Columns | October 16, 2009 17:52

Abolishing women’s titles: a different perspective

Women's ChessI’ve been known to defend the position that women’s tournaments are all nonsense: after all, we don’t have math competitions especially for women, nor do we have girls-only musical concourses. But a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, pleading for abolishment of women’s FIDE titles, made me think again.

Barbara Jepson’s piece
is actually a collection of various opinions rather than a bold op-ed of her own. Her main point is that FIDE “persists in the anachronistic and demeaning practice of awarding separate titles for women at lower levels of accomplishment.” Interestingly, the (female) chess players Jepson interviews are all top-level. For instance, when Jepson argues that “the time has come to drop gender-segregated titles for women”, she quotes IM Irina Krush saying “women's titles are really a marker of lower expectations.” Other strong female chess players she quotes are Alexandra Kosteniuk and Jennifer Shahade – all seem in favour of abolishing the female titles, though it’s Krush’s voice that speaks loudest in the article.

But what about women who are not as strong as Kosteniuk, Shahade and Krush, or the ones who have not been fortunate enough to pursue their chess goals due to lack of means, time or focus? Although I initially tended to agree with its basic premise, I suddenly felt that the Wall Street Journal article was strangely biased, so I asked Dutch women’s international master (WIM) Arlette van Weersel about her opinion on the discussion. Here’s what she said:

Arlette van WeerselI think abolishing women’s titles is a bad idea. Earning a title and working towards the goals to obtain it can be a great incentive, especially for young girls. In my opinion, women (and young girls) need this kind of incentives more than men, given the fact that we’re still living in a male-oriented society.

The idea that women’s titles are unnecessary seems rather black-and-white to me. Of course, a WIM or WGM title doesn’t mean much at a global top level: all female top players have men’s titles. On the other hand, it’s not always possible for girls to invest much time in a chess career. But these players may still want to distinguish themselves from inactive or lower level women.

Van Weersel’s ideas about male-oriented societies will no doubt raise a few eyebrows - until you think about non-Western countries. Chess is not only a game played by people from the US and Europe, and FIDE – gens una sumus – has to think about all countries rather than the ones where female emancipation happens to be rather advanced. Also, sadly, there are still plenty of examples in Western countries where male orientedness seems to be in place as firmly as ever. And it’s not as if Van Weersel is blind to the disadvantages of women’s titles:

It may be argued, of course, that female titles prevent young girls from trying to become stronger. They can be a WIM with a 2200 rating, whereas a boy would need about 200 rating points more for the same title. But for me personally, trying to obtain the WIM title was a big motivation. Given the time I want to invest in chess, becoming a grandmaster is simply not an option, but the goal of WGM does seem possible.

It seems to me it all depends on what you want to achieve with chess. Is chess just for fun or is there money involved as well? This is another point raised in Barbara Jepson’s article: the commercial aspect of women’s chess. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk notes “the most serious challenge for top-rated female chess players in general is to find commercial sponsors or institutional support, like from sports foundations or government sports committees.”

Reigning Women World Champion Aleksandra Kosteniuk

Yet Van Weersel points out that here, women’s titles could actually come to the rescue:

Tournament organizers actually benefit from the existence of women’s titles. The thing is that these titles are regarded as regular titles for calculating [male] norms. If women’s titles are abolished, fewer female players will be invited to closed tournaments. In my opinion, this certainly doesn’t help women’s chess.

Unavoidably, the gender-debate also rears its ugly head in Jepson’s article, and as always, principles often appear to be more important than facts.

Wall Street JournalA number of aficionados claim that men have an edge because chess is a game of spatial relations, and some studies show men scoring higher than women in "mental rotation." Chess teachers say that girls are usually not as competitive as boys, and that hinders their performance.(…) Yet in the long term, women will benefit from having the titles they hold conferred on the same basis as men. "While some men may remain sexist no matter what," observes Mr. Pandolfini, "for the bulk of humanity, ability wins out and speaks the loudest."

Jepson seems to argue that despite these possible differences, competing on the same level is called for anyway. Jepson and the people she interviews seem to hold the opinion that these differences someone must be really overcome, and should be ignored as much as possible at all costs. But perhaps a more sophisticated point of view is called for. As the primatologist Frans de Waal once said, “You can take an ape out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the ape”. In other words, perhaps we should simply accept these differences rather than pretend they don’t exist. Van Weersel, in any case, seems to have a more realistic attitude than the people interviewed for the Wall Street Journal:

The true reason for wanting to abolish women’s titles seems to be that women aren’t dumber than men and therefore can become just as strong as them. I agree with this, but there really are differences, too, such as social issues, dealing with emotions and the way women focus on things. Reaching the top is still very difficult for girls in practice, and only a very small percentage of chess playing women obtain men’s titles. As long as chess development between men and women is so far apart, I think women’s titles are okay.

In a perfect world, we may want a competition that absolutely fair and equal, but reality often forces us to look differently at things. On one level, I am definitely annoyed every time I see women with lower ratings than myself having their entry fee and hotel paid for, while I must pay for everything myself, just because they happen to be WIM. And it's a nice comfort to know that Krush and others acknowledge this feeling.

But when I think about it from another angle, I must admit it’s not such a bad idea. Women really are different than men in some aspects, both by nature and by nurture, and this is especially true for women in underdeveloped countries. Perhaps we should think twice before turning our backs on them just because our ideals tell us so.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Redpawn's picture

let's play devil's advocate and in the name of Hypocracy be consistent.

If you have Woman's Intenational Master = WIM
or Woman's Grand Master = WGM
or Woman's National Master = WNM

Then we should also (by the same tokken) add a "Male" M to a GM or IM or NM of men's titles?
We are very proud the fact that we are MEN and so we want our titles to be consitent and have:
Men's Grand Master = MGM (I know it sounds like MGM Grand - or the film studio...)
Men's International Master = MIM
and Men's National Master = MNM

That's only to be consistent..... right?

But then the problem becomes - what do you do with Judith Polgar ?
What title would she get?
MGM? impossible! (she is not a member of our male society...) and if you have her as WGM then you are taking a way ALL her accomplishments and making her "on paper/by title alone" look no stronger than Kosteniuk, or Krush etc...

This is a real dilema....isn't it?

I think the answer is - to just get rid of these gender dividing titles.

gg's picture
Arne Moll's picture

Thanks, gg. Alexandra wrote a good piece about it. What's especially astonishing is that the WSJ article quotes Kosteniuk but she claims she doesn't know the journalist who wrote it! So, it seems the article is not only biased but also poorly written.

Redpawn's picture

@gg - Thanks for the link to Kostaniuk's blogg on the subject.
I read and understood her defense in favour of keeping separate titles and incentives for women - to make it possible for them to be chess professionals.

I agree with her to some extent that woman and men have different priorities in life and for women it's much more challenging to climb to the hightes that men have acheived. Due to biological clock, social pressure, "physical demends" of the sport (that only professional chess players can understand) etc...

She shows Judith Polgar as the #47 over all rated player in the world.
But everyone knows and remembers Judith's highest achivement - she has been in the top 10 overall (SuperGM) - back in the 90ies.

So I don't understand why Kosteniuk does not highlight Judith's greatest achivement, and instead focuses on Judith's current ranking...
Yes of course, now Judith has a life outside of chess - she has kids, a family and other priorities in life, which is great !
Judith however will be remembered for beating some of the leading GM's and even men's world champions, (like Karpov) etc...
Can Kosteniuk claim that?

Still, if you set 2 different titles/standards - one for men and another for women. then the real quality of chess is undemined.

If one were to look for the latest "cutting edge opening" (there is always a desire to see it being played by the strongest/higest rated players).

I doubt that anyone would say - "oh lets take a look at the opening lines useed in the last Woman's championship - I'll play what Kosteniuk plays..... (even though her opponents are all Women who are overall rated below the 200 marks in the world...)

That's not a true test/measure of the strength of that line.... becasue the level of play on both sides is weaker....

Most students of the game want to play the lines that now Carlsen, Aronian, Anand and Topalov play. They set the current opening trend...etc....

Still, in other phases of the game there is a LOT a young aspiring girl new to chess can learn from Kosteniuk and other top female players....

I still believe that If you keep the separation in titles between men and women, yes it's better for the overall professional development of women's chess... but it takes away from everything that Judith Polgar has worked so hard to achieve.

Now and then Women still need THE CHANCE to play top (male) SuperGMs - so they would know how good their chess measures up.

I can clearly say that I would rather have my daughter(s) aspire to be as good as (or better than) Judith Polgar, and play with men - rather than settle for a separate - Woman's world championship (with all the money and prestige) , that represents very little as far as an overall chess achievement.

Or maybe I'm just a stubborned principled idealist....

Redpawn's picture

Here's some facts from Wikipedia on the highest female achivement in chess - by Judith Polgar. Peak Rating: 2735 (July 2005)

On the January 1996 FIDE ratings list, Polgár's 2675 rating made her the number 10 ranked player in the world, the first woman ever to enter the world's Top Ten.
In 2003, Polgár scored one of her best results: an undefeated clear second place in the Category 19 Corus chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, just a half-point behind Indian star Viswanathan Anand, and a full point ahead of world champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Now these kind of achivements are something to be REALLY PROUD OF.
(For any father out there encouraging his daughters to enter the game of chess....)

Redpawn's picture

For additional inspiration on Woman's chess - visit Judith Polgar's site:

Redpawn's picture

Not to worry, Judith Polgar will put this whole argument to rest when she becomes the undisputed world champion :-)

I just think more young girls should aspire to follow Judith Polgar as a role model (match to play with any player regardless of gender). J polgar proved that a women can beat ex-world champions as well as future world champions, be in the elite top 10 super GMs in the world - and that's possible if you have the talent, love the game enough to put in the effort to play your very best.

In Kosteniuk's world it seems - a girl's potential is somewhat limited within the confines of woman's chess and thats it. So, "girls should aspire to learn the game and know they can can only reach the hights within their own gender (but not compete with men....because they are too strong...and don't have a biological clock.)
And this is CHESS we're talking about ? (not wrestling or boxing....) :-(
Maybe Kosteniuk limitation should apply to chess-boxing? :-)

EJ Wagenmakers's picture

Interesting arguments by Kosteniuk! Let's look at some of them a bit more closely:

1. Apparently, women need to think about starting a family, and this need makes it impossible for them to focus on one thing. But this must surely mean that gender difference should only emerge when the biological clock really starts ticking -- isn't this at about 33 years, when chess players are already very close to their prime? How does Kosteniuk's argument explain the gender differences at the tender age of, say, 18 years?

2. According to Kosteniuk, playing chess takes a lot of physical strength. I would argue that it takes a lot of nervous strength, not physical strength. I remember GM Reinderman telling me he had just enough strength to press the clock. Does Kosteniuk really believe physical strength is so important in chess? She must work out a lot in the gym then, lifting weights and stuff -- this should really increase her Elo (not).

In the same paragraph, Kosteniuk quotes Anatoly Karpov as the one who emphasized the importance of physical strength. What, Karpov? I love his games, but I think that almost all of his opponents were physically in better shape. I am sure that all my GM & IM buddies could knock out Karpov in a boxing match (well, with the exception of Reinderman, perhaps :-)) -- but even now, the guy would crush them in a chess contest.

3. After these arguments, and more, to show how disadvantages women are, Kosteniuk presents the Bilalic study, "which suggests that 96% of the statistical difference in playing abilities between the sexes can be explained by the greater number of male chess players"

Doesn't this argument undo all of her previous arguments? Apparently, there are no inherent disadvantages to being a women and playing chess, and it's all numbers. Then isn't the Bilalic study the ultimate argument in favor of abolishing female titles? I bet that left-handed players are also underrepresented in top-level chess -- should we have different titles for them as well? (LIM and LGM).

Clearly, Kosteniuk line of argumentation demonstrates that women have relatively little talent for rational thought. Hey, maybe we should have different academic titles for women as well! Instead of "full professor in logic", women could earn the title "female full professor in logic", which would of course be less prestigious than the regular title. After all, what can you expect from the weaker sex?

[OK, I did ignore some of Kosteniuk other arguments, particularly the ones about role models and encouragement. It was more fun to focus on the arguments that did not make sense :-)]


Castro's picture

Why so many confusion about woman differences justifying titles? They don't!
It sufices to see we don't have separate titles for other groups!
For example, why don't we have special IM and GM titles for amateur players? With few exceptions, they can never atain top level. So, we could have titles for them. But we don't!
The reason is that if an amateur (and a pro, of course) doesn't reach (general, real) master levels, it means HE IS NOT A CHESS MASTER!
Why would we have a fake "master" title for him??
The same with women (and gays, and politicians, and secret agents and taxi drivers! :-) )
It's not necesary to bring here the whole woman-man controversy!

HJVFan's picture

If a title is given by FIDE, how can it ever be fake? Who decides this? You, Castro?

Arne Moll's picture

EJ, I'm afraid your arguments are as sloppy as Kosteniuk's.

1) In this and other posts, you keep insisting that the gender difference has to be biological, but of course it doesn't have to be. 18-year old women may not feel their biological clock ticking, but that doesn't mean they can't think about their future career and what it might imply for having children at a later age. Do you really think it's so unlikely they do this more than 18-year old boys?

2) So the human nervous system is not a physical part of the body? Then what is it? Surely there's more to physical training than just pumping weights.

3) Even if 96% of all differences can indeed be attributed to mere numbers, that still leaves 4% to be attributed to possible other factors. How can you decide so easily that this is insufficient basis for different titles? Who's looking at numbers now? I recall having read somewhere that the difference in genomes of a human and a chimpansee is something like 2%. Still, I presume even you would agree that this percentage is sufficient reason to have separate (chess) titles for humans and chimps. But then why should something like a 4% difference for men and women be insufficient reason for such different titles? Of course, genome is something different than sex, but the analogy is the same.

Finally, you admit ignoring Kosteniuk's other arguments (all the non-biological ones), but, in your words, "doesn't this undo all your previous arguments"? ;-)

EJ Wagenmakers's picture

@ Arne,

1. yes, I do think it is unlikely that 18 year old girls think about family more than 18 year old boys, and, more specifically, that this would be the reason why they would not concentrate on chess as much.

2. The link between physical strength and the ability to concentrate is entirely unfounded. Do you really think men can concentrate better than women, and this is due to some strength-related feature of the body?

3. So now we are talking about 4% differences that warrant the existence of separate titles. You seem to think this is a lot. Now suppose the rating gap is 100 Elo points. This means that 4 points is due to gender-differences. Is this sufficient basis for separate titles?

4. You did not address my argument about academic titles. Should we have a separate title for female professors? Why not? They seem to have difficulty concentrating, they have to think about starting a family, etc. And this apparently holds at a very young age -- so why not give students different grades, based on their gender? In other words, why would your arguments apply exclusively to chess, and not to other areas of intellectual performance?

[PS. I was just showing that some of Kosteniuk arguments were internally inconsistent; the other arguments we can talk about later, after we have first decided that the inconsistent ones are not to the point]


Arne Moll's picture

EJ, first of all I completely agree that arguments about physical, biological or genetical aspects are irrelevant to the current discussion.
But for argument's sake, let me just say I think it's strange you dismiss the possibility that girls can have different attitudes towards family and career planning than boys! This seems especially absurd to assume for non-Western countries, where, for instance, girls can get married at age 12, wouldn't you agree?

Second, I agree the link between physical strength and concentration is not an obvious one, let's just say the words 'nervous strength' is perhaps just too reminiscent of 'nervous system' (a physical aspect of the body to be sure).

As to the 4% difference, I haven't studied the paper closely but I don't see why a difference of 4% must be reflected in 4 rating points per 100 point gap. As I tried to suggest with the human-chimpansee analogy, a small difference in percentage of one aspect (genome) doesn't have to imply a small difference in other aspects (appearances). But again, if the article shows that this can indeed be translated to a 4 point different on the elo scale, I'd say the differences are too small really.

Finally, the discussion about titles is one about inherent meaning. I think titles should have practical meanings. In the case of women's titles, it's clear from Arlette's story that they do have practical use. Perhaps a similar argument can be made for academic titles - who knows? Maybe not in Europe or the U.S. but what about Iran or another country where emancipation is very poorly developed? I don't know anything about academic life in Iran, but I guess a 'female professor' title might not be such as bad idea in this country - as a first step, anyway. What do you say?

Castro's picture


What do you mean by "title is given by FIDE"?
Would that justifie everything?
Your kind of destructive/nonsensic/provocating post seems to say "this whole discusion and article is... nothing".
In that case, you should simply avoid your "precious contributions".
En passant, note that you avoid (or couldn't?) adress my point.
If some FIDE "master" title were given to dumb people (as sugested by other poster), we are to assume you'd love it?

Redpawn's picture

And any GM below the age of 21 should be a YOUTH GM, or YGM
So for instance, Magnus Carlsen would be:

And any senior (over 65) would be then SENIOR GM or SGM
So Victor Korchnoi would be:

:-) :-) :-) I'm just having fun with this for the sake of exposing the whole rediculous nature of this devision....

Redpawn's picture

Kosteniuk is right, Chess IS a sport.
So there is only 1 place in sports.
(Ask Kasparov and Carlsen what their focus is on.....). And as Ricky Bobby said: "If you ain't first, you're last ! you know what I'm talking about?"

If you can't stand the heat (and compete with the best regardless of gender) Get -Out-Of-The-Kitchen!

Redpawn's picture

@EJ Wagenmakers
I'm not sure who it was that made the sexist remark about the difference between men and women in chess is like a running match between the fastest human runner and a Cheeta.

[Certainly not me].
I just used the analogy of running against a Cheeta when it comes to Human vs. Computer nowadays. THAT's where it's relavent.

i.e You don't see a boxer boxing against a kangaroo, or a race between the faster human runner and a cheeta, or (even more relevent Man vs Machine) a Human runner try to outrun a race car.

Humans should play humans (regardless of gender). And computer programs should play other computer programs.
(On equal hardware!)
Because as soon as the hardware can differ, then you can bring the analogous male vs female argument (above) in relative application to computer matches as well i.e Mac vs PC :-) Intel chip vs AMD etc...
by the way do we have titles for computers?
Computer Grand Master = CGM :-)

EJ Wagenmakers's picture

@ Arne,

Sure, I accept that women might have different attitudes towards family and career planning, even at an early age. It is just hard for me imagine why this would lead to differences in chess strength -- maybe you are right for non-Western countries, but the early-age gender difference is there in Western countries as well. I'm not sure what young girls (< 18) do in the Netherlands, but I hazard to guess that family planning is not one of their main priorities.

With respect to the article (for which I was actually a reviewer once), I seem to recall that the differences they talk about are all in terms of Elo points.

I think you definitely have a point when you mention that the "female professorship" could be a good idea in certain countries. I have talked to some female chess players (amateurs) and some of them told me it is very difficult for them to play with men -- not because of a difference in chess strength, but because men tend to look down on women. I didn't see this on TV, but apparently there was an interview with a woman GM, rated 2500 or so, who told the reporter that she once beat a 1900 guy -- and the guy got upset because he lost against a woman! In such an atmosphere of sexism, it may well be a good idea to have your own championships and titles.

Ultimately, I think the titles should stay if they have a concrete benefit (e.g., more women playing the game). If they don't have concrete benefits, all that remains is the segregation based on gender.

One last analogy. It is evident that black people (I'm sorry if I'm not politically correct -- colored people is not specific enough, African-Americans is too specific) are underrepresented in top-level chess, and perhaps in chess generally. This is of course due to a host of historial and socio-cultural reasons. But should we introduce the titles BIM and BGM? I don't think anybody would seriously suggest this.


Castro's picture

:-) What have I been saying all the way?

(Supporters of mantaining WFM, WIM, WGM: Do you need more or more imaginative analogies?)


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