Breaking barriers, making moves: changing gender dynamics in chess

February, 2024
Asya MorozovKatie QinJoanna Hou


Chess players like Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, and Bobby Fischer are legends to anyone who knows anything about chess. If someone were to think of a few more players, they would probably think of Hikaru Nakamura or Anish Girid — but what about players who are not men? Women are just as capable of excelling in chess as men, but they receive much less publicity and play much less in general. Transgender players are also frequently excluded or forced into strict, binary norms.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a Netflix show about a young woman, Beth Harmon, who is a chess genius and completely dominates her opponents. Many people might attribute the cause of the recent spike in popularity of chess to this series because of its inspiring success story about overcoming all the odds. However, the series also highlights the obvious gender imbalance in chess in the 1950s–1960s; at every tournament, Beth is usually the only woman present who is actually playing and is often underestimated by both the audience and her competitors.

This gender inequality still exists to this day. An article on chess.com shows that chess is still largely a male-dominated game, with only 15 percent of United States Chess Federation (USCF) rated players and 11 percent of International Chess Federation (FIDE) rated players being female. And in 2020, out of the 1,722 grandmasters, or players who have a rating of 2,500 or higher and achieve favorable results in at least three tournaments against other grandmasters, 37 were women. So why does this happen?

Some may still argue that there are less female players simply because they’re not as clever as male chess players, but these are groundless statements, as there is no concrete proof that men are innately more intelligent than women. The disparity comes from societal and cultural issues, as chess has always been a sport that only male elites were invited to. According to a study co-authored by Woman Grandmaster (WGM) Jennifer Shahade (2023), gender bias plays a huge role in why there are so few female chess players compared to male chess players. The study revealed that many coaches and parents of chess players, people who are closest to them, believe that girls are less likely to succeed. Of course, playing a game where nobody truly believes in one’s potential to succeed can definitely bring down one’s self esteem and motivation. This constant, often overwhelming, discouragement is a big reason why there are fewer professional female chess players in general. It also does not help that, because there are so few prominent female chess players, many girls who aspire to play chess as a career lack role models. This gender bias has recently become extreme. In August of 2023, more than 100 women signed an open letter denouncing sexist and sexual violence in the chess community. The fear of such actions is understandably another factor that discourages many women from participating in chess.

Additionally, male and female chess players are often separated into separate leagues and tournaments due to the commonly held belief that women are not be able to win when playing chess against men. The separation between men’s and women’s chess emphasizes that the chess world is an environment in which women’s skills are not fairly assessed and in which women as a whole are undervalued from the moment they enter a tournament.

This separation, which is strictly enforced by FIDE, also prevents players who do not fit the gender binary from playing. Transgender women, for instance, cannot participate in women’s chess tournaments without undergoing a legal gender change. Even after providing proof of a legal gender change, transgender women must still be subjected to “further analysis” by FIDE. Essentially, the vast majority of transgender women are unable to play in the correct gender category or stuck in a long legal process. However, when they successfully switch from male to female leagues, transgender women are allowed to keep all of their previous men’s titles, while transgender men are not allowed to keep their women’s titles and have to start from zero. Meanwhile, nonbinary people have no place in chess tournaments at all. Transgender people are excluded in all situations, forced into a gender binary that oppresses people of all genders and prevents the emergence of high-level players by placing restrictions on their play.

Yosha Iglesias, one of the only professional transgender chess players, expresses concern for her future as a chess player. Unsure of whether she can continue to play in women’s tournaments or if she will be able to continue her career, Iglesias, along with many transgender chess players, wonders if these coming years will be her last in the game.

Although there have been efforts to balance the game, there are still many challenges women have to face in the chess world, stemming from stereotypes that are rooted deeply in historical prejudices. In a game dominated by elite cisgender men from the start, women and transgender people struggle to find a place where they can learn, grow, and play at an appropriate level. If chess becomes more accepting, it would create a much healthier environment where all players are able to challenge themselves, no matter their gender.