Stephen AJ Whatley is two years my junior and was dubbed a ‘chess starlet’ by the Panorama in 2015. Upon meeting him in Bayside Comprehensive, I was not aware of his achievements as a chess prodigy. I was also oblivious to the prospect that Gibraltar would host a prominent tournament in world chess, featuring grandmasters and continental champions. At the age of 7, Stephen won the Gibraltar under 8 competition before representing Gibraltar in British chess champions, even winning at age 10 in the under 12 bracket. Moving on to be a prolific player in Europe and then the world game, the young prodigy has gone from strength to strength, flying the Gibraltar flag while he’s at it.
But, as is often the case with young prodigies, Stephen credits his parents for the early encouragement. His mother, Sharon, sits as the president of the Gibraltar Chess Association, Secretary of the Calpe Chess Club, and coaches chess in local schools. Chess and women have a complex relationship. Way back in 1962, chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer told Harper’s Magazine in an interview that, “they’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.” It has been said that a woman’s role is to take care of the family, whilst men are better at chess because it is in their nature.
According to data from the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE – or World Chess Federation in English) and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF), male chess players significantly outperform their female counterparts on average. The average Elo rating (the internationally recognised rating system named after professor and chess player Arpad Elo) for women is 8% below that of men’s. The game that was made compulsory in Spanish schools in 2015 also has a significant gender disparity at the very top. Out of the top 100 FIDE rankings of players of both sexes, only 1 is a female (1%). Out of the top 500, only 7 are women (3%). Out of a total of 1443 grandmasters, only 31 are women (2.2%). Men earn master-level chess titles at a ratio of 6 to 1 over women.
While these facts may make depressing reading, it is no wonder when statistics also show that female players are substantially under-represented in the competitive game. Of the 1 million plus FIDE members, only 11% are women. Indeed, with the exception of the Polgar sisters, chess has been, and continues to be, a very gender-segregated game. But at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, an innovative friendly game did something symbolic. Gibraltar hosted a male team versus female team game of chess made out of participants from the festival.
However, not everywhere is as forward thinking as Gibraltar in this respect. Women’s International Master Sabrina Chevannes said to the Telegraph, “I’ve been asked if I want to play in the junior section; I’ve even had men refuse to believe I’m there to play.” Polgar is quoted in the same Telegraph piece addressing her success and the issue of gender inequality: “Of course this is not easy as generally a lot of male players say that I was an exception. I do hope that there will be more women players who will be able to prove it again that women focusing their energy on this goal can play chess at the level of the top male players. Men and women are different but there are different ways of thinking and fighting still achieving the same results.”
This year’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ video can be found on gibchess.com. The two games ended with forfeits by the female team, granting the males victories. However, the post-match footage shows the ladies’ team dancing on the chessboard-floor with the boys nowhere to be seen. I think we know who the real winners were that night!
Either way, it fills one with pride to know that Gibraltar gave a small contribution to the de-gender-segregation of the game. Even if it proves to be largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of the short-term future of the game, at least it showed 120 minutes of a gender equal chess event is possible. With the figures so stacked against women in chess, hopefully this can be seen as progress of a kind.