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The women’s chess game thrives in unlikely climes

June 13, 2019

Why chess is such a male-dominated pastime and why more women do not play the world’s greatest game are two rabbit holes we haven’t the inclination or the space to go down here.

But I would steer everyone to a fascinating new piece by Australian GM and economist David Smerdon rating the “Best (and Worst) Countries to be a Female Chess Player.”

Using his own data and FIDE statistics on male-female participation ratios compiled by the indispensable Jeff Sonas, Smerdon arrives at a completely counter-intuitive conclusion. Countries generally lauded as beacons of female empowerment and gender equality looking at you, Denmark, Finland and Norway have some of the world’s worst rates for female chess participation.

Strikingly, developing and traditional countries that shall we say don’t have the same reputation cluster at the top of Smerdon’s rankings. China and Georgia, two longtime women’s chess powerhouses, are in the top 10, but so are the United Arab Emirates (No. 2), South Korea (No. 6) and Indonesia (No. 10). Syria and Iran appear to have about twice the percentage of female FIDE-rate players compared to the United States.

Apparently, Smerdon writes, “the more gender-equal a country is, the fewer females want to play chess.”

A conscientious researcher, the Aussie GM offers no definitive cultural, political, economic, genetic or evolutionary explanation for the data, but suggests one promising line of inquiry: The younger a nation and a nation’s chess population are, the higher the ratio of female chessplayers. Why boys as they grow older stick to the game while girls (on average) do not, we’ll leave for Smerdon’s next paper.

Topping the global ranking for female chess participation is another dark horse, Vietnam, where nearly 40% of the country’s FIDE-rated players are female. One of Vietnam’s best is WGM Hoang Thi Bao Tram, the 2017 women’s national champ and a regular on the country’s rising Olympiad squad.

One of her best wins came against Chinese star GM Tan Zhongyi at a 2017 team event in Russia, a Classical Queen’s Indian in which Hoang held her own in a protracted positional struggle with the then-reigning women’s world champ before engineering a nice central breakthrough.

With 23. fxe5 b5 24. c5 b4 25. Qa6!, the battle lines are drawn: If Hoang can mobilize her pawn center, she wins. Black, by contrast, has long-term assets in her queenside majority and magnificent knight blockading outpost on d5.

At the cost of a pawn, White achieves her goal with 37. Bh4 Nb4 38. d5!? Nxd5 39. c6 Rc7 40. Rc1 Nb6 41. Kh2, and Black’s constricted position leads to her downfall: 41...Ke8 (Nd5? 42. Bd8!) 42. Rd1 (reviving the threat of Bd8) Nd5 (see diagram) 43. Rxd5! exd5 44. Qxd5 Kf8? (losing, but even the tougher 44...Rf7 45. Kh1 h6 46. e6 Re7 47. Qd7+ tracks the play in the game) 45. e6 h6 46. Qd6+!? (good enough, but lethal now was 46. Bd8! Re7 [Rxc6 47. e7+ Ke8 48. Qg8+ Kd7 49. e8=Q+ Kd6 50. Qe7 mate] 47. Qxf5+ Ke8 48. Bxe7 Kxe7 49. Qf7+ Kd6 50. e7 and wins) Ke8 47. Qd7+! (forcing a won ending) Rxd7 48. exd7+ Qxd7 49. cxd7+ Kxd7 50. Bf2, and Black’s pawns are no match for White’s extra piece.

In the final position, Black’s pawns are blocked and her king must give way; Tan resigned.

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American GM Hikaru Nakamura came close but failed to make the finals in the FIDE Grand Prix tournament now nearing its end in Moscow. Nakamura lost in the semifinals of the knockout event to Russian GM Alexander Grischuk. Twenty-two grandmasters are battling for two automatic spots in the 2020 Candidates cycle over the four Grand prix events that began with Moscow. The ultimate prize: a date to challenge Norwegian world champ Magnus Carlsen for the world title in late 2020.

At presstime, Grischuk and compatriot GM Ian Nepomniachtchi had drawn their two games at classical time controls and were heading for a rapid playoff.

Hoang-Tan, Women’s World Team Championship, Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, June 2017

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. e3 b6 4. c4 Bb7 5. Bd3 d5 6. O-O Bd6 7. b3 O-O 8. Bb2 Nbd7 9. Ne5 c5 10. f4 Ne4 11. Nc3 cxd4 12. exd4 f6 13. Ng4 f5 14. Ne5 Nxc3 15. Bxc3 Nf6 16. Qe2 Rc8 17. Rac1 Qe7 18. Bd2 Rfd8 19. Be3 dxc4 20. bxc4 Be4 21. Bxe4 Nxe4 22. Rfd1 Bxe5 23. fxe5 b5 24. c5 b4 25. Qa6 Nc3 26. Rd2 Rb8 27. Rb2 Nd5 28. Bf2 Re8 29. a3 bxa3 30. Qxa3 Rxb2 31. Qxb2 Qc7 32. Qb5 Rc8 33. Ra1 Rb8 34. Qa6 Kf7 35. h3 Rb7 36. Qd6 Qc8 37. Bh4 Nb4 38. d5 Nxd5 39. c6 Rc7 40. Rc1 Nb6 41. Kh2 Ke8 42. Rd1 Nd5 43. Rxd5 exd5 44. Qxd5 Kf8 45. e6 h6 46. Qd6+ Ke8 47. Qd7+ Rxd7 48. exd7+ Qxd7 49. cxd7+ Kxd7 50. Bf2 a5 51. Kg3 Ke6 52. Bd4 g5 53. Kf3 h5 54. h4 gxh4 55. Kf4 a4 56. Bb2 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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