‘Queen’s Gambit’: Why has there never been a women’s chess world champion?


The success of Netflix’s “Lady’s Gambit” series has renewed interest in chess and reignited the debate about why so few women reach the elite of the sport of the intellect.

Released earlier this month, it has become the platform’s highest-rated miniseries to date, having been viewed by 62 million households in its first 28 days and ranked first in 63 countries.

It has also pushed the book on which it is based, written by Walter Tevis, to the New York Times bestseller list, 37 years after its release.

It tells the life of a female chess prodigy named Beth Harmon, who after learning to play with the janitor at the orphanage where she grew up in the 1950s, became the best player in the world.

In real life, no woman has ever been crowned world champion.

“The reality is not like that”

“The way the guys treat Beth on the show is a dream, sadly, the reality is not like that,” said Judit Polgar, a former Hungarian professional chess player and the only woman to make it into the top 10 in the history of the game in 15 centuries.

The character of Beth has many similarities to the late American grandmaster, and former world champion, Bobby Fischer. Often described as one of the greatest players of all time, Fischer was also known for the controversial comments he made, including this one from 1963: “Women are terrible chess players … I guess they’re not that smart.”

Yours is not an isolated case. Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and former world champion who assisted in the making of Netflix’s ‘Queen’s Gambit’ series, also made misogynistic comments in the past, but later disavowed them after being defeated in a competition against Polgar in 2002.

Although Polgar is the highest ranked player of all time, it is likely that others with similar potential preceded her, but her accomplishments fell into oblivion.

Like María Teresa Mora Iturralde, a Cuban who in 1922, at the age of 20, defeated her male rivals to become a Cuban chess teacher and Ibero-American champion. She is the only person who has received lessons from José Raúl Capablanca, the 1921 and 1927 world champion, and described as one of the greatest players of all time.

Legend has it that the student beat the master, but sadly, her chess career came to a halt at the 1922 Cuban championship and her story was almost forgotten until it was recently resurrected by the specialized blog Havana3am.

Chess at the 2024 Paris Games?

Almost 100 years later, chess is now recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee and hopes to make its first appearance at the Paris Games in 2024.

Still, there is around one woman in competition for every 15 men, and only one woman is currently ranked among the top 100 chess players in the world: Hou Yifan from China at 88.

How to remedy this low number has divided opinions. For example, should sport be completely segregated with men’s-only events and women’s-only competitions?

There is a world championship in women’s chess. There are also competitions reserved by age, geography or profession, such as the Armed Forces championship.

But according to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, “these tournaments help those who participate to receive extra media attention, to gather financial support and to establish relationships with others with whom they share a common interest.”

“However, in countries where women’s competition was experimentally abolished, participation in mixed events was further reduced, while in federations that developed specific programs targeting young players, the results improved,” she added.

“Play like a girl”

Polgar, who competed between 1988 and 2014, rarely participated in the women’s competition and defeated some of the best-known male players, including Kasparov, his fellow Russian grandmaster and former world champion Anatoly Karpov, and current world champion, Norway’s Magnus. Carlsen.

Judit Polgar is the youngest of three sisters who share their talent for chess. Zsuzsa and Zsofia Polgar are grandmaster and international teacher respectively. It is not a coincidence, but their father Laszlo taught them to play. A psychologist who set out to show that a child can achieve exceptional results in a certain field if trained from an early age.

Nicknamed “the Queen of Chess,” Polgar believes that competing in all-female events limits the potential and aspirations of female players. Today, this 44-year-old woman runs a foundation active in promoting chess as a tool for psychological growth.

Other players who have made a name for themselves since then include Georgia’s Ana Matnadze, who today competes for Spain.

This 37-year-old is godmother Nona Gaprindashvili, the first woman to be awarded the title of grandmaster. She started playing when she was 4 years old and as a child she trained 10 hours a day.

The Eastern European country was then in the middle of a civil war and the Government was very interested in promoting national heroines. Before his participation in the U-10 World Cup, he even received a phone call from the then president, who told him that he had to win for the country.

Phiona Mutesi from Uganda has also made a name for herself. The 24-year-old, who grew up in a Kampala slum, was forced to drop out of school at age nine and to work. He learned to play chess in an after-school program run by a charity.

His impressive story was captured in a book, adapted for the cinema by Disney in 2016.

American grand teacher Jennifer Shahade, 39, is also well known, especially for the books she has published to dispel myths about female players, including “Chess Bitch”: Women in Next Generation Intellectual Sports ” and “Play like a girl”.

Chess is becoming more popular on the Internet

According to a 2012 survey, 605 million adults play chess regularly around the world. And it is gaining in popularity through influencers chess that broadcast their games online.

The COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns that force tens of millions of people to stay home have caused an explosion of viewers of online games.

In May, when half of humanity was under restrictions to stay at home, eight million hours of chess were watched on Twitch’s live video streaming service. Last month, more than 4.3 million hours were watched, almost double the number in October 2019, according to StreamElements.

The most popular channel is run by five-time United States chess champion Hikaru Nakamura. At least 3 of the 10 most popular channels are run by women.

Perhaps the world’s first female champion is watching an online match right now.


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