No gender equality in chess

OCTOBER 2 — On September 24, 2014 a terse announcement posted on the FIDE (World Chess Federation) website stated:

“FIDE announces that the Women’s World Championship 2014, originally scheduled for this October, will be postponed for a few months. Exact dates will be announced soon when FIDE finalizes all organising details with potential sponsors interested to hold this event.”

As the leading Russian chess news site www.chess-news.ru very nicely puts it, “64 Women And Only a Couple of Lines”!

Its editor, after posting the very same FIDE announcement, went on to remind its readers that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov had promised to announce the venue of the championship on September 6 at the closing of the Sharjah Women’s Grand Prix which itself was a last-minute replacement after the event was cancelled in Mongolia when sponsorship also promised by Ilyumzhinov did not materialise.

The biggest chess portal www.chess.com while referencing both FIDE and www.chess-news.ru pointed out that this announcement was made no less than two and a half weeks before it was to start!

As late as August 26, it was already understood that the event was in crisis and ACP (Association of Chess Professionals) President Emil Sutovsky felt he had to publish an open letter about his concerns:

“It is shocking to see no official news for the Women’s World Championship scheduled to start in 1.5 months. Sixty four ladies are supposed to take part in this most prestigious competition, and they can neither prepare for the event, nor to accept invitations to other tournaments in September-November period. Having no official news about World Championship tournament just a few weeks prior to its commencement is unheard of, and I ask you, Mr. President, to confirm or postpone it officially without further delay.” 

What amuses me is that just like it did for the Men’s World Championship—until Russian president Vladimir Putin was persuaded to instruct Sochi to do it albeit at half the previous championship prize fund—FIDE has been going around to the usual suspects for support, and unsurprisingly Russia is starting to come up empty. Despotic states are feeling the pinch and so now the hopes are on UAE or some other rich Arab nation helping out.

But the fact is there has been unbelievable inequality between men’s and women’s chess championships for a long time now.

For the men it is also a match at the end of a two-year qualification cycle between the champion and his challenger, but for the women it is not only an annual affair but the format is different on alternate years!

Last year, China’s Hou Yifan who is still considered a junior and well on her way to becoming the best ever woman player in history comprehensively won a match to regain her title and guess what, she now has to again play a knock-out event to retain it and yet by virtue of topping the qualifying for the next cycle as Grand Prix winner (even while still world champion), she gets to play for the title as challenger in 2015 should she lose the 2014 title match or she would play the runner-up as World Champion should she retain her title!

Go figure!

I, however, see this all a little differently, and would argue that like it or not, the world sees the men’s championship as the world championship and that the women’s championship is just one of many minor world championships that take place and the fact that the top women players accept much lower prizes and are generally happy to vie for special women’s prizes in open tournaments only makes my point that this is the norm.

During my time as a competitive player, it was rare to see girls playing chess but now they are everywhere and it is common for men to lose to women; the best women deservedly hold the men’s grandmaster title while the very best can compete with most men on equal terms.

Screenshot of the FIDE announcement.
Screenshot of the FIDE announcement.

So I really cannot understand anymore the need to have separate titles for women when they are capable of getting men’s titles.

In today’s chess world, using the all-pervasive FIDE Rating System, we know that the 2800 level is that of the World Champion (and his challengers), 2700 that of the elite or super Grandmasters, 2600 of strong Grandmasters and 2500 Grandmasters. International Masters are at 2400 and FIDE Masters at 2300.

But we also have Woman Grandmaster and they are usually around 2300, while Woman International Master is 2200 and Woman FIDE Master 2100.

Not being a physical game, chess cannot have differences between the genders, so why does FIDE still persist in having woman titles and separate championships? Women can play in men’s events (so-called open events) but men cannot play in women’s events and I think that is sexism, a reinforcement of the perceived superiority of men over women carried stupidly into a game where effort is mental and psychological. This can only be seen as a mutual agreement to it being very much a man’s world!

The writer with Hou Yifan at the MAKITA Indonesia-France Match in Jakarta, December 2012. — Picture courtesy of Peter Long
The writer with Hou Yifan at the MAKITA Indonesia-France Match in Jakarta, December 2012. — Picture courtesy of Peter Long

Susan Polgar proved that a woman can become a Grandmaster and her younger sister Judith refused to play in women’s events and was, at her peak, a Top 10 player. Today Hou Yifan, who plays in both men’s and women’s events, is equally successful and in doing so is taking the achievements of women players to another level. 

Having played both from the start, Yifan had already showed how good she was when I invited her to visit Malaysia in 2010 and at all of 16 years of age, she stunned a field of 16 other Grandmasters to win the KL Open with one round to go.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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