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Chess BitchThere’s a strong case to be made that women aren’t necessarily disadvantaged in any way relative to men when involved in competitive, opponent-based games. Unfortunately, the notion that the so-called fairer sex isn’t cut out for highly competitive situations remains unfairly widespread.

Recent studies have given us a more nuanced understanding of women’s psychology when playing competitive games. A 2011 study published by Stanford University researchers concludes that women are just as comfortable taking risks as men are, and what they lack isn’t in the skills department, but in the degree of confidence and attitude towards competition.

Simply put, women are less likely to compete in opponent-based games because they have a more realistic perception of the true level of their abilities. This enables them to judge more accurately their chances of success when compared to the competition.

XX vs XY

Contrast this with how men usually behave. The Stanford study mentioned previously finds that male players are more likely to be overconfident and therefore judge their chances of succeeding at competitions to be better.

Impetuousness and a propensity to delight in comparing themselves favorably against other males are two traditionally ‘male’ characteristics that are as firmly enshrined in popular literature as they seem to be etched in their DNA.

The latter may not be entirely true however. Social conditioning plays a very important role in moulding the attitudes of males and females towards competition, as well as self-esteem. Gender role biases, so prevalent in modern society, have much to account for the poor showing of women in games tournaments.

Two of the most intensely competitive games are chess and poker. Both are historically dominated by men, but the few female stars that ascend to the zenith of their respective game ranks, command as much respect as their male counterparts. In the next sections, we’ll take a look in turn at chess and poker, and find how the way women think affects their performance.

Lessons from a game of chess

The venerable game of Chess pits players in a virtual battlefield where the needs to dominate and survive are as starkly contrasted as the black-and-white squares on the board. A woman who has carved herself a fearsome reputation in waging war on the chessboard is Jennifer Shahade.

Jennifer is an American chess grandmaster, an accomplished poker player and a writer. In her book, Chess Bitch, she talks about how playing chess is a very different experience when lived through a woman’s perspective. She admits that there aren’t enough women signing up for chess tournaments, but she is also adamant that counting on raw aggression is not how chess should be played.

In her book, Shahade points out that a game of chess requires the ability to focus one’s attention and aggression, channelling it exclusively on reaching a particular strategic goal. She believes that this aligns perfectly with women’s psychology, especially since in chess you need to be acutely aware of both your strengths and weaknesses in order to succeed.

She confirms that there are as many opportunities for women to succeed in chess as there are for men. Unfortunately, women who excel at the game tend to attract a lot of attention to themselves, something which may be disconcerting to some and downright discouraging to others.

Women going all-in for poker glory

The second game we’re analyzing women’s playing psychology through is poker. The fact that we’ve chosen chess and poker isn’t just a fluke. It is well proven that chess players transition into poker with very profitable results. With a thriving online scene and sites like guiding players through the changing USA online legislation, there is big money to be made.

In many ways, poker represents a whole new level of competition. There isn’t just one opponent, but several; it isn’t just your chess grading and reputation on the line, but your bank account and life savings. The media attention of chess players doesn’t hold a candle to the glaring spotlights that shine on poker pros.

This is the ultimate cut-throat scenario for women wishing to make a name for themselves bending the cards and raking in towers of chips. Two world-class chess players who went on to become successful poker players are Almira Skripchenko and Dinara Khaziyeva.

In 2001, Skripchenko won the European individual ladies chess championship at the age of 25, having already had a string of smashing successes in the past. Recently she started competing in major poker tournaments and garnered over $250,000 in winnings in just three years.

Dinara Khaziyeva is also a chess-whizz-turned-poker-player. In 2013, she competed in a World Series of Poker tournament in Canada and finished in third place, claiming her biggest win yet, over $55,000.

Both women clearly demonstrate how ladies can succeed in highly competitive games, like chess and poker, by playing the game their own way. As explained above, the key factor holding back women isn’t necessarily disparity in skill or talent. Rather, it is the lack of encouragement and societal norms surrounding female gender roles that stifles women’s participation in opponent-based games.

Not just a boy’s game

As Jennifer Shahade asserts, opportunities for women to succeed in ultra-competitive games like chess and poker abound, but supply seems to far exceed demand.

Encouraging young women to step up to the challenge, whilst celebrating and developing the female experience of playing opponent-based games is a must to develop the female champions and role models of tomorrow.

Controlled strategic aggression, results-oriented action and confidence in one’s abilities are abilities that should be nurtured in girls and boys, as much as: making accurate assessments of one’s weaknesses, learning detail-oriented planning and a spirit of fairness.

These traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ sets of characteristics complement each other and should be equally cultivated in children in order to holistically raise the next generation of human beings.

September 30, 2014
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