Published1 day ago
An 18-year-old Indian chess player has sparked a conversation on attitudes towards women in the sport with an Instagram post about her experiences.
Divya Deshmukh, who is an International Master (the second-highest title in chess), said that her chess videos often received online comments that focused on her appearance rather than her games.
“It’s a sad truth that when women play chess, [people] often overlook how good they actually are… and every irrelevant thing is focused on,” she wrote, adding that she had wanted to address the issue “for a while”.
Deshmukh shared the post at the end of the recent Tata Steel Chess tournament held in the Netherlands as she said that the behaviour of the audience had irked her throughout the competition. The organisers of the tournament later issued a statement supporting her and said that they “remain committed to promoting women in chess and ensuring a safe and equal sporting environment”.
Sexism is still an under-discussed topic in chess, which is one of the few mainstream sports where men and women often compete against each other. Deshmukh’s post, experts say, has ignited a crucial conversation on the behaviour of fans and even male players towards women in chess – even grandmaster Susan Polgar joined in.
Deshmukh told the BBC that she has been receiving hateful comments related to the way she dresses, looks or speaks since she was 14 years old. “It makes me sad that people don’t pay the same kind of attention to my chess skills,” she said.
Thousands of people have liked her post, and many have left supportive comments. One Reddit user noted how even seemingly innocuous jokes and comments were often “laced with sexist attitudes” while another said that it was common for people to leave sexually suggestive remarks under videos featuring women players.
“With an increase in online tournaments and with games being livestreamed, women players have become disproportionately vulnerable to receiving misogynistic comments from the predominantly male audience online,” says sports writer Susan Ninan, who has written extensively about chess.
She adds that such trolling deepens sexist attitudes about chess and can impact the confidence of young women players.
As a sport, chess already has a poor gender balance. According to the International Chess Federation or FIDE, women make up just 10% of licenced players globally, and the gap only gets wider at the top. For example, only three of India’s 84 grandmasters are women.
Chess experts and women players have ascribed this imbalance to the lack of access, opportunity and support for women and girls due to stereotypes surrounding the sport.
“There’s this common misconception that men are ‘wired differently’ and are hence, inherently better at chess,” says Ms Ninan, adding that such beliefs are amplified online, feeding into existing socio-cultural biases people have about women and their intellectual abilities.
In a study conducted by researchers at New York University for which around 300 parents and mentors – 90% of these were men – were interviewed, it was found that a majority of the respondents believed that girls have a lower potential in the sport than boys and that they were more likely to stop playing chess due to a lack of ability than their male counterparts.
Nandhini Saripalli, a chess player and coach, says she has experienced first-hand the consequences of such biases. She says that her chess career took a hit because she didn’t get enough support compared with her male counterparts.
And now, she says that her career as a coach is being hampered because society doesn’t have much confidence in a woman’s chess-playing ability. “Parents want their children to be mentored by a male coach because they feel that male players are more talented,” she says.
Observers also say that online trolling feeds into the culture of women players and tournaments not being taken seriously.
Saripalli says that online, she has had men telling her that her male opponent can “trash” her easily, while offline, she has encountered male players who’ve said that they don’t feel the need to practise if their opponent is a woman because they don’t consider female players to be “real competition”.
“Women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, and even then you can’t escape sexist judgements,” she says, adding that like many of her female chess-playing friends, she too “dresses down” to escape unwanted attention from male players and the audience.
Interestingly, this is something Polgar – who is widely regarded to be among the best chess players in the world – says she experienced decades ago when she was a young chess player.
Polgar responded to Ms Deshmukh’s post by sharing her own experience on X (formerly Twitter). “I did not even touch make-up until I was in my 20s… It is because I was tired of being sexually harassed/assaulted and hit on constantly by male chess players,” she wrote.
Ms Ninan says that chess offers a “fertile space for predatory behaviour” because of its one-on-one setting and the fact that players are just a chess board away from their opponent.
But Koneru Humpy, one of India’s top chess players who started her career in the 1990s when there were few women in chess, and stunned the world by becoming the then-youngest female Grandmaster at the age of 15 (this record was broken later), says that there is more equality now compared with when she began playing.
Humpy recalls being the only female player to compete in open tournaments – she says these are much tougher to win than women’s-only tournaments because the players are more skilled on average.
“Men wouldn’t like losing to me because I’m a woman,” she says and adds that today’s crop of male players are different as they regularly train and play against their female peers.
But it will take more time for women players to wield the same amount of influence on and off the chess board as their male counterparts. One way to alter this power imbalance is to remove socio-cultural barriers that prevent women’s participation in chess at the entry level.
“Once there are more female players, there will be more of them in the top levels of the sport,” says Humpy, adding that this will change prevailing perceptions.
The other way to encourage more women to play chess is by increasing the number of women-only tournaments.
“The more women play chess, the more claim they have over the sport,” she adds.