Nov 23, 2009

Women's Chess Titles

Jennifer Shahade has raised the issue recently of whether we need women's titles. It's a good question. The WSJ featured an article on the subject, quoting Jennifer, and I also note that ChessVibes and ChessBase tied into the issue. Opinions on the question are unsurprisingly all over the map. Here's how I see it in a nutshell:

1. The argument for reverse discrimination (or affirmative action, or "benign discrimination") is that it attempts to speed up the repair of the long term bad effects of prejudice. The theory (almost indisputable) is that societal forces have acted differently on men and women in many endeavors, leaving men over-represented in areas we tend to think of as important (e.g., math, sciences, and other higher order intellectual pursuits such as chess). By changing the otherwise natural results in favor of the class discriminated against--women--we believe we can speed up getting the playing field back to level, as well as directly affording opportunities to some who would have had the opportunities but for the discrimination. Sounds complicated. It is.

2. The argument against reverse discrimination is that it's still discrimination. Calling it "benign" discrimination doesn't help much. Its ill effects are felt by both those who aren't eligible for the special treatment because they're of the wrong gender, and also by women who although benefitted by the reverse discrimination find their accomplishment diminished. Are you a GM or a WGM? To paraphrase a well-known jurist, if you want to stop discrimination, stop discriminating.

My take. I want to hear much further from two groups: (1) those who have studied the supposed effects of the action or inaction proposed by the two sides, and (2) women. I'm undecided, but if we're going to err, let's do so on the side of the titles for now. This isn't like Bakke, where one takes an admission to medical school away from the better qualified applicant (referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case involving the University of California), but rather women's titles are almost entirely affirmative (and not at the expense of others), and thus if they come at a price, it's largely to women themselves. Let's ensure that the titles aren't making a contribution in the balance right now before eliminating them, a day that we should all look forward to. Once they're gone, it's likely they're gone for good. When women begin to decline the "W" titles with a "no thanks" in significant numbers and press on toward the GM and IM titles, we'll have a further clue.


  1. Hi Gary!

    Thanks for the link. Fun stuff here.

    I think you hit upon an important point here: "women's titles are almost entirely affirmative (and not at the expense of others)". I would word it differently, e.g. pointing out that there is a big difference between awarding the same title (e.g. Grandmaster) according to different norms for men and women (a purer example of affirmative action, and more uncontroversially a bad idea) and establishing a separate title for women, but I think this is the same point you are making.

    That said, there is a remaining troubling point from my perspective: the fact that GM/WGM etc. are titles, not championships. As a matter of ontology, they belong with PhDs, Nobel prizes, and the like; not with olympic gold medals or NBA/WNBA championships. Is their any precedent in a highly respected field (as I imagine chess should be) for gender-differentiated (or race-differentiated, or whatever) titles? I can't think of any offhand.

  2. Respecting your second point--e.g. "W"Ph.D.s--I probably agree with you. Many others have made this good point also. Further work is needed in fully understanding the distinctions. Chess titles are directly competitive, for example, whereas Ph.D.s are not. When 10 candidates enter a Ph.D. program, all 10 can anticipate success. Not so for a title tournament.

  3. Hi Gary! (PS - Gary or Grayson?)

    That "chess titles are directly competitive" is not strictly true - the criteria for awarding the titles happen to be competitive, but the title itself is not thereby rendered strictly competitive. The criteria are subject to change under the hood (and can be waived in various cases) without the title itself changing. All that I mean by this is that the competitive criteria in use today are not essential to the title itself, they don't change what it is that we are talking about. The competitiveness of present criteria does not pass transitively to the title.

    The question remains: are there any precedents, in any respected field of endeavor, for gender-differentiated titles? Having thought some more about it, the only ones I can come up with are noble titles: king vs. queen, duke vs. duchess and so on. And even there I think that ontologically they are really two names for the same underlying distinction, not two separate distinctions, one awarded to men, the other to women.

    Chess might take the example of martial arts, where the titles (ranks) are the same for men and women, but the championships are separate.

  4. PPS - more specifically to your comment about 10 PhD candidates vs competitors in a title tournament, all the competitors in a title tournament may well anticipate getting the title some day, just not all together. Indeed, in all title tournaments some fraction of the competitors already have the title.

    Also, for most titles, it takes a portfolio of good performances to earn the title, so even through that effect alone the competitors in any one tournament can expect to earn their titles at different times (just like PhD candidates do).

    Finally, of course, a title is a lifetime distinction (like a PhD or a black belt), not a championship needing defending, to be passed on to the next winner of the subsequent iteration of the tournament.

  5. Hi Gary!

    You may want to have a look at my long article on this issue at

    Best chess wishes to you!