Begivenhed · Skak

Poor Nigel

The Battle of the Legends is over. Former World Champion Garry Kasparov crushed his contender Nigel Short with an incredible five to naught at day two of the event, adding up to the final result of 8.5-1.5 in Garry’s favour.

I certainly had not expected this to happen. Sure, Garry is a phenomenon, possibly the strongest chess player to ever have lived. But he has been retired from professional chess for the last 10 years or so, while Nigel is an active tournament player, in fact being the only player in his age cohort to succeed at holding on to a spot among the worlds top-1001).

Nigel attributed his disappointing performance to jetlag, having travelled from Thailand to the United States right before the Battle. However, at the interview with Maurice Ashley after the first day of play, Nigel was visibly tormented upon Maurice inquiring into the “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess”-controversy. My bet is that jetlag was not the only factor mixing into the equation.

Even though the turmoil about Nigel’s column Vive la différence in the magazine New in Chess is not entirely undeserved in my humble opinion, I can surely understand why it has caused a great deal of agony for Nigel.

As all witty columnists with a centain level of public regard and eagerness to express politically incorrect opinions know, it is a question of when rather than if the shit will hit the fan at some point. In Nigel’s case, the timing for this to happen was extremely unfortunate. On the eve of the demonstration match with his former rival for the chess world championship Garry Kasparov, a highly critical article appeared in the Telegraph directing the attention of the public to Nigel’s column – which had been out for almost a month already. The rest is history.

One thing that I have noticed during the last couple of days is Nigel repeatedly insisting on people not having read his column and being misquoted by the media. As a blogger having commented on Nigel’s column in this post in Danish, I was especially baffled by the first of these statements, but as it turns out, Nigel has a point.

No doubt there is a tendency in the social media for people to have opinions about everything without being particularly hindered by facts. But I found it hard to believe that so many sources would debate Nigel’s column at length without actually reading the text where it all began. I for sure had read the column before sharing my two cents of wisdom – in the printed version no less. Working on an English translation of my blog post on the matter, I decided to reread Nigel’s column as well as the article that kickstarted the debate with extra scrutiny.

And true enough, Nigel does not in any way express directly that “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess” in his column. Nor does he say so in the article in the Telegraph – in fact he does not say anything in this article, the only quotes of his are copied from Twitter and the infamous column. (Note: I have not conducted any systematic investigation on what other sources have made of it.)

Before I return to what Nigel actually did write, the following one-million-dollar-question has to be addressed. What had happened in my mind, and apparently the minds of many others? How could I read Nigel’s column attentively, all tuned in on digging up every single snippet of evidence, from unfounded claims about women’s chess potential to blatant sexism, and still miss this one very important detail: it wasn’t there. The “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess”-phrase, presented by the Telegraph as a quote, does not actually exist, not in Nigel’s column anyway.

Unfortunately I don’t have a track record of my thought processes, so we’ll have to make do with the following sketchy recollection of events.

  1. The Danish Championships had just finished, and I was in the middle of writing a blog post on the importance of a Women’s Championship. The participation hypothesis, the nature-nurture debate, the stereotype threat, it was all there already. And then…
  2. …the Telegraph article was published and went viral in the social media. Having experienced my fair share of being at the receiving end of unpleasant remarks, patronizing behavior and even sexual harrassment from my male chess playing colleagues during the years, I got pretty worked up about the “Girls just not having the brains”-quote in particular. How can we possibly tell, as long as the chess world is such a hostile environment for women to venture into?
  3.  I fetched the latest issue of New in Chess from the mail pile and read Nigel’s column. Several times. Being appropriately primed for confirmation bias by my concurrent blogging activity and more so the Telegraph article, I was appalled by Nigel referring to the participation hypothesis as “preposterous” and his suggesting that a different “hard-wiring” of the female brain causes women to be inferior chess players – we should just “gracefully accept it”! Yeah right!
  4. After cooling down I decided to elaborate on some of the topics in my blog post and not include any new ones. Keep it sober, point out where the adversary overstretches his position, be thorough with cross-checking and referencing. However, confirmation bias had caused me to read a false quote into my main source.
  5. I clicked “Publish” and “Share”.

So now I am one of those, who have put words into Nigel’s mouth, despite of not having any intention to do so. Not consciously at least. However, I did read the column! Will those who actually read the column and made the same mistake as I did please step forward?

Now that I have admitted to my crime, I will meticulously point out a passage from Nigel’s column to demonstrate, that his musings are far from innocent.

Writing (and I quote from the column’s final paragraph):

 Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?

immediately followed by a detour around emotional intelligence:

I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do.

topping it off with:

[R]ather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.

almost makes it impossible not to read the “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess”-conclusion between the lines.

The venom is in chaining these arguments together like pearls on a string. Nigel may or may not have been aware of the message he was sending. Too bad I don’t have a track record of his thought processes either.

For a female reader like myself, the emotional intelligence remark sounds more like an insult than a compliment. This is not by any fault of Nigel’s, but rather due to society’s tendency to view women as emotional but irrational as opposed to men being composed and logical. Dean Burnett does a pretty good job at explaining why emotional intelligence praise is not perceived as praise at all in his blog post Calm down dear: the dark side of ‘emotional intelligence’:

[A] powerful man praising women for their “emotional intelligence” [is] like praising someone for being really good at walking when you won’t let them drive the car.

I want young girls with a budding interest in the wonderful game of chess to have a fair chance at getting to “drive the car”. Right now their male peers are running around with the keys, telling the girls to go take a hike, and so they do. I do not pretend to have a readymade solution to this problem, I just know that “gracefully [accepting] it as a fact” ain’t it!

Having made my point, I want to round off by expressing my compassion for Nigel. The Battle of the Legends was his sudden opportunity to beat Garry after all, a tiny opportunity perhaps, but still. Maybe Nigel would have fared better under different circumstances. It is a pity for all of us chess lovers that now we’ll never know.

As to Nigel’s writings, I hope he will continue sharing his thoughts with us. Interesting, harmful, funny, provocative, tasteless, clever, outrageous, insulting, meaningful and meaningless are only some of the adjectives that spring to mind when thinking of his columns. I am looking forward to the next Short Stories.

With regard to my own writing: an English translation of my blog post on the necessity of women’s chess tournaments will be published very soon, so please stay tuned!


1)I can recommend the following article by GM Vladislav Tkachiev on the Battle of the chess generations where Nigel’s exceptional status is pointed out among many other interesting things.


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