In a tournament in February in St. Louis, chess grandmaster Valentina Gunina prompted audible gasps from spectators as she sacrificed piece after piece after piece. But the gasps turned to applause when she executed a checkmate that made her the winner of the first Cairns Cup, a tournament among the world’s top women players. Our team of commentators compared her performance to a 1912 game where American chess champion Frank Marshall found a checkmating combination so beautiful that spectators threw gold coins on the board. Gunina also earned some coin, taking home $40,000.
All year, the St. Louis Chess Club hosts the nation’s strongest tournaments. We want to bring the great game of chess to everyone, and this also means working on the historic gender imbalance in the mind sport.
A visitor to the club might assume that some of our events are segregated by gender, with events like the U.S. Championship and Sinquefield Cup featuring all-male fields, and the U.S. Women’s Championship and the aforementioned Cairns Cup being all-female. These impressions are misleading. Yes, there are national and international tournaments exclusively for women but none that are exclusively for men. Why the disparity? It turns out to be a sample-size problem.
In the U.S. Chess Federation, which has almost 100,000 members, there are nearly eight times more male players than females. Thus, at all skill levels, there are about eight times more men than women. Though the numbers sound grim, there actually has been a major increase in female participation. In the past decade, female U.S. chess membership has risen by almost 70 percent.
Club co-founder Jeanne Sinquefield, nee Cairns, is working to widen the base through her work with Scouting BSA, which in February welcomed girls to its programs. We conducted the first-ever chess merit badge workshop for girls just a couple of days later at the chess club.
And still, at the highest levels today, there are no female players. In a tournament like the Sinquefield Cup, which is held each August in St. Louis and features the top 12 players in the world, no women currently qualify by rating — the numerical, constantly recalibrated measure of a chess player’s strength.
The women who do play chess are such incredible fighters, and they are wonderful role models for future generations. So we host events for them to shine and earn money and prestigious titles, at the risk of garnering criticism from critics that we are holding them back by creating different standards. It’s important to listen to the women and girls themselves. Many want these events, enjoy them, and perhaps most importantly, fans and young girls are motivated by seeing top women’s tournaments, which are streamed online.
Female chess players have risen to the top echelons of the game over the past century, including:
• Vera Menchik, the first women’s world champion, won eight titles and reigned from 1927 until her untimely death at age 38, when her family home was hit directly in the 1944 London Blitz. No shrinking violet, Menchik famously said, “I want to drink men’s blood,” before a major mixed competition.
• The Polgar Sisters — Susan, Sofia and Judit — were born in Hungary and opened a new chapter in women’s chess in the 1980s and ’90s. Their parents started the home-schooled sisters’ serious chess training before kindergarten. Susan, recently inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, won the Women’s World Championship in 1996 and now is the chess coach at Webster University, where she led her team to seven consecutive collegiate championship titles. Judit crushed Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming the youngest grandmaster of all time at 15. She ranked among the world top 10 players and is the strongest female chess player in history.
• Hou Yifan, of the Chinese women’s chess team, is the youngest female player ever to win the Women’s World Championship and the second-highest rated female player ever. During a 2015 visit to St. Louis, she trounced a strong male grandmaster, Parimarjan Negi.
The co-author of this op-ed, Rex Sinquefield, is known for inventing index funds, a numbers game that emphasizes investing in the market at large rather than picking one stock. And in bringing more gender diversity to chess, it’s also right to play the numbers game. With just one strong female player, the chances to find her among the country’s best top players is low. The wider the base gets, the more likely we are to see a woman at the top of that pyramid — where she belongs.
Rex Sinquefield, co-founder of Dimensional Fund Advisers, is president and co-founder of the St. Louis Chess Club with his wife, Jeanne Sinquefield. Jennifer Shahade is a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, author of “Chess Bitch” and “Play Like a Girl,” and director of women’s programs at U.S. Chess.