Boros & Root on the Danger of Chess Stereotyping
By WIM Alexey Root and GM Denes Boros   
December 4, 2014
aroot300.gifAlexey Root: When I was 15, I walked into an unfamiliar chess club at the same time as a male college student who I did not know. The student was asked by another club member, “Is that your girlfriend?” I was upset at the assumption that I was not a chess player. 

Thirty-four years later, I was at a breakfast buffet where the 2014 SPICE Cup was held. GM Denes Boros asked, “Are you the mother of one of the chess players?” This time, my reaction was less angry. First, I felt sad to be obviously so old as to be a mom rather than a girlfriend. Second, as I explained to Denes, I have realized over the years that I have chess stereotypes about women too.

At the Santa Monica beach chess tables around 1990, when I was the reigning U.S. Women’s Champion, an unfamiliar woman approached. Since I did not know her, I assumed our game would be an easy win for me. I would not have made the same assumption about a man. I soon learned that Spomenka Zeljkovic was better than me at speed chess.

Denes Boros: I also make assumptions about chess players, especially children. In Hungary, where I am from, FIDE ratings are the best indicator of playing strength. So a young player without a high FIDE rating would usually be an easy win for me.

Borosslide.gifIn the U.S., there are some young players who have FIDE ratings in what I think of as the amateur range. Now that I have been in the U.S. for a while, I realize that these “amateurs” prepare for weeks, even months, before an event. An average amateur is more dedicated here than in Europe. I am not saying that Europeans are not dedicated, but European amateurs are less enthusiastic about studying chess than Americans are.

In 2011, in Dallas, I was punished for underestimating an opponent based on his FIDE rating and his age. The game was against Jeffery Xiong, who was unfamiliar to me then. (In 2014, when I played Xiong again in the SPICE Cup, I approached the game seriously and won.)

But back to 2011, the first time I saw Jeffery Xiong. To me, he looked like an average young boy. I did not expect tough opposition. Needless to say, he fought really well. He concentrated like a real professional. This is another trait that few possess, to focus with dedication.

7. 0-0! A fairly timid move you say, wrong! Xiong realized that the exchanges would lead to his advantage. So he shows no intentions of avoiding them.
I avoid exchanges, which is generally advised against young players. My intuition was pretty spot on this time. Xiong - Williams (St. Louis, 2014) is a nice example what can happen.
8. a3! 
A relatively new idea, and seems pretty strong too! White builds a huge center, with an e5 blockade. Black seems to be struggling already! 
8…Be7 9. b4 0-0 10. Bb2 b5 11. e5 Nd7 12. Nb3 Qc7 13 Qe2 Nb6 
My last hope was to stop this, but after 14.Nfd4!, White will push f4 with a huge positional edge. Black can’t take on e5, because of Nxe6, and White takes back the Ne5 with benefits. The rest of the game was surprisingly easy for Xiong. He avoided most of the exchanges, while at the same time piling up on both of my weaknesses e6 and a6.
Both Dr. Root and I stereotyped our opponents. In 1990, Dr. Root saw an unfamiliar woman on the beach and played her thinking “easy win.” In 2011, I saw Jeffery Xiong, a little kid, and also thought “easy win.”

According to Lan Yeung and Kashima (2010), Dr. Root and I behaved typically. In their literature review, Lan Yeung and Kashima (p. 209) wrote, “Researchers generally found that we tend to form an impression about the target by using stereotypical information rather than by individuating information, especially when we do not have enough time or motivation to process the individuating information more deeply.”

When I first played Jeffery Xiong, I had general ideas about my young opponent. These general ideas could be labeled as stereotypes. When I played him the second time, I had specific knowledge. As Lan Yeung and Kashima (2010) wrote, I was able to “individuate” Xiong from the general category of child chess players. I knew more about his style, the way that he concentrates and acts. Chess is a form of communication. We communicate our values, ideas, and ideals.

As you play an opponent, you move from your first general impressions to specific impressions about that individual player. You realize that player’s strengths and weaknesses, and you slowly learn to understand the person. From then on you are not just playing a child, you’re playing Jeffery Xiong*.

Alexey Root: When I met Denes Boros at hotel hosting the 2014 SPICE Cup, I was not involved in that tournament. But I was at that St. Louis breakfast buffet because later that night, at a nearby hotel, was the inaugural dinner of the Journal of Chess Research.

After Denes and I had our chat over breakfast, I saw him again at the inaugural dinner. I told him, “I want to talk to you.” One of his Webster University teammates said to Denes, “You are in trouble now.” Great, I thought to myself sarcastically, now I am being mistaken for a tournament director.

Of course, the real reason I pulled Denes aside was to ask him if he would consider writing this article with me. We are delighted to be published in Chess Life Online. We hope to continue our collaboration with a scholarly article on this same topic for the Journal of Chess Research.

*Lan Yeung, V. W., & Kashima, Y. (2010). Communicating stereotype-relevant information: How readily can people individuate?. Asian Journal Of Social Psychology, 13(4), 209-220. doi:10.1111/j.1467-839X.2010.01313.x