Is having less stringent requirements for female chess masters tantamount to admitting that women are less intelligent than men?

This is a question raised by the Wall Street Journal in a piece on women in chess. Although women have risen in the ranks, they still only make up a tiny portion of the world's top players. According to the executive director of the World Chess Federation, women make up about 10% of the organization's estimated one million members, 7.6% of over 100,000 rated players, and only 2% of the top 1,000 players world-wide. However, some notable women have broken into the top echelon of the chess world: In 1991, Susan Polgar became the first female grandmaster, and in July 2005, her sister, Judit Polgar, was named the 8th-ranked player worldwide. But these women are few and far between.

And unfortunately, players like the Polgar sisters do not have to meet the same standards as their male peers. Writes Barbara Jepson,

Yet the federation, known colloquially as FIDE (pronounced fee-day), persists in the anachronistic and demeaning practice of awarding separate titles for women at lower levels of accomplishment. For example, to qualify as a grandmaster (GM) today, men and women must earn two or more "norms" (prespecified favorable results in qualifying tournaments) at a performance rating of 2600 and achieve a published overall rating (a system ranking relative player strength) of 2500. But female players attain the woman grandmaster (WGM) designation by earning two or more norms at a performance rating of 2400 and achieving published ratings of 2300. So it's easier to attain the WGM title than to become an international master (IM), which requires two or more norms at 2450 and an overall rating of 2400.

International master Irina Krush says that it is time for the FIDE to stop giving women lesser titles. "Women's titles are really a marker of lower expectations," she says.

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There are many practical difficulties women face in playing professional chess that can help explain their absence from the top ranks. For years, female players were not given the same expert training as men, they were often discouraged from joining the boys club that is competitive chess, and even today, women still have a much more difficult time finding commercial sponsors and funding than their male counterparts. Yet there are plenty of people who still believe that women are simply unsuited to chess based on their supposedly-inferior brains. Some cite studies on "mental rotation," which show that men have a slight edge in imagining the rotation of 3-D objects, as evidence that women are biologically less equipped to handle the rigors of the board game. Others believe that women are not competitive enough to hack it in the world of chess.

As Jepson points out, awarding separate titles to female chess players does much more harm than good. It both reflects and supports the notion that women are inherently inferior. Unlike in physical sports, where sex differences play a much larger role, chess would appear to be an equal-opportunity arena. But so long as women are named Woman Grand Masters, the haters have little reason to change their tune. "While some men may remain sexist no matter what," remarks professional chess coach Bruce Pandolfini, "for the bulk of humanity, ability wins out and speaks the loudest."

Abolish Women's Chess Titles [WSJ]