Men’s Superiority in Chess Explained?

Judit Polgar

There is an article in the Scientific American titled, “Men’s Superiority in Chess Explained.” While the title of this post bears a question mark, the article’s title did not. The article claims to explain the rationale of why men dominate chess. They basically say that since there are more men playing then they have a larger talent pool and thus are stronger players. However, this seems to be faulty reasoning.

An abundance of men wouldn’t stop women from becoming strong players if it is merely a matter of statistics. If a female is focused and driven, she can certainly can become an elite player regardless of the numbers. The Polgar sisters are example of that… three females in one family! I believe the disparities that exist in chess have more to do with social psychology than any other factor.

I personally don’t believe it is an the issue of intellect since chess mastery and raw intelligence are not as heavily related as we think. However, men and women have different psychological make-ups. This is due to everything from environmental social conditioning to the respective hormonal constitutions. It appears that men have a different motivation and proclivity when it comes to activities involving combat and war.

In general, men tend to take combat games and sporting activities more seriously than women. There is an intense motivation to prove one’s strength and this lasts well into a man’s old age. Is this primordial instinct? Perhaps. Maybe women are smarter because they may find more purposeful things to do than to spend hours and hours on chess or chess-related activities. 🙂

Source: Scientific American


  1. If there were more tiara’s in chess, there would be more strong women players. 🙂

    Puzzled? Let me explain. At the US open several years ago, I was on the elevator, on my way to the playing hall for the start of the next round. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and in walked several young ladies, all wearing tiara’s (the cheap fake kind). Recognizing them as chessplayers, by the fact that they were carrying chess clocks, I inquired .. what’s up with the tiara’s? Turns out they were playing in the Polgar girls championship, and had just decided that it would be fun to go out and buy tiara’s.

    The packaging of chess isn’t attractive to girls, so they don’t play, or they drop out very early. Could you imagine Goichberg announcing that tiara’s are available for sale at the book store at the World Open ?? Ha!

    Change the packaging, as Susan Polgar recognizes, and more girls will play, and perhaps stick with it, and perhaps get very, very good.

  2. I saw those tiaras and wondered why they were wearing them. I assumed it had some to do with the Polgar tournament and that they were taking pride in girls’ tournament. I did think it was a bit strange because it seems to go against the notion of what I believe Susan Polgar is trying to do. Certainly the Polgars sisters didn’t feel the need to feminize tournaments. The young Judit Polgar did have a teddy bear, but that turned to be a nice ploy. Her GM opponents would say, “Ohhhh, isn’t that so cute!” She would then (in her own words) “ker-rush them”! No tiara needed.

    Many have stated that FIDE should do away with women’s titles and I would agree with that notion. These arguments have been made so many times, but if women walk around with titles that they know are not considered equal to the others, then they will continue with an inferiority complex. They will never deem themselves equal with such titles. There needs to be more to attract women to the sport of chess, but my rationale is not so much marketing as it is a natural difference in the way females view combat. I’m not sure what can be done.

  3. I agree that there shouldn’t be separate women’s titles. Although I fully support separate women’s events, to the extent that they broaden the appeal of the game. Just like I support tournaments that focus on urban youth, or even black chessplayers, like the Paige memorial.

    Regarding the tiara’s, they fit right in with Susan’s goals as I understand them. She wants the girls to be fierce competitors on the board, and congenial with each other off the board. So a bunch of new friends going to the mall together is a typical girl bonding thing .. no matter what their age!

    Just like trash talking is what brothers do. So we bring that cultural norm to our casual chess play. Someone unfamiliar with the phenomena might misread it as real hostility. But those are some of the events we treasure the most .. master and patzer alike.

  4. I agree, but if we’re talking about why men are relatively stronger than women, I wonder what point this separation (and the “tiara effect”) will translate into stronger chess for women. If the bonding occurs with them helping each other in chess and getting stronger (e.g., the Polgars), then I would agree. To me, it’s all about social conditioning. Guys are more serious about combat games because that’s how we’re socialized. The idea that women are not as strong because they are relatively fewer in number is a faulty notion.

  5. Daaim – Isn’t the lack of substantial participation by women in professional chess, the direct factor that explains the existence of only 1 female among the chess elite? Aren’t the other issues, like differing socialization experiences, discomfort with the combat metaphor, etc., simply causal factors for the lack of female participation?

  6. Yes… the factors I’m giving are causal, but the article never discusses causality. The argument is why men are superior in chess to women. Looking at sheer numbers does not explain this because there are too many instances where that theory does not hold. For example, why does Armenia have a superior Olympiad team than many others? Is it due to fact they have more players than others? Of course not. They are one of smallest federations in the top 50 with 65 titled players… a little more than half of what Mexico has and one-third of Argentina. The question is WHY Armenia is so strong. It’s not due to numbers.

    Their analysis fails to get at the reason of why men are superior in chess. Looking at numbers tells you nothing about why women don’t excel as much. As I stated, numbers did not prevent the Polgars from excelling, two of which (at a young age) were playing at Grandmaster level. I believe it has to do more with psychological differences between the genders. Perhaps these types of activities do not interest women as much… as a whole.

    There are many casual factors involved. I would love to take a look at their research model to see why they used the conceptual framework they did.

  7. I think it is an interesting question to ponder if only to get at the root of the disparity between male and female players. The argument has merit on both sides, and in each there is some truth. But more importantly the focus must be to understand how women approach the game of chess. I do not believe that women players look at chess as war necessarily. There are other aspects of chess that make it relevant to human beings. It can allow the approach of the artist without defying long held proofs. It may be the case that the fairer sex plays upon the dynamic interaction of the laws of physics in the animation of the pieces. Women have egos too.

  8. Damani,

    I don’t believe women look at chess as war either and that is point I’m making. It is not at that level of seriousness for them. Most females that I know view chess as a game you play, win/lose, have fun with it and then put it away at some point and do something else. Men seem to have much more of a determination at proving something in chess and it continues throughout life given our obsession with sports/combat.

  9. Ok, I understand your point. I believe it comes down to focus, training and commitment. The social and cultural presentation keeps large numbers of women away from chess, so very few of the potentially strong ones ever develop their talent.

    Focus is why Armenia (pop 3M) has several of the world’s elite GM’s, even though they are a small country. Focus is why the Lithuainian (pop 3M) men’s Olympic basketball team won 3 straight bronze medals since 1992, and hasn’t finished lower than 4th.

    And focus is definitely why of the 30 top money leaders on the ladies Professional Golf Tour, 11 are from South Korea. And 3 of the others are of Korean heritage. What’s the explanation? Playing golf is the in thing to do for girls in Korea .. they all play, and aspire to excel, resulting in the discovery and development of the best.

    Just like the harvesting of urban black male basketball players in the US .. it’s the sport of choice, everyone plays, resulting in the truly talented being discovered and developed (or exploited depending upon your perspective 🙂 ) If it was just because they were black, then Nigeria and Brazil would dominate world basketball by a considerable margin. But as we know, all of their youngsters play soccer.

  10. Interesting article and discussion.

    Clearly multiple factors are important.
    The selection effect discussed in the article–fewer women get into chess in the first place so of course there will be fewer GMs just via probability arguments.

    Why do fewer women get into chess? The structure of tournaments appeals to boys who want to be at war with one another. Two, the very structure of the game is bellicose. Come on it’s a battle between two midevil armies for goodness’ sake: how many little girls like that?

    With the advent of Polgar’s girl-centric tournaments and web sites I think we are headed in the right direction. And as more girls and women participate in tournaments, the more those that come once just “to check it out” will be likely to stay for another as they won’t feel like an outsider, as likely happens now.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some genetic push either: girls tend to value collaboration and cooperation while boys tend to enjoy battles and competition. There isn’t enough data to say this with authority, but it wouldn’t be surprising given the hormonal differences. So if we want girls, have tournaments that stress collaboration and cooperation more. I’m not sure how this could be done (teams perhaps?), but those of you into scholastic chess probably have good ideas.

    Incidentally, a great site that for some reason has been under my radar. I’m linking on my sidebar now.

  11. Blue Devil Knight,

    Well said! Here is a scene from the movie “Predator.” Take a survey of how many men get a charge from this scene (versus women) and that may provide some data. 🙂

  12. who want it more ?
    I train hard for this event after 4 visit to western new york 3 straight loses until my friend Big Will in baltimore train me :
    Only female to win under 1600 section :
    the truth strength of any real strong chess player
    is not the genere of the person but it who wants to put in the hard work ,training and commitment to chess. i dont play or like baskeball yet im African American female at 5’10 150lb
    i dont like or wear tiara’s (I think that a Paris Hilton trend)
    I have my own unique style
    All women are true queens we dont need a crown !
    I play chess for the passion and other personal reasons regardless of who sits in front of me ( your child, husbands ,etc.)at the tournaments, parks or coffee shops I just want to play to win . yes women do have ego too !!!

  13. I agree Sophia. Whoever trains the hardest and has the best focus has a chance to become a strong player. How many years would a woman spend on chess as a serious activity? There is a huge drop-off after high school for females. For whatever reason, chess becomes less of a priority for females. Males tend to hang onto games (of all kinds) for a long time. Maybe we will see a different trend in the future.

  14. Here is another article that gives a lot more detail than the one featured here and describes the methodology. It still falls short in that they do not explain the reason for the disparity… they only discuss that it is NOT biological and the skill level is comparable if one examines performance ratings. This is still a flawed model because they are basically comparing expected outcome vs. actual outcome. We already know that women are capable of playing good chess. The question is why do we have such low numbers of women who break the upper echelons.

    In the history of chess, hundreds of thousands of women have played the game. Only one has reached the top level. Why is this the case? Some where along the way, they seem to lose the energy for the game. Is it the prospect of child-bearing? Perhaps. Is it the predominately-male environment? Perhaps. I believe men are simply more enamored with chess for longer periods of time. At some point, women simply find other things to do with their time.


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