August 17, 2023 - 3:05pm

Chess is the latest discipline to protect women’s competitions. FIDE — the International Chess Federation — has announced that:

In the event that the gender was changed from a male to a female the player has no right to participate in official FIDE events for women until further FIDE’s decision is made. Such decision should be based on further analysis and shall be taken by the FIDE Council at the earliest possible time, but not longer than within 2 (two) years period. There are no restrictions to play in the open section for a person who has changed the gender.

This is welcome news, and I say that as a transgender chess player. 

Most chess is mixed-sex. Men and women play alongside each other and against each other. Hou Yifan — currently the highest ranked woman in chess — is a Grandmaster. She earned that title by beating men in open competitions and, although my experience of chess is at a far lower level, every event I have ever entered was open to both sexes. My transition 11 years ago had no impact on my ability to move my chess pieces.

Why, then, are there chess competitions organised just for women? Unlike physical sport, neither our muscles nor our skeletons are the issue; chess is a mind game. But the fact remains that there are 149 men ranked above Hou Yifan, including at least two 17-year-old boys. At the level of chess I am familiar with — recreational club chess — similar patterns emerge. Men tend to dominate the room and take most of the prizes, and without separate female competitions, women might win very little. So, from purely empirical reasoning, women’s competitions make sense. 

But why are women under-represented in chess? It’s hardly the fault of society if the same pattern emerges consistently across the world. Hou Yifan is the tenth best Chinese player. Koneru Humpy — the highest ranked woman from India — is 28th overall. Meanwhile, Irina Krush is the best female chess player from the US, with 116 American men ranking above her.

The truth is that human beings are part of nature. Men and women evolved different bodies and we have also evolved different psychologies. It’s possible that evolution has left men with an innate advantage in chess.

According to Dr Carole Hooven, Harvard evolutionary biologist and author of Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates Us and Divides Us,  “males have a large advantage over females in spatial ability and, to the extent that spatial ability contributes to chess performance, this would help to explain the male advantage (on average) in chess.’ Speaking to UnHerd, Hooven added: “Of course, social factors matter too, but we should not rule out the possibility that males’ inherited biology contributes to the male advantage.”

But whatever the reason, transwomen share our evolutionary history with men. In the womb, we developed in the same way when our XY chromosomes caused our bodies to develop along the male pathway. Transwomen might have an unsual psychological condition — the compulsion to be perceived as the opposite sex — but that does not make us women. As such, we need to stay out of women’s sport and out of women’s chess.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.