Citing neuroscience, a Grandmaster says men are better at chess. Smart move?

British chess Grandmaster Nigel Short claims that the brains of men and women are 'hard-wired' differently, giving males an advantage at chess. But neuroscience doesn't back up his claims.

Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/AP
Chess master Carissa Yip, who at age 11 became the youngest female ever to defeat a grandmaster, plays a match at the chess club in Billerica, Mass.

In a commentary for a chess magazine, British chess Grandmaster Nigel Short appealed to neuroscience to support his claim that women’s brains are “hard-wired” in a way that predisposes females to have less innate chess aptitude than their male counterparts.

In essay titled  "Vive la Différence!” published this week in Chess In News, Mr. Short writes that Dutch chess Grandmaster Johannes Hendrikus Donner, may have “had a point,” when he wrote, “The difference between the sexes is remarkable in chess, but not any more so, to my mind, than any other field of cultural activity. Women cannot play chess, but they cannot paint either, or write, or philosophise. In fact, women have never thought or made anything worth considering.”  

“At university level, women are clearly now outperforming men in many disciplines. In my own family, my daughter was uniformly academically excellent, whereas my son (like his father before him) is both lazy and erratic,” Short says. “But within the narrow confines of chess, the jury is still out. It is not enough to point to the recently-retired Judit Polgar as evidence that women are as good as men, as the brilliant Hungarian is clearly an outlier.”

Short has first-hand experience on this point, having lost more than once to Ms. Polgar. 

Polgar, a Grandmaster, is one of three Hungarian-born sisters known for their exceptional chess ability. Susan Polgar was the world's first female Grandmaster and a four-time World Champion. She now coaches the Webster University chess team which, last month, won an unprecedented fifth college Final Four chess championship. Sofia Polgar is an International Master, the rank just below Grandmaster.

Their father, László Polgár, is notable for his insistence that "geniuses are made, not born," and he has set out to prove it by training his daughters to be champions.

Short writes, “Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Are Short's claims backed by science? Not according to Northwestern University neuroscientist Catherine Woolley, who’s work focuses on how the brain differs between the sexes, says, “My reaction to that as a scientist is that that kind of statement sounds like personal opinion and not one based on any known fact about the male brain versus the female brain.”

“When people, especially people in positions of societal authority, such as a chess master who has reached the top of their field – which gives them some credibility – make statements that play into stereotypes, it’s easy, though incorrect, to recognize a ring of truth in their statements,” Dr. Woolley says. “When you add credibility, plus stereotype, it’s easy for people to accept their statements.”

Short also told Sky News that women excel at verbal skills, but that the gap in chess was, "quite large and I believe that's down to sex differences."

“There are differences between the male brain and the female brain. We know some of them. There are probably many more that we don’t know yet. But I can’t see any direct connection between sex differences in the brain and the types of complex behaviors that that person was referring to, either chess or parking the car, or emotional intelligence,” Woolley says. “Those statements [made by Short] sound to me like stereotypes, cultural stereotypes, that now the neuroscience of sex differences in the brain is being hijacked to support.”

Woolley concludes, “As a neuroscientist who studies sex differences in the brain, I find no foundation in science to make those statements.”

Twitter users have blitzed Short with posts over his comments.

Short also wrote that “despite the enormous societal changes over 40 years, the gap between the leading males and females has remained fairly constant at nearly 250 Elo points – a yawning chasm in ability. That women seem stronger has more to do with universally higher standards, due to the ubiquity of computers, than any closing of the gender gap.”

Paul F. Avarich, a behavioral neuroscientist at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va., acknowledges that there exist clear differences between how men and women think, including how we process spatial relations between objects in our field of vision. "Does this mean that women are less likely to become chess grandmasters because of a gender difference?" he asks. "Or does it mean that women are less likely to become chess grandmasters because of a gender bias?"

"Gender-fair education focuses on the unique strengths of each gender," Dr. Avarich says. "Consequently, the number of women chess grandmasters is not limited by visuospatial differences.  Instead, it is limited by the lack of female-specific training programs." 

According to United States Chess Federation President Ruth Haring, the organization is working to provide such training programs and opportunities.

"Our [USCF’s] mission is to empower people through chess one move at a time. USCF created the US Girls Jr. Championship, an invitational tournament and the US Women's Open in recent years joining the US Women's Championship and the National Girls Invitational Tournament (a tournament of State Champions),” Ms. Haring writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “I believe that parity will be achieved for women, when we go from 12% of the tournament playing population to 50%. It's a numbers game.”  

Haring writes, “The USA has nine women masters on our under 20 list: two under 13, two more under 16.  The future is bright for women's chess.”

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