IT might have seemed the black-and-white preserve of an old mates’ club – but the endgame is that when it comes to playing chess, women are not as square as everyone thought.
In a pursuit in which even the rankings – master and grandmaster – might be considered sexist, an academic has struck an unlikely blow for equality.
Data from 160,000 ranked chess players and more than 5m matches suggests that women playing against men perform better than expected – and men worse.
The research by Sheffield University contradicts previous findings which suggested that women’s performance at the chess table was affected adversely by that the knowledge that their male opponents considered them underdogs – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”.
Being aware of a negative stereotype is thought to make players more anxious and less likely to perform at their best.
The study, published today in the journal Psychological Science, might be bad news for the bookies, suggested its author, psychologist Dr Tom Stafford.
He said: “When they play men, women do better than the odds suggest they should. You could make money from that.”
He added: “Although discrimination is real and pervasive, women playing tournament chess do not seem to be at a disadvantage when paired with men.
“Factors other than stereotype threat appear to be more important in determining tournament chess performance.”
Only two women are among the current top 100 players – an anomaly that was debated last Friday by the English Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, said Malcolm Pein, its director of international chess.
Mr Pein, an international master, also runs the charity Chess in Schools and Communities, which teaches the game in more than 300 schools and supports chess in 400 more.
He said: “The current level of engagement of women is terrible generally but in the classroom it’s 50-50.
“It’s a question of being given the encouragement to play.”
In November, the Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, who was once the UK under-14 girls chess champion, played eight games against schoolchildren in the city to support the work of the charity.
Dr Stafford, who plays chess recreationally, compiled his research by analysing the data that underpins the “Elo ratings” given to chess players – which is not widely available.
It showed that overall, women won more matches against men than their ratings could have predicted, despite male players having a higher average score.
He said: “It’s a wonderful game because you can go anywhere in the world and play, without any barrier of language.”