Why Men Rank Higher than Women at Chess (It's Not Biological)

Jan 12, 2009 by Lisa Zyga weblog
Viswanathan Anand is the current World Chess Champion.

(PhysOrg.com) -- In the recorded history of chess, world champions have always been male, not female. Further, there is currently only one woman in the top 100 chess players in the world. Because chess is often considered to be the ultimate intellectual activity, male dominance at chess is often cited as an example of innate male intellectual superiority. But rather than resort to biological or cultural explanations, a recent study proposes a different explanation.

A team of researchers from the UK has shown that the under-representation of women at the top end in chess is almost exactly what would be expected, given the much greater number of men that participate in the game at all. Researchers Merim Bilalic, et al., have published their research on this statistical sampling explanation in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The authors analyzed the population of about 120,000 German players as recorded by the German chess federation in April 2007. Based on more than 3,000 tournaments per year, the German chess federation measures the skill level of all competitive and most hobby players in the country (the rating correlates highly with the widely known Elo rating). The sample population included 113,386 men and 7,013 women (a ratio of 16:1).

First, the researchers estimated the expected performance of the top 100 male and top 100 female players. Then, they compared the expected differences in points between these high-ranking male and female players with the actual point differences. Theoretically, the size difference between the male and female groups should correspond to the point differences between the top performers in the two groups.

The results showed that the top three women had more points than expected, the next 70 or so pairs showed a small advantage for the men, and the last 20 pairs showed a small advantage for the women. Overall, men performed slightly better than expected, with an average advantage of 353 points, whereas the expected advantage was 341 points. Nevertheless, about 96% of the actual difference between genders could be explained by the statistical fact that the extreme values from a large sample are likely to be larger than those from a small one.

In the study, the scientists also discussed the question of why so few women participate in chess at all. While it's possible that there exists a self-selection process based on innate biological differences that leads women to drop out of chess early on, this argument rests on a controversial assumption, the researchers say. That is, it requires that there is an innate difference between genders in the intellectual abilities associated with chess - an assumption that has little empirical evidence to support it.

Whether or not statistical sampling covers all the bases of explaining male superiority in chess, the researchers hope that the explanation will be considered by both experts and laypeople. In previous discussions of gender difference, there is often no mention of participation rates, although a wide range of other reasons receive attention (e.g. different interests and gatekeeper effects, etc.).

In addition, the researchers question whether a statistical sampling explanation might explain the predominance of men at the top of science and engineering fields - although performance in these activities is much more difficult to measure than in objectively ranked chess populations.

More information: Bilalic, Merim; Smallbone, Kieran; McLeod, Peter; and Gobet, Fernand. "Why are (the best) women so good at chess? Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains." Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1576.

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

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MichaelJM
3 / 5 (5) Jan 12, 2009
Is it just me, or does this study seem fairly obvious? I'd be more interested in the question of why fewer women participate; unfortunately this study only discusses it.
thematrix606
2.5 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2009
I'm still waiting for an article to point out an area where women are better than man... does not exist so far(ignoring spirituality for the time being that is).
kerry
3.7 / 5 (10) Jan 12, 2009
earls is never getting married.
JJC
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
It would be interesting to see if the same holds true in crossword puzzle tournaments (or something else that women might be more likely to participate in).

Also, would the results hold across race/job/etc lines? I bet it gets much less robust when you look at finer grain things.
abadaba
2.2 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2009
i hate studies like this. This is not science. And just as michael said, this is extremely obvious and the scientific question would be why do fewer women participate, which is probably biological and cultural. Really stupid study.
Yoyo
4.1 / 5 (8) Jan 12, 2009
No, it's a very clever study! NOW, after reading it, you say "it's obvious", but had you ever thought of this explanation yourself? Pointing out the obvious is an essential part of an educator's job.

Why do I think it's not obvious? Because many scientists are statistical laymen; despite compulsory early maths methods and basic stats courses, many physicists and other "hard" scientists show very little statistical sophistication, or indeed, understannding, when discussing population effects. Of course, the better scientists know just how important stats are, and much of modern physics would be meaningless without a fairly advanced level of stats competence.

In the soft sciences, we're more used to seeing, say, sociologists talk about experimental design and sampling regimes. But so much of the applied science of biology would also be impossible without thorough knowledge of these same disciplines.

Still, many scientists DO require further education in how stats work; and in particular, in learning to think of statistical effects when posing their questions, creating hypotheses and interpreting whether their observations support the hypotheses.

This is science: asking a question that can only be answered by appeal to empirical evidence. The article posits the question in a clearly disprovable form: "that the extreme values from a large sample are likely to be larger than those from a small one". Although the article claims this to be a "statistical fact", it is instead one of two things: (1) a theoretical result, mathematically provable from a set of very broad statistical assumptions; or (2) a plausible generalisation based on the kinds of intuition developed by any long-term practitioner in a field.

While I'd like it to be (1), I haven't seen a proof, and can't readily envisage one that would encompass all the different kinds of real-life distributions, or even more than about half of the theoretical ones I've encountered - and I taught stats at tertiary level.

So I'd say it's (2) - a plausible generalisation from experience. For it to be more than the beginnings of a scientific study, it needs to go beyond posing the question, and proceed to demonstrating its validity for a class of problems large enough to include competitive chess ability.

But at least, it does raise the question!

-----

BTW, has it occurred to anyone that fewer women than men participate in chess, not because it's too hard for their tiny little minds, but because most women find chess a boring waste of time and ability?

Yoyo
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
@thematrix606: Women are known to be better at process work requiring repeating a complex sequence with great precision. This is why they were favoured as employees in electronics assembly, garment construction, toy-making etc. Probably still are favoured, where equal opportunity laws don't prevent it.

There's also the theory that women multi-task better than men, but I have no idea whether there's any empirical support for that.
Edward3
2.7 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2009
Or because they can´t stop talking for long enough !!
Keter
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 12, 2009
I can't answer for other women, but here are the reasons I quit playing chess:

- other women don't play, meaning my only opponents were male

- males don't take being challenged by a woman seriously, and they throw attitude

- when they lose, it's not a nice scene (excuses, whining, display of temper)

- when they win, it's not a nice scene (arrogance, sexism)

- I ended up a single parent and didn't have time to play, and I don't want to play badly because of lack of practice...now I'm just too busy with other things and games of any kind are not a priority

- And the biggest difference: for me, it's a GAME.
ontheinternets
2.8 / 5 (4) Jan 12, 2009
All aptitude studies that I've seen thusfar have irked me in that they don't take a strong stand in accepting that predisposition toward maintaining interest in certain vocations (or away from alternatives that would present a distraction) is a critical component of aptitude. I would even say that for most healthy individuals, it is the most important component. Consider child prodigies in music. How many children can you find who won't present some rebellion/sabotage against the kind of instruction required to gain those skills? Not a high percentage. And yes, that can be a strength or a fault.

What I see happening is that a certain centuries old brain power pissing contest continues -- even when each one of us knows with every fibre of our being that there were certain things that we never would have fully asserted ourselves toward, no matter how hard our parents had pushed. We play a part in our direction from before the time we are able to have a well-formed view of the world, and I personally believe that for those who have generally working circuitry, this is what is most interesting and deserves furthest study.
MorituriMax
3.6 / 5 (5) Jan 12, 2009
If the ratio is 16:1 why aren't there 6 women in the top 100 players?
paulthebassguy
3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
Perhaps Keter's explanation is valid - Biologically, Men are generally more competitive than women, and find the competitive nature of chess much more exciting than women do, which is why there are more men.
Ethelred
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 12, 2009
From the article

Nevertheless, about 96% of the actual difference between genders could be explained by the statistical fact that the extreme values from a large sample are likely to be larger than those from a small one.


That is dubious at best. Random variation has more effect in SMALL samples.

Ethelred
Ethelred
3.4 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2009
Keter says

I can't answer for other women, but here are the reasons I quit playing chess:

- other women don't play, meaning my only opponents were male


That's one reason by brother's ex-wife was a gamer. Lots of available men around at gaming conventions making it a target rich environment.

- males don't take being challenged by a woman seriously, and they throw attitude


Well some sure do. Not all. Use it against them. A bad attitude makes for a stupid player.

- when they lose, it's not a nice scene (excuses, whining, display of temper)


This is normal. Its not just women that run into this. Its all over competition. Bad losers.

- when they win, it's not a nice scene (arrogance, sexism)


Again normal, except I don't run into the sexism part. Jerks will use any excuse to be jerks.

What was said about the late manager and coach of the Boston Celtics, Red Aurbach, applies here.

"Intolerable in defeat, insufferable in victory"

Its sexist to think its just women that this happens to. Bad losers and worse winners are endemic to competition. They don't hate women. They hate everybody. Sex is just another excuse for bad behavior.

- I ended up a single parent and didn't have time to play, and I don't want to play badly because of lack of practice...now I'm just too busy with other things and games of any kind are not a priority


Speaking of excuses.

- And the biggest difference: for me, it's a GAME.


No. Its chess.

I don't play chess either. No excuses. I just got tired of being beaten by Sargon. I am just not any good.

Ethelred
STAGGERBOT
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 12, 2009
Quote Yoyo:"BTW, has it occurred to anyone that fewer women than men participate in chess, not because it's too hard for their tiny little minds, but because most women find chess a boring waste of time and ability?"


I think that's the primary reason why anyone, male or female, chooses not to play chess.
Next question is: are there biological determinants to the choices people make and the endeavours they choose to pursue? That there are inherent and distinct differences between male and female brain structure and chemistry is indisputable.
The blank slate theory of the brain is no longer defensable as a scientific thesis...only as a theology one. Intelligence has never been defined to anyone's satisfaction so it's pointless to debate who's in greater posession of it. Having said that though, I don't think anyone could make a sane arguement for Bobby Fischer being more "intelligent" (under any definition) than Marie Currie.
dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
My experience is that women are less interested in "stupid games" and more in activities with an immediate down to earth payoff, either socially or materially. Chess is the ultimate loner intellectual combat game. Hence more men play it.
kgbdrop
4 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2009
thematrix606: Adapted from Pinker's "The Blank Slate", women are: better at remembering landmarks and the positions of objects, more dexterous, better at mathematical calculation, more sensitive to sounds and smells, have better depth perception, match shapes faster, better spellers, better at retrieving words more fluently, have better memory for verbal material. They also: experience basic emotions more intensely. Keep in mind, most of these differences are going to be slight but those small differences can have large effects in the tails.

I've also heard that women's brains are more symmetrical, which the authors theorized might be an explanation for the gender difference in ADD/ADHD diagnoses (although I am suspicious of such an easy answer).

I could go on about the physical differences (more grey matter, etc), but that doesn't seem to be what you're interested in.
Mauricio
2 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
Studies showed that the chess player with highest testosterone level before the match will win.

It is unbelievable that people still do not accept the differences in performance between men and women. What is wrong with everybody?

Recently I read in the new york times a paper about the "recent discovery" that it seems that women are not as fast as men. Duh!!! Though they presented the thing as a big breakthrough.

Feminism could only arise in a country when men's testicles are 20% smaller in the last three decades. With time, American women will win in chess to American men, when men's testicles reduce to dust...
morpheus2012
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2009
this not a mystery why

man are more inteligent the woman in general

thats why

no need to get metahpsichical anybody knows that

exept the fminism lesbo american unit/;:)

jsut tell it liek it is no hating pls

5 stars
Ethelred
3.8 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2009
Another typical morpheus post. Its a mystery how he ever gets a rating higher than one.

exept the fminism lesbo american unit/;:)

jsut tell it liek it is no hating pls


Yes, no hating at all. No spelling errors either.

No, wait, that was telling like it isn't.

I haven't figured out yet whether he is a troll or serious.

Ethelred
morpheus2012
1 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2009
Another typical morpheus post. Its a mystery how he ever gets a rating higher than one.

exept the fminism lesbo american unit/;:)

jsut tell it liek it is no hating pls


Yes, no hating at all. No spelling errors either.

No, wait, that was telling like it isn't.

I haven't figured out yet whether he is a troll or serious.

Ethelred



lol
that was funny sheat ethelred
gwargh
2 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2009
The study is not completely useless, merely completely misguided. Instead of finding out why, really, men are ranked higher, besides the obvious fact that more of them are on the leader-boards, it just did a statistical analysis of chess players. That's like doing a statistical analysis of rocket scientists and saying most of them have degrees relating to rocket science, or in an effort to find out why zebras have stripes, saying that they have stripes.

After all, people decide to play chess for a reason, and it goes beyond thinking of the game as interesting or not. I'm a man, but I don't play it merely because I can't take it as seriously as other players, and start screwing around ten minutes in.

In general, this might do with character types. Statistically, through cultural pressures, 75%of men are thinking types, while 75% of women are feeling types. Most psychologists stipulate this is purely environemental, and it could in part ocntirbute to the why of this issue.
Ethelred
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2009
lol
that was funny sheat ethelred


Yes it was. Thanks for the straight lines.

You might want to use Firefox for browsing. It has a spell-check. And drop the use of "LOL". Its a sure sign of a badly thought out post. Most of those using that term think its a replacement for logic and reason. Oh, and humor.

Ethelred
Fionn_MacTool
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2009
Another comparison of males and females? Wonderful. Why is it so difficult for some people to accept the REALITY that men and women are different? Why must we all be the same? Is it a feeling of inadequacy on the part of both sexes that have them trying to convince themselves that their only limits are their choices in life and their biology is not involved? Men can't choose to have babies (although, perhaps they are working on that). There are limits imposed on us by our physical embodiment. I would say it is these limits that give our life meaning.

For me the differences seem obvious and I would say are a result of our biological evolution. They are summed up in the argument between man and wife about the mess in the garden. For the wife, it is a mess. That is what it is...and you cant argue with her, she is right...But for the man, the mess is in the process of becoming a new patio, or perhaps a fence..or a kitchen table. And if he does it, he is also right. That is the essence of the difference. Men look at the world and rearrange it into new things (and there have been studies done on very young children that have shown boys do have a better ability to rotate objects in 3 dimensional space, so this isn't just opinion). For men, the tree beside a river is a bridge, or a boat...so on.

Men use these "virtual realities" within their minds to play out endless games of chess. But the price is not cheap. A sacrifice is made for this skill, and that is in his ability to think of the world as it is presented to him in the moment (probably why good chess players tend to be socially inept). And this is why husbands infuriate their wives...because half the time they aren't there...their minds simply aren't in the moment...they are drifting off to other points in space and time, whether real or imagined.

Of course, women (in general) are far more anchored to reality as it is. And thank god for that...without them men would probably float off into space never to be seen again. So women know the date of the next birthday, and the name of the next door neighbors children, and what happened to auntie whatever last Christmas...and the husband goes "really? oh my oh my". Women talk with each other about these things and maintain a somewhat stable state of the world as it is...essential for raising children. And for women this is a sacrifice also.

Of course I am generalising here...And no doubt this will probably irritate some people. I hope not. I am just speaking about my experience of reality. Perhaps yours is greatly different. I would hope you can put yourself into my position though, as I have tried to put myself into the position of women.

Perhaps we can all dream of a world in which there is no distinction between man and woman. But think of how less diverse such a world would become? So, we are different, neither is better or worse...but I think to deny our differences is to deny our humanity. And I would hope that it is our unique gender qualities that we love in each other. What a boring world if we were all the same, huh?

Perhaps the following will illustrate my point a little :) http://i41.tinypi...q13m.jpg
brianweymes
4 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2009
As I figured would happen, the pc crowd has moved in, whining, and tried to muck this up into something it's not. People need to stop being politically correct here and recognize that not all differences between men and women in EVERYTHING are biological. Many are just due to other reasons. I know the pc thing now is to view everything with men and women as being biological, but this is detrimental to real science.

Actually this study is pretty good, and confirms previous findings. Many studies are conducted like this using statistical analyses, and they tell us a lot of knowledge without having to do too much work. In sum, they found that those women who play chess are about as good as we could statistically expect them to be if that few men also played chess. They aren't worse, (men fill up the top and bottom spots), there are around the middle. Judging by the comments, most of you who are criticizing this as "completely misguided" probably need to retake a high school statistics course, since your criticisms are banal.

This really can though only have practical applications within chess. I am a chess teacher, and I cannot underemphasize how often women can feel they are naturally inferior at it and how this hurts their game. It's already been shown that when women play men they play worse when compared to other women adjusted for rating, 1. Maass, A., D%u2019ettole C., & Cadinu M. (2007). Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport. European Journal of Social Psychology (in press). Published online in Wiley InterScience.

I can also say that this study is not at all obvious to most people who play chess in tournaments, where it would have the most practical implications. We can use this study within the chess community to build confidence whenever idiots arise (they do, many world champions have been very sexist.) Perhaps we can dream of a world where biological differences exist for everything intellectual, but think of how uncool of a world that would be? It would be pretty boring if all top chess players were destined to be men, trust me.
Fionn_MacTool
not rated yet Jan 13, 2009
Brian,

You say: "Perhaps we can dream of a world where biological differences exist for everything intellectual, but think of how uncool of a world that would be? It would be pretty boring if all top chess players were destined to be men, trust me."

Why? If the game is purely an intellectual endeavor, what difference does the sexuality of the player make to how exciting (or boring) it is?

The only meaning I can take from that statement is that for you (perhaps it has something to do with you being a teacher) it is the female embodiment that makes the thought of women in chess less "boring" to you. Otherwise, gender should play no part in whether chess is boring or not. When the gender of the person you are playing begins to matter to how exciting the game is, it is no longer a purely intellectual activity. You should be more careful buddy when defending those ladies in distress ;)

I think you loosely make reference there also to the studies that show that males are more likely to be dumbbells and nobels, where as women tend to lie around the mean (of the bell curve). I don't see how this supports what you are trying to say though. But then, I am not entirely sure what that is?

digitsy
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2009
Men like thinking.
Men like chess more than women like chess.

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