Dear Jovanka Houska,
You don’t know me, but I am an awful chess player. While my ratings in online rapid matches have improved, my instincts for bullet and blitz leave much to be desired. That said, I will happily watch hour upon hour of high-level chess (much to my partner’s chagrin). And I especially enjoy the commentary and chemistry between David Howell, Kaja Snare, Simon Williams, and yourself. Keep up the great work!
But what I want to talk to you about today is the state of gender parity in twenty-first century chess. Following the retirement of the legendary Judit Polgár, I do not believe another woman has since achieved a top-ten world ranking in chess. At the time of writing this letter, FIDE’s website says that Hou Yifan is the only woman to rank in the top one-hundred.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of strong women chess players (I very much enjoy watching Hou’s games and analysis). But in many ways, representation in the upper echelons of chess is not dissimilar to the challenges we face in politics, academia, and business today.
People say that chess is a meritocratic game. But I believe this to be an overstatement. Much of the game is set in motion well before the first move is played.
For one, I suspect that girls tend to receive less encouragement than boys when it comes to playing chess. And of the girls who play chess, and play chess well, I suspect that they may not receive the same support from their families and teachers that a boy of equal calibre might. These hypotheses are nothing new, of course. They reflect broader, deep-seated biases and discrimination that women around the world have faced since forever.
In a recent interview, grandmaster Hou Yifan adds that expectations in chess differ between the genders. Girls and women are conditioned to think about the ‘girl’s title’ or the ‘women’s title’ when they should be thinking about the overall title, Hou says. Indeed, aspirations affect how people train and prepare, which affects how they perform, which affects their future aspirations in turn. Because goals can be a vicious or virtuous cycle, we have to encourage our girls to aim higher.
(I should add that despite Hou’s immense ability, she says that “chess is mostly a passion” for her, “never a career”—which contrasts sharply again with her male counterparts.)
When an interviewer asks what makes a player like her or Polgar so strong, Hou’s response is straightforward: “talent and opportunity”. Hou describes, for example, how tutelage under a grandmaster, access to training centers, and opportunities to play her contemporaries like Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana from an early age made all the difference. Opportunity clearly matters.
Gender parity is a complex subject, of course. It is not something that I can fully reflect in a few hundred words. But I do wonder, Jovanka, if these arguments are reflective of your own experience or views as an International Master. Are there other systemic barriers at play? And what can society do, if anything, to promote representation and equality in chess?
Personally, I am hopeful that we will see even more women grandmasters competing at the highest level in the near future. I also believe that chess influencers like the Botez sisters, Anna Cramling, and Nemo Zhou will do wonders for the sport. We’re still in the early days, of course. But the endgame will be promising if we make the right moves today.
Thanks for listening.
 Interview with Hou Yifan. (2019). <https://www.chess.com/article/view/hou-yifan-interview-chess>