There has been quite a bit of discussion around here about how girls are treated in math and science. I figure that the game of chess has a lot of the same problems when it comes to attracting girls to it.
I've written about scholastic chess before, but never just about girls in chess. My daughter has been playing in competitive chess tournaments since she was a pre-schooler. Yes, really. There are a few kids in my neck of the woods who, at four, attend a qualifying tournament and achieve the necessary score to advance to the state elementary championships. They play in the kindergarten section.
I never really expected for her to do that. I was more interested in teaching her the game in the hopes that she would gain as much out of it as my son has.
I also started to teach her the game for much the same reason that Laszlo Polgar taught his own daughters to play chess. I wanted to learn something about learning, and the process that goes on.
Beginning about a year after taking up the game in third grade, my son has consistently been one of the better players for his age in the state of Washington. He and a cohort of players have moved form elementary, to middle school, to high school chess. Most of those players also play in outside tournaments, and in national tournaments.
Washington State is an extremely challenging chess environment. One of Seattle's public schools has a 7th grader who is a National Master, and who played in the Seattle Slugger'sChampionship win in the United States Chess League. To the little guy's left, you will see my daughter's much better than me chess coach. We have a recent history of national championship elementary school teams.
I could go on and on about the benefits of competitive, scholastic chess for any kid, regardless of what's under their shirts, or in their pants. But I won't. I'll describe my experience as a coach at my daughter's school, and a coach at a second school which is very nearby, and which has much of the same student population.
A Saturday chess tournament in this area is a high energy event. Roughly 200 kids show up at 8 or 9 in the morning. They play five games throughout the day. Games last, on average, about 10-20 minutes, but there are always those kids who are more experienced who use up all the time. Or they are just slow and hesitant. That happens, too. In the time between games, the kids play chess, go to the playground, eat lunch, analyze their games for mistakes, or just sit there in a comatose daze of chess infused stupor.
The format of the event generally dictates that kids will have some even matches, and some uneven matches. Everyone gets to play the five games.
My guess is that the population that plays in these events is somewhere around 90% boys. A girl already has a steep climb when it comes to playing in these events. It has nothing to do with quality of play, but it may have a little to do with the size of the pool from which the kids are drawn. If you have a pool of 100 boys, and 5 of them choose chess, you have a pretty good shot of getting a couple good players. Whereas, the comparative pool of girls in this situation would be more like 7 or 8 girls, 1 of whom may choose chess. The odds are already stacked.
Why are fewer international soccer stars American? Is it because there is a smaller pool of players? Probably. Many of those who would have otherwise chosen soccer will move into a sport that has more opportunities for them, and which carries a higher value in our country.
A Tale of Two Chess Clubs
When my daughter began to attend Kindergarten, I figured I would try to build a chess club that would outlast me. I wanted the community to see just how cool the whole scene is. I wanted them to find out the reality of scholastic chess, and to shake off some of the old stereotypes that we see so thoughtlessly regurgitated in the media. It's been a challenge, but the school is very receptive. We will be hosting our first tournament in a month!
After a couple of years, the head of the non profit who sponsors our chess club asked if I would coach in my area. So now I have two schools, and a library drop in chess time that I operate.
One school is my daughter's school. As I said earlier, she started out as a preschooler in chess tournaments, and I had 4 years or so of experience in the local, statewide, and national scholastic chess scene. Another way to put this is to say that I had already made most of the mistakes I could make with a kid in chess. I had already been a too competitive father, for example. I resolved to make her experience one that was driven by her.
When she began kindergarten, she started to appreciate the social value of playing chess. My boy had gotten a lot of social benefits from chess. It's hard to look an opponent directly in the face and be ungracious, or unfair. So the social aspect was very important for her enjoyment. She has a big brother, so hanging with boys was no problem. When she began bringing in her trophies from tournaments, the class was impressed. The class then began playing chess at free time, with my daughter operating as the gray bearded veteran teacher.
She's a pretty likeable kid. That was a different experience for us. My boy has sometimes suffered from his inability to recognize his social failings. Having that role model in the chess club was very motivational for the kids. It's not like they sat there and said, "Huh, girls can play chess, after all!" They hadn't been gifted with that particular misunderstanding. Instead, it was just part of their view of chess. Girls and boys both played. Girls could be pretty badass.
I just don't think that the kids thought twice about it. They had a role model- A girl who was socially likeable, and who was competitive with the boys. I doubt many of them had second thoughts. It helped that she started out so early with them.
As it stands now, the younger group of kids in this roughly 45 kid chess club is comprised of about 1/2 boys and 1/2 girls. Some days, I will notice that the boys are getting their butts whooped so badly by the girls that it just seems unfair, and one would think that it's the boys who are at a disadvantage.
The other school.
This school just restarted their chess club this year. It's a very popular program, and word travels quickly in Seattle's neighborhoods when something neat is happening. They are only about 10 blocks away from each other, so the student population is similar, but the second school has a gifted program in which kids work one grade level above.
I have had all of the girls in my morning session drop. There are now two girls out of about 50 kids. I always bring my daughter with me to the afternoon class, but not the morning. In fact, the kids in the afternoon class always think that they are in trouble with me if I have them play my daughter! Is it a coincidence that the girls dropped from the morning session, but not the afternoon? I don't know, but I suspect it's mostly coincidence.
That school is just getting started with tournament attendance, so no kids have really jumped out to shine. That means we don't have much in the way of children as role models in there.
What does it all mean?
I'm really just getting started with the second school, so I'm mostly just surviving, and hoping that the kids don't hate me for getting them to go to a tournament where they only win 1 out of 5 games.
The thing I see in the two schools is that there is a role model in one school, and not in the other. The social part of the chess program in one school has, from the very beginning, had both boys and girls involved. In the second school... not so much. There's very little I can do about it.
Positive Female Role Model
Social Opportunities within the Discipline that have higher numbers of girls
Start out young so they don't buy into the adults' stereotypes
As much as I hate to say it...
Some of the girls really love the pink and purple chess sets. So it goes.
I look around at these gymnasiums full of kids, and I see maybe 10 or so are girls in a gym full of 200 kids. It's a difficult situation for anyone to manage. Imagine the reverse situation where you only found 10 boys out of 200 kids doing an activity. You can bet that there would be a social pressure put on the kids. Unfortunately, a lot of the social pressure comes from adults who carry their own personal baggage.