Why There Are So Few Female Chess Grandmasters

Only those of very hard hearts can fail to admire Beth, the heroine of Walter Tevis’s magnificent novel, and now a popular television series, The Queen’s Gambit. We love the idea of her, a girl who makes good, starting off from very modest beginnings. She overcomes alcohol and drug addictions and rises to the very top of her profession: chess.

But Beth’s story raises the question as to why there are so few female champion chess players.

At time of writing, there are 1,731 chess grandmasters, the acknowledged leaders in their field. In order to enter this honored company, a player needs to have attained a 2500 Elo rating from the International Chess Federation at any point in their career, and earned two favorable tournament results, referred to as norms. For some perspective, my own rating was around 1700 when I played in tournaments, which means I barely know which way the knight moves, so any grandmaster who couldn’t beat me with queen odds ought to be ashamed of himself.

How many women currently hold the grandmaster title? Only 37 as of January 2021. That’s just 2 percent. There are several hypotheses bruited about to account for this gargantuan disproportion.

1. Sexism

Sexism is the explanation offered by all too many reviewers of The Queen’s Gambit, yet there was only one instance of it in the book. Namely, when the then unrated Beth Harmon entered her first tournament. Relegated to the female section, her first two opponents were women. That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the sexism hypothesis.

Are there any “male only” chess tournaments? Not to my knowledge, at least not for the last three decades. There may be a few ignorant parents who tell their daughters that chess is unfeminine and that nice girls do not do that, but this hardly explains the phenomenon mentioned above. (Hint: For single women wishing to meet a guy, enter a chess tournament! The odds are fantastically in your favor!)

2. Less Participation

Considering my hint above, this is indeed correct, but this is at least as much an effect of this phenomenon as it is the cause. Females are perhaps just less interested in this nerdy game than males, many of whom are effectively addicted to it.

3. Differing Testosterone Levels

With testosterone comes competitiveness. Even including chess’s many draws, this Game of Kings is highly competitive. Although the players sit on their rears for hours on end, their heart beats are similar to those of marathon runners. They sweat bullets with no obvious physical exertion. Boxers do too, but theirs is not merely a mental exercise.

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