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Sofia, Judit and Susan Polgar, pictured in New York in 1988: All three sisters were chess prodigies (photo: R. Cottrell)

Nigel Short is not merely the only Briton to have fought his way to a world championship chess match; he is also a talented controversialist, as those who read his regular column in that excellent magazine New In Chess can attest. His most recent contribution did more than just stir up the chess world: it generated furious debate throughout the mainstream media.

Yet Short’s theme was rather hackneyed. Under the headline “Vive La Difference!” the English grandmaster rolled out the familiar opinion that there is something innately different between the brains of men and women which means that the latter can never be a match at chess for those of us with a Y chromosome. “Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?” wrote Short, attacking what he called “that irritating modern psychological urge to prove all of us, everywhere, are equal”.

This duly enraged all the people Short had intended to infuriate. At the risk of swallowing the same bait, I shall take issue with my old friend — because this is, actually, a most interesting discussion when the sound and fury is removed.

It is true that only one woman — Judit Polgar — has ever been a match for the best men: the Hungarian prodigy once got as high as world-ranked eighth. Apart from her, only one other female has reached even the top 100 list: that is the woman’s world champion Hou Yifan, now at 55th in the rankings. At 21 years of age, Yifan has obvious potential for improvement.

More than six years ago in Standpoint I wrote on this theme, having come across a significant new paper by a group of Oxford psychology academics, led by Merim Bilalic. It asserted that the relative under-performance of women was a statistical phenomenon, rather than anything connected with “different wiring”. Analysing the number of rated German chess players of both genders, it demonstrated that the distribution of ratings among females was exactly what one might expect given that there were far fewer of them than males. This is akin to the fact that there are many more highly-rated chessplayers from China than there are from, say, Luxembourg: the talent pool is vastly bigger.

In other words, if as many women were playing chess as men, Bilalic and his colleagues argued, you would have as many women contesting at the highest level. I buy the statistical argument. But it misses out the first stage of the process. Why is it, precisely, that there are far fewer rated female chess players in Germany (and elsewhere) than males? There are countries where prejudice and discrimination against women certainly do keep them away from the chess board — it is a big problem in India, as the International Master Nisha Mohota pointed out in a response to Nigel Short. But in modern Germany, the land of Angela Merkel? Not so much.

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