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‘I stand by it’: British grandmaster Nigel Short on his ‘sexist’ remarks on women’s chess

Five years after he said women can't match up to men in chess because they’re wired differently, the former world #3 says he was unfairly ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ for it

British grandmaster Nigel Short at European Blitz & Rapid chess championship in 2015. (Courtesy: Andreas Kontokanis |
British grandmaster Nigel Short at European Blitz & Rapid chess championship in 2015. (Courtesy: Andreas Kontokanis |

In 2015, British chess grandmaster Nigel Short wrote an article for the magazine New in Chess that caused a storm. Titled "Vive La Difference!", it was a 1500-word ramble on why women chess players lag far behind men. It wasn’t because of sexism, discrimination or low participatory numbers, he argued, but “Men and women's brains are hardwired very differently,” and that “we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Short’s remarks created a furore. Fox News called him a “jerk”, a news presenter in New Zealand called him a “twat”, most others across the world labeled his remarks “sexist”. In a follow-up piece for the magazine, Short stood his ground, framing it as a matter of biology - that men have roughly 6.5 times more grey matter and women 9.5 times more white matter, that male brains are 10% larger on average, and that the higher testosterone they have likely gave them an edge.

“While it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to define exactly which combination of attributes is necessary to become a strong chess player, the existence of fundamentally different cerebral structures between the sexes is, in my view, the ultimate irreducible obstacle to equality in this specific field,” he wrote.

Some neuroscientists have refuted this claim, as a review titled 'Neurosexism: the myth that men and women have different brains' on notes. In her book 'The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain', neuroscientist Gina Rippon writes that the differences in ratio of grey to white matter are in degree, not kind. Such differences are not seen when we compare small-headed men to large-headed women. Ultimately, Rippon argues, “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain”. Any research claiming otherwise is 'neurosexism'.

Nevertheless, Short has statistics on his side. There are only 37 women grandmasters (GMs) in the world, compared to 1,683 men. No woman has won the World Chess Championship, not counting the women’s-only event. The top female chess player today, Hou Yifan, is world No. 86 overall. Even Judit Polgar, the highest ranked female player ever, was world No. 8 at her peak.

There are several reasons beyond statistics and biology to explain the difference in performance between men and women in professional chess. As a recent article in Mint explored, a combination of systemic and societal factors tends to hold women back from realizing their true potential. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and pay gap in the sport act as further deterrents.

Today, Short is the vice-president of international chess federation (FIDE). In an interview with Mint last week, he said he stood by his thesis about men being generally better players than women, that those like Judit Polgar were but outliers. He also said that he was "hung, drawn and quartered" for stating “a fact”. One of the reasons for this outrage, he speculates, was that people equate chess with intelligence. “I’m not saying men are more intelligent,” he says. “I’m saying we’re different.”

Edited excerpts:

Do you think there’s sexism in professional chess?

I think there’s sexism in chess – no doubt about that. Is it more or less than it used to be? I suspect it’s less, actually... Women’s games [in general] lag behind significantly in terms of payments. But everyone accepts there are differences in ability because there are obvious physical differences. There’s no way any woman can bowl as fast as [British cricketer] Jofra Archer. They physically can’t do it... But do you accept these differences in chess? That men and women have different brains and whatever the factors are, this competition favours men? If you take that view, women’s chess has to be supported more. But you can’t have it both ways. That’s my point. You can’t argue that men and women have the same ability and extra funds and support have to go into women’s chess.

There’s some affirmative action at play [e.g. Women’s only tournaments, women’s only titles like Women’s Grandmaster (WGM) or Women’s International Master (WIM)].

Positive discrimination is still discrimination.

Had you anticipated the reaction you received for the article you wrote?

If you compare my article to the headlines like "Girls don’t have the brains to play chess" that it created, you’ll see I never said that. I don’t even believe it. But how big those differences are, I think it’s the more interesting question. As I said, there is not a single country in the world where women are equal of men in chess, never mind better.

In your articles, you emphasize on biological differences over social conditioning for the difference in performances of men and women. You do acknowledge that there are pressures – and overt and covert sexism – but only in passing.

That’s correct. That is totally my emphasis. That’s something that some people find objectionable. My view, and this is subjective, is that if you work harder, or we collectively as the chess community to work harder on the nurture, that gap will narrow. That’s what I firmly believe.

But you also say that you are in favour of abolishing women’s tournaments because they encourage women to aim too low.

Maybe there’s something contradictory there. But the differences between... even if you are going to have WGM titles, it should be upgraded. You should raise the bar and not set it too low.

At par with men?

No, if you do, then you don’t need the women’s title at all. But my gut feeling is, the titles are too low. I sometimes hear that some girls saying I’d really like to become a WIM. That’s the limit to their ambition. That’s an impediment.

Do you have an ELO [rating] point in mind?

I don’t.

Why do you emphasize far more on nature over nurture?

Men are women are same the world over. There are minimal biological differences with insignificant differences like skin colour. Nature is the same but nurture isn’t. Women are dismissed in some countries as second class citizens. That’s not the case in all countries. Even in those countries where they receive significant support, it [the gap between men and women players] is not close. That’s why I emphasize on nature. That’s the nub of my argument.

Many argue that sexism works on different levels. In some countries, women are treated as second class citizens. In others, it’s more subtle, like an emphasis on conventional gender roles.

I’m not disputing this at all.

So after five years, do you think you could’ve framed it differently?

I have explained the reasons and I stand by it. In a lot of countries, at undergrad level, women are doing better. But in chess, it is just not the case. We’re talking about a yawning chasm of abilities. You cannot massage this fact to put a spin on it. One of the problems, I think, rightly or wrongly, people equate chess with intelligence. It’s a proxy. This is what really bothers a lot of people... I’m not saying men are more intelligent. I’m saying we’re different. We have different skills.

What efforts has FIDE undertaken to get more women in chess?

The disparity between prize fund between open and women’s championship is narrowing. That’s quite a deliberate policy. [In Online Chess Olympiad 2020], we had women involved, even juniors involved. Some chess federations barely bother with women’s chess at all. [Inclusion of women in Olympiad is] saying, you want to compete, do well, better buck up. Find players or produce them. That was a positive thing. The federations are now obliged to take women’s chess more seriously.

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