The what and why of Male Female Separation in Chess

In chess, there is no literal barrier to entry when it comes to race, age, or gender. It is up to the player to prove certain expectations in handling the game. There is however a little controversy as to why women in chess are treated slightly differently.

Historically wise, there is a large disparity in the male to female ratio in chess, where male players usually dominate 90% of the game’s population.

Female-only tournaments are held to incentivize rising female players in actually participating in the game, where a tournament is set as open to all or females only.

Gender disparity

The chess population has almost always been dominated by male players. Even just looking at the top players. It’s clear that male participants are more likely to succeed in chess.

Now, it doesn’t mean that a female cannot win in this environment. It’s just that there are very few who actually did become a part of the elite. Aside from the top players, this applies to the general population as well.

There is a statistical representation of the chess players in Norway (same as the current world champion’s country). It is found that there are about 2649 active chess players in Norway.

Male Population accounts for a whopping 95.7% of all the active players. Having a total of 2,536 from the initial 2,649. 95.7 % people! That is insane.

It almost certainly means that if you’re going to meet a random player from Norway You should expect a dude. Female players only have a 4.3% percentage. That is quite low.

Only making up 113 from 2,649. That is a pretty depressing number. This is not just a difference, this is a disparity. Now, you might say this only applies to Norway. But the rest of the world bears similar characteristics.

Norway is just a good sample of that. Now that is for the population, what about the Elo ratings?

Elo disparity

Generally, there is a pattern to which gender has more elo ratings on average. Elo is a ranking system used to determine the strength of a player. When a player wins a game, ratings will be gained depending on some factors.

Conversely, Elo rating will be deducted when suffering a defeat. This system only applies to rated games. It is a good indicator of a player’s overall experience in the game. On a general level, players of all Elo levels have a somewhat diversified background.

Not with gender though, male definitely represents higher elo more than females. The population is one thing, but elo is another! Let’s look at the numbers.


The numbers are again taken from the same research as the one above. Of all the 2,649 population of men in Norway, the average rating is about 1364.

This is a product of adding all of the Elo points divided by the total population. Women in general have an average elo of 1285. Now men are definitely higher in this category. But only slightly.

Of course, this is not something to be crazy about. Until you learn that only one of all female population achieved a rating beyond 2300. 62 of all the men on the other hand have an Elo above 2300.

The gap is high in the woman population when it comes to the best player the group can offer. Most female players (as the average is pretty decent) tends to play between the average. Men on the other hand play on the lower or higher spectrum.

Males are either very bad or very good. And since men had higher Elo on average anyway. This means that they tend to have higher ratings. This brings us to the bulk of this controversy.

Tournament separation

A tournament can be separated as an open to all and only female. Now you might think this is good for women since it cuts out a lot of the competition. And you would be right.

However, this is seen by some prospects inside and outside of the community as prejudice. It’s like saying “you can’t compete here so you just stay there”. Of course nobody said that directly. But a lot of people view it that way.

Now I’m not sided with one over the other. But I can definitely attest that arguments do exist. Which has become a serious topic that people should be aware of.

Regular Grandmaster

In order to be a regular grandmaster, a player has to achieve 3 gm norms. One norm is awarded to the player that reached favorable results in a tournament.

A tournament can only give norms once it meets these requirements:

  • At least 33% of the players are grandmasters
  • 50% of the players have at least have Fide titles.
  • The tournament’s average rating has at least within 2380.
  • The players should come from three different federations counting the player’s own federation.

A male has to perform phenomenally in this kind of environment. This is extremely competitive that only a few can even survive. This is only one norm. You need three to become a regular grandmaster.

As well as an accomplished rating of 2,500 at some point in the player’s career. That’s an insane requirement! What about the woman grandmaster title?

Woman Grandmaster

Women grandmasters or considered lower than their male counterparts (2,500). And still lower than the regular international master title (2,400).

On top of this, the winner of the world girl’s junior championship is automatically awarded the
woman grandmaster title. I’m not saying that there are no good female players out there. But the titles are definitely set way lower and their respective category.

After all, a single tournament can instantly make someone a woman grandmaster. Male players however have to conquer three, along with very specific requirements. The bar to be a regular grandmaster is just higher.

Why is this the case? What drives this segregation between gender among chess participants?


The following are considered the advantages of this separation. Among tournaments and the titles at least:


It is now an established fact that there are more males in chess than females. This essentially means that the game is more popular with males. And that inherently by itself is not a bad thing.

However, the chess population needs all of the diversity it can have. That’s how most sports-related settings (although chess is arguably a sport) thrive the test of time.

A lower bar for male or female give chances for the said group to participate in the community. This loosening of the gatekeeping is an easy way to make the game more popular.

There are more beginners in the chess world than there are pros. A prospective female player would be likely to participate if the prestige seems achievable. That is for players about to enter the game. But what about those that are already in the game?


This kind of system allows females to have titles much more easily. And though they may have disadvantages. The titles give female players an incentive to further their careers. Based on the same research in Norway, the average age for male chess players are 41.8!

Meaning most of the males play until they almost retire. That is a huge number. A large percentage of the population is close to being considered as elderly people. What about the females?

The same statistics suggest that the average age for the female group is around 25.6! What a huge difference! That’s almost twice as young as the male players.

So clearly something desirable should be in place that would keep the female population a drive
to seek more opportunities. Enter the status. Achieving any sort of privilege will make it harder for people to stop their careers.

After all, it is easier to quit when there’s nothing on the line yet. Quitting with status will seem like a waste. And this will keep the female population from declining.


Sponsorships in any type of media usually target very specific types of people. What’s applicable to a female audience may not be for a male. Having all female tournaments will make it easier for players to attract such sponsors.

They don’t get to compete with very well-known male players. On the other hand, there are no all-male tournaments.

But since most regular tournaments are composed of men anyway, advertisers get the opportunity there.

Apart from sponsors, tournament prices are much easier to acquire. When the field is a little bit easier, it is a little bit easier to win the tournament. And when you win you get the money.

Lowering the bar allows female players to support themselves while playing chess. You don’t get the money if you don’t perform well. Chess tours can also be quite expensive.

So having the hope of winning the prize makes a player want to see through the career until the end.


Those are the beauty of this separation. But with an advantage almost always comes a little drawback Here are the reasons why this difference may not be the right idea.


Having easy status makes it unlikely for a player to starve for more. And although this may not apply to all of the female players. The environment is just established to make it feel this way. If you could make the money and the status by playing at your current level.

There is not much incentive to climb new heights. Only those with a really fierce view of achievements will dare to challenge the top male players.

Even some actual players destined for greatness. Are prone to hit the feeling that they’ve achieved enough. If one could become the woman chess champion. You could just hold on to the title for years to come.

There is no drive to compete with the male players and risk the chance of being crushed. This makes complacency or contentment becomes a force that holds female players back from becoming what they could’ve become.


Another drawback would just be the symbol of the separation. This is the root of why this topic is even considered a controversy. It just strengthens the idea that males and females cannot compete on the same ground.

And since males are generally better, it appears as if females are just worse. There might be some truth to that, or it may just be that females aren’t cultured the way that males do.

But just the image of the separation can even creep to someone just about to enter the field. It creates a sort of a barrier. A kind of “you don’t belong here” feeling.

Now, this may not be cultural but just a mental illusion. But nonetheless is still a disadvantage from this divergence.


The reason male players keep getting stronger year after year. Was because they kinda need to. The competition keeps getting harder and harder. It’s natural selection at play, where the weaker player just won’t get the spotlight.

And so this makes the player be able to play beyond the limits in order to survive the competition. This kind of urgency is of little to no present on female chess.

Although the female world championship title is competitive don’t get me wrong. It’s still nothing to the bar set on the regular chess championship. Competition can be a powerful drive to really set the standard in a particular environment.

And when the standard is high, the participants need to adapt. This could very well be the reason why there aren’t a lot of female players in the top 100. As the environment they initially thrive in is not suited for the peak stages of the game.

But there is one who just did that. And is very vocal about destroying this barrier to allow females more chances to compete.

Judit Polgar

Judit will forever go down history as a player that fought against odds. She is a phenomenal player. It will probably take a lot of time to see someone like her again.

Early achievements

At just 12 years old, Judith managed to enter the top 100 players in the world (open). She has become the youngest player ever to achieve such an accomplishment. What an incredible superhuman!

If something like that ever happens again, you know the chess world is going to get crazy. The media will be sure to cover that 12-year-old. And at the age of 15 years and 4 months, she managed to become a grandmaster.

Not just a female grandmaster, an actual grandmaster title from playing with male players. And that’s not all, she did this breaking the record of Bobby Fischer as the youngest grandmaster ever.

Bobby is another legendary player that shook the world in his time. And Polgar took the title out of him! This title however was eventually broken a couple of years later. But is still an outstanding achievement for someone at that moment in time.

Peak Strength

One of the most memorable achievement by this strong player came in 2005. Where Judith competed with several other men for the world championship title. Again, this is not a woman championship title, this is the road to be the best in the world.

She may not have become the world champion at the time. But if things were a little different, she can. Her highest elo went over 2735 which made her as the number eight player in the world during
her time.

In her career, she has beaten just any famous player you could think of. Kasparov, Karpov, and Anand all of which are known to be the best world champions. She really represents what it means to be a rising star.

Her career ended in 2015, the year where she retired.

Final thoughts

There are definitely some advantages and disadvantages when it comes to separation. What’s clear though was females in chess are underrepresented. We definitely could use another great female player.

Does the separation culture help with that though? It is open for argument, systems have changed before. If you like the content feel free to check out the home page for more interesting topics!