The Lockdown Diary – Day 48

Geneva, Saturday 2 May 2020


There is a park between us and downtown Geneva. I must have cycled through it a thousand times. In one corner by the main gate is an area dedicated to big outdoor public chess. Normally, on a Saturday morning, it would be heaving with enthusiasts locking intellectual horns. This morning, here it is in lockdown. 

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One thing I have noticed over the years is how very rare it is to see women playing chess here. I often wondered why this might be. I’ve had a look around on-line. Women represent less than 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world’s grand masters. There are several theories behind why chess attracts so many more men than women. 1) Women always rank higher than men on an “agreeableness” factor. This means that when confronted by another person, women – unlike men – tend not to try immediately to outsmart the other person. 2) Testosterone… yes, the T-dog!! That hormone that drives, among other things, competition – both physical and non-physical – and aggression. Normal testosterone levels in men lie between 280 and 1,100 ng/dL and for women between 15 and 70 ng/dL. Men tend to have and enjoy a rush of testosterone before an important chess tournament. 3) Gender stereotyping leads to boys starting chess earlier in life and girls being less welcome in chess clubs at school. 4) Young women who play chess at a high level tend to stop competing when they have children. As with so many other aspects of human behaviour, the correct answer will comprise genetic components and social / environmental components. 

My on-line research led me to some other fascinating gender-related chess issues. A study by Dreber, Gerdes and Gransmark reported in a 2013 edition of the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation found that “attractiveness” of the opponent influenced game strategy. The 626 participants in a tournament had been rated for attractiveness as part of  a large marketing survey. The researchers found that male players choose riskier strategies when playing against attractive female opponents. Their riskier play did not improve performance. Women’s strategies and performance were unaffected by the attractiveness of their opponent. In another study reported in a 2007 edition of the European Journal of Social Psychology, Maass, D’Ettloe and Cadinu found that gender stereotyping is a factor behind women’s underperformance in chess. They pitched 42 men and 42 women in an on-line chess tournament. When players were unaware of the sex of their opponent (the control), females played as well as males. In the experiment, when women knowingly played against men, they showed a dramatic drop in performance. When they played against men but were made to believe they were against women, they performed as well as their male opponents.

While we’re on gender differences, a report in Science News on 23 April, reported different COVID-19 mortality rates for men (around 60%) and women (around 40%.) This also has yet to be fully explained and there are certainly genetic and environmental factors at play. Purportedly, women mount a stronger immune response than males and so are likely to be less susceptible to viral infections. This is thought to be due to the immune response being driven by a gene or genes on the X chromosome of which women have two copies while men have one. Extrinsic factors will include the higher rate of heart disease and hypertension in men that, in turn, is associated with their higher levels of obesity and smoking. 

I have been wondering when to stop writing the Lockdown Diary; probably on 11 May. This is the date on which we should be able to play golf; a pastime not really compatible with the notion of lockdown. However, need I remind you, dear reader, that on a global scale this pandemic is far from over. Many countries are still booming. Here’s the hard truth.

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Wishing you a peaceful weekend and hoping you are safe and well.

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