E.Vicary on Chess, Girls and Genius
By Jennifer Shahade   
June 26, 2007
Chess coach Elizabeth Vicary with students outside City Hall in Brooklyn

Web editor Jennifer Shahade interviews chess expert, championship coach and frequent Chess Life Online and Chess Life Magazine contributor Elizabeth Vicary. Elizabeth has been teaching chess at I.S. 318, a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York since 1999. That year they won their first national title, (K-8, U 750 section);in 2004, they scored their first victory in an open section (K-8).In 2007, 318 won both the Junior High (K-8) and Elementary Nationals (K-6) Open sections. The interview focuses on Elizabeth's Masters of education thesis: "Encouraging Middle School Girls' Success and Involvement in Chess." Vicary and Shahade discuss cognitive differences between men and women, the dangers and benefits of labeling oneself or another a chess genius and why teachers should not ask girls easy questions.

Jennifer Shahade
-Through your research, did you see any areas in which women were less cognitively suited to chess than men?

Elizabeth Vicary-Well, when people try to measure cognitive sex differences (the formal term for the differences between male and female brains) they usually try to isolate very specific skills, things like the ability to remember seven numbers at a time or to understand verbal analogies. No one studies chess ability directly, because it’s such a learned behavior that you can’t really measure natural aptitude.

In most studies of cognition, men and women score quite similarly in most categories. Overall IQ is very similar, as are math and language abilities. Within these broad areas, you see some very small differences: women tend to be better at algebra-based math and men seem to be better at geometry-based math, for example. There is also some difference in the distribution patterns of ability between the genders. Men’s scores tend to be more variable, meaning they have more very high and very low scores. It's called a tail end effect. This seems to be the case for math scores in particular, although by some measures, like the SAT-M, the effect seems to have diminished significantly in the last ten or twenty years.

It’s actually pretty funny to read old papers on cognitive brain differences. People used to believe men were smarter because they had bigger brains. Which makes a certain amount of logical sense, although also seems really funny to me. Maybe job interviews should include a question about hat size? Then sometime around 1984, when MRIs became widely used, researchers discovered that women’s brains were made up of quite different percentages of white and grey matter than men’s brains, which seemed to compensate for the size difference.

But there is one major area in which men seem to have a significant advantage over women, and this is the ability to mentally rotate three-dimensional objects. It’s the kind of test where you are given some sort of three-dimensional Tetris piece and asked what it would look like if you turned it 180 degrees to the left and 90 degrees up. Or you are given a cutout of paper and asked if you can fold it into a certain shape. Men consistently perform much better at this than women. And I started thinking about it and asking myself, “OK, what exactly does this rotation skill require?” And it seems to me that it requires being able to make a series of complicated changes to a three dimensional object, and then to be able to see it clearly. And that sounds almost exactly like chess calculation to me.

JS-So what would it mean if men were better at rotating 3D objects in space?

EV - It might explain what we see at the top levels of chess: one woman in the top two hundred. If men have a small natural advantage in one part of chess cognition, then it would be reasonable that at the very top of the ability distribution curve you would see this more clearly, since presumably at that level the differences are very fine. And the tail end effect I mentioned above, which seems to imply that men’s scores are more highly variable than women’s, could also contribute to this.
Of course, it’s also quite possible (and not at all unlikely) that the differences at the top levels are just a consequence of the low number of women who play chess at any level. Chablis and Glickman argue for this explanation in their recent paper in Psychological Science, although I have some issues with some of their reasoning.

JS-That's interesting because I would come to the opposite conclusion- that the stronger you get at chess, the more your chess mind becomes severed from your "natural" mind… almost like a separate entity that thinks in knight and queen movements rather than in the way that we are predisposed to think about chess, which I guess is as blocks of wood that may be useful in some way. In the first chapter of Chess Bitch, I talk about how theories about why women are weaker than men tend to perpetuate themselves, so that even if there is some truth in them, they become truer each time they're repeated. Do you worry about perpetuating stereotypes by writing about the studies on rotation of 3D object in space?

EV- There is another recent paper, “How Intellectual Is Chess? A Response To Howard ” which you might be interested in. Its thesis is that playing chess isn’t intellectual at all, and therefore none of this cognitive sex difference research applies. They make the points that the world’s top chessplayers don’t show exceptional IQs and that no studies have ever convincingly demonstrated a link between chess ability and visual-spatial reasoning. Maybe this is similar to what you are saying about chess thinking being an artificial process. I find it a little hard to believe myself, it just seems like if chess isn’t intellectual, what is it?

As to perpetuating stereotypes, yes, of course it’s a concern. I’m not happy, as a woman, to be saying I might be inherently less talented than the guy sitting across from me, although I’m also not convinced that the belief is inherently anti-feminist. But I don’t think it’s acceptable to ignore science, and while the relationship between three-dimensional rotation and chess calculation is pure speculation by me, the male advantage in 3D mental rotation is not.

Did you see the first Republican debates?


EV – So there’s one moment where the seven Republican nominees were asked to indicate by show of hands who doesn’t believe in evolution. The moderator asks the question and there’s this long pause, then three of them, Huckabee, Tancredo, and Brownback, raise their hands. One of them even says something like “I don’t see how that’s relevant. I’m running for President, not for the School Board.” I’m not sure if he’s implying that education is apolitical or just thinks it’s unfair to ask such a hard question. And I’m watching, thinking, “These people have lost their minds.” It’s like they believe in whatever version of reality they feel like. What I’m trying to say is I think it’s unacceptable to ignore science just because it doesn’t fit in with your personal agenda.

Also, let me be clear: I’m not claiming this cognitive sex difference, if it’s relevant, is likely to make a big difference at most levels of chess. There was some interesting work that showed how strongly trainable the skill of mental rotation is. Students who were taught (meaning systematically trained, not just allowed to practice!) how to do three-dimensional rotation showed large improvement, several times the average sex difference. These gains showed no signs of leveling off after a semester, were long-lasting, and were transferable to other mental rotation skills. In other words, students who were trained with Tetris pieces also showed improvement at paper folding. So if it were the case that men are better natural calculators than women, it’s probably nothing that a couple hours with a good tactics book wouldn’t fix.

I should also probably mention, in support of your doubt, that I asked a couple friends who are strong chess players, both of whom are renown for their calculating skills, about mental rotation tests. Both immediately said, “Oh, I’m terrible at those.” So maybe I’m just wrong in thinking they are related.

JS-Do you think women and men are equally competitive and is it innate or learned?

EV- I feel like competitiveness is a learned behavior, in the sense that it’s inherently social, as opposed to something cognitive like the three dimensional rotation. No one ever sits down and tries to teach you the easiest way to rotate a 3D object in your head. You don't get feedback or see role models. With competition you are seeing role models all the time and receiving positive and negative feedback. And the models and feedback for girls and boys are so incredibly different. There is a lot of pressure for a girl to be nice, not be a bitch and not to be seen as overly aggressive. If a girl in 6th grade chess class is very competitive and wants to trash talk there are huge social prohibitions against that. In my classes, there are a couple girls who are out-and-out competitive, willing to trash talk, etc., and they really are made to suffer for it. They do nothing that the boys aren’t doing, but everyone in the class calls these girls mean, bossy, nasty, out-of-control, etc.

I looked at competition and its effects in my thesis. In one part of it, I surveyed a group of successful female tournament players, looking for common characteristics or shared experiences. The best players all reported being extremely competitive, so much so that many said they had to learn to hide it or learn to control it. I also tried to look at competitive behavior in the classroom, and how it impacted girls’ enjoyment and mastery of chess. To do this, I introduced a kind of ranking system called the ladder in two of my introductory sixth grade classes.

JS-Can you tell us how "the ladder" works?

EV- Sure, each kid has an index card with their name on it, and these are randomly placed into either a series of envelopes numbered 1-20, or into the large envelope labeled “the pool.” The purpose of the pool is to prevent anyone from being absolutely last. Each week, a player can challenge a higher ranked player to take their place on the ladder. If the challenger wins, he switches his card with the loser’s. After a couple weeks, the ladder is a pretty reliable indicator of skill level.

The chess ladder

At first, I thought tracking kids progress publicly like this would turn girls off, going on the conventional wisdom that girls don’t like chess because they are averse to competition. But in fact it had a dramatic positive effect on their achievement (as measured by a quiz at the end.) The ladder group showed even more gains in achievement than another experimental group, in which the girls in one class were given an extra period of (single-sex) instruction each week. At some point in the semester, I realized what was going on. The ladder was a structure that allowed girls to be competitive without being obvious about it. It was much easier for a girl to say “Hey, let’s play a ladder match” than to say “We’re going to play chess now and I’m going to CRUSH YOU.” It’s like the girls could suddenly be overtly and publicly competitive, but it seems like it’s not them doing it, it’s just how the class is set up.

JS-One thing that came up both in your thesis and in Josh Waitzkin's recent book, "The Art of Learning" was the danger of emphasizing genius over hard work, and how it can damage kids on both ends of the spectrum, as the geniuses don’t know how to take losses and the "untalented" kids lose confidence. I laughed when reading this, ‘cause I've observed you call kids "geniuses" when teaching so often. The kids just glow when you say it, and it's hard for me to imagine you stopping…. or that it would be such a good thing. Have these studies affected that practice of yours?

EV – I’ve changed to some extent, certainly. I’m more likely now to praise a game, or a move, or the fact that someone clearly studied their openings. But in some ways the distinction can become semantic. When a kid shows you a great game and you call him or her a genius, it's obvious that it's related to their accomplishment as much as to their innate abilities.

JS-Why is it important for serious players to uphold a feeling of genius?

EV-In chess, there's so much psychological intensity, it's actually extremely useful for a chessplayer to have an aura of genius. For instance, a friend of mine has a ridiculous score against Shabalov, something like 0-13. He’s not that much worse (in terms of rating), but he’s convinced himself that Shabalov is an unbeatable creative and calculating genius. So of course my friend plays much worse against him, and even if he doesn’t realize it, Shabalov benefits from this.

One of my interview subjects, a really smart teenage girl who’s quite a serious player herself, pointed out a couple strong junior players who have claimed to her that they don’t study chess. She suggested they were semi-consciously cultivating the myth of their own genius, for purely practical reasons.

JS-Do you think that top players subconsciously or consciously promote this "cult of genius"?

EV- I think it might be smart thing to do, but I couldn’t speculate about people I don’t know.

JS-What surprised you most through your research?

EV- How sexist I was as a teacher. I thought I was enlightened, feminist, etc. and that I didn't favor boys over girls at all. But after a couple days of watching myself, I realized I have a lot of work to do. Even though I call on both genders a similar amount, I found that I ask girls much easier questions. And honestly, often it was because I didn’t think they were capable of answering the harder ones and I didn’t want to embarrass them. I’m also more likely to insist that a boy plays his own game, rather than watching a friend’s. When a girl acts aggressively toward her classmates, I'm more likely to tell her to "be nicer," while I'll tell a boy who's acting out something more specific, like "stop calling your team-mates ‘stupid retards.’" And it’s a big difference, people like to say oh, it is just words, but it’s significant. In the first case I’m telling the girl her personality and opinions are bad; in the second I’m telling boys they are fine, they just need to alter the outer façade.

JS-I blushed when I read the part where you discovered you asked girls easier questions, because I also consider myself an enlightened feminist but, I definitely also ask girls easier questions…I didn't consider this habit critically till I read your thesis… I always did it consciously, hoping to get more girls involved.

EV-There is some superficial value in it, but it's infantilizing, and just perpetuates any actual skill difference. It's naïve to think you're fooling them. Kids pick up on things like that quickly…

JS-How does your classroom teaching relate to the huge success of your traveling team (3 times National Junior High Champions, once National Elementary Champions, plus lots of Under sections and individual grade titles.) at I.S. 318?

EV - It relates very closely! It's necessary to do classroom teaching well to have a large pool of talented kids that play well. Sometimes I get kids who come to 318 and already play well, but most of the team is kids who learned either from me, or from their older brothers and sister who I taught.

JS-This year you have the largest percentage of strong female players on your team. In fact, three were cover girls for your Chess Life Online story, Junior High: Big Winners & a Big Tie Why is that?

EV-I think it's a partly a critical mass issue. There were more girls this year that stuck with chess who might ordinarily have dropped out but stayed because they were friends with other girls on the team. They push each other in many ways, sometimes subtly. They study together and help each other a lot, but they are also very conscious of whose rating is higher.

JS- I heard you got the last spot in the 2007 Frank Berry U.S. Women's Championship. Congratulations! (official announcement and confirmation of participants coming soon.) In light of your various experiences playing, teaching and writing about chess, how do you feel about separate women's tournaments?

EV- Thanks! This will be my first time in a U.S. Women's Championship and also my first round robin; I'm tremendously excited. I think there are a couple different good reasons to have separate women's tournaments. Obviously, to determine a champion is one of them. Also, for young women, I think it might be useful socially and psychologically, in the same ways that single sex education can be useful. That is, in forming friendships and having an environment in which women can be competitive with each other in an open, healthy way. It’s interesting, I’m friendly with a lot of female players, but I almost never actually look at chess with them.

Elizabeth Vicary will play in the 2007 Frank Berry U.S. Women's Championship. Photo Betsy Dynako

I remember one post-mortem that made a big impression on me. I lost to Esther Epstein in the 2006 US Championship. Looking at the game with her afterwards, I was really struck by how she analyzed. She wasn't trying to prove anything or beat me for a second time, just to figure out what had really been going on. And I enjoyed this half hour of looking at chess with her so much. A couple male spectators were watching us analyze and they would occasionally make a suggestion or claim something was winning for one side. But it was done very differently from Esther. They were taking sides and the tone was: "See, here's my idea. Now let's pretend we are playing and I will beat you." Esther was more like "Oh, maybe you can play like this? Is this possible here?" So I'm interested in the possibility that women might have a different way to talk about chess, maybe one that is less confrontational but not less rigorous.

Look for daily coverage of the 2007 U.S. Women's Championship on Chess Life Online, with analysis by WGM Jennifer Shahade and live coverage including interviews and photography by Betsy Dynako.