great deal of strategy, it got me to think that maybe there were other reasons for this, but as it turns out only the ignorant may argue the gender difference is correlated to intelligence of the two genders, claiming that males are the dominant gender when it comes to intellect. According to Larry Cahill’s study, Male vs. Female Brains, he also denies this claim, “To date, no one has uncovered any evidence that anatomical disparities might render women incapable of achieving academic distinction” (1). The claim is quickly refuted in the quote diminishing the false accusation of male dominants in intellect leading me back to the social aspect in children’s thinking. This issue may have developed not from the chess club itself but possibly the upbringing of girls in society. There is no question that women get treated differently than boys in some way just by the nature of their physical differences and how they are perceived. Author Ingrid Galitis implies this theory in her study of gender in chess in, Gender and Education, implicates that, “Teachers, usually quite unaware of their approach, have been observed treating girls and boys in differing ways in the classroom. They permit boys to talk more, they challenge and question boys more than girls and they give more positive verbal and non-verbal cues, such as direct eye contact and nods, to the boys (Lafrance and Holden qtd. in Galitis 80). This quote boldly states that this behavior of women avoiding chess is due to their reactions of those involved in raising them and the boys around them. If these observations are in fact true then it is clear that this is a real issue that deserves attention and action for change. There may be negative consequences that we may not be realizing here.

I would argue that the Ann Arbor Chess Club issue of having a deficiency of women chess players is caused from outside factors stemming down to women at a more fundamental level. The recognition of these real issues can benefit women in realizing the cause for this shortage in women chess players and fight to overcome this inequality issue. The problem of possible sexism in chess can expand to more than just the chess club but can reach more places where sexism may be present. Those involved in the upbringing of girls in places like schools, nurseries, and households can also take part in correcting this issue by taking out the gender aspect of how children are taught different school related items and various lessons. This can make for a solution to other aspects of our society that span to the American community as a whole.

Works Cited

Cahill, Larry. “Male vs. Female Brains.” Change 37 (2005): 9. Proquest. Web. 12 March 2012.

Chabris, Christopher F. “Sex Differences in Intellectual Performance.” A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 17 (Dec., 2006): 1046. Jstor. Web. 12 March 2012.

Galitis, Ingrid. “Stalemate: Girls and a mixed-gender chess club.” Gender and Education (2002): 71-83. Web.

Katrivesis, Athanasios. “Field notes.” N.d. Item 1-4. 12 March 2012.

Monroe, Marilyn. Quote. Web. 17 April 2012.

“Sexism.” Dictionary.com. Ask.com, n.d. Web. 12 March 2012.

Skidmore, Jennifer. Personal Interview. 14 March 2012.

Wetz, Juliann. “Why Aren’t We Teaching Girls to Play Chess.” Daughters 9 (2004): 4. Proquest. Web. 12 March 2012.


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