Chess psychometrics – Female privilege

Privilege is a hot topic currently. For some reason, one of the most obviously privileged demographic is rarely mentioned: Young women.

Young women have better educational outcomes. Earn more than their male counterparts in almost all bigger US cities. And are set to enjoy a significantly longer life.

On top of that, young women, especially if they are somewhat attractive, can count on support, leniency and favoritism from a significant number of men.

Of course many people would dispute that. A few years ago there was an interesting paper [1], showing that in chess men play more aggressive opening lines against female opponents.

The implication is that female chess players do not compete under the same conditions as male players do. An elevated aggressiveness could very well discourage women from competing in chess. A similar pattern could be present in the labor market as for instance at a job interview. If male recruiters treat female job applicants more aggressively than male applicants then women could be discouraged from applying for or accepting such jobs.

Patrik Gränsmark

The method used in this paper is quite crude and I hope to present a much more elegant way to determine risk taking and aggressiveness in chess in a later blogpost. But I do not doubt the result that men play more aggressive opening lines against women. However, I am less sure about the motivation behind this choice.

The authors of the paper seem to assume that the objective of this opening strategy is to beat the female opponent. They then show that the strategy backfires and men actually score slightly worse if they play more aggressively. But it could just as well be the case that men choose risky lines trying to impress their female opponents. In that case the choice would not be irrational despite the lower probability of winning. The optimal course of such a game might be a daring and creative gambit later followed by a generous draw offer.

These are two opposing interpretations of the same result. Either men go out of their way to beat women, or men are trying to impress the rare potential chess playing mate and don’t mind losing an Elo point or two on the way.

To get to the bottom of this puzzle we will analyze the draws, offered and accepted, between male and female players.

In chess, you can offer a draw after making a move, before you press the clock, and the opponent may accept the offer or make a move to continue the game. So in almost all cases the player to last make a move in a drawn game has been the player to offer the draw. If you want to keep your Elo at its current level, you are well advised to make draws against opponents that average the same Elo as you. But if you are favorably inclined towards a certain group, say young women, you might accept and make draw offers against players averaging a significantly lower Elo. Conversely, if you very much want to beat them, you might only accept draw offers by significantly stronger players.

We analyze two million chess games, trying to uniquely connect the players names to the fide player database. This allows us to determine sex, age and other interesting attributes. As we will see, it isn’t at all easy to uniquely identify the correct player and we only manage to do this for 30% of the players. Typos, varying initials and different transcriptions make this difficult.

Initially, I looked at games with both players above 1900 Elo and I distinguished between games longer than 20 moves or shorter, and between white offering the draw and black offering the draw, and between the women playing white and the man playing white.

However, I found that the result is always pretty much the same. In a drawn game between male players, or between female players only, black will be slightly higher rated (4 to 12 points). This makes sense, because it is compensation for the first move advantage that white enjoys.

If a male player makes a draw against a female player, compared to the baseline, the female player will be 40-50 points lower rated. So a women has to bring 40-50 fewer points to the table to make a draw (if playing a man).

Given that we sliced and diced the dataset into several parts, we can be sure that this result is very robust. Here are the values for the overall dataset, the first player is white, the number is the average Elo advantage of white:

Women against men: -62.7 points
Men against men: -10.0 points
Women against women: -8.8 points
Men against women: 43.96

Note the symmetry: It doesn’t matter who is white and who is black. The Elo loss for the men compared to the baseline of intra sex games is the same 52-54 points.

These numbers are based on more than 10,000 games between a man and a women and significantly more games by men against men.

This does not look like men are trying harder to beat women. In fact, it looks more like support, leniency and favoritism.

But it is not a slam dunk yet. In the following blogposts we will dig a little deeper, make sure we are not being confounded in any way and try to unveil the entire story.

[1] Men play more aggressively against women

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