Chess and sexism - can the sport be made safer for women?

Reports of sexual harassment and even violence have shaken chess since mid-February. Those affected are speaking out and are demanding consequences

Representative image of chess (Photo: DW)
Representative image of chess (Photo: DW)


"I guarantee you there is no woman, who'd say she has never heard a stupid remark," Ingrid Lauterbach told DW. The president of the German Chess Federation (DSB) has experienced situations first hand where someone wanted to hug her without consent or give her a kiss on the cheek against her will. Or even worse.

Lauterbach is an international chess champion and has been playing in international tournaments for decades. While she has never experienced any physical assault, she knows the typical comments all too well. The chess world, including the DSB, has to address the elephant in the room - sexism. It exists everywhere and chess had its very own #MeToo moment at the beginning of August.

Open Protest

Affected women in chess rallied together to write an open letter demanding changes. "We female chess players, coaches, referees and managers have experienced sexism or sexual violence at the hands of male chess players, coaches, referees or managers," the letter read. More than a hundred women from around the world have signed it. One of them is German national player Annmarie Mütsch. She recently told the news magazine "Spiegel" that she had cancelled her participation at important tournaments in order to avoid certain people she would rather not meet.

So is chess particularly dangerous for women when it comes to this issue? Grandmaster and DSB spokesperson Josefine Heinemann doesn't think so. "Of course I have been hit on at a chess tournament before and maybe it was a little bit uncomfortable. But I wouldn't classify that as sexual harassment," Heinemann said. According to her, situations like those aren't exclusive to the chess environment, but part of everyday life. It is a problem in society as a whole.

Greater danger beyond the board

There is, however, one big difference in chess: Women are the vast minority, with only 10 percent of all players identifying as female. Women-only tournaments do exist, but if female players want to challenge themselves at the top level, they have to take part in mixed tournaments to progress in their career.

It's also unique to chess that girls sit opposite an older man in a competitive situation, which can sometimes cause irritation if the younger woman wins. "There is often a comment, especially when older men lose to younger girls," Heinemann said.

The grandmaster, however, sees an even greater danger beyond the chess board. "From my point of view, there are already a lot of stupid comments on the internet. Some things I read on there leave me in shock."

Internet provides anonymity and the inhibition threshold falls drastically. Lauterbach also thinks that modern communication channels and chess websites make it easier to get in touch with people against their will. On the other hand, the internet provides a platform for those affected by sexism to fight back.

Shahade as the pioneer

Women no longer want to stay silent. In February, twice US champion and influential chess writer Jennifer Shahade posted on what became X: "Time's up." In that post, she described the sexual misconduct she had allegedly experienced at the hands of chess grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez.

Within minutes many people responded, detailing similar experiences in the past. Among them was a man, who confessed he had witnessed Ramirez allegedly assaulting a young women in 2011, but he didn't think it was an issue back then. By that time, various abuse scandals had already caused uproar worldwide, so how did apparently no one notice anything in chess? Ramirez says he is co-operating with various investigations and looks forward to giving his side of the story.

Were such allegations just all too common in the past? Mütsch said: "Since I signed the open letter, I've thought more about the incidents I've experienced. I've thought of so many things that I wasn't even aware of before."

No clear point of contact

American-Canadian chess player and influencer Alexandra Valeria Botez set up an initiative for an anonymous, international database that stores all cases of sexual harassment and abuse in chess worldwide. A reaction she deemed necessary, as there has been no major reaction from the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and except for the Ethics Commission, there is no contact point for those affected by sexual misconduct.

The commission, however, wouldn't be the right place to go, according to Lauterbach. She says the commission works very slowly and it would certainly be better to address those responsible face-to-face. She has one wish for the future: "That everyone pays closer attention. The referees and coaches need to pay more attention as well."

Looking ahead, it would be particularly important to get more girls and women into the sport in all capacities and at all levels, she believes.

The DSB has been working on measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence in the sport since 2021 and wants to expand this concept further. Its website directs users to a contact person solely for this purpose. In Germany, that point of contact is provided by the "Safe Sport Contact Point", which is run by the government, the states and organized sports.

Lauterbach hopes that better education at the grassroots level can change the awareness of sexism in chess. It must be very clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. "I think we have to get to the point where the deterrence is so high that no one can allow themselves to do this anymore," Lauterbach said.

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Published: 02 Sep 2023, 3:08 PM