Chess IS for Girls

My little sister is an 11-year old chess player. She is the 4th grade state champion. She is nationally ranked as one of the Top 100 Female Chess Players Under 13 in the United States. She travels around the country for tournaments, ranging from Orlando, to Chicago, to Nashville. She is committed, devoted, and dedicated. The passion with which she pursues her talent is immensely admirable, and I could not be prouder of her. 

But I am concerned because as a girl, my sister faces many more challenges than her male peers do.

My sister is currently enrolled in a Grandmaster-level summer training program. Just last week, she came home with tears in her eyes. After hours of probing, I learned that it was because she had been taunted for being the sole girl in her entire program. The boys responsible were here age, give or take a few years. They pelted her with woodchips. They tugged at her braids. Yet, what stuck out most in her and to me, was that they had told her that chess “isn’t for girls.”

For years, my sister had no problem being a girl in the chess world. She’s a confident, sociable girl who easily makes friends with all of her peers, regardless of their gender. Perhaps this is what kept her involved in chess as her female classmates began to drop out. Over the course of four years, she went from being in a class with an even gender distribution to one with a 1:20 ratio. And still, this didn’t faze her. In fact, I believe that, although she wouldn’t admit it, she was delighted by the attention that she received for being the only girl. And such a successful one at that. Before last week,  I had never seen anything involving chess bring my sister to tears. And yet here she was.

There is no question that males dominate the apex of the chess world. Nearly every grandmaster is a male, there has never been a female world champion. Judit Polgar, the top female chess player, is still only 32nd in world ranking. There has never been a woman placed within the top 30 world chess players.

Robert [Bobby] Fischer’s, a USA born Grandmaster and former World Chess Champion argues, with significant support from followers, that women are naturally inferior to men. “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men… They lose every single game against a man… They can’t concentrate, they don’t have stamina, and they aren’t creative. They are all fish.”

Fischer would have a difficult time making sense of my sister’s great success. I would like to ask: Mr. Fischer, how would you account for my sister’s countless victories over experienced, consummate men, often nearly doubling her in age? How would you explain her capability to sit for hours on end pondering a single chess problem? Or her ability to sit through several tournament games, one after another, each several hours in length?

How would you account for her knack for consistently coming up with new solutions for straying from the conventional “plays” and winning with her own, innovative ideas? Let’s be honest – you wouldn’t be able to explain any of these aspects. You’d be embarrassed, baffled, and at a loss for words. Because my little sister is a living, proven contradiction to your foolish rationale. 

At the scholastic level, there are hundreds of young girls like my sister—girls with great talent, tremendous dedication. Almost none of these young girls pursue their passion into adulthood. 

I am concerned because my sister is the only remaining girl in her chess class. She is reaching the point when most young girls generally quit. I am concerned because the sexism that may end up holding my sister back has reached her generation and has begun to affect the way she views her talent and capabilities. I am concerned because I see that my sister is beginning to be affected by the ideas that dissuade so many girls from the game that she loves and delights in. 

I want my sister to be able to fulfill her aspirations without biases holding her back. I want her to be able to go after her chess dreams just as she would go after becoming a teacher, a doctor, or a lawyer. I want her to be able to focus solely on her next move or tactic while she is playing a game or solving a problem without fear or harassment.

There is no question that we have made great progress in gender equality. There are growing numbers of female CEOs, elected officials and Pulitzer Prize winners. We’ve made advances but we still have a long way to go. Now, before we’re too late, it’s time to focus on the younger generation. It’s time to focus on the gender biased ideas that are continuing to penetrate through the youngest of minds in our world.

And that starts with the generations that set the example, that create those ideas, and that encourage such behavior. We can’t begin to teach our children until we can assure ourselves that we have achieved gender equality, both in ideas and in practice.

That starts with us.

Abigail is a 16 year old fervent Jew, driven social activist, and enthusiastic learner. She is currently a junior at the Heschel School, where she is Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper. Abigail is extremely passionate about international relations, reflected in her participation on the All-American Model UN team, and is also passionate about social justice, recently being accepted to serve on the Harvard Making Caring Common Youth Advisory Board. Abigail is a passionate feminist, a Ma’yan Research Training Intern and an intern at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), and relishes the opportunity to expand her activism in all settings.

Comments are closed.