Greatest female chess player takes on the men

As schools rush to reintroduce the brain-boosting game of chess to the classroom, the world’s top players gather in London to compete. But where are the women?

London’s chess community is buzzing with excitement as the world’s top players flock to the city for one the most high profile events of the year. The London Chess Classic is approaching.

First up is Vishy Anand, the likeable, mild-mannered champion of the world. Then there is Magnus Carlsen, the difficult Norwegian genius who at the age of 21 already numbers among history’s greatest players. Britain’s top grandmasters will be present, as will America’s number one.

Faced with such a lineup, Judit Polgar is unlikely to triumph – as she herself admits. Of the nine players present, Polgar ranks only eighth, and at 36 she is probably past her chess prime. Yet one characteristic makes her arguably the most remarkable of them all: her gender.

Judit Polgar is indisputably the greatest female chess player of all time. Even before she reached her teens, she was so far outperforming other girls that she played in men’s tournaments instead. At the height of her powers Polgar was a top-ten player and a contender for world champion, and even today she is the only woman among the top 100.

According to legend, chess was a man’s game right from its conception: the ‘game of kings’ was supposedly invented by ancient Indian wise men to train the emperor’s sons in arts of war. And it has been viewed as a brutal test of brain power ever since. As the great, mad Bobby Fischer once put it, ‘the object is to crush the opponent’s mind’.

Grandmasters, the aristocracy of the chess world, are often revered as intellectual Olympians. And only 1% of them are female. Perhaps women simply lack the kind of mental focus and logical rigour that chess demands?

But there is a problem with this theory: according to a major study undertaken in 2009, the women who do play chess are just as strong as the men – if not stronger. Their disadvantage, researchers found, stemmed from fact that so few women take part.

Queen’s gambit

Still, the question remains: why do so few women play chess?

That’s easy, say many: they don’t want to. For most women there are countless better ways to spend an hour than sitting in silence obsessing over the relative positions of wooden figurines. Chess is introspective, competitive and analytical – all traits that characterise a typical man.

Rubbish, retort female masters. Anybody can find pleasure in the beautiful, intricate patterns of the chessboard, whatever their gender. The only reason chess remains largely a ‘men’s game’ they say, is that this is how most people see it. Whereas boys are often encouraged or even expected to take up chess, girl players are seen as an oddity. The gender divide in chess is not a justification for gender stereotypes, but a result of them.

You Decide

  1. Are games like chess a good way to measure intelligence?
  2. Why is chess more popular with men than women? Is it because of natural differences or cultural prejudice?


  1. Find a partner and try playing a game of chess! If you don’t have a board, you can find a virtual one on the internet.
  2. Bobby Fischer, who died in 2008, was one of the strangest figures of the 20th Century. Research his life and write an obituary for him.

Some People Say...

“You cannot play chess if you are kind-hearted.’ French proverb”

What do you think?

Q & A

Chess is boring and pointless.
Plenty of people would agree, including the great novelist Henry James: ‘Life’s too short for chess’, he famously said. Still, it is absolutely proven that chess is good for your mental abilities, your concentration and even your school work. Only this week, it was reported that many UK schools have reintroduced chess to boost grades.
I still don’t want to play it.
That’s fine. But since chess is associated with intelligence, it is often used to make broader points: plenty of people still argue that women are intellectually inferior based on their under-representation in chess. That in turn, they say, makes them less good at subjects like science and maths. So this debate affects how gender as a whole is perceived – and that affects everyone!

Word Watch

Champion of the world
In chess, the world title is decided in long one-on-one matches between the reigning champion and whoever has won the right to challenge them. It is a hard-won prize: in the 126 years since the first official championship match, there have been only 15 undisputed world chess champions
Greatest female chess player
Among Judit Polgar’s two closest rivals are her sisters, Susan and Sofia. However, their prime position in women’s chess is now threatened by the 18-year-old Chinese chess prodigy Hou Fan, who some believe could one day compete for the world title.
Bobby Fischer
Brilliant, egoistic and deeply erratic, Bobby Fischer burst onto the chess scene at the height of the Cold War, when the sport was dominated by the Soviet Union. His world championship match against the Russian Boris Spassky is the most famous of all time, and victory made him an instant US hero. What followed, however, was a downward spiral into paranoia and disgrace. After a number of racist public rants, he was forced out of his homeland and died in Iceland in 2008, an unhappy recluse.

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