Photo by Doug Armand

The Queen’s Gambit

Why women’s chess matters

Artillery Row

Though it is estimated that the game of chess was invented around the 7th century, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that women were allowed to play. Twelve centuries is a very long wait. Women are used to waiting to take part in activities that men take for granted as their right, be it in an academic or a sporting realm.

The question of being female becomes arbitrary according to circumstance

It is therefore no surprise that when women do make those gains — when they are granted elusive access to areas previously reserved by and for men — they are often more than happy to partake away from the men who ridiculed and excluded them.

This week “FIDE”, the international chess body, decided that trans-identified men would be excluded from competing in the female category whilst a two year investigation is conducted. The English Chess Federation has said it will not apply such measures.

Arguments this week have surrounded the idea that there can be no need to have a separate category for women in a game not involving physical advantages. Any suggestion that women would prefer to play alone means that women think they are intellectually inferior to men.

I do not wish to compare women to dogs or muddy boots, but if I am walking my dog across the moors and fancy a pint afterwards, when I encounter a sign at the pub door that says “dogs and muddy boots welcome”, I know that I can enter without feeling uncomfortable or having to apologise. I could of course try going into any pub, but one that openly declares a welcome is one I will seek out in future.

When women have been excluded from activities, sporting or cerebral, the equivalent of that sign on the door is a “female only” category. After women have been barred from competing and humiliated for attempting to join in, they need to know that this is now an area they are welcome — not as a begrudging addition where they will continue to be ridiculed (though tolerated) by men, but a space where they can thrive together if they choose. Some women are happy to play chess against men, but some are not. Those women are given a clear message of invitation by hanging the word “woman” on the activity. More women will seek that activity out with confidence.

The assertion that “transwomen” do not pose any problem in such a category is advanced by trans activists because, they say, there is no physical advantage for a man who says he is a woman in the game of chess. That isn’t the issue. His presence requires that women believe he is a woman. Many women don’t and won’t. They are required to pretend, and they refuse. If it is possible to say that being female matters in swimming, but not chess, the question of being female becomes arbitrary according to circumstance. Women reject this sifting and juggling of our bodies and their immutable reality.

Woman always means “adult human female”, regardless of the situation or what risk men pose to women. Sometimes that safety risk is particularly pertinent, in say football or boxing; and sometimes it is not, in the instance of chess. It is however always relevant in making the point that men cannot change sex, and women are not compelled to believe they have.

Women choosing to take part in women’s categories often do it because they are afforded more respect there. It was the grandmaster Bobby Fischer who declared about female chess players, “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every game to a man.”

It is little wonder that in 1962 when such attitudes abounded, women took themselves away from them — and some still prefer to. Whilst Fischer changed his mind on this, women are well aware that men still fiercely protect their assumed superiority in areas they feel are really theirs.

If you put just one male bodied person into that space, something happens

England women’s football team, the Lionesses, just narrowly missed out on winning the World Cup 2023. Despite their Amazonian efforts, men mocked and ridiculed their progress throughout. Suggestions were made that women’s football isn’t as compelling as the men’s game. It doesn’t matter what achievements women make; men will never consider them equals. Women may therefore prefer to compete against each other, such as in a women’s chess tournament.

Trans-identified men are no further excluded from the game of chess than anyone else who wants to play. They are welcome in the traditional men’s game, just as women who choose to play there are. Why would they need access to a female specific category? We can only assume it is to have women validate their identity choice.

As ever, there is a lack of understanding of the social and cultural needs of some women to engage in activity away from men. Chess may not be physical, but it is played in close physical proximity, intensely engaged with your opponent’s face and glare. A Muslim woman, required to sit opposite a male opponent in this way, might feel deeply uncomfortable in such close proximity to a man. In some cases, her adherence to her religion would forbid it. Likewise, women who have experienced male violence and suffer a trauma response to a man’s closeness and stare would be unlikely to want to play chess where she would be subjected to that.

Supporters of “inclusion” in women’s chess do not grasp what female-only spaces or activities feel like if you actually are a woman. They envy it as a concept; they see it as an interesting obstacle to cross as part of an imagined quest to become female, but they will never really understand it. In part, the camaraderie found when women gather together socially is a direct result of women being shunned by patriarchy for millennia. Historically women nevertheless managed to find and cherish time with each other away from men, and they still do. We love being in the company of other women. Women collectively loosen their shoulders when no man is around. They laugh, talk, share, heal and plot. If you put just one male bodied person into that space, something happens immediately to that dynamic of perceived freedom. Women adapt.

In the game of chess, each player is aware of where the King is throughout. The King is the tallest of the chess men. Nowhere is the patriarchy more symbolically represented than on a chess board. When a man enters women’s space, just like the chess piece of the King, he is noticed. He is sometimes surrounded, sometimes rejected. Different women react differently; some protect him, some avoid him, but he is always noted. A man saying he is a woman is no different, because all of us know it isn’t true.

Women are not pawns to validate men with a desire to experience female bonding. We aren’t pieces you can move around the board at will. The Queen’s Gambit, it appears, is saying no.

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