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Image for France: the chess world is no Queen's Gambit

France: the chess world is no Queen's Gambit

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Amanda Maruny Paz

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The Queen's Gambit, which follows the adventures of a young female chess prodigy, has just broken the record for the most watched Netflix series of all time. The fact remains, though, that the proportion of women chess players is actually decreasing. The French Chess Federation has launched a new initiative to tackle the problem, though some doubt how effective it will be.

Beth Harmon looks at her adversary and smiles. She moves the knight confidently and puts her opponent in check. The latter smiles in turn, forced to admit defeat. Such attitudes from both a female player and her adversary stand out in a world where queens rarely play a central role. In 2018 women represented only 20.22% of the licence holders of the French Chess Federation (FFE). While other sports are actively taking steps to increase the number of women participants, the gap is widening further in the chess world. In 2013 the proportion of licences given to women peaked at 24.15%. Now it has decreased to its lowest level in 10 years. According to the latest data from 2018, there were just 11,090 women enrolled compared to 54,860 men.

This does not get any better at the highest levels. Among the rankings of chess grandmasters, only 2% are women and only one of them, Hou Yifan, is in the world's top 100. Dina Belenkaya, Female Grandmaster and Russian professional player, is well aware of this gender issue. "From growing up in Russia, and later, as I got better, the chess field in general has often made me feel that I was supposed to step aside for men," she says.

Snapshot taken from the Netflix series, _The Queen's Gambit_

The heroine of The Queen's Gambit is constantly looked down upon by her male competitors, who are not used to playing against women. Sonia Bogdanovsky, president of the association 'Chess & Mixing', which aims to promote and encourage gender diversity in the field, explains that this behaviour is quite common in mixed competitions: "Female players often come and tell me that they stop playing because of inappropriate and sexist behaviour. The sport is not sexist in itself, but in a male dominated environment, macho behaviour is not considered a problem."

A counterproductive system

In the introduction to its 2019 'feminisation plan', the FFE provides an explanation for this: chess, it claims, is traditionally masculine. Since its birth in Asia around the year 500, the sport has always been dominated by men. The plan also references the idea of chess as a 'mathematical' game which, as a result, suffers due to the same stereotypes that keep women away from scientific activities. Still, these facts alone are not enough to explain such a sizeable gap in opportunities.

Yannick Gozzoli, French International Grandmaster, founder and former coach of the Marseille-Chess Club, gives us his opinion on the matter. "Leaving aside the highest levels it is more accurate to talk about bad habits than obstacles in the chess world. It starts very young, through a system of categories: there is the mixed category and the women's category." The competitions are organised in the same way. Originally, the aim of this system was to encourage women to engage with the sport. Indeed, the system does make it easier for female players to spread their influence, win more competitions and, a fortiori, be invited to international competitions. In addition, prizes won on the female-only tour give women easier access to financial gains that enable them to fund their trips and earn a living from playing.

"By using the system this way the clubs are clearly sacrificing the children's potential."

In theory, then, everything is fine. Yet this system also has a negative effect: female players who are trained on the women's circuit are only used to playing against other women. Since there are about four times as many male players as female players in the chess world, there is a higher probability of facing a particularly talented player in the mixed category than in the women's category.

Mr. Gozzoli explains that this allocation process is not always selfless: "If a female player is talented and motivated, she will be oriented towards the women's competition, where she will have a better chance of distinguishing herself. These victories will allow the club to shine with sponsorships, grants and subsidies to keep the organisation going. By using the system this way the clubs are clearly sacrificing the children's potential." The influence of a club depends directly on the competitions won by its members. The French National Sporting Association (ANS) also provides subsidies to clubs that promote activities by girls and women.

Among the 5-14 age group, 24.74% of licences are allocated to girls. This percentage drops to 16.6% for 15-24 year olds. According to Sonia Bogdanovsky, this can easily be explained: "As the high school diploma approaches, parents rarely encourage their child to continue playing chess in a serious way. This phenomenon is even more common among female players, as they tend to stay away from any competitive discipline in order to concentrate on studying more [conventionally] secure subjects."

Bogdanovsky believes that chess should be actively supported alongside other forms of education in order to make it clear that playing in competitions does not mean drawing a line under one's professional life. She cites the example of Anaëlle Afraoui (currently France's 17th ranked female player), who enjoys the status of being recognised as a top-level sportswoman. This label will help ensure her a future through playing competitive chess.

What scope is there for change?

The FFE's feminisation plan details the different steps that have been put in place in order to raise awareness about these problems among the governing bodies, arbitration and managerial organisations. It also proposes activities, programs, certificates and even the introduction of a favourable tariff policy in order to promote chess playing among women, including at a competitive level.

Some people, however, have raised questions about how sincere the desire to achieve the goals outlined really is. One objective, for example, involves "striving towards equality in the refereeing of major championships"; a goal that should have begun to be implemented with the 2019 French chess championships, scheduled to take place in Chartres from 17 to 25 August. In the end out of a total of 14 championship referees there were only 3 women.

Leaving aside the actual implementation of the proposed measures, the FFE is not making any changes to the functioning of women's competitions, which seems to be the main cause of the unequal performances observed. Individual leagues, on the other hand, are pushing to take action themselves. In 2018, for example, the Île-de-France League voted to introduce gender diversity in the youth championships, and they are not alone.

"Either the proposed measures are not being implemented or they are not the right ones"

Similarly, the rules on gender diversity in competition refereeing have never really been applied. The proportion of female referees in the French championship actually decreased from 2018 to 2019. As Ms. Bogdanovsky tells us, the composition of referees in such a championship is of vital importance: firstly, because these referees will train other future referees. Secondly, because these referees represent the Federation: "by assigning female referees we will also promote the image of a mixed sport."

"The Federation has been taking measures to increase the number of women in chess for a very long time. Either the proposed measures are not being implemented or they are not the right ones," Bogdanovsky continues. As an example she points to a rule of the French championship of clubs which requires the presence of a woman of French nationality in every team with no minimum Elo rating (ed. an international measure of strength of chess players) for the clubs in the top 16 division. Men, by contrast, must have an Elo ranking of at least 2000. "Every year, we find ourselves with 'flowerpot' female players, who are not there to compete seriously but to avoid the penalty." These rules, designed to promote the female game at a high level, actually reinforce the idea that women are naturally less good at chess than men.

Dina Belenkaya has a more moderate opinion on the issue of gender diversity. According to her, the chess world is not yet in a position to revise the system of women's competitions."We are not ready," she says, "but we are on the right track: all the Federation's actions are helping to change the mindset of the community and to consider women as serious competitors." Will Beth's journey, which has brought more than 62 million people to their screens, inspire a new generation of female chess players to transform the sport into a genuine Queen's Gambit? Only time will tell.

Cover illustration: Mickaël Fischer

See also: Où sont les fans ? (Where are the fans?) Cafébabel's podcast series about the role of women in football [French only].

Translated from Les échecs sont-ils vraiment le jeu de la dame ?