Chess and female empowerment

I had an unusual, and enjoyable, invitation last month, to speak on the Paula Principle – to a conference on chess and female empowerment. The primary focus was on encouraging girls not just to start playing chess but to continue after the age of 11.

Until that age there are as many girls as boys playing, but apparently there is a very steep drop-off as they enter puberty. Why? Of course in part it’s because girls find other things to interest them. I assumed the main reason was that they dislike the individual aggression, the hand-to-hand combat of chess. Well, we were told that girls are just as competitive. But they are interested in problem-solving as much as winning, and in the social aspects of the game. So when it’s only about winning, and with little social interaction, they lose interest.

Be that as it may, there was convincing evidence from other speakers on the diverse positive benefits of playing chess. Some of these were fairly obvious: the mental discipline, concentration and logical thought. But I was impressed by convincing accounts of other improvements: in young people’s decision-making, in taking responsibility for their own actions, and several other life skills.

As I say, the focus was on young people, but I had the chance of talking with one participant who runs chess classes for adults as well as children, at the Acorns Chess Club. She impressed on me the value for everyone of playing, and how chess improves people’s empathy and communication abilities, as well as the enjoyment of the game. But here’s a life course gender difference: apparently men who have played chess as children quite often come back into the game in mid-life, but women rarely do. This means girls have few adult role models. It’s not clear why this should be – maybe just busyness – but it’s something that would be worth knowing more about. I wonder how far this is true of other sports and pastimes.

The conference also gave me the opportunity to listen to Jonathan Rowson, a former International Grandmaster, talking about his book The Moves That Matter with Stephen Moss from the Guardian. I duly bought the book, which intertwines Jonathan’s accounts of what it’s like to play chess at the highest level with reflections on its wider implications for life in general. There’s not a lot about women and chess, but he reflects on what co-parenting, and discussion with other committed fathers, has taught him about broader qualities that we need more of in public as well as private spheres:

these qualities are not just about multitasking but the disposition to view social, emotional and administrative responsibility as part of the main curriculum of life, rather than things to get out of the way before getting back to work or play.

Bear in mind that much of the book is about the levels of concentration and sheer energy – physical as well as mental – needed to succeed in chess. It’s not just a question of single-mindedness against multi-tasking, but of basic values.

Before the conference I had wondered how far the Paula Principle would be relevant. I assumed that the individual-combat nature of chess might exclude many of the potential lessons. But the discussions convinced me that it’s a game which for all its intense single-mindedness and competitive concentration also brings many other qualities – provided the context and culture are right.

PS I then went off and read The Queen’s Gambit, a novel by Walter Tevis. It’s about a young orphan girl who turns out to be a chess prodigy. Highly recommended.

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