Chess players representing Zimbabwe (L) play against players representing Bulgaria (R) during the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 in Mahabalipuram, India, on July 29, 2022. (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

Allowing Trans Women to Compete in Women’s Chess Would Be Just as Problematic as Any Other Sport

Two years ago, with regard to male athletes identifying as female, the competitive sport world presented a smoothly unified commitment to the principle of inclusion over fairness. Today we see fractures everywhere. Female athletes who had felt “gaslit into silence” are no longer afraid to speak out. World Aquatics (formerly FINA) launched an open category to welcome swimmers of both sexes, while restricting the women’s category to females. World Athletics now prohibits post-puberty males from participating in female world rankings competition. Likewise World Cycling.

These changes represent erosion in acceptance of the promoted fiction that post-puberty males have no significant advantage over females. The evidence that they do is overwhelming. Besides, people have eyes to see. When a male athlete ranked in the 400s competing against other males suddenly emerges as first amongst females, which has happened repeatedly, ordinary people will not, out of compassion for trans-identifying males’ feelings, indefinitely suspend their critical faculties. The sensible solution of a women’s category for females and an “open” category for males and females should—and has—found favour with non-ideologues.

For years, I have been waiting for the issue to arise in the “sport” of chess. And now it has.

Paula Scanlan, Former UPenn Swimmer: How We’re Being Conditioned to Think It’s Normal for Biological Men to Compete in Women’s Sports
Paula Scanlan, Former UPenn Swimmer: How We’re Being Conditioned to Think It’s Normal for Biological Men to Compete in Women’s Sports
'It’s a Biological Issue': MP Moira Deeming on Transgender People in Women's Spaces, Sports
'It’s a Biological Issue': MP Moira Deeming on Transgender People in Women's Spaces, Sports
In chess, most tournaments are open categories where men and women compete on an equal footing. There are a few, though, that are restricted to women only, such as the Women’s World Chess Championship. The International Chess Federation (FIDE) has placed a moratorium on trans-identified males in women’s chess events, to take effect Aug. 21. FIDE noted in its handbook that “this is an evolving issue for chess” with further policy evolving “in line with research evidence.” Indignation was immediately voiced on X (formerly Twitter): “This is so insulting to cis women, to trans women, and to the game itself. It assumes that cis women couldn’t be competitive against cis men.”

It's a fact that women are under-represented in chess across all cultural and national lines—so under-represented that without their own division, it would be a virtual men’s club at the higher levels. Irina Krush, the best American female player, is outranked by 116 American men. Hou Yifan, four-time Women's World Chess Champion and the second highest rated female player of all time, is outranked by 149 men. And unlike physical sport, chess is a “mind game.” Physical differences between males and females are easy to calibrate. Cognitive differences not so much.

More important, women have no difficulty in understanding and accepting the fact that males undergo a dramatic and consequential, testosterone-fuelled transformation in puberty and women don’t. There’s no shame—or shouldn’t be—in that biology-based disparity. But many women do feel shame at the very idea that there can be the slightest biology-based difference in intellectual capacity between males and females, even if the positive capacity difference only manifests at performance summits.

Harvard University evolutionary biologist Dr. Carole Hooven, author of “Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates Us and Divides Us,” hypothesizes that because it is established that “males have a large spatial-ability advantage over women,” this could help to explain their dominance in chess, as, for example, it explains hockey champion Wayne Gretzky’s stunning ability to blindly pass to open players, as he alone could mentally envision where everyone on the ice would be one second later. In the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” the female protagonist is portrayed as having an almost mystical insight into the spatial complexities of chess figures’ movements. On the other hand, she is also portrayed as winning the World Championship, something no woman has ever achieved.

Other explanations include higher male aggression, single-minded drive (and for longer periods of their life than women), and the will to dominate. English sports writer Boris Sparling describes Magnus Carlsen, child prodigy and former longtime world chess champion, as having “the obduracy of a granite cliff and an almost frightening need to win. He’s the Terminator; he can’t be reasoned with, he doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Evolutionists agree that in terms of the risks and sacrifices necessary in any endeavour to achieve and hold status, in general, males outstrip women, and often by far.

But these plausible arguments for male dominance in chess still speak to a biology-based umbrella, and must be considered auxiliary to the real elephant in the room: innate intelligence. And here is where the canker gnaws for women—or rather feminists. The founding mothers of feminism were adamant on the absolute cognitive equality of the sexes. Any areas of human endeavour, such as STEM and chess, that skewed male were in their eyes a result of social construction alone. The “greater male variability hypothesis,” according to which, on the basis of standardized intelligence tests, “more males than females get off-the-chart test scores—in both directions,” is philosophically anathema to them.

And so they come up with a variety of feeble explanations to explain women’s failure to crack the checkered ceiling. Usually it comes down to gender bias and stereotyping influences. And yet chess is something like a gender control experiment that gives the lie to that fallback thesis. And what a control group for numbers! It’s estimated that one in 12 people in the world play chess—about 600 million people—so it can truly be called a universal game. Significantly, it is an activity that is undertaken voluntarily, without gatekeepers who might have implicit bias against girls. It crosses all social, cultural, and economic lines.

Moreover, chess is intrinsically non-partisan, politically and ideologically. Success is governed strictly by skill acquisition and one’s innate cognitive ability. Status within chess circles is governed only by individual merit. Achievement can be, and is, objectively determined. Rankings cannot be bought. Indeed, cheating at chess is perceived with visceral contempt, and is more rigorously policed than in any other game or sport.

Perhaps it is this latter trait of chess culture that motivated FIDE’s new policy. Chess history is rife with tales of quirky and even pathological behaviour that is given latitude for such players’ genius, but all players must toe the line on the game’s iron rules of play, one of which is that only women play in the women’s division. If that division is to retain its sex-based status, female chess players will need the same realism-based support that women athletes count on. Which means, however uncomfortable it is for the diehard “social constructionists,” acceptance of the male variability hypothesis as a bona fide reason for keeping the women’s division female.