Women vs. men: retiring chess queen checkmates herself

Judit Polgár, the only woman in history capable of competing with men at the highest level, has retired at age 38.

Judit became a grandmaster at 15 years and four months, beating Bobby Fischer’s record by a month.

Since her teens she has been in and out of the world’s top ten, having won games against, among others, world champions both past (Kasparov) and present (Carlsen).

One would think that she’d leave the game with pride, thanking, if not God, then at least the game that has made her a star, though admittedly not one as stellar as Kim Kardashian, whose chief assets are located somewhat lower than Judit’s brain.

Instead Judit fired a parting shot that missed by a mile. She castigated the game as ‘sexist’, with male players doing their best to keep women down.

It’s to men’s beastliness that Judit ascribes the demonstrable fact that, out of thousands of women who have played the game professionally, she’s the only one who has ever been as good as most male grandmasters.

Feminism is a popular game these days but, unlike chess, everybody who plays it is a loser. Its underlying assumption is that, apart from certain fixtures that have made Kim Kardashian such a star, women are no different from men.

Consequently, if they don’t achieve the same results in every field of endeavour, it can only be society’s fault or, in this instance, men’s.

God forbid one should even suggest obliquely that the obvious physiological differences between the sexes extend to their brains. When ideology speaks, common sense keeps silent.

Say that men’s brains are different, and a feminist will only hear that they are better – something that only an idiot would think, amd a tactless idiot would say.

Never mind scientific facts, such, for example, as that aggressiveness (an essential part of a chess player’s equipment) is a function of testosterone, of which women, this side of Martina Navratilova, have considerably less than men.

Never mind that, just as women’s brain wiring makes them better at languages, men’s wiring makes them better at maths, a discipline that bears perhaps the closest resemblance to chess.

Never mind even abundant empirical evidence, such as the sex identity of 56 winners of the Fields Medal, the highest prize in mathematics. Yesterday, the 2014 awards were announced, and for the first time since 1936, when the prize was first endowed, a woman was among the winners.

Yet 40 percent of maths graduates are women, a proportion that diminishes precipitously at PhD level and beyond. Why?

It’s a sign of intellectual laziness and ideology-driven dishonesty to insist that the sole reason is some fiendish male conspiracy.

Women are, on average, not as good at maths as men are, which makes the achievement of the only female Fields Medal winner so much more spectacular.

Neither are they as good at chess, which is why Judit is the only woman ever to climb so high up the game’s Olympus.

If women were as good as men, all those thousands of girls who, in the communist countries, have gone through the same state-sponsored training programmes as the boys, would have produced a more proportionately representative number of top players – or at least more than just one.

Judit is in an ideal position to know what role chess played in her native Hungary, my native Russia and every other communist country.

When Mikhail Botvinnik became the first world-class Soviet player back in the 1930s, the Soviets discovered the propaganda potential of chess.

Millions were poured into unique training facilities to produce living proof of the USSR’s superiority over its ‘capitalist enemies’. Chess players became privileged citizens, enjoying the kind of wealth that was beyond not only most Soviets but, more important, Western players.

For example, when Botvinnik won the 1936 Nottingham tournament, Stalin gave him a car, a prize fully equivalent to a 300-foot yacht today.

Women were just as valuable to the propaganda offensive, and girls were trained side by side with boys. Having gone through the Soviet chess system, I can testify to this – as Judit can no doubt testify to the same situation in Hungary.

Incidentally, to disclaim any parity with her, at the same age she became a grandmaster I quit chess, having discovered joys of a more tactile and liquid nature.

Unlike her I didn’t have the talent and dedication to go all the way, having stopped at a level similar to that of a decent county player in England. Yet shortly before I quit the game, I won a blitz match against Elizaveta Bykova, then women’s world champion, though no longer at her peak.

It’s not just one man’s experience. At that time any male grandmaster would have beaten the top 20 women in a simultaneous exhibition. Today the situation isn’t appreciably different: although there are quite a few decent female players, only Judit was in the first rank.

Part of the reason women don’t go as far is that they’re saner than men. The life of a budding chess mercenary in the West, where players survive on prize money, is similar to that of a travelling tennis pro, but the potential rewards aren’t.

Thus most professional players are dysfunctional individuals who misspent their youth hustling strangers for fivers in cafés, parks and clubs. Most of them look as if they sleep rough, even if they don’t.

Many go mad, which, for example, musicians hardly ever do, belying Daniel Johnson’s assertion in today’s Times that chess has ‘a mysterious affinity’ with music.

True enough, in as much as both fields have a mathematical aspect, they have something in common. But the similarity is superficial because the nature of the inspiration is entirely different.

That’s why it’s silly to say, as Johnson does, that Judit’s brilliant 1987 victory against a Soviet grandmaster “offers raptures not unlike – to take another Hungarian example – one of Liszt’s Transcendental Études.”

A musical piece, even one as mindless as a Liszt study, is inspired by one of the highest manifestations of the human soul. A brilliant chess attack is animated by the urge “to make’em squirm”, as Fischer put it. Chess is closer to poker than to art.

That chess can give aesthetic pleasure doesn’t make it an art – unless we define the concept so broadly as to make it meaningless. Not everything that “offers rapture” is art, for otherwise we’d regard, say, Kim Kardashian’s jutting attractions as artistic masterpieces.

Women are less keen to make people squirm, which is a point in their favour. Nor, and this is another feather in their cap, are they as willing as men to spend their life on an utterly trivial pursuit, and dedicate every waking moment to it.

That’s why, say, Viktor Korchnoi is still playing grandmasters’ tournaments at 83, while Judit has wisely retired at 38. One wishes she were as wise in her pronouncements. 

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