An open letter with accusations of sexism from numerous female chess players casts a deep shadow on the game of kings. The world association Fide was “deeply moved” by the lines in which “harassment and assault” are described as one of the main reasons “why women and young girls, especially teenagers, stop playing chess.” 14 top French chess players wrote the letter a few weeks ago, and there are now more than 100 signatories including a number of German names.
“I know almost no woman in chess who has not had experience with sexism,” national player Annmarie Mütsch recently told “Spiegel”. Is that why there are so few female players? In chess, where the queen is the most powerful figure, women at the top of the world are an absolute exception and are clearly outnumbered in popular sports.
“In primary school the ratio of girls to boys is around 30:70, after that it goes towards 10:90,” says youth national coach Bernd Vökler to the German Press Agency. Is sexist behavior among male chess players the main cause of this? “I wouldn’t sign that, even though it could certainly be a reason,” says national player Josefine Heinemann.
The 25-year-old says she “basically had no negative experiences.” Online, however, she sees "a lot of stupid comments, of course, but that seems to me to be more of an online phenomenon than a chess problem."
Heinemann, who holds the title of women's grandmaster, believes the new attention is important and at the same time makes it clear: "At tournaments I have never had the feeling that I was lower than any man."
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The world association Fide assured that it would take the allegations seriously. “Even if just one woman experiences abuse, it is one too many,” said Fide and wants to help women with a protection policy “so that they feel safe and self-confident.” Misconduct should be reported to the Ethics and Disciplinary Committee.
“It would be nice if more women realized that they can talk about what happened to them and that they don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it,” said national player Mütsch.
It is extremely rare for women to make it to the top of the world in chess. The ten best women in the world are in a cross-gender ranking “in the top 600 to 700,” says national player Heinemann. Only the Hungarian chess grandmaster Judit Polgár managed to get into the top ten of the overall world rankings.
The chess world has long been concerned about why women so rarely reach the top. There is no clear result, only theories. “Research should definitely be done,” says Heinemann.
Even at school, boys often achieved better results than girls, according to young national coach Vökler. "I can't say exactly why it is, but unfortunately it really is. Because they play against each other in school clubs, it becomes apparent so early on." That's why they often play separately there, which Vökler doesn't like: "It cements the image that the good boys play here and the bad girls play there."
Vökler gives three reasons for the high number of chess dropouts among girls: "Girls like it when they can do something among themselves. As soon as there is a kind of subcritical mass in chess, i.e. if too many quit, then the three of them listen , four committed players for this reason." In addition, boys would like the direct duel against each other more, says Vökler. The 60-year-old suspects that the third reason is that there are too few female trainers and therefore a lack of role models.
Heinemann also sees chess as less attractive for many women: "I believe that the chess format is not optimal for women, especially in the adult sector. We play a lot of classical chess and a game lasts around five hours and a tournament nine days," said Heinemann. "Since even today, women around the world still primarily look after children, this format is simply not good."
Heinemann also sees poorer pay as a factor. "If I don't want to live under the bridge, I have no chance of making a living from playing chess," said Heinemann. That's why she gives chess lessons and courses for chess websites and has a YouTube channel. The German men's national players could "definitely make a better living from chess," said Heinemann.
The pure women's category, in which men are not allowed to take part, is only "semi-accepted," said Heinemann. "There aren't as many tournaments as there are for men. Then, logically, you can earn a lot less money with them."