The International Chess Federation Checkmates Transgender Players

"Chess is HARD ... ."

By Timothy Furnish Published on August 21, 2023

Last week the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), or International Chess Federation, said, in effect, that men are better at the game than women. How so? By ruling that “transgender women” cannot compete in its official events for women until its officials make an assessment of gender change.” (“Transgender women” means men who identify as females.) So for the FIDE there are kings and queens. And no in-betweens. How did chess come to this?

How Popular Is Chess? Very.

Chess is almost certainly the most popular board game on Earth. There may be 600 million people who play it. Grandmasters, the world’s very best players, can earn millions of dollars. So there’s more than just nerd fame at stake here. The first claimed world chess championship was in 1886. Between then and 1948, when FIDE set up formal title matches, “championships” were simply tournaments organized privately between great players.

Sometimes chess got political. Especially during the Cold War, epitomized by the 1972 clash between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky in Iceland, won by the former. As a kid, I followed these games on my board by using the newspaper articles. See earlier “nerd” reference.

Almost All Chess Grandmasters Are Men

While at most levels boys and girls/men and women can compete against each other, at the top tier they don’t. (FIDE also holds tournaments for those under 20, over 60, and the disabled.) Why not? Because the vast majority of women chess players would lose. This despite the fact that the FIDE practices affirmative action, setting the level for grandmaster 100 points lower for women than men (2600 v. 2700). Judi Polgar of Hungary is considered the greatest female chess player ever. Yet her highest FIDE rating was only 55th best. Of 1600 international grandmasters, 37 are female. While Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, based on the 1983 Walter Tevil novel about a female chess prodigy, was popular and much feted … it was fiction.

Physical Sex Differences Are Obvious

We’ve all heard of the issue of transgender athletes in sports. Although their numbers aren’t huge, they do dominate the biological women against whom they compete. Just last week, a biological male destroyed “her” female power-lifting competition in Canada — by over 200 kilograms (that’s 440 pounds).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Besides common sense and observation of reality, there are academic studies showing that men can lift more weight. And that they’re just better athletes, overall. (Remember, even if Megan Rapinoe doesn’t want to, that a high school boys team beat the U.S. women’s soccer team.) There’s a reason there’s an NBA and WNBA. And why women don’t play in the NFL, NHL, or even MLB. Sorry, NPR.

Theories For Male Domination of Chess

But chess isn’t a physical contest. Certainly not in the same way as football, the decathlon, or even fencing. So why is the game dominated by men? Some claim it’s all due to social factors, mainly of the patriarchal, oppressive variety. National teams invest less in women players. Men can make more money. Women have to care for children and can’t play as much. Female chess players face “stereotype threat” (bias against them produces anxiety). And of course an alleged hostile competitive environment.

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Another explanation offered is simply based on numbers. More boys play chess, and this translates into more men doing so. This is according to Chabris and Glickman, “Sex Differences in Intellectual Performance: Analysis of a Large Cohort of Competitive Chess Players,” Psychological Science, 17, 12, 2006.

Male Chess Prowess Is Grounded in Nature

Robert Howard effectively demolishes all of those theories, via statistical analysis. His bottom-line? “If the male predominance in chess was due just to social factors it should have greatly lessened or disappeared by now.” He contends that it’s a “mix of ability and personality traits at which males on average may excel” that produces far more top-flight chess-playing men.

These include high IQ, spatial ability, concentration, and competitiveness. Especially the latter. “Stars in chess and in physical sports often have the famed ‘killer instinct.’” Some may rankle at the IQ suggestion. But the largest (in terms of subject) study in this regard showed interesting results. There are far more females with “average” IQs (95-115). But also far more men at the low and high ends of the spectrum.

That is, there are many more males who are, on the one hand, learning disabled and, on the other, geniuses. And guess which end of the chart chess grandmasters come from? The importance of nature cannot be denied.

Nurture Plays A Part, Too

But there’s no doubt nurture plays a part, as well. Of the world’s 30 greatest chess players over the last century, 10 were from Russia or the USSR. Vietnam, Georgia (not the Fani Willis one), and Red China have far more Candidate Master-ranked female players per capita than the U.S., France or Denmark. (Candidate Master is several steps below Grandmaster, but still quite good.) Vietnam and the PRC are Communist; Georgia and Russia are formerly so. So maybe it’s Communist societies, and former ones, that produce the best chess players. Male or female.

Oops, They Admitted the Truth

Still, all the data shows that men dominate chess at the highest levels. And the FIDE clearly believes that this will hold for “transgender women,” as well. Consider some other statements from that organization. “Holders of women’s titles who change their genders to male would see those titles abolished.” But “if a player has changed the gender from a man into a woman, all the previous titles remain eligible.” Men can keep their titles if they enter the women’s ranks. But women who go the other way lose their awards. Thus, the FIDE is admitting that it’s more difficult to win against biological males than females.

Chess Is Not Life

Humans have known for millennia that men and women are different. And not just physically. Our brains are actually different — perhaps even on the molecular level. That for much of history men exploited those differences to lord it over women doesn’t invalidate their reality. So we’re better at sports. And warfare. Thus, unsurprisingly, at a game that simulates warfare. This doesn’t make us better, overall. Each gender has its role to play in the Kingdom. After all, God created us male and female — but still, each in His own image. (Genesis 1:27) St. Peter’s mandate to husbands regarding wives — to treat them with understanding, as a weaker vessel, and show them honor (I Peter 3:7) — is good advice for male-female relationships in general. Whether the game is chess, or life.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

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