Beauty versus the Beast

Last week’s poll question was: “Who will win Wijk aan Zee?” It seems the readership’s faith in the World Champion has been restored, as Magnus Carlsen won the poll overwhelmingly, with almost two-thirds of the votes cast.

Earlier this month a simultaneous display titled “Beauty versus the Beast” was held between GM Nigel Short and 20 of New Zealand’s best female players. You will know or guess that this is related to Nigel’s remarks about the supposed differences between male and female brains, including that: “Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?”

Do you agree with Nigel Short that the evidence suggests men are hardwired to play better chess than women, for whatever reason?

Jacob suggested the following possible answers:

A) I have a feeling that this is true, although we cannot know why this is the case before it has been investigated thoroughly.
B) I very seriously doubt that there is anything biological making women worse at chess than men.
C) I am a full-blown sexist and don’t care about the facts. Report me now!
D) Other

46 thoughts on “Beauty versus the Beast”

  1. Judit Polgar makes this debate redundant, however, I still want to comment further; the reason I believe there are more men at the top of chess is because: the majority of people that play chess are men. If there was more women playing chess than men, I would expect to see more women at the top than men, assuming it was in the same proportion as now but reversed. I think the evidence shows that at the scholastic level, that there is no difference in ability between girls and boys that take up chess. I think we need to tackle the real issue here which is the “image” of chess, I think it’s still seen as a male activity. Until the stereotypes have been destroyed, I don’t see the situation improving, unless we get lucky and a woman becomes the real World Champion.

  2. Nigel Short is correct men and women are hardwired differently.
    The following is a research paper:
    The findings show that men on average have 6.5 times more grey matter which is used for information processing and women on average have 10 times more white matter which is required for networking of processing centres.
    So on average they are hardwired differently. Nigel is right when he says this.
    The author of the study says this may be the reason why men tend to excel on mathematics which required more localised processing while women tend to excel in languages which requires integrating and assimilating areas of the grey matter areas which is enhanced due to the greater white matter. The author states that this makes no difference to their intelligence but the way they process information. People should not get upset when he states the fact (as supported by the study) that they are hardwired differently.

    So due to this difference in being hardwired differently then on average men then it would not be wrong to make an assumption that this MAY be the reason that men tend to excel in mathematics, spatial geometry and chess as this requires more localised processing of grey matter. There are many women who on average compared to other women as well as men do excel at chess like Judit Polgar. It would be interesting to see if she has a lot more grey matter than normal due to constant practicing and playing…

  3. (Continued)
    However it may also be due to opportunity. Do boys get more opportuniy than girls to play chess? The Soviet Union now Russia excelled at chess with many players consistently World Champion and top 10. However this was probably due to chess being taught at an early age. It may be possible that being taught chess at an early age such as Judit Polgar stimulates the neurons in the grey matter to grow more.

    So Nigel is right as supported by the study males and females are hardwired differently.
    An assumption is that this is why they excel at maths, spatial geometry and chess which requires more localised processing of the grey matter.
    This may be true however it may have also to do with opportunity and learning chess (being taught well) at an early age where the grey matter grow in response to this early stimulation.

  4. Pretty unscientific options here: Feelings, doubts and denial. 😉 I chose other.

    I was pretty happy with the pc explanation that the low number of chess playing women explains the lower excellence, but the more I read about it, and the more data I see, the more I doubt it is entirely correct. For example it seems to be the case that chess playing women are on average 100 points lower rated than their male counterparts (see the discussion on Smerdons blog Given that the more talented women should be more likely to stay in chess, this is kind of the opposite of what the lower numbers of women in chess would predict.

    About option 2: Testosterone plays a big role in cognition and in competition. So it strikes me as pretty likely that it has some influence on chess. And this influence would only start to show in teenager years, making scholastic chess not a very good gauge of a possible difference. (This also vibes well with the development of Lahno or Hou, both of which could keep up with their male counterparts until around the age 14/15).

    Also, it always somewhat annoys me if people point to Judith Polgar as “disproving” the notion that women might be less talented for chess: We are talking about (relatively weak) trends in big numbers, single cases don’t mean sh… anyhing. We could have a female world champion, that would disprove anything except the most idiotic (and sexist) generalisations.
    And obviously gender will…

  5. And obviously gender will always be a very weak indicator for playing strength, the differences are just too small and other factors are just too dominant.

  6. Karpov famously said there were less top women players because they couldn’t keep quiet for several hours. Polgar Laszlo begged to disagree, bringing his three testosterone-challenged children to top-level.

  7. James says: “If there was more women playing chess than men, I would expect to see more women at the top than men, assuming it was in the same proportion as now but reversed.”
    It is a good argument and I always thought it is correct. However, if R.Howard did the maths right then it is now proven to be wrong, see his study:

    That study is mentioned by Short in his notorious article and probably was the trigger for his writings. Judit Polgar does not refuse those results, until no other female player come even close to her performace. To that respect she tops any male player legend, including the Ks, Carlsen, Fischer etc.

  8. I have no dog in this fight and no firm opinion. But I have to agree that Judit, great as she is, is not a statistical argument, which is what we always talked about here. Statistics.

  9. My current opnion is that there are 2 main factors.

    The sociological factors: Males are more encouraged to devote time to chess. Especially when it comes to competitive and top level chess, which requires a certain degree of obsessiveness.

    A biological/evolutionary factor: Males are more prone to extremes, both in positive (e.g. science) and negative (e.g. mental disorders, criminality) ways. This makes perfect sense from a male selection, female choice perspective.

  10. Thanks Bulkington for that link to chessbase. I recommend everyone to read the comment section on that site carefully since there you will find many arguments why “mathematical explanations” don’t really explain anything, they just support a hypothesis, sometimes more, sometimes less convincingly. By just looking at the numbers, you certainly could argue that women just don’t have what it takes to become catholic priests…
    That said, I actually don’t agree that Judit’s example is meaningless. She showed, that there doesn’t seem to be an actual “biological” limit for women with regards to success in chess, other than in most pyhsical sports, where women have yet failed to prove that they can run 100 m in less than 10 sec. In general, I don’t really get why people are so obsessed with “proving” or denying male dominance in chess. What would a definitive answer on that matter give us? Personally, I would prefer more women to play chess regardless of their “innate talent”, so let’s work out how to achieve that.

  11. Not SexistHonest

    The case of Polgar is important as it seems to me to reveal that if many people were coached intensively and early enough they would become very strong chess players and this is probably true for boys and girls.
    I also observe however that even inGeorgia which has the most female friendly chess society and top female chess world champion role models the top male Georgian Players outperform the best Georgian female players.
    My personal feeling is that
    women are not as interested in chess for lots of perfectly sensible reasons, not least that anyone withthebrains and dedication to scrape a living as a chess professional could make at least as much in another field.

  12. @Ben
    Jacob’s point is a statistical one. Sure, there is one woman who broke into the top 10, but does that prove biological equivalency for chess? Obviously not. Are you really going to draw conclusions with one data point? It’s not easy to say whether or not Judit is at the bleeding edge of the female chess proficiency bell curve, etc.

    As with most things in nature, it’s probably not just one factor – it’s quite a bit more likely to me that biological differences, sociological, nature/nurture, and small population (for whatever reasons) all contribute in relevant ways. If only that weren’t the case!

    I think a more important point to focus on is whether or not people at all ages and skill levels (in anything) are getting the support they need in all ways to ensure fair treatment, resources, and play. There are tons of professions that are generally preferred by one sex or the other – nursing, early childhood education being examples of the opposite bias – the important thing is that there are equal opportunities for both sexes. I don’t see anything morally or ethically wrong with lopsided male/female rations (in either direction) as long as both sexes have an equal shot.

  13. Shurlock Ventriloquist

    Science has proven there is no difference between a man and a woman’s brain.

    The idea that a woman cannot compete in chess with a man is a position only a ignorant ninny would maintain today. It’s shortsighted.

    Woman have not even been allowed to be an equal part of anything for nearly the thousands of years that men have been controlling them.

    In addition, most woman are too wise to waste time playing a child’s game as an adult.

    Listening to men talk about women in chess is like listening to white people talk to minorities about racism.

  14. Shurlock Ventriloquist :
    Science has proven there is no difference between a man and a woman’s brain.

    This statement is false.
    Please can you show me where this statement you made is true.

    Scientific research has shown that men and women have different structural wiring of the brain and use their brains differently. There have been a number of studies proving this.

    Could this be the reason for the difference between men and women on performance in chess?
    Possibly, however maybe other factors that contribute as well.

  15. Has anyone ever wondered why men are in the overwhelming majority in the areas of model trains, bird spotting, train spotting and stamp collecting? My guess is the female brain is just hard-wired differently, so they are incapable of competing in these fascinating and quite complex areas 🙂

  16. I think it is obvious that there are differences between men and women. I also feel that Nigel’s original article was not the least sexist. But as his wife said to him (in jest – one hopes), people will misread it, as they know you are a big sexist.

    To me Judit Polgar shows nothing more than Gata Kamsky, Veselin Topalov or Fabiano Caruana does. If trained massively in chess, I think many children would become greats. But the case of Sofia Polgar is just as important. Trained excessively as well, she was never really more than a very strong club player.

    The program really worked for Judit, but not for Sofia. Why? It seems likely that a main reason is that at the end of it all, Judit really likes chess and Sofia is less keen.

    Is it possible that there are things about chess that are easier to do for the male brain in general? Nigel seems to be of that view and so are about half the people voting here. I really do not know personally. Is it possible that women are less attracted to the lonely pursuit that chess often is? It is not an impossible thought. Women do in general like to socialise more (statistically) and want to chat more (as most married men will tell you).
    Does this influence the statistics. I could be persuaded in that direction. But personally I would not be in the camp that believed that there was something a girl could not do, if she was determined to do it and I have been just as supportive of my youngest daughter’s interest in Star Wars as my…

  17. @PaulH

    I think the one that got to 2500 is Zsusza Polgar (the one that made it to female world champion). The third one (the middle one, I think) only got to around 2250, which is a strong club player.

    We are basing the discussion in that statistically women are doing quite worse than men playing chess, hence women may have their brains wired differently from men. But what about Spanish people?

    We have a very strong chess scene, with many opens (Topalov raised to the top with those opens) and not in the not too distant past, many very strong closed tournaments. So why we don’t have many spanish people on the top? We have Vallejo, and that’s it in the top 100. Do we have our brain wired differently from men outside of Spain?

    I think the most reasonable answer for both women and spanish people is that there are socio-economic factors that tip the balance away from chess. In Spain, playing professional chess is a very poor choice. So maybe women around the world are raised to be more pragmatic, to do ‘girl’ things, find husbands, to have a family.

    The Polgar case show us that when girls are raised with chess as the central aspect of their education, they can become super strong (as well as strong amateurs). So my only conclusion is that women, if they set their aim to that, can compete on equal turf to men on chess.

  18. @Gollum
    I do think the Spanish brain is wired differently. My proof is Manuel, the Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers. I admit that’s only N-1, but Judith Polgar also seems to be sufficient proof to some people.

  19. @Gollum: do you know Sofia Polgar’s tournament that goes by the name “the sack of Rome”? She won an open in Rome with 8.5/9, facing Dolmatov, Suba, Razuvaev, Palatnik and Chernin, and some lower rated players. TPR 2735, in 1989, at the age of 14.

    There’s no way she was a “strong club player”.

  20. I have one issue with citing the success of the Polgars in this argument. Laszlo Polgar set out to show that he could turn any child into a prodigy, with the right training method started at very early age, and he was very successful in demonstrating that.

    But the fact that he ended up doing it with three daughters was coincedence, not the goal of the experiment.

    Who knows, if he had had three boys instead, they might all have been top ten players. We have no way of knowing. The rest of the world top in chess didn’t have a similar extremely focused upbringing as the Polgar sisters had — his experiment is still the only one like it, as far as I know.

    So the Polgar story is a succesful demonstration of the idea that prodigies can be created, it is proof that women can reach top-10 chess strength, but it’s not really evidence for the thesis that women are equally well equipped to play chess as men.

  21. So definitively Sofia was more than a strong amateur.

    My point was that the fact that women play worse than men does not in any way imply that women can’t play chess as good as men (and saying that women’s brain is wired differently and poorer to play chess is just a void assertion without any hard data to support it). As I said spanish people play poor chess. And so do black people, but obviously, black people have their brain wired differently, as they are more chimpanzees than humans (*ironic, of course).

    So whatever the argument is for women, it has to take into account and explain the poor performance of black and spanish people. I am yet to see a compelling argument.

    On Book Titles – September 15th, 2014

    “In our weekly editorial meeting we have been debating the book with the working title Chess from Scratch at length almost every week…”

    What is the present status of the “Chess from Scratch” book series? What titles do the series include? How many of these has been already published?

    Is it true that Jacob Aagard is going to publish a book titled “Chess from Scratch”?

    Thank you very much for your reply and great blog that helps to monitor what has been called “the open window into your chess office and publication schedules”. I appreciate it very much!

  23. @Gollum
    Francisco Pons and Maurice Ashley would disagree with your statement regarding Spanish and Black chess players.
    One can not make a statement that Russian chess players were superior chess players because they were Russian. Russian chess players in the 60’s and 70’s excelled at chess as it was very much part of their schooling at an early age just as the Polgar sisters. Along came Bobby Fischer who was talented but also worked very hard and schooled himself in chess reading literature even from Russia at an early age.
    It is accepted that the brains of men and women are hardwired differently.
    It is a reasonable argument that on average excel in maths and spatial geometry due to this difference. Just as it is a reasonable argument that in being hardwired differently does contribute to the difference in processing and on average excelling in other certain areas such as chess.
    Instead of looking for 1 reason why men on average currently outperform women at chess, then possibly accept that there are many reasons and that genetic not due race but due to sex and environment due to exposure to chess at an early age, training in chess, as well as a passion for chess.

  24. To clarify last paragraph.
    There may be many reasons why people may differ in chess performance as listed above.
    Difference in sex shows a difference in hardwiring of the brain. It is a justifiable argument that being male or female is a factor that contributes to this difference in chess performance, however it would be reasonable to assume this is not the only factor, but a contributing factor.

  25. @Ed
    Save your time, Ed. You will not be able to convince Gollum that there are any statistical differences in any sort of mental capacity between men and women. To some people, this is crimethink, and thus forbidden.

  26. When I was a young boy, I had a dream.
    I was going to be the fastest to run 100m in history.
    I was tall, I had long legs and I was quick.
    I beat everyone at school by a quite a few metres.
    I had a dream, a goal I believed that I was going to achieve.
    I was winning inter school races as well.
    Being male rather than female meant that I was going to be able to achieve this as men have testosterone which leads to more muscle mass and body structure.
    My physique, hard training, coaching and my passion were other factors that were going to assist me to achieve my goal.
    However while watching the final of the 100m of the Olympics, something dawned on me at that early age. All the competitors were black.
    This I originally thought was a hurdle as I would just work harder.
    Then after reading on the Internet studies showed that there was a difference in composition of fast twitch muscle fibres between white and blacks, I realised that not being black was a barrier not a hurdle in achieving my dream. I was very depressed that I was not black and hence would not achieve my biggest dream at the time. I as a human was not hard wired to the optimum to be able to achieve my dream.
    Sure there were other factors I could control such as hard work training, coach and my enthusiasm, drive and desire to achieve this.
    I was male rather than female which was a positive factor In my favour that I could not control. But another factor I could not control was that I was not hardwired to the…

  27. optimum with the greater composition of fast twitch muscle fibres to achieve this dream. This was a limiting factor, a barrier that prevented me from achieving my dream.

    To what degree is the brain being hard wired differently going to affect chess performance I do not know, however I feel that it may be a barrier rather than a hurdle. Differences in the processing in the brain that affect spatial geometry would have to affect chess performance.
    It would not be unreasonable to assume that differences in hardwiring of the brain would not affect chess performance between men and women.

  28. Ed :

    It is accepted that the brains of men and women are hardwired differently.

    Can you refer me to those scientific articles that study the issue and reach that conclusion?

    And as I said Francisco Vallejo Pons (Vallejo is his last name, but we have two last names in Spain) is the rare exception in spanish chess, we are poor players in general.

    Maurice Ashley, on the other hand, is a very poor example, if that is all that black people can do, they are obviously hard-wired differently, and quite worse than women, the guy is at a mere 2440 and have 44 women that play better than him according to rating.

    The Lurker :
    Save your time, Ed. You will not be able to convince Gollum that there are any statistical differences in any sort of mental capacity between men and women. To some people, this is crimethink, and thus forbidden.

    I agree with you that this is a sensitive topic, one that must be dealt with caution. We have had quite a lot of years of oppressing women (and minorities), and these arguments will just help stigmatize them further (‘She is a woman, hence she cannot make a good boss, as her brain is hardwired differently than men”).

    So yes, it…

  29. So yes, it will be difficult to convince me, but waving a hand and saying that our brains are different just does not cut it.

    I read an article on Chessbase that followed on Short’s article about women’s level in Georgia where a lot more women play chess but their level is consistently lower than men’s. That was the thing is needed, real investigation, not making a claim without any evidence. I had a few ‘buts’ for that article, mainly that it did not try to adjust for any socio-economic factors, but it was quite interesting.

  30. Ed :

    Shurlock Ventriloquist :
    Science has proven there is no difference between a man and a woman’s brain.

    This statement is false.
    Please can you show me where this statement you made is true.
    Scientific research has shown that men and women have different structural wiring of the brain and use their brains differently. There have been a number of studies proving this.

    Evidence above is 3 of many.

  31. @Ed: I think the issue is not whether or not there is a difference between the male and female brain. The question is if there is a causal relation with average chess playing strength. I am not aware of any proof that there is such a causal relation. Please let me know if you have such proof. Some of the examples mentioned in the above discussion (e.g. on the playing strength of Russians) seem to point in the direction that other factors might be more important than gender in explaining the average differences in playing strength between men and women. If you compensate for all these other factors, I’m wondering what’s the actual difference in playing strength that’s strictly due to differences in ‘wiring’. In that respect it would also be interesting to do neurological research into the brain of Judith Polgar – is her brain e.g. more wired like a male?

  32. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    I have three problems with this poll….
    (1) I take issue with the “hard” in hardwired. This suggests something immutable, what about neuroplasticity?
    (2) Yes, we can observe differences between male and female brain. Yes, we can observe differences between male and female rating. To conclude that the second difference is caused by the first difference is false. It does not follow. It may be shown true in the future, but at this time there is insufficient data (in fact I am not aware of ANY) to establish causation.
    (3) The first three possible answers proposed (A,B,C) do not cover a sufficient range of opinions on the matter.

    Nigel Short has a rap for being sexist. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t really know him. He does speak his mind, which I respect. He also substitutes his own idea of common sense for logical argument, which I do not.

  33. To start I think the phrase “hard wired” is a poor one.

    There are so many variables it’s is very difficult to come up with s conclusive answer.

    Ideally (and I do stress ideally) from a scientific perspective we remove all variables except one (the sex if he chess player) and see how this affects the outcome.

    Ideally then we would have a male and female (ideally twins) brought up in the same environment, same coaching time etc so all environmental factors are constant.

    Then after playing in the same tournements for a number of years against the same players we would check if there were any significant difference results (flawed as opponents may play at different strengths against different sibling).

    This maybe the best way to see if there is any difference in rating.

    The only variable in the above experiment ideally is one player has a pair of XX chromosomes one has XY chromosome.

    The difference then is firstly in the sex hormones. These affect behaviour (which can be thought as been hard wired differently-again a very poor phrase).

    An increase in the level of testosterone is known to influence strength, aggression and others. Do these factors then give them an edge I playing chess?

    Also there is inherited desirable evolutionary traits in males and females such as in males competitiveness, spacial awareness, endurance.

    When we remove all environmental & social factors it comes down to these two things that differ in men and women so of…

  34. …course there are differences. It’s whether the two biological factors discussed would have any impact on the skills required to play chess. For example on average men have better physical endurance do to a biological factor this would this influence the playing strength of course it would.

    I am not sexist AT ALL but would argue men’s biology (that is hormone levels and evolutionary traits) give them the slight advantage.

  35. Put another way the way neural connections are made are by experiences and choices and things we are exposed to. Lots of men and women’s choices and behaviour is controlled by biochemistry (hormone levels and genetics) which IS different. Hence over time the brain will be different.

  36. I think what people mean by “hard-wired” is, dare I say it, “genetically determined”. Let’s not beat around the bush. That is what we are talking about.

    It also seems that people are demanding a ridiculously high standard of evidence to prove that there is a gender difference in chess performance. That way, they can admit that it’s theoretically possible, but err on the side of political correctness. Do your girlfriends monitor your posts on this blog? 😛

    There is a lot of evidence out there that the male IQ distribution has a much larger standard deviation that the female, even though the average is the same. This means, in a nutshell, more male morons, more male geniuses. Women tend to cluster closer to the mean. I’m not going to provide references; do your own homework.

    Assuming that playing chess really well takes a very high IQ (which I don’t think is a stretch), since there are more males than females with very high IQs, it follows that more males will be able to play chess really well than females. This is statistics 101.

    Throw in the data on high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, which is also biased towards males (6 to 1), has a positive correlation with high IQ, and can contribute to people obsessing on chess (or train-spotting, or…), and there you have it.


  37. @ The Lurker: No, my girlfriend does not read this blog, and yes, I demand a scientific standard of evidence. You might call that ridiculously high, but that’s probably so that you can be politically incorrect and still feel good about it 🙂 . And no, I’m not politically correct – I just don’t like sexism. At the standard of evidence you’re proposing I probably wouldn’t have made it through my Physics studies. By the way, even if it’s all due to biological differences, male chauvinism is probably still to blame: not allowing women to carry out any meaningful intellectual activity for thousands of years (not that long ago it was considered inappropriate for women to read, let alone vote, and there are still countries where girls are not allowed to go to school) doesn’t necessarily make them smarter 🙂 . On the other hand, I can imagine women have something better to do then playing chess all day against smelly Russians (no offense – I don’t want to be accused of being politically correct) with a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top