May 15th, 2016 by Daaim Shabazz
Women’s International Master (WIM) Deborah Richards-Porter was in the news lately for winning the 2.3.5 subzonal tournament held in Barbados. Players from Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela also vied for the title. She becomes the first Jamaican to win a subzonal tournament and nipped WIM Danitza Vazquez of Puerto Rico with an unconquerable 8½/9.
Richards-Porter has won the women’s Jamaican national championship 10 times and has led the Jamaican women’s team at the past several Olympiad tournaments. She has been feted by the Jamaican Chess Federation and the RJR Sports Foundation and has been a role model of excellence for the up-and-coming players (male and female). When all is said and done, she will be the most decorated woman in Jamaican chess history.
Olympiad teammates Ariel Barrett and Deborah Richards-Porter
had strong showings at the 2.3.5 subzonal in Barbados.
Photo courtesy of Jamaican Chess Federation.
Given her dominance on the national stage, Richards-Porter has now lent herself to teaching chess to the next generation at her R&D Chess Academy along with her husband, Russel Porter. One of the main questions often asked about the women’s scene in chess is how to get them more involved. Why are there not good numbers of women participating in chess? Why are there not a higher number of women competing at the highest levels? More on that later.
Another question that has emerged is, do gender-segregated tournaments stunt the growth of the females they are seeking to inspire? About one year ago, GM Nigel Short reignited a firestorm about women in chess stating reasons why women are at the lower rungs of the professional chess ladder. Some point to low numbers, but when the Polgar sisters emerged, there were even fewer women than today. What did they do to compete at the highest level?
Warren Elliott (front, left) was held to a draw by Deborah Porter (front, right) at the 2012 Jamaica Chess Open, however Elliott defeated the rest of his opponents to claim first place. Richards-Porter won the Jamaica Open three years later. Photo by Zachary Ramsey.
Short faced a maelstrom of criticism about accepting the difference in strength as a factor of social conditioning. His pointed comments, reignited a painful debate on gender equality in chess. Social conditioning of boys and girls often determines what activities they pursue and how much time they allocate to them. The issue remains… what constitutes the chasm in chess? Is it that girls and women are not thoroughly challenged in gender-based tournaments and thus, their improvement trajectory slower? These tournaments are designed to serve as an incubation for building the requisite confidence for girls. However, it is important that girls do not get stuck in this incubation too long. Hungary’s Judit Polgar, the strongest woman in history, gave her insight on women in chess:
In fact, they must focus to play the best chess and not women’s chess and then they will improve faster. Unfortunately, most of them focus only on playing in women’s chess … You have to put your goals as high as possible and only then will you improve. (see article)
Is it simply a matter of practicality in the use of time? Is economics a factor? One may say that people tend to disfavor spending an inordinate amount of time studying a game without some derived benefit. Some have argued that if not for the presence of the women’s tournaments, participation would be far less. The question is why? Certainly, women enjoy the accomplishments they garner in gender-based tournaments. Perhaps they there needs to be incentives to play in tournaments where the chance of winning in a larger and stronger pool is drastically reduced. It is ironic that some Grandmasters complain that it is difficult to survive as a chess professional and that women have more chances to succeed given their separate prizes and gender-based tournaments.
There are a number of issues that also come, but gender disparity has been a staple argument in chess since Bobby Fischer’s “knight odds” statement. However, the Polgar experiment showed that under the right conditions (including playing the strongest players), women can attain a high standard in chess. In fact, Judit Polgar became a Grandmaster at 14, eschewed gender tournaments and competed as an equal for decades. Not only did she compete, she spent her teenage years crushing strong Grandmasters in bloody mating attacks. She ultimately reached #8 in the world and a 2735 FIDE rating. Perhaps there is a gradualism, but it is important that girls are not setting their goals too modestly.
In addition, there has been discussion about women’s titles and their importance. It is common to hear a chess-playing girl say that she aspires to become a “WIM” or “WGM” because women’s titles are taken as the natural stage of improvement. Unfortunately, one hardly hears a girl mentioning the coveted “IM,” “GM” titles as an initial goal despite the fact that they aspire to compete with the best in every other endeavor. By this default, boys will have higher chess goals, higher expectations and thus, more ambition. Have we pigeon-holed girls and women to think only in terms of gender-related events and lesser titles? Have we encouraged them to have lower expectations of their abilities? There is certainly a place for gender-based tournaments, but should young girls take the example of the Polgar sisters as their own or as merely an exceptional case?
Women do play in open events, but the top players’ presence is sparse. One tournament showing progress was Gibraltar where several top females players competed in this year’s competition including GMs Anna and Mariya Muzychuk, Antoaneta Stefanova, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Dronavali Harika, Pia Cramling, Zhao Xue and others. In fact, GM Hou Yifan famously tied for 1st in the 2012 Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival with Short. There is also a “women’s prize” as an incentive. In 2015, the event was won by GM Hikaru Nakamura, but ironically, Hou earned more winnings than Nakamura. She took 3rd place overall and in addition, the women’s prize! Hou is the current women’s world champion at age 22, but her participation in the strongest tournaments is very spotty and her strength seems to have stagnated for the last two years. Apart from Hou Yifan at 2663, top women are around rated 2500-2575. Three others have eclipsed 2600 in the past.
For women in developing regions, there must be a push to play the strongest competition and strive for equal standards in skill. Richards-Porter is a player of good standard and won the 2015 Jamaican Open, defeating FM Damion Davy in the process. There had been the paradox that Richards-Porter continue to play in the women’s national championship because of the small field. It was considered important to have her as the standard bearer and eminent presence in the national championship. That was a logical thought, but would she be more of an inspiration competing strongly against the likes of FM Warren Elliott and Davy for the national championship and securing a spot on the overall Olympiad team?
WIM Deborah Richards-Porter accepting the RJR “Female Chess Player of the Year” from Grammy-winner Orville “Shaggy” Burrell. Photo by Jamaica Observer.
The late Dr. Hope Anderson set the tone by deciding to compete among Jamaica’s best players. Let’s hope players like Richards-Porter (and others) will continue this challenge. There is no reason to believe that women cannot cause a few nightmares in a given tournament. Maybe it will be up-and-coming Women’s Candidate Masters Ariel Barrett or Rachel Miller. Richards-Porter has been the trailblazer and has been encouraged by Jamaican Chess Federation President Ian Wilkinson to seek higher heights. While we hear chess-playing boys cite being Grandmaster as a goal, perhaps chess-playing girls should be socialized to think in a broader view as it relates to chess. That would be a watershed moment. As for Richards-Porter, she qualifies for the next round of qualifiers for the Women’s World Chess Championship. Let’s wish her well on her endeavor and hope to see her mash up the competition in Jamaica.