EVEN Bobby Fischer might think twice today about his famous boast that he could play without a knight and still beat any female chess player in the world. The level of skill among women has come a long way since Fischer held the world championship in the early 1970s. And this very progress is creating a new controversy over the issue of separate women's tournaments and prizes. Such special consideration has been standard for many years, just as it is in more physical competitions like tennis, basketball, or marathon running. But should the same rules apply in a primarily mental game, where the greater size and strength of males would not seem to be a factor?
The rationale is simple enough: Women's chess, despite some spectacular individual exceptions, is still nowhere near the level of the men's game. And since male players outnumber females by an overwhelming margin, anything that induces more women to play is a good idea.
Opponents contend, however, that separate tournaments and prizes are both demeaning and counterproductive, serving only to perpetuate the myth of female inferiority. ``It's a very tough call,'' says Al Lawrence, who as executive director of the United States Chess Federation is frequently thrust into the middle of the issue. ``I find it hard to be critical of an organizer trying to stimulate interest and encourage more women to play. But at the same time I understand the argument that on principle it is denigrating.''
This latter point is at the crux of the whole argument, as pointed out by Philip Dorsey, a prominent New York master, journalist, and organizer, in a guest editorial in a recent issue of Chess Horizons magazine.
Dorsey says special tournaments and prizes encourage both men and women to believe ``that the old double standard still lives, that women are not expected to be as good as men and that men must prove themselves superior to women.''
He adds that offering such concessions reduces the incentive for women to reach their full potential and ``encourages men to hold on to whatever prejudices they may already have.''
Furthermore, Dorsey and other opponents of separate tournaments claim, the recent success of several women in mixed events proves that the potential is there. Women's world champion Maya Chiburdanidze and former titleholder Nona Gaprindashvili, both from the Soviet Union, have performed well in otherwise all-male tournaments. And three young sisters from Hungary - Susan, Judith, and Sophia Polgar - have electrified the chess world with their accomplishments playing almost exclusively against men. Susan, 19, is one step away from joining Gaprindashvili as the only women who have achieved a ``men's'' grandmaster title. And 12-year-old Judith is already in the record books as the youngest player of either sex to receive a full-fledged international master title.
The other side of the argument is that, despite these exceptions, special considerations are clearly needed if women are to have any realistic chance for significant honors and prizes.
Even Ms. Chiburdanidze, who once predicted that a woman would someday hold the world championship, now seems to have doubts. In a recent interview in the Swiss chess magazine Die Schachwoche, she says women are not equal in psychological strength to men in chess, and that women think differently concerning the game. She also cites stamina as a factor, admitting that she becomes more tired and prone to mistakes than her male counterparts near the end of the six-hour playing sessions.
Anna Akhsharumova, the US women's champion and the only player of either sex ever to have won the national titles of both the United States and the Soviet Union, has similar reservations. ``Chess puts great pressure on the nervous system, and in general I think men's nervous systems are stronger,'' she told the Monitor. ``But there are exceptions.''
Nevertheless, given the inroads women have made plus the tendency of the better ones to compete more against men, Anna says that ``perhaps it's reasonable not to have separate events any longer.''
But Anna's husband, Boris Gulko, one of the world's top male players and a former Soviet champion, says he thinks special considerations are still in order.
``When women play at the same level as men, there will be no need to separate them, but now it makes sense,'' he says.
And will women some day achieve that level? Both Boris and Anna believe it is possible - and both point to the Polgar sisters as the most likely candidates to further break down the barriers.
It's obvious from the names at the top in world chess that virtually all outstanding female players - even those in the West - come from Eastern Europe. Akhsharumova, a former refusednik who emigrated to the United States two years ago and now lives in Brookline, Mass., says that the only way to change this situation is to follow the lead of East European nations by including the game more into school studies.
``If it were taught in the schools, it would be a big difference - especially for girls,'' she says. ``Boys are more ... likely to play the game on their own.''