Sunday, May 29, 2005

Women and Chess

In his history of the Kenilworth Chess Club (which I'm editing), Mike Wojcio reflects briefly on the absence of female club members:

"We have only rarely had women members throughout the years. Only Pat Tarasco, who also played in many of our simultaneous exhibitions, came more than a few times. Chess has always attracted more men than women as players. But it may also be that, however open we are to women, our all-male membership does not make them feel completely at home. If anyone has any suggestions for how we might change that, let me know."

Probably not many people see this as a problem -- that's why it gets only passing reference in the history. After all, most men go to gentleman's clubs to be among men and escape the confines of domesticity. But if we want to be a more integrated club, certainly inviting more women would be a start. The perenial question remains, however: How do you get more women into chess?

At the moment, female chessplayers are attracting significant media attention, out of proportion to their representation among chessplayers. Alexandra Kosteniuk, the Russian GM, is not only lovely but increasingly impressive over the board, as her recent victory in the Russian Women's Championship shows. As girls now have more female role models in chess, such as Kosteniuk and the Polgar sisters, you would think they would play more. But while scholastic participation among girls is up, their overall participation in chess or in chess clubs has remained relatively stable.

If there had ever been a question of whether or not women could play chess as well as men, that seemed pretty well answered by Judith Polgar's ascent to the top-10, even after having a child. And Polgar's performance in the M-tel tournament suggests she continues to hold her own against the world's best.

Mig Greengard recently reflected on the topic of women and chess in his blog, suggesting that women (whether by natural inclination or by the way they are raised) are less competitive than men and therefore less likely to want to engage in tournament play -- or, by extension I assume -- in club competition. But I have to question whether women are really less competitive -- especially if they have been exposed to the competitive culture of women's sports such as soccer or basketball.

I think the main issue for our club is simply a circular problem: there are currently no women at the club, so when women do come by (as one did a few months back) they feel a bit out of place and don't return, leaving us still with no women.... It's a viscious cycle. The only way to break out of it is to cultivate a group of female players who will keep coming back. Maybe we could also encourage members to bring girlfriends and wives to help create a more female-friendly atmosphere.

I may be the first to give it a try, since my wife is rather a good player. We just have to work out the details of getting a baby-sitter for our son on chess nights....


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