Susan Polgar: With encouragement, girls can be as good as boys at chess
Two of the most intriguing questions I have been asked are: “Can female players be as good in chess as male players, and how come there are too few top-level female players?”
Yes, female players can be as good. However, there are a number of reasons why few female players can compete on the same level as their male counterparts. Here are some of the reasons which I discussed in an earlier interview:
In general, society does not encourage or really accept the concept of girls playing chess. That makes it difficult to get girls involved in chess and even more difficult to sustain their interest.
There is also little family acceptance for girls playing chess. Many parents do not really understand or play chess well themselves. Some do not understand the benefits for their daughters of playing chess. Therefore, if the girls are not encouraged to play chess, it is more natural for them not to play at all or to abandon it quickly. This is similar to the stereotype of boys playing with cars and trucks, while girls play with Barbie dolls. Boys don’t play with Barbie dolls because it is generally considered a girl thing. Many parents consider chess a boy thing.
This point directly links to the social and family acceptance issues. Because of the lack of family and social acceptance, fewer parents actually invest the time and money to encourage their daughters to play chess. And the lack of encouragement or assistance directly leads to fewer girls taking chess seriously.
Because the ratio of boys to girls at tournaments is so skewed (8 or 9-to-1 boys vs. girls), girls often feel intimidated. And because girls have fewer opportunities to learn and play, it leads to poor results, which leads to discouragement and eventually they quit. In addition, boys are usually much more rough and competitive; many girls are teased, and rather than fighting back, they just don’t come back.
Boys and girls approach the game of chess very differently. Most boys are results-oriented and focus on winning and losing. Most girls are very different; they have a greater appreciation for the artistic and social aspect of chess. The problem we face is that most people expect girls to learn the game and enjoy it the same way boys do. They don’t, and we as educators, parents or coaches need to understand this.
Physiological and physical differences
As they get older, girls tend to develop faster in many ways. They develop different interests and are often treated differently; they also have different social problems. It is not easy being the “only” female player at a tournament. Many older girls have to fend off unwanted advances and are often subjected to inappropriate remarks.
Being chess pioneers, my sisters and I faced many of these issues while competing in a male-dominated chess environment. No female player is immune to this. But I was able to focus on my chess because I was encouraged and supported by my parents, and I was given the opportunities to learn and compete in chess.
We do not have specialized chess development and improvement courses geared toward girls, something that addresses the differences between boys’ and girls’ approach to the game. The same goes with chess camps or chess classes. The activities and methods of teaching chess are more orientated to boys than girls.
A chess rating is just a number that measures the competitive success of a player. Yet, as I mentioned above, many girls are less competitive than boys. So if everything revolves around ratings, can we expect the same success in girls?
Female players often must interrupt their careers in order to raise a family.
Through my numerous experiences with thousands of young female players and their parents across the country, I discovered that girls do need and want a separate chess environment in which they are comfortable. Only in such an environment can you encourage more girls to stay, play and learn chess at a much higher ratio and level. This would give them a chance to advance and catch up with the boys.
• create more fun and exciting events for girls to motivate them to stay in chess longer (Webster University is sponsoring some of these wonderful all-girls events);
• create a better atmosphere so young girls will be less intimidated;
• create activities that girls would enjoy and appreciate more;
• create more college scholarships as an incentive for girls to achieve better results (since 2003, the Susan Polgar Foundation, through our partners and donors, has awarded over $5 million in chess scholarships and prizes);
• create a free training program to help the more serious and more talented girls excel to be top-level players.
Here is a new initiative (between FIDE, WOM, the Susan Polgar Foundation, and Webster University) to help some of the top girls: