Men better at chess
- Men better at chess
Jacquie van Santen
ABC Science Online
Wednesday, 1 June 2005
The battle of the sexes has spilled over into chess.
In a novel approach to testing gender differences in
achievement, an Australian researcher has compared the past
three decades of male and female international chess results to
see if gender differences have diminished with changes in
But the results of the study, by Dr Robert Howard from the
University of New South Wales, may ruffle some female feathers.
Despite changes in what society expects of women, access to
opportunities to succeed intellectually, and other factors,
women don't do as well in chess as men.
Howard says his study, published in the May issue of the Journal
of Biosocial Science, backs the idea that men have an innate
ability to checkmate and win the game.
Adult men have traditionally dominated at upper levels of
intellectual achievement. For example, nearly all recognised
geniuses have been male, and men have won more Nobel prizes and
science citations than women.
And there have been many explanations for this.
One general view holds this is due only to social factors such
as the 'glass ceiling', access to education and lack of female
Others hold the evolutionary psychology view that males
predominate at least partly because of some innate differences
that may offer some advantage, such as greater male
But society has changed in recent decades and it was whether
these changes are reflected in an intellectual domain such as
chess that Howard wanted to study.
Access to chess
He studied chess because he says it is a meritocracy, namely
because tournaments are open to all and players rise through the
game based on their talent, it has objective performance
measures, and there is good quality data over a long period.
Howard compared performance ratings overall and results from the
top 10, 50 and 100 players of each sex.
Despite societal changes in the past 30 years, he found "large
gender differences and little convergence".
"The basic argument is that if there are not any differences
between the sexes in the area of chess, we should be seeing a
convergence, ie. more female high achievers. But we're not," he
"It's all basically pretty much the same, with one or two
exceptions. [Despite] female role models and much more
opportunity we're seeing no convergence. We're still seeing a
huge difference of extremes."
Howard says the differences are not just due to different rates
of participation. He says even proportionate to participation
numbers the differences are "quite striking".
He says his results rule out any 'glass ceiling' effect and lack
of female role models as explanation for the differences.
Instead, he says his results show that innate differences in
ability between men and women, namely the evolutionary
psychology view, could be one explanation.
"However, I suspect it might be in many cases that women just
don't get obsessed with things like men do. They don't want to
spend all their waking hours studying chess and competing
Howard is not clear if sex differences in visuospatial ability
"Probably only a threshold level of visuospatial ability is
needed, beyond which general intelligence is more important," he
"The top 10 females over the last few years have achieved very
high ratings ... and many have achieved the grandmaster title as
well, which requires good visuospatial ability, but are still
greatly outperformed by the top 10 males."
Howard says his research needs to be replicated in other games
Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol