Jennifer on Women's Titles
By Jennifer Shahade   
October 19, 2009
I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal's article "Abolish Women's Chess Titles" by Barbara Jepson.  And I was pleased to see they printed the title of my book, which the New York Times, when quoting me in a similar article three years ago, declined to do, causing me (and especially my publisher) much frustration, especially when shortly thereafter the “Skinny Bitch” diet book series became the subject of one NYT article after another.

In her article, Jepson makes a strong argument to abolish women's chess titles. At the same time, Pandolfini and I are both quoted in favor of women's tournaments. I approve strongly of women's chess, as evidenced by my work with 9queens, writing Chess Bitch and chairing this year's US Women's. Women's tournaments & training allow an under-represented population in the chess world to make friends and helps organizers to promote women in chess to the media & community. Women's tournaments can also give women financial incentives to stay in the game, like this year’s US Women’s, which featured the largest prize fund in history. When USCF Executive Director Bill Hall announced that the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis would also host the 2010 US Women’s, more than one contender told me that’s, “something to look forward to” –and worth cracking the books for.

But women's titles are a different issue entirely than women's tournaments. I don’t feel as strongly against women’s titles as Jepson does but I do find them annoyingly confusing.  It’s a taxing effort to explain to journalists or chess laymen the difference between women grandmaster and grandmaster and how 20 women have the "real grandmaster" title. The arguments I fall back on to explain women’s tournaments like financial incentives and positive examples for the community and the media, don’t work as well when trying to justify women’s titles.  In an academic analogy, there are women's colleges, women's conferences, even anthologies of women's work but there are no WBAs or WPHDs.  

Yet, on the spectrum of issues of gender segregation in chess, women's titles are low-stakes. Not much will change for women in chess if we maintain or abolish the Women's Grandmaster and Women's International Master titles (especially if they are replaced with other incentives for women to enter chess tournaments), while tons would change if we abolished women's chess tournaments. So I think the article should have exposed its lukewarm core, rather than pretend to be an inflammatory piece.

I have a more moderate proposal for dealing with women's titles. Even though I was never thrilled with women's titles, after a few years I finally applied for the WGM title since I wanted free tournament entries! But if organizers want to keep those incentives for women, they can simply merge the requirements for the IM and WGM titles (This idea was first mentioned to me on facebook by blogger Rob Bernard) and then offer any woman who has an IM title free entry to a tournament. I also like this idea because many of our young American female talents (Abrahamyan, Melekhina, Marshall) are far more interested in earning regular titles than women’s titles. But women who play more often against women, may not feel that way. In this system, women could choose whether they go by IM or WGM. WIM and FM could be merged as well, though this may be trickier since the titles are earned in totally different ways (FM requires minimum rating while WIM requires norms).

As a writer and editor, it may strike readers as self-serving that I mention media confusion as my main argument against the current format of women’s titles. But what is a title if not a device for journalists and peers to comprehend the essence of your accomplishments without reviewing the details of your resume? And if FIDE women’s chess titles ask more questions than they answer, reform is in order. But the ideal solution is more nuanced than abolishment.

Also see GM Alexandra Kosteniuk's take on and Mig Greengard's on chessninja.