Magnus Carlsen: ‘Chess has not been very kind to women over the years’ | Magnus Carlsen

On his Instagram feed, Magnus Carlsen imagined a photoshopped match against Beth Harmon, the fictional heroine of Netflix’s smash hit chess series The Queen’s Gambit. “I think it would be close,” he wrote.

In reality, Carlsen stands alone at the top of the global game, the unrivalled great of his generation. But he says there is no reason a real world Harmon could not one day succeed him – if a game with a notoriously chauvinistic history can become more hospitable to its prospective female superstars.

“This is a problem that’s been around in chess for a long time,” the Norwegian said in a Zoom interview. “Chess societies have not been very kind to women and girls over the years. Certainly there needs to be a bit of a change in culture.”

Carlsen said that such a change would be a “massive job” and suggested that at the moment girls’ enthusiasm for the game is being dampened. “There isn’t so much of a difference between boys and girls,” he said. “Purely the difference is later on.”

Even if the Netflix series is seen as a possible catalyst for change, Carlsen’s comments stand in contrast to a long history of sexism at the top of chess. Nigel Short, Britain’s one-time world No 3, has argued repeatedly that men are “hardwired” to be better at the game than women – despite the disagreement of neuroscientists – and claimed a “yawning chasm of abilities”. Bobby Fischer said that there were no top women players in his era because “they’re just not so smart” and “they should keep strictly to the home”. Even Garry Kasparov – who later resiled from his comments and was an adviser to the makers of The Queen’s Gambit – once claimed that chess “does not fit women properly”.

Carlsen has a couple of amused reservations about the TV series – like the way its players are often stunned by a checkmate move they hadn’t seen coming, which “never happens” – but its portrayal of Harmon is not one of them.

One of the show’s best features, he said, was the rebuke it offered to more primitive voices in the game. “I love the fact that once Beth started to have results and once it became clear she had great ability, there was not a lot of ‘I don’t think she can be any good because she’s a girl’. All of that disappeared. It was very, very pleasing that she was judged by her ability and not her gender.”

In the real world, Carlsen argues that the current structure of ‘open’ tournaments for any player alongside women-only competitions is unhelpful. “I think it should be either or,” he said. “Either there should be only open tournaments, or only men’s and women’s tournaments. I don’t think in principle women have any less natural ability to be great at chess than men.”

Carlsen has other concerns about the structure of the game, viewing the existing world title format – the best

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‘I’m The 2020 Women’s Chess World Champion’

Ju Wenjun sitting at a table: Wenjun Ju is the 2020 Women's Chess World Champion. She has won the title twice before and became a chess grandmaster at the age of 23.

© David Llada
Wenjun Ju is the 2020 Women’s Chess World Champion. She has won the title twice before and became a chess grandmaster at the age of 23.

I was seven years old when I first started playing chess. My parents didn’t know too much about the game because chess doesn’t have a long history in China. Most people got to know more about it because of the 1991 Women’s Chess World Championships when China’s Xie Jun defeated Georgia’s Maia Chiburdanidze. That just happened to be the year I was born.

When I was in elementary school there were various options for interesting after school lessons and I chose chess. At first I found I played well against students in my area of the same age, and then went on to achieve excellent results in under-8s and under-10s national competitions. At that stage I began to think I could become a professional chess player. My home in Shanghai at the time was very close to where I studied chess, so I’d play chess almost every day for a few hours. Chess was perhaps the most significant aspect of my childhood.

The Queen’s Gambit | Official Trailer | Netflix



Then, in 2004 at the age of 13, I travelled to Beijing for professional chess training at the National Chess Center there. Sometimes you’re going to a tournament or event but the average time we trained was about six hours a day.

Becoming a grandmaster is the highest title in chess, and to achieve it you have to reach a rating of 2500 and three “norms”—in general, a norm is a strong performance with a rating of 2600 in select international chess events. When I received the title of grandmaster in 2014 I was 23 and had six norms. It’s still fairly rare for a woman to become a grandmaster, but I believed I was good enough. So I was happy, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising!

I first realized I could become Women’s Chess World Champion in 2016. That year, I competed in the International Chess Federation (FIDE) Women’s Grand Prix 2015-16; a series of five chess tournaments where the winning player qualifies as a challenger to play in the next FIDE Women’s World Chess Championships. I won that Grand Prix.

Chess is a male-dominated sport, so keeping the championships separate gives a chance for more female players to join and achieve. They’ve also been separated since the women’s championships started in 1927, and there are open tournaments where male and female players can play against one another.

The Women’s World Chess Championship Match in May of 2018 was a 10 match tournament between myself and another Chinese player, Tan Zhongyi. We’ve known each other since childhood, and I knew for at least a year she would be my opponent, so I had plenty of time to prepare. I won three matches, drew five and lost two. So although it wasn’t easy, I was leading throughout.

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