A new study published by the Royal Society found that men’s superiority over women at chess at the top levels can be explained by population size.

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nullKaren Hopkin reports in Scientific American:

Women are so much better than men at so many things. But according to a report published by the Royal Society, chess is not one of them. The topic of sex differences when it comes to matters of the mind is, needless to say, a divisive one. Those who wish to argue that women are just not as smart as men often point to chess as their proof. Although girls can obviously play, no woman’s ever been world champion. But before looking for cultural or biological explanations for the disparity, scientists say you need to do the math.

Serious chess players are assigned ratings based on their performance against other players. So the scientists compared the ratings of the top hundred male and top hundred female players from Germany. And they found that the men indeed outperformed the women. However that difference can be almost entirely explained by statistics. Because the larger the population, the wider the range of measured scores:the bell curve has a longer tail. And because many more men play than women, the best male players are extreme outliers on that bell curve. As more women play, a few should also reach those extremes, right out there with the men. To which one might be tempted to say: Checkmate.

The citation for the referenced study is: Bilalić, M., Smallbone, K., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (in press). “Why are (the best) women so good at chess? Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The abstract is as follows:

The lack of women at the top level of intellectually demanding activities like science and chess is often attributed to their inferior cognitive abilities. We show in chess that although the best men are better than the best women, the difference is little more than would be expected given the much greater number of men who play. The simple but often overlooked statistical fact is that the best performers in a large group are likely to be better than the best performers in a smaller one. This may explain why women are underrepresented at the top of other activities where far fewer of them compete.

I will add a link to the study itself when I find one. The reported results seem to be similar to the findings of this 2006 study.

Just over a year ago, another study entitled: “Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport” by Anne Maass, Claudio D’Ettole, and Mara Cadinu found that numbers weren’t the only reason that women are underrepresented in the hierarchy of successful chess players, writing:

Women are surprisingly underrepresented in the chess world, representing less that 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world’s grand masters. In this paper it is argued that gender stereotypes are mainly responsible for the underperformance of women in chess. Forty-two male-female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents. In addition, our findings suggest that women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a weaker promotion focus, which are predictive of poorer chess performance.

–Ann Bartow

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