As many fans of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit will attest, this is not just a story just about chess, but a story about women and power, or lack thereof in a testosterone-driven theater of combat. The story examines how a particularly gifted player might outplay not just on the merits but on the gender-driven mind games that invariably come to play in live confrontation. The Queen’s Gambit suggests that intellectual superior women players might permanently challenge sexist assumptions.
The fact is, the world of organized chess — which a friend of mine recently compared to organized boxing — consistently ranks women players lower than men. There are several reasons, chess fans have speculated. First, there are far fewer women participating in the “sport” than men. Second, there’s evidence, according to a recent study, that women play below their best when competing with men, suggesting the male mind games — intentional or not — are deadlier. It also doesn’t help growing up in a world tarnished by misogynistic POVs. Perhaps the worst of these came from Bobby Fischer. “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat,” said the prodigy. Not dissimilar to what Gary Kasparov meant when he said, “some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition. I think this is very simple logic. It’s the logic of a fighter, a professional fighter. Women are weaker fighters.” It’s an opinion he held until Judit Polgar, history’s most highly ranked player among women and men (#8 at one time) beat him.
This was not the last time a man has been embarrassed by a female opponent in live, physical battle. Embarrassment in fact might be the best way to characterize the state of mind for some men, says Polgar, who told the story of her sister’s experience. “She was 16 or 17 — said that she never won against a healthy man…. After the game, there was always an excuse: ‘I had a headache. I had a stomach ache.’ There is always something.”
Would this embarrassment, humiliation, continue to be a thing if female participation in the game becomes more commonplace? The chess world is experiencing a boom unlike any other since the American Bobby Fischer became world champion during the cold war. In December 2020, Bloomberg reported that “Chess.com, a social network and chess server website, has added around 1 million new members each month since the lockdowns began in March, and around 2.8 million in November alone. In the same month, over 78 million standard chess games took place on lichess, a free online chess server, compared to half as many in November 2019.” Of course, The Queen’s Gambit is the new engine of growth here, and, surprise, a lot of new players are women.
Will the Web be even more transformative. Beyond greater participation, there’s the opportunity to grow one’s stature and presence. Platforms such as YouTube and Twitch are enabling women to stream and comment on expert gameplay. Some are making money, inspired in part by the success of the male grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who has big followings on both platforms.
Then there are opportunities for women to teach more women online, like The Queen’s Gambit Institute, founded by Ashley Lynn Priore in 2014 well before the Netflix show (she was 14 at the time). The past year has been busy, she told Elite Daily. “We’re holding a lot more chess clubs, people at home want to learn.”
There are a lot more women leveraging the easy access of the Web, and I am convinced we’ve not see the end of it. But one thing I would like to see are projects that test whether anonymity might further undermine sexist assumptions about the gender gap. Would not knowing whom you are playing affect your game as a man? Would not knowing whom you are playing affect your game as a woman? But what if the platform had access to this data. I think this too would be a boom for the game.