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Sunday, August 15, 2010 - 11:36am

A Gender Divide In The Ultimate Sport Of The Mind

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis is no run-of-the-mill chess club. It's a palace with a designer black-and-white interior, carved tables with inlaid rosewood boards, and a fleet of big screens looming like Jumbotrons. And last month, everyone there witnessed a true chess master in Irina Krush, an International Master of the game. She stormed through the Women's U.S. Chess Championship without a single loss.

Women have been competing with men at top chess events since the late '80s, but there's still a big performance gap. In the most recent list of the Top 100 chess players, only one was a woman. While the gender divide in sports like hockey makes sense in some ways -- men are generally bigger and stronger -- chess isn't a physical game, it's a game of the mind.

The International Chess Federation ranks the world's players and awards titles. The two most difficult to earn, Grandmaster and International Master, are open to anybody. But below those is the title of Woman Grandmaster. Krush holds that title, but doesn't use it anymore since she also holds the gender neutral International Master title.

"I just don't see the point having these separate women's titles," says Krush, who was born in the former Soviet Union but grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I'm not sure what they indicate. Women can play with men -- they do play with men now. They can earn the same titles as men."

Women-only titles may add to the problem. At least that's what International Master Matt Shankland thinks.

"For women to actually make marks in the chess world, we need to have some women really get toward the top," Shankland says. "For that to happen, they need to jump through all the same hoops men do, because if they just get free cookies now and then, they're not going to have as much incentive to improve."

Doing away with women's titles is a blunt argument, but an argument that has supporters. The thinking is that doing away with women's titles, tournaments and the associated prize funds will force women to jump to the next level.

"I always say that women should have the self-confidence that they are as good as male players, but only if they are willing to work and take it seriously as much as male players," says Grandmaster Judit Polgar who is regarded by many as the greatest female player in chess history. "If they would have a higher goal, they would also reach higher."

Polgar is the only woman to ever beat Garry Kasparov and the only woman to reach the top 10 on the mixed gender list. She could easily be Women's World Champion, but she never plays in women's events. Her opinion about women's tournaments, though, isn't shared by everyone in the chess world.

Jennifer Shahade is a two-time American women's champion and author of the book Chess Bitch. She says women's tournaments are crucial and that eliminating them would be disastrous for the developing cadre of female chess pros.

If you eliminate the prize money associated with women's tournaments, says Shahade, women would "just get other jobs and stop playing chess."

Krush earned $16,000 in this year's U.S. Women's Championship. That may be less than half the prize collected by the male winner of the overall championship, but it's enough that she can devote her time to chess and be a role model for a new generation of girls.

The argument that girls need role models in the sport isn't merely a sentimental notion -- research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that when girls aren't outnumbered, they play just as well as boys.

In the meantime, some have proposed eliminating titles like Woman Grandmaster, while retaining women's tournaments. As Shahade put it, there are plenty of women's colleges, but graduates don't hold women's Ph.D.s. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]

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