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‘It’s more natural for men to pick chess as an interest or women to pick arranging flowers’

Eva Repková, who heads the commission for women’s chess at the International Chess Federation, says women are ‘naturally’ disadvantaged in chess

Eva Repková.
Eva Repková. (Wikimedia Commons)

The FIDE commission for women’s chess (WOM) aims to promote gender equality and women empowerment in the game. Its chairperson, Eva Repková, a grandmaster (WGM) from Slovakia, tells Mint in a Zoom call that the bigger struggle is to get more women interested in the game.

There are two likely reasons for the lack of female representation in the game, she reckons. One, unless you are among the top few players, it’s very difficult to earn money playing chess professionally. This is felt more acutely by women. Two, unlike men, many women still lack the qualities needed to reach the top in the game: an ego, a fighting spirit, the desire to crush the opponent. “It might not be what you like to hear but I am being honest," she says. It could change, however. Edited excerpts:

Why is the representation of women so low in chess?

First of all, there are some natural things for men and women. Like, little girls like to naturally play with dolls and little boys with cars. Little girls might also play with cars but the majority of them (don’t). That’s a big percentage drop. When you have less people participating, at the top you will find fewer of them.

Another factor is physical endurance. Chess games can go on for many hours. It might seem like physical strength doesn’t play a role sitting at the chess board but it does. At the beginning, opponents are pretty equal. At the end, the tiredness accumulates and (it comes down to) the amount of energy you naturally have—of which, of course, men have more.

Yet another factor is, (growing up), girls need to be treated more gently. Sometimes they are told in chess class, “You play like a girl." It might play a role in whether younger girls continue or not.

You said girls play with dolls and boys play with cars. I don’t know how that analogy applies here, though. Chess seems to be a fairly unisex game.

In chess, there are factors such as fighting spirit. You want to crush the other person, show you are better. (These) instincts, I believe, are stronger in men. Women are more prone to nurturing, giving more love and attention. Many people want to say men and women are the same, we are equal. Of course we are equal but we also have differences that should be respected.... Some people might not like that it’s more natural for men to pick chess as an interest or women to maybe pick music or arranging flowers. It’s not about women not being smart enough, but we should embrace our differences.

Some of the things you have observed fit into the idea of conventional gender roles. Like men having more “fighting spirit", women being more “nurturing". Some might even call it a bit sexist.

I don’t think intellectual ability is worse. All I am saying is, there are some natural activities. Even at home. Do you see many times women watching football matches on TV? Why to make it artificially that we have to... that you do this we also have right to do that. This doesn’t make much sense to me personally. But I know maybe people push for different views.

One of the counterpoints to this argument would be Judit Polgár and her father. They say it’s about the hard work. If you train your children well as they are growing, they can excel at the highest levels.

Yes, but her parents decided for her. If people decide for themselves, then obviously women naturally might pick other activities. Otherwise many more would be playing chess. Judit was exceptional. It’s hard to base on her unique experience and say other women are this way too.

What her parents proved is women can be just as good, if they have interest, if they have the right environment.

Do you find any sexism in professional chess?

I don’t think there’s a lot of sexism. On the contrary, I think men want more and more women to participate (in chess). In FIDE, we have big support. But it’s not as easy to achieve. Within our commission, I found out that because there aren’t so many women in chess, even activities (tournaments) women get, they are usually decided by men. Our commission’s goal is to change that.

What are the challenges women chess players face and how do these differ in different parts of the world?

It depends on where you come (from). In countries like Georgia and Russia, it’s in their culture. It’s easy to get money. In others, they are struggling... The problem with chess is also (that) the professional chess players don’t always have an easy time and earn money. It’s a factor for women—for women professionals, it is not an easy life. If you want to have children, if you travel around the world the whole time, to start a family is a challenge. It might play a role in women dropping out.

There’s some research that women at age 10-12 are equally interested (in chess as men). After a point, they start dropping out. We have a long way to go for real equity between men and women. Even countries where they are equal, in practice it doesn’t work this way.

Do you think there can be a woman as an overall champion?

I think there can. There are some examples, like Judit Polgár, who showed women can be at the top.

What would it take?

If more women play chess in the future, there’s a better chance that women can. But maybe turn of events, good luck, some extremely talented women will appear and win.

From what you told me, statistically and psychologically it seems unlikely.

Yes. Also, it’s proven by history. But that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that it won’t happen now.

Also read: 'Why women lose at chess'.

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