In Where’s Bobbi Fischer? I dig around to try to understand why there are so few top-ranked chess players. This article evolved in a really interesting way. Last fall I wrote about board games for the Atlantic. While researching that article I met a woman who runs a board game lab (Mary Flanagan – she’s a total rock star and I want to be her when I grow up). After that article came out we stayed in touch, and she told me about a board game she was designing that was meant to be the world’s first “pro-girl” board game. I’d never really thought about it before, but many board games are pretty male-oriented, and in looking back over my own board game playing habits as a kid, I realized that I’d always hid my board game skills (I’m good. Pick a game and the odds are strong that I will crush you.) because they felt unfeminine.
So I pitched an article on how girls don’t play board games to an editor at Aeon, but after lots of digging around I wasn’t able to find much research on board games at all, and only anecdotal evidence to show that board games skewed male. Instead, I kept coming up with all this chess research. So I emailed my editor to tell him how annoyed I was by all the chess research that was dwarfing the board game research, and he, being a wise editor, suggested I switch the focus of the article to chess.
I’d had my own sordid history with chess, so as soon as I made the switch the article started coming together quickly. I had the chance to interview several women who have made their way through the chess world, and also started seeing parallels everywhere I went. I work in tech, and I’m often the only woman in a meeting, but I’d never really thought about WHY or HOW this had happened. I’d just always figured, well, women don’t do tech. Just as girls don’t do chess. So having the opportunity to look at the history of chess and speak with chess coaches and really understand what it means for girls and women to be excluded from different fields was a fascinating opportunity.
I hope you’ll read the piece and share it around, because until we recognize the places where society discriminates or stereotypes, we don’t have much hope of changing things.