To support his controversial claims that women are not “hardwired” to play chess, chess grandmaster Nigel Short played 20 women at once in Auckland’s Aotea Square. Alex Casey watched the games play out, and spoke to some young women looking to keep this king in check.
A middle-aged man wearing a pink shirt eyeballs a ten year-old girl intently from behind his jet black glasses, floating mysteriously on his ruddy face like Morpheus. She stares back with saucer eyes. The man mercilessly knocks over her rook, sending it spinning off the board. The girl looks down at her feet through a thick black fringe, the man smirks and lumbers joylessly onto the next contestant. Another girl, no older than 12.
It was lunchtime in Auckland’s Aotea Square, and apparently this was all totally fine – part of the Council’s ‘Auckland Live’ summer programme. The man was Nigel Short, a chess Grandmaster who prompted this event following statements, reported in the NZ Herald, that women are not hardwired to play chess to the same standard as men.
It’s all about grey and white matter, he reckons, that has led to there only being two women in the top 100 chess players in the world. “I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage.”
“It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”
To quash this “fretting” once and for all, Short would play 20 young women simultaneously. What exactly this was meant to prove isn’t clear, as he was beaten by a woman in the recent New Zealand chess championships.
Perhaps it’s more of a revenge mission of sorts – he voiced his ire towards TV3 for its coverage of his remarks. Turns out Hilary Barry called him a “twat” about 600 times whilst reporting on his comments on Paul Henry.
His twat-esque comments have drawn consternation the world over, many coming from within the chess community. But Short has stood by his initial claims, “the simple fact of the matter is that men play better chess than women”. Today we were going to find out, although the fact that he has a solid 30-40 year head start on most contestants did seem like a bit of an advantage. “The girls love having this opportunity to play against someone like Nigel,” said cheery chess grandmaster Murray Chandler, an event organiser.
I had a lot of questions, many of which remained around the intricacies of the game. My own mother had tried to teach me the rules many times, but only now have I realised that learning from her would be like getting a cat to teach me how to bark. She just hasn’t got the right brain for it, all white matter, erratic emotions and bad driving. No thank you.
My questions don’t just stop at the rules, however. Why was this event creepily billed as Beauty vs. the Beast? Why has Short gone out of his way so many times to make women doubt their abilities? Why does does he call his opinions “facts”? Why does he think feminists are shrill? What is this really doing for women? Why does he always sound like a bit of a sexist? Why has the Council paid for this? And again, how do you play chess?
I wandered around the marquee that housed the 20 brave tributes going up against the king pin. They ranged from fidgety young girls sipping frozen cokes ($1 for a large from Burger King next door, why wouldn’t ya?), to Colombian visitors who’d journeyed from the other side of the world to play Short, to steely-eyed local champions. The latter sat at the highest-ranked table, sipping coffees and studying their chessboards with an intensity which suggested they carried their whole gender in a male-dominated field on their backs.
Nadia, one of the youngest in the competition, had just turned 10. She’s only been playing chess for a little over a year. “I’ve beaten over 10 boys already,” she whispered whilst adjusting her glitter jelly watch. I asked how she thought she was going to take out Short. “I’m going to trap him… with skewers”, something that I found delightedly violent, until I found out that skewering was actually just a chess term.
Also in the line-up, sitting at the strongest table, with her backs to the Aotea Centre and her board spaced out for extra genius room, was ex-Bachelorette and New Zealand chess champ Natasha Fairley, nervously fiddling with her hair.
You’ll remember her inciting an iconic moment in our Bachelor history. “When I first met him at the door I told him ‘I play chess for New Zealand, what about you?’ And he said ‘well, I can clap with one hand’. I asked if she ever got to waste Art Green on the chessboard. “I was kicked out a week later without playing him – so maybe he just didn’t want to lose on national television”
Both the competition and the sun was heating up. Short had made his initial first moves after a brief round of handshakes, and was now gently orbiting the tables, tapping his feet in time with some jazz music. Various news journalists leaned on oversized deck chairs in the sun, flicking through their smartphones. Cameramen feverishly placed impossibly small cameras down on different chess boards, desperate to get the perfect shot of Nigel knocking their kings and queens aside in closeup.
Was he winning because he had a different brain? Or was he winning because he has enjoyed a lifetime of practice and privilege in a sector of society that had always favoured men?
“Nigel was saying that women and men have their brains hard-wired differently,” said Natasha, “I still don’t know what that actually means in a practical sense. Does it mean they are better chess players? No. I think the difference comes down to social conditions.”
As both a seasoned Bachelorette and chess legend, Natasha has had her fair share of experience with gender politics at play. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t entirely agree with our main man Nige.
“It’s just the same as university,” says Natasha, “there’s still an attitude of ‘women can’t be scientists or engineers’ just because there are only a handful of females. Chess is just one of many fields that is still a boys club.”
In the square, the initial interest had dissipated. Even the security guard monitoring the event had wandered away to watch the comedy-sized ‘big chess’ being played by two keen babies. I counted less than ten female faces in the crowd, now overrun with quite a particular demographic of man. A frantic gent wearing his t-shirt inside out stood on my foot to get a good view of the board. “He’s been robbed,” he muttered urgently to himself, before moving on, his potbelly brushing lightly against my back, a sensation I never want to feel again.
Just as the gender balance of the crowd was suddenly skewed, there a dip in female representation when chess reaches a particular level. I asked Natasha about it. She sees adolescent pressures as the main reason for the leaderboard disparity. “Girls around high school age, unfortunately, come under much more pressure to care about their appearance, dating and a whole lot of other things that split their interests. Boys are generally more supported to focus on their goals and be the best. Guys get pushed harder towards things, we encourage competitiveness so much more than with girls.”
We are getting closer to lunchtime now, and the crowd is again padded out with confused bystanders looking for a sheltered place to eat their Fritz’s Weiner safely. I may not understand chess, but I understand the complex tactic required to get away with the ol’ hot dog in public trick. “Dance me to the end of love”, proposed Leonard Cohen through tinny speakers, as Nigel Short shed a layer and wiped his clammy brow. No doubt it’s tiring work pummeling young girls at a board game.
Reading someone’s scoresheet behind their back, I thought again about how weird it was that this event was billed as “Beauty vs The Beast”. Everyone involved agreed that the overall goal was to promote women in chess, and I don’t doubt that was achieved on some level – but did it have to happen under such an unsettling circumstances? These girls, some of whom were still at primary school, already being told that they exist to be beauties?
It was far too hot me, so I headed back to the office, traveling via Burger King for a large frozen coke for $1, perhaps my greatest tactical play of the day. The exhausting event lasted for hours longer, with Natasha being the last woman standing. “This is actually the first time being the last loser was actually a good thing,” she laughed to me over the phone. “We were never trying to prove the women versus men thing. He was actually trying to improve the publicity for women’s chess.”
She hopes this publicity will continue to even the playing field, believing that “if women stuck around as long as men do, I think we would absolutely see an equal leaderboard”.
Let’s just hope those women still in hiding can eventually navigate their way out of chess’s narrow garages, and get playing.