Checkmate! Women succeed on the board

Are women as intelligent as men? You could hardly ask this question, even before the era of political correctness. Yet one puzzle, beloved by the intellectual misogynist tendency, remained unsolved. Why are there no great women chess players?

This week, for the first time in its 100-year history, the Hastings International Chess Congress began with five women among the 10 invited players for its Premier Tournament, the biggest event in the British chess calendar. The antics of some of the leading (male) exponents show that chess is not a pure test of intelligence. But high-level, specialised, abstract reasoning remains the most important attribute of a strong player.

The popular notion is that women are better than men at verbal tasks, worse at mathematical ones - and chess is a mathematical game. This is a myth. Such sex differences, if they exist, are tiny. In any case, some psychologists say that the best players cope with the incalculability of chess by using skills that are more linguistic than mathematical.

Another myth about the chess anomaly is that women are better at interpretative skills; men are more creative. This is specious nonsense. Chess has now been studied so thoroughly that it is largely interpretative rather than creative. Creativity, anyway,is assessed by subjective criteria, set by men.

Twenty-five years ago two Hungarian educationists, Laszlo and Klara Polgar, designed a teaching method to rear geniuses. They chose chess - with its objective, win-or-lose scoring - as the testing ground. Their youngest daughter, Judit, did much to shatter prejudices about women players. She became the youngest player to earn the grandmaster title, and is now ranked 20th in the world.

Other women players lifted their sights accordingly. The Hastings tournament is a small part of a much wider social experiment in unisex intellectual competition. Cultural expectations and conditioning have, perhaps even more in chess than elsewhere, combined to stifle the aspirations of women. In the minds of most grandmasters, male and female, there is a lingering doubt about whether women really can play chess. The events in Hastings may play their part in dispelling such doubts.