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Greg on Chess: Girls Tournaments Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
July 18, 2014
With the first ever Girls Junior Closed Championship underway, IM Greg Shahade writes an editorial, originally appearing on gregshahade.com on what a talented girl should do if she has to choose between a prestigious girls and open event. Greg is headed to the STL Chess Club to coach an all-girls edition of the US Chess School (July 21-25), with his sister WGM & CLO editor Jen Shahade. 

Did you know that the most prestigious youth chess tournaments in the world are separated by gender? That's right, in a purely intellectual game, there are two separate tournaments in each age category at the World Youth Championship. There's a Championship section, in which anyone can play, and there's another section that's restricted to girls.

Those of you who don't follow chess very closely may be thinking, "Wow, that's insane. How is something so obviously sexist happening in the year 2014?"

Well it's not quite as simple as it seems. Boys outnumber girls by nearly 20-1 in the chess world, and therefore these tournaments exist as a way to artificially create a 1-1 ratio of girls to boys in the youth championships, so that these events are more diverse and attractive to the players, the media and sponsors. But these tournaments have also created an unfortunate side-effect:

The most talented girls in the world, who are eligible and strong enough to play in the Championship sections with the boys, almost always choose to play in the weaker girls-only sections.

The questions that need to be answered are as follows:

A. Are these all-girls tournaments a good idea?

B. Should girls play in all-girls sections?

C. Should girls play in all-girls sections, even if they qualify for the Championship section?

A. Are these tournaments a good idea?

I think so. There is a massive difference in the ratio of boys to girls playing chess. These all-girls sections do help keep the top girls playing chess much longer than they otherwise may have.  (In fact the 1st ever Girls Closed Championship, boasting a strong field, is underway now in New Hampshire.)  Given the huge gender discrepancy, I personally think that this is a good thing as I'm guessing that most people would like the gender ratio to be as close to 50-50 as possible. 

B. Should girls play in all-girls sections?

If a girl is not eligible for the Championship section, then I think it's generally a good idea to play in the all-girls section as it will provide some International experience and allow girls to make lifelong friendships with other girls who play chess.

C. Should girls play in all-girls sections, even if they qualify for the Championship section?

This is the key question that I think many people are getting wrong. If I was coaching a girl who was one of the best players in the country for her age, I would advise her against playing in an all-girls section for the following reasons:

1. Girls shouldn't set lower goals for themselves.

The best female player of all time by far, Judit Polgar, refused to play in any girls' tournaments at a very young age. She knew that she was too good for them and she also knew that if she wanted to fulfill her amazing potential, she had to play with the top players in the world and not get distracted by lesser goals. She ended up winning the Championship section of the World Youth Championships and eventually became one of the top 10 players in the world.

Read more about Judit here.

2. Girls lose valuable chances at facing top level competition

It's well known that in order to get better at chess, you need to constantly play players stronger than you. Judit Polgar understood this and became the strongest woman chess player of all time. 

Girls invariably choose to play in the weaker girls sections for the major youth tournaments, instead of the more challenging Championship sections. Remember that girls sections are not weaker because girls are weaker at chess. They are weaker because the ratio of boys to girls in the chess world is about 20-1, and therefore for every master who is a girl, there should be about twenty who are boys.

Here's an example from the 2013 North American Youth Championship. The tournaments remained completely segregated, with boys in the Championship section and 100% of girls playing in the girls only sections, even though some of the top girls would have been very competitive in the Championship section.

Boys have no choice but to play in the Championship sections, thereby consistently getting stronger competition than girls. Over time this difference will add up to boys having more experience playing top level opposition, and could result in an equally talented boy ending up as a stronger player than the girl.

3. There are psychological effects.

I imagine that when a girl is 4-5 years old, and just learning chess, that she doesn't yet know that she will one day be expected to play in major chess tournaments with lower ranked opponents, simply because she's a girl. When does this all begin? It starts when everyone around the girl, including her coaches, parents and peers, guide her towards the girls tournaments and focus on her ranking among other girls instead of her overall ranking. 

It's hard to imagine that a young girl isn't affected at all when instead of choosing to play with the best players in the world, they are limited to an all-girls section. Suddenly these girls will have different dreams and goals than their male counterparts. They may aim to one day qualify for the U.S. Women's Championship. They may aim for the Women's Grandmaster title (similar to the Grandmaster title except the required qualifications are much lower), while the boys who may have the same amount of initial talent, have much grander goals in mind. 

The chess world is extremely competitive and even the smallest difference in development between young talented players can result in a big strength difference when the players are grown. When every single talented girl chooses to play in girls only tournaments, they are giving a big handicap to the boys who are testing their mettle against much tougher opponents.

The bigger problem is that most of the time these girls don't even make these choices, but it's simply force fed to them by their coaches or parents on a constant basis from a very young age. Watch this awesome video to see the psychological damage that this type of thinking can cause.

If we want to see more women in the top 100 of the world rankings, more girls will have to be like Judit Polgar. They will need to eschew women's tournaments from a very young age and say to the world: "Yes, I could play in the girls only section and have a good shot at winning a medal, but I am playing in the Championship section because that's where I belong."