Columns | August 22, 2009 0:56

Noting the differences

queensIt's an endless - and often pretty boring - debate: are men better in chess than women? But recently, there was an interesting blog discussion about the All Girls US Chess School in which some points where raised that are not usually heard in this debate. Its conclusion can be especially useful to chess teachers.

It all started with an article by Steve Goldberg (who was known to me mostly for his ChessCafe reviews) in the Chess Examiner about the All Girls US Chess Schools event in which he wrote that one of the girls' brothers, Jonathan Chiang, may have been 'the most intriguing participant' of the event. Goldberg describes how nine year old Chiang quickly found the solution to an excercise presented by the teacher:

At one point, IM Greg Shahade presented a "White to move and win" problem to Jonathan. After about thirty seconds thought, he looked up at Greg and said, "It's pretty easy," as he found the initial move to the problem. Greg responded, "No it's not!" as he watched Jonathan contend with various stalemating options that Black had available. In short order, though, Jonathan indeed found the correct path to seal the victory.

Goldberg's story was picked up and criticized by Elizabeth Vicary on her USCL News and Gossip blog. Vicary critized Goldberg for focussing yet another story on a boy instead of girls. She explains why she has problems with Goldberg's interpretation as follows:

One of the big reasons to have a girls-only class is that typically boys treat questions in the classroom like a competitive game, trying to be the first to answer, rather than to really think about the question and try to get the answer right. This has the effect of silencing the "slower" (in fact, just more thoughtful) girls, and of creating the (totally false) impression that the boys are smarter. Jonathan was almost always the first to think he had the answer but was usually wrong, to the extent that Kaidanov and Greg would both good naturedly tease him when he raised his hand. He's even impatient and wrong in the example Steve gives. Singling this behavior out for praise seems misguided and unhelpful to everyone involved.

The next day, Goldberg posted a comment on Vicary's blog (he wasn't the only one) and wrote a more elaborate response in the Chess Examiner in which he explains his point of view and concedes a number of points to Vicary, nipping any further debate in the bud. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, for there are some very interesting assumptions and theories behind the arguments in this discussion.

Apart from giving an interesting perspective into this kind of events (about which we don't hear very much in Europe), I found Vicary's argument about psychological - rather than merely physical - differences in behaviour in class between boys and girls, and its consequences, particularly interesting. It does seems clear to me that Goldberg noticed Jonathan Chiang primarily because Chiang let himself be noticed - by quickly raising his voice in the first place. It's also likely, as Vicary states, that boys and girls have different ways of behaving in groups (such as classrooms) and employ different tactics of being competitive.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt should be noted, though, that there seems to be no quantitative difference in competitiveness between boys and girls: in a recent study which appeared in Animal Behaviour, June 2008, Joyce Benenson and others suggest that girls are no less competitive than boys, but have different strategies to accomplish this:

Conclusions that human males behave more competitively than females have been tempered by recent findings that the two sexes use differing competitive strategies. Theoretically, mammalian males generally gain more than females from using riskier strategies, whereas females have more to lose. Females therefore should compete using less risky strategies.

Benenson's research focuses on the type of strategy girls typically use: alliance and coalition formation. She tested this by giving groups of three toddlers either one, two or three expensive toys. With just three or two toys to divide, there appeared no differences between boys and girls, but with one toy (a puppet) to divide between the three of them, the girls chose different strategies to get the puppet than the boys did: the boys were much more direct and agressive to get the puppet, while the girls adopted more long-term strategies such as social exclusion.

Well, in my opinion Jonathan Chiang acted very 'manlike' here: he blurted out his answer as quick as he could - you can say his competitiveness-strategy was extremely short-termed. After all, as Vicary points out, Chiang may have been wrong - in fact he was wrong. His strategy was highly risky - which happens to be another prediction from Benenson's research.

Somehow I can't help feeling that Chiang's direct answer impressed Goldberg, who is male, and annoyed Vicary, who is female - hence her reaction and her - rightly posed - rhetoric questions:

Why not write about Abby Marshall, the first female to ever win the Denker? Isn't that more impressive than getting an answer wrong in 30 seconds?? Or write about Rochelle and Darrian, who gave an incredible number of correct, thoughtful, imaginative answers?

Why not indeed - isn't it a powerful argument in favour of the girls-only classes Vicary speaks of? But wait a minute! Is that really so? Suddenly, I am remembered of my own classroom experiences: since I was usually rather shy as a boy, I didn't raise my hand too quickly to call for the answer to the teacher's questions. But I was a boy nevertheless! By Vicary's rationale, shoudln't we also have shy-people-only classes? And what about cultural differences? In a recent book I read, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett suggests (and he backs it up with powerful evidence) that Eastern and Western people tend to respond very differently in similar situations such as the one described by Goldberg. Should we have Eastern and Western classes too? Nisbett doesn't say this, but he does plead for more understanding and recognition of these differences, just as Vicary does in her own way.

In my opinion, discussions about the psychological equality of boys and girls (or the superiority of one over the other) can be very confusing because no practical consequences are drawn from them. For instance, it's easy to note that competitiveness - and a pretty agressive form of it, too - is simply a part of the game of chess (and in fact of any game), and therefore can never be eliminated the way we might wish it would - but does that point of view also help childeren who want to learn chess? This is a question that's not addressed seriously enough if you ask me. As to whether being ignored in class leads to inconfidence, and whether this is necerssarily a bad thing (GM Jonathan Rowson is one of the people who have noted that strong chess players likely benefit to some extend from not being too confident, as it clouds their objectivity in evaluation positions), it is very interesting to think about in theory, but what can be done about it in practice?

As some readers may know, I am no fan of separate tournaments for boys and girls at all, but what I find extremely refreshing is the idea to adapt chess education (rather than chess practice) based on some of the known differences between boys and girls. These known differences are still too often regarded as a taboo, or as non-existent. But as the psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in The New Republic a few years back:

Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong. (...) Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as "not getting it" when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

In this light, 'suggestions' such as the ones made by WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov in a recent article on, seem rather shallow and close-minded:

Finally, the girls themselves should know that they are equal to men in terms of chess talents, play in men’s tournaments, study hard and believe in their powers. If most women start acting that way, then one day quantity will lead to quality, and the world chess elite will be enjoying more female players.

Noting the psychological differences between boys and girls and arranging classrooms upon these differences isn't always a sign of prejudice or discrimination, but of wisdom. And this may lead to good things, such as different methods of motivating children, or having another kind of excercises. I imagine these would be ones that are not asked publicly in class at all - that way, teachers won't be offended and casual observers won't get any wrong impressions.
Joyce F. Benenson, Timothy J. Antonellis, Benjamin J. Cotton, Kathleen E. Noddin, & Kristin A. Campbell (2008). Sex differences in children’s formation of exclusionary alliances under scarce resource conditions The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Daan's picture

To me short skirts in summer are also quite a loud competitive strategy under scarce conditions. And big cities prove that women get more competitive when competition becomes more fierce.

The lack of women in chess must have a biological component, although there is definitely a cultural aspect to it too. To me it seems no coincidence that in China there are relatively a lot of strong women chess players, while at the same time the Chinese culture in general is much less competitive in terms of "showing off".
On the other hand, in all cultures the girls go for the biggest monkey (or highest rated monkey :), while the guys just focus on the skirt, even if she is rated 1200.

Arne Moll's picture

Well Daan, I refer you to my article Why we play chess for more on this highly interesting subject.. By the way, perhaps there's a slight difference between being competitive in a game and in attracting mates. At least, I hope so ;-)

Rob Brown's picture

As usual, a thought provoking article Arne.

Addressing the differences in learning strategies between girls and boys (and between individuals) is an constant struggle for all thoughtful and committed educators. Great battles have been waged over whether grouping children on the basis of gender or abilities (or both) enhances their ability to learn, or whether each child has its own unique learning strategies, and therefore the most effective way to teach children is to strive to understand what those individual differences are and then teach to them - a daunting task indeed. The debate shows no signs of abating. This is not surprising since the answer, if their is a definitive one, is to be found in the workings of the human mind where the possibilities are greater than all the permutations and combinations in Chess960!

At the end of the day, chess can teach educators much. For instance, the Polgar sisters are living proof that prodigy has more to do with nurture than nature and, given an environment conducive to excellence, the ability to learn and excel has nothing to do with gender.

Chess was built by men for men and it is not surprising therefore that its history is dominated by men. Women will do as well at chess as me when more of them are shown the beauty and fun inherent in the game and begin playing it.

HJVFan's picture

Cal: "I was pointing out there was no research, rigor or math behind Vicary’s subjective opinion that one loud boy indicates all are loud.Arne provided no research to back up that opinion."

But then Vicary doesn't say that, does she? Nor does Arne try to back it up with research. What the quoted article in Animal Behaviour does indicate quite elegantly is that in general, boys are indeed more loud and direct when it comes to choosing competitive strategies under scarce resource conditions. In this respect, both Vicary and Arne's point of view is quite nicely backed with research, rigor and math. So what's the problem?

T. Goto's picture

I have no specific knowledge in the field of psychology, but this article made me recall an article I've read a while ago. It was an interview of US female succor them coach wherein he explained how he had to change his attitude and strategy when he started coaching female players. According to this coach, female players took harsh words "to heart" and needed more positive inputs rather than harsh criticisms which he used to have given aplenty for males players. Once he changed his attitude and strategy, he led the team to win the world title. Yes, I acknowledge that this example does not involve the competition between male and female players, yet it does offer some idea about the difference in our psychological makeup.

In general, I think that it is unfortunate to see a partition in education system, yet it might be a plausible option for people who struggle to gain the necessary confidence.

I also think that there might be students who has disagreements on the concept of competition. as we all know, sometimes competitions do not stay on board. I have encountered myself some who displayed quite interesting gamesmanship: some quite funny, some quite unpleasant. Given the psychological makeup, non-aggressive people might be put off by some gamesmanship. OK, you can claim that the ultimate goal of the game is to claim the victory, and thus end justifies means, but it does not have to be that way.


Bionic Lime's picture

I would not say Vicary's opinion is completely without any basis in reality. She is a classroom teacher. I'm fairly sure she speaks from experience when she characterizes the behavior of boys in the classroom, and she's saying that it is typical behavior for the boys she encounters.

Arne Moll's picture

CalDaniel, I must admit that I'm baffled by your comment and I can't explain why you wrote it. Perhaps if you had actually read the article instead of for some reason assuming I blindly agree with Elizabeth, you would see that I disagree with her on exactly the points you mention in great detail (and which, in my opinion, are precisely what makes the debate so boring) - but that I find her point of view interesting nevertheless. Also, it is actually backed by solid scientific evidence as I show in my article. Really, there's lots of points to disagree with, I'm sure, but not this one.

Elizabeth Vicary's picture

sorry for the delay in commenting-- I was on holiday in Thailand. I very much enjoyed reading the article and its comments.

My blog post isn't rigorously argued, I definitely agree-- it was written just as a quick response. I would just say that I'm surprised that the point people are questioning is whether female students in fact speak less in class. It's such accepted wisdom in the school system here that teachers are evaluated partially on how well we include female students in classroom conversations. Of course, I am not saying all boys are loud, or all girls are quiet. Nor am I saying this is a biological inevitability. In fact, I would suggest that Arne's sentence

"Apart from giving an interesting perspective into this kind of events (about which we don’t hear very much in Europe), I found Vicary’s argument about psychological – rather than merely physical – differences in behaviour in class between boys and girls, and its consequences, particularly interesting."

should perhaps use the word sociological in place of psychological. It also might be the case that there are cross-Atlantic cultural differences in the expression of gender roles and that American boys are more assertive than Europeans? I have no idea.

Finally, I know that I often don't get when people are joking, but the last comment is pretty strange. Richard Decredico doesn't know me, but despises me, but also totally agrees with me?!?

Coco Loco's picture

@CAL, Arne's articles are opinion pieces, and this one is even well presented, imo. Your comment "Does this mean because one boy is loud that all are? Lunacy." has no merit at all. If you wish to dispute the psych. research Arne mentioned, please do so with the same rigor (like in math, you know) as the researchers used to back up their hypotheses.

The quantity argument you used is obviously true, and is even mentioned in the excerpt from Pogonina and Zhdanov. But to claim there are no real obstacles for girls that really do want to play chess seriously shows some ignorance/denial. Arne mentions one, and tries to get people to talk about practical ways of removing it. Seems laudable to me. If you wish to do the same with a topic where boys are the ones in the more difficult position. Just as a possible example, one chess parent once complained to me that his son was in deep trouble at his school because of one incident where he pushed another boy, without injuring him. The parent attributed this to the overwhelming presence of females in school administration positions, resulting in absolute suppression of normal "male" developmental behaviors, etc.

Finally, it's nice to see some articles that connect chess with topics of current interest to the general public. Arne is chessvibes' Malcolm Gladwell :)

CAL|Daniel's picture

"Your comment “Does this mean because one boy is loud that all are? Lunacy.” has no merit at all. If you wish to dispute the psych. research Arne mentioned, please do so with the same rigor (like in math, you know) as the researchers used to back up their hypotheses."

You missed my comment entirely. I was pointing out there was no research, rigor or math behind Vicary's subjective opinion that one loud boy indicates all are loud.Arne provided no research to back up that opinion. My only addition to their insanity was to call it 'lunacy'. You are actually backing me up by stating they have 'no merit at all.'

Name one obstacle? I know females like to claim they are there so when they break the barrier it feels like an even bigger accomplishment.

Coco Loco's picture

"Name one obstacle? I know females like to claim they are there so when they break the barrier it feels like an even bigger accomplishment."

If you can't think of any yourself, then I can't help you either.

Alexander's picture

Arne, I think the concept of adapted chess education mistakes cause and the effect. The girls tend to reflect over questions more prudently and engage in problems less competitevly because they are already raised and educated in this manner. This is a well-known fact in gender studies: in school as well as in family the girls are ussualy brought up to be passive and non-aggressive. In order to verify this thesis one can only think about how are we easily inclined to call a genius or a prodigy a boy with remarkable results and how those terms seems almost non-applicable to a girl. When was the last time you thought of a girl with remarkable grades in school or of a woman with outstanding proffesional results in terms of a genius? Extreme results, achieved by boys and men, are explained by their genius; equal results, produced by girls and women, are treated as an effect of good education and hard work.

Chess education that would put into consideration girls' psychological characteristics (prudence, passivity etc.) is thus not in conformity with supossed natural psychology, typical for girls, but with their already received overall education. It may bee a solution, but it is a partial one. To paraphrase Karl Marx: if women chess players want to be emancipated, they have to be firstly emancipated as women. ;)

CAL|Daniel's picture

Coco you can't claim there are obstacles if you can't name them. Indeed, i'm claiming there are none so why should I name some?

CAL|Daniel's picture

A pretty bad article but hard to expect anything good when you are focusing around the opinions of Vicary. A first point of rejection would be on competition. Chess is a competitive game and she should not be surprised at all to see people... I dunno competing at it? Even while learning it. The second part of this problem is seen in your own quoting of others research, men like to compete directly but its not the women don't 'compete.' Women should find more subvert outlets for these tendencies.

Still, I did not post to say just this for I find chessvibes tends to have the best material (this being the exception).

I wanted to add the pertinent fact that everyone always seems to miss. Girls are underrepresented in chess not in quality but in quantity - pure numbers. Look, its hard to collect the number of females in chess then the number of men and see what exact percent they are... but if the world open (as a sample) is any indication there was 1222 players (total N) females in open: 1/98 u2400: 0/129 U2200: 2/189 U2000: 1/225 U1800: 7/212 U1600: 1/169 U1400: 3/128 U1200: 2/83 U900: 17/120. Two things, notice one that in the lowest section U900 closest to the mean, the number of girls skyrocketed? There were 17 women competing in the U900 and 17 total outside of the u900 for a whopping 34 women! 34/1222 for an amazing 2.7% of participants were female. This is the second piece of interest... for every 2 women there will be 98 men.

The point i'm driving at is that statistically women seem to be spread out across the bell curve the same percent as men but since there is less of them there are less statistical outliers. You need to remember that 99.7% of players will be within three standard deviations of 600. That means 99.7% of players should be below 2400. So anyone over 2200 is a statistical anomaly. To have statistical outliers like that you need MORE players. There are more men, hence there are more outliers. It is not like there is more talent in the male gender simple more men playing. People are content to make the mistake of looking at the top players in the country for male and female and going.... you see women can't compete?! (To be in the top100 men for this country you need to be rated 2409 while for the women you need only be rated 1727.) The thing is more cultural than anything else. Boys and girls get introduced to chess at a young age and the chess classes i've seen around the country predominantly seem to be 50% boys 50%girls. However, every year majority of the boys return, while none of the girls do. Girls have horrible retention rates in chess (this is where all the feminists should focus their studies and attention!) Why do girls quit chess so easily? Do they find chess is being presented as a male dominated game? (I doubt it!) Or do they find its cultural unacceptable? (In the USA probably). Or do they simply find better things to do with their time (Most likely). I talked with one female student who after one summer camp went from not knowing the rules to being rated 1400 (quite an achievement of 8 weeks!) And she was never going to play chess again! When asked why? Her response was 'I already know this game, time to learn something new.'

I think chess players make the mistake of focusing on what they wish the cause of the problem was... .and trying to prove that is the case instead of being objective in an attempt to find out what the problem really might be.

BTW, Elizabeth Vicary at 2106 is the 20th best female player in the entire USA. Impressive? Nope, just more evidence of that few women play this game.

I must apologize now to Arne Moll and chessvibes if what I've said was inflammatory. I know you are just looking for a story but this was a poor pick (a rare decision for you guys). You should know better than to take one person's subjective point of view and try to state it as a psychological/cultural facts.

I work in a classroom for a living too teaching math... I always see one eager boy ready to answer everything... the rest of the class which is 50%boys 50%girls is 100% quiet. Does this mean because one boy is loud that all are? Lunacy.

Jason's picture

CAL|Daniel's comment is barely coherent. Arne wrote a very clear piece, and WOW! even mentioned some science to back up his point. I'm not even sure what CAL|Daniel's gripe is, as he seems to misunderstand the whole article.

rdecredico's picture

As much as I despise Vicary the person, her points (in this specific matter) are well reasoned and contain more than one layer of "truth" that needs further understanding as her position alone seems to threaten certain males. Of course, her penchant for pitching the baby with the bathwater makes it impossible to consider her own suggested solutions in any matter, but in no way negates her successful unraveling and exposure of several layers of psychological gender bias that exists in these types of social settings (and really permeates ALL social settings).

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks for your response, Elizabeth. It is a complex subject to be sure, I think both psychological and sociological aspects are important, but to be honest I am not sure about the subtle differences between the two. (To confuse matters further, there's also 'social psychology' as a separate discipline ;-) ).

I think most teachers will agree that female students in general speak less in class than boys, it seems to me a simple reality of classroom practice. It is the same in the Netherlands, I'm sure. I guess the question is not whether individual teachers should act upon this (they should, no doubt) but whether whole educational systems should be adapted to it. This is a much more difficult question, and personally, I don't know the answer. I think separating boys and girls altogether may be too radical a solution for the original problem, but that's just a gut feeling really. It's very hard to substantiate such opinions, which I suppose is why discussions are so intense and interesting.

T. Goto's picture

Arne, I am sure that you've read an article from Chess Base called "When Knowing Is Losing". It is about an experiment carried out by Dr. Anne Maass, a social psychologist from Germany and working in Italy. ( She set an equal number of male and female players via online and make them compete. When female players didn't know that they were playing against male players, they met their expected performance level, and scores between male and female were even, but when they knew that they were playing against men, their performance level dropped considerably (50% performance decline! According to the report....) If this radical drop reflects socially constructed relations between male and female, then it does makes sense to consider helping young girls to build confidence they need and stay clear from the social 'norms' to flourish. True, we cannot conclude anything from one isolated experiment. Yet it does suggests interesting aspects about human relations as well as educational methods, including chess education.

Last but not least, let me express my appreciation for your article. Noting the differences is neither promoting differences nor speriority/inferiority. You have brought a thought provoking article which is not limited to chess.

max's picture

What should a chess teacher do if some students are very shy and others are aggressively participative, often unrelated to the students' abilities and gender? Is shyness in public speaking even related to confidence over the board? Is gender-blind or gender-biased chess instruction a cause for lower female participation in tournaments?

For a chess teacher, is one 2500-rated student and nine 1200 students better or ten 1500 students? Is it better economically to be known as 'nice' or 'tough'? For students, is it their goal to learn, or to compete, or to make friends?

Good article. Good questions. We don't know. Since we don't know, no one should be annoyed. After all, gender based instruction creates a whole new set of criticisms. More controlled experiments are needed.

Tony's picture

Interesting debate.
As a note I think the main article should have focused on girls and their accomplishments and not boys since the theme of it was reporting on a girl's chess class.

Some things to note about the top female players. both the polgars are no longer actively competive players family commitments have basically put a stop to any progress. Yes they are both good but their energy is now focused else where.
Compare this to Magnus and his family life and he jokingly notes that his dating life is under wraps. The focus is on being world champion not family....

As far as the social aspect goes,... Chess is more popular with men than girls but as far as I can tell boys are more willing to put up with the social stigma of being outside the normal social circles than females.
Everyone seems to want to point the finger at, wait for it, male dominated society, but the real fact is that each social group has a greater influence on its own members thoughts and expectations than outside ones.

As a note I coach a local girl (one of 5) who is now one of the top 100 girls in the country and will probably be giving me lessons in a few years.

Some brief notes of what I can see as differences:
Girls seem to be more long term goal oriented than boys: A goal to gain 300 points in 9 months seems to work well for girls. While more short term goals seem to be effective for boys. lets try to win this tournament.

Girls ARE very competitive!! When my student lost a game she would put that person down on a list of players she wanted to beat and later mark them off. She did not make the list public or tell anyone about it but it was there....

Arne Moll's picture

@Tony "boys are more willing to put up with the social stigma of being outside the normal social circles than females"

This is a very interesting idea, and I wonder if research on it has been done in the field of (general) psychology. It may well be true, but for now that's just my gut feeling. I am somehow also reminded of pop music, where being an 'alternative' artist seems almost the default option for guy singers and a rarity for girls.

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