Magnus Carlsen-Hans Niemann’s chess cheating overshadowed sexism

In September, the elite, high-stakes chess world was rocked by yet another cheating scandal. Grandmaster and world champion Magnus Carlsen has accused teenage prodigy Hans Niemann of cheating, an accusation this led to layers of conspiracy theory and speculation.

This debacle largely drowned out a separate controversy that was going on in another corner of the chess world. Last week, Israeli grandmaster Ilya Smirin has been sacked from her commentator gig after questioning the need for gender parity during a live broadcast of the Women’s Grand Prix.

Why are we, again, forced to explain that women are just as capable as men when it comes to playing the game?

As a chess player and teacher, these types of comments are as discouraging as they are exhausting. Why are we, again, forced to explain that women are just as capable as men when it comes to playing the game? We certainly miss the exposure and support that men get. But we shouldn’t have to defend our basic abilities or our biological good faith. We shouldn’t have to push away men who say women’s brains aren’t able to function at the same level as men’s.

Smirin’s comments were not an isolated event, although they were quite publicized (for chess). In February, the Marshall Chess Club (one of the best chess clubs in the world, and one that has recently made efforts to better represent its female members) has published a to joke about sex with underage girls that no one seems to have noticed (or at least not bothered). At the 50th US Amateur Team East tournament earlier this spring, a chess team named themselves “She Said She Was 1800,” a pun on chess ratings and the age of sexual consent that led to “contemptuous applause”, according to the club’s Marshall Chess Bulletin.

Both instances occurred against the backdrop of a supposedly great year for female players. In January, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) declared 2022 to be “the year of the woman in chess”.

It was a bold claim – and some players might disagree. Chess is still mostly segregated by gender. In a recent article by Gate, grandmaster Jennifer Shahade — two-time United States Women’s Chess Champion and director of the United States Chess Federation’s women’s program — points out that girls-only tournaments can keep girls engaged in the game longer by connecting them with female peers as well as scholarships.

But Yifan Hou, the best player in the world, has refused to participate in women’s chess tournaments since 2016 due to the disparity between men’s and women’s world championships. This excellent article that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 2018 covered the gender disparity in depth, noting that by holding the two events simultaneously, all the press was diverted from the women’s championship.

Judit Polgar – who, as the only woman to break the 2700 rating mark, is considered by many in the chess community to be the greatest female chess player of all time – has only played in men’s events . And she’s beaten a total of 11 world champions, all of them men. As she says in this article for The Guardian“I might never have become a chess grandmaster if I had stuck to women-only tournaments.”

Growing up, I was a school chess champion who never played in any girls-only event. (I also don’t think many existed at that time, though I doubt their existence changed my mind.)

Polgár in particular is no stranger to sexist rhetoric – including from the sport’s biggest luminaries. In 1986 Gary Kasparovperhaps the world’s second best-known world chess champion after noting sexist Bobby Fischer, said “some people don’t like to hear that, but chess is not for women.” Kasparov went on to say that women were “weaker fighters” and since “chess is the combination of sport, art and science…you can see the superiority of men”.

After losing to Polgár in 2002, Kasparov finally changed his tune. “There was no epiphany” he told The New Yorker in 2021. “I just got older and wiser, and I can only apologize for taking so long!” But while such mea culpas are welcome, they are not enough. Polgár and other players say the men regularly treated them like second-class players, even when they were winning.

I also suffered this kind of treatment as a former school chess champion who continued to play street chess and teach for decades in person and online.

“You mean ladies?” The men said to me, without laughing, when I explained that I taught chess.

When some fathers of my students realized that I was a woman, they came to class and asked to play.

When some fathers of my students realized that I was a woman, they came to class and asked to play. I would do it without my queen. From the age of 12, when I started coaching chess, male players and other coaches hit me and even subjected me to physical harassment. My ass was slapped and womanizer comments were routinely mocked.

Thanks in part to the pandemic and Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit” (which Kasparov consulted on), chess has enjoyed a mainstream resurgence. But Beth Harmon is fictional. When the show referenced a real-life, groundbreaking female chess champion, Nona Gaprindashvili, the showrunners also romanticized her career, falsely stating that she had never played against men. She quickly sued them, with the two sides reaching an agreement last month.

To quote Rebecca Solnit: “Every woman who appears struggles against the forces that would make her disappear.” It’s a sentiment that chess pioneers like Gaprindashvili, Polgár and other female grandmasters certainly understand. More women are playing chess than ever before, and online chess has created more opportunities for women to play. But the world chess champion titles are still separated by gender, and many gamers say they still feel belittled and even harassed, both online and in person. Comments like Smirin’s are now being criticized, but that doesn’t mean they’re rare.

If 2022 is truly the year of women in chess, what message does that send?

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