Chess

Did you enjoy The Queen’s Gambit? You’re not alone. An eBay official reported in December that the company had recorded a 215% increase in chess sets since the show was released in October 2020. Many have attributed the success of the show to the choice of a strong female character, facing adversity in a sport dominated by men. Let’s unpack this. 

Chess is a typical example of an activity we think requires a genius to be good at. At the same time, research continues to report that humans have a brilliance bias, a tendency to perceive men specifically as brilliant or genius. It is also common to believe that brilliant people are born with these traits, rather than acquiring them through practice. An exception is the father of Judit Polgár, the strongest woman chess player of all time, who believed geniuses are developed not born, home-schooling his three daughters in the game.

Maybe it’s not so strange that we think about extreme intelligence when we think of chess. After all, it is the processing of an algorithm. An algorithm can be understood as a sequence of instructions, or steps, that can be followed by humans and computers to complete a specific task. Coding is another example, and also an activity associated with men’s geniusness. Here’s the funny thing: Baking, knitting and sewing all involve the processing of algorithms. 

In knitting, the pattern is the algorithm. Knits and purls are like 1’s and 0’s. You are given a code and it is your job to translate that code, executing functions line by line (or row by row), into an output. Sometimes mistakes (bugs) are made, and they need to be found and fixed (debugging). Patterns use a symbolic language with a unique syntax that is unreadable to non-knitters. Just like knitting is processing an algorithm, designing a knitting-pattern is writing the program.

Why then are we so curious about the intelligence required to code and play chess and not with that required to bake, knit and create garments? It is suggested that the answer to this question lies with the latter activities being practised in what we consider to be the feminised realm, the private or domestic sphere. It is when women leave this realm to “play with the big boyswe start admiring them. 

Brilliance bias and ideas of whom belong in chess competitions can have quite direct effects on how the game is played. A study found that when online players’  identities were anonymous, women and men performed equally well. When the gender of the opponent was known, however, women performed worse against men and better against other women. Another analysis found that the performance drop was equivalent to women giving up the first move in every game. 

In 2001, only 6% of internationally rated players were women. By 2020 this had risen to more than 15%. Shows like the Queen’s Gambit are important to break down social barriers for women and non-binary people to attempt and succeed in high-profile activities like chess. At the same time, we should all take a step back and reflect on why we find some algorithmic tasks very impressive and others just commonplace.