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Mindful Chess Challenge: Should Chess Competitions Be Divided Into Boys and Girls?

Traditionally, both junior and adult chess competitions have been divided up into female and male categories. When these categories are mixed, there is typically a prize awarded for the highest-performing female in each group. Modern neuroscience continues to diminish the supposed differences between male and female brains, so why are tournaments too often divided by gender rather than ability?

We Asked You For Your Say

Last year, we took a poll and 80% of you agreed that there is no reason to have separate chess tournaments for boys and girls. We listened and when we host our Mindful Chess Challenge next month, we can confirm that groups will not be separated by gender. Instead, we will be recognising achievement and participation while encouraging all players to challenge themselves and enjoy playing chess with other junior players.

Still, the discussion surrounding gender in chess should not be disregarded. According to FIDE, only 15% of chess players are female and no woman has ever competed for the title of World’s Best Chess Player. Some people still argue that women do not have the same capacity for chess that men have, while others argue that having more female players at the bottom would naturally lead to more female chess players at the top.

We are not neuroscientists but from our sessions, we have noticed that with the right encouragement, young girls shine in their chess ability just as young boys shine when their passion is nurtured. Our mission is not just to encourage more girls to play the game, but to make sure that every child is given the tools they need to engage with the game and harness their potential.

The Case For Separated Tournaments

As 20% of you felt that separating chess tournaments by gender is justifiable, we have considered some of the possible advantages of competitions being divided this way. We are working under the assumption that with the right training and encouragement, girls and boys have equal potential to be fantastic chess players.

Unfortunately, the fact is that women are still massively underrepresented in the chess world. Statistically speaking, having less young girls competing in junior tournaments means that less young girls will be winning tournaments. We are assuming here that for the champion rate to be 50:50, the male to female ratio in tournaments must also be 50:50.

Although we believe there are many ways to motivate children, there is no doubt that winning matches can be a great positive reinforcer. The case for separating tournaments by gender, therefore, follows the line of thinking that by giving young girls the space to play against other girls, they have more opportunity to win games and become better players. In male-dominated competitions, this may be made less likely simply due to the statistical odds. But is offering a prize for the best female player really the right answer?

The Case For Mixed Tournaments

Offering prizes for the “best girl” may be encouraging, but it also reinforces a message that we are actively trying to avoid. It supposes that females have a disadvantage when it comes to competitive chess play and that to be the “best girl” is subpar to being the “best player”. Women may have a statistical disadvantage but this does not equate to girls having a lesser potential when it comes to chess than their male peers.

What’s more, these female-exclusive prizes that are meant to be encouraging may in fact have the opposite effect. Time and time again, we remind students that we learn as much from our losses as we do our wins. For women to reach the same level as men, we need to be challenged as much as men, which means being paired against the best chess players. 99 out of 100 of these world-class players happen to be male. It is generally accepted that having a higher goal makes us stretch further and all the while female titles exist, the message is being reinforced that girls don’t play chess as well as boys.

The Mindful Chess Challenge

Having weighed up the pros and cons of dividing tournaments by gender, we took your side and opted to host a mixed chess tournament. We have seen our young female players play just as brilliantly as the boys, and we wouldn’t want to send the message that they are any less capable than their male peers.

We also considered the idea that the number of boys entering our tournament may outnumber the girls who enter. We are therefore doing everything we can to encourage young girls to participate but not by offering them prizes. Instead, we are empowering each and every child, regardless of their gender, to take on new challenges and have fun with the game.

Furthermore, we are offering new categories of prizes at our tournament. All first-time players will receive a prize for taking their first step into the competitive world. We’ll also be offering prizes for runners-up and for thinking outside the box. After all, applying effort and stretching ourselves is something that ought to be rewarded. Gender, on the other hand, is something that ought to be left at the door in the face of the chess board.

Click here to find out more about the Mindful Chess Challenge and view details on how to enter. We'd love to hear your thoughts on chess and gender in the comments below.

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