"they feel that male players are more talented."
Indian chess player Divya Deshmukh sparked a sexism debate with her Instagram post.
The 18-year-old International Master said her chess videos often receive comments that focus on her appearance rather than her games.
Part of her post read: “I was quite upset to hear this and I think is the sad truth that people, when women play chess, they often overlook how good they are.”
Divya added that she wanted to address the issue “for a while”.
The post came at the end of the Tata Steel Chess tournament, held in the Netherlands. Divya said the audience’s behaviour had annoyed her.
Tournament organisers later stated that they “remain committed to promoting women in chess and ensuring a safe and equal sporting environment”.
Sexism remains a hardly-discussed topic in chess. It is one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other.
According to experts, Divya Deshmukh’s post has sparked a discussion about the behaviour of fans and even male players towards women.
Since she was 14, Divya has been receiving hate over the way she dresses, looks and speaks.
She said: “It makes me sad that people don’t pay the same kind of attention to my chess skills.”
Among the supportive comments, one person highlighted how seemingly innocent jokes were often “laced with sexist attitudes”.
Chess already has a poor gender balance.
According to the International Chess Federation (FIDE), women make up just 10% of licenced players globally.
At the top of the game, just three of India’s 84 grandmasters are women.
This imbalance is down to the lack of access, opportunity and support for women and girls due to stereotypes surrounding the sport.
Around 300 parents and mentors (90% men) were interviewed for a study by New York University.
It found that the majority of respondents believed girls have a lower potential in the sport than boys and that they were more likely to stop playing chess due to a lack of ability than their male counterparts.
Chess player Nandhini Saripalli revealed her chess career was affected because she did not get enough support compared with her male counterparts.
She says her coaching career is now being hampered because society does not have much confidence in a woman’s chess-playing ability.
Nandhini said: “Parents want their children to be mentored by a male coach because they feel that male players are more talented.”
Online trolling also fuels sexist attitudes.
Nandhini said she has had men online tell her that her male opponent can “trash” her easily.
Offline, male players have said they don’t feel the need to practise if their opponent is a woman because they don’t consider female players to be “real competition”.
She said: “Women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, and even then you can’t escape sexist judgements.”
Nandhini added that like her female chess-playing friends, she “dresses down” to escape unwanted attention from male players and the audience.
According to sports writer Susan Ninan, chess offers a “fertile space for predatory behaviour” because of its one-on-one setting and the fact that players are just a chess board away from their opponent.
However, Indian trailblazer Koneru Humpy says there is more equality now compared to when she began playing chess in the 1990s.
She recalled being the only female player in open tournaments, saying they are tougher to win than women-only tournaments because the players are more skilled.
“Men wouldn’t like losing to me because I’m a woman.”
Koneru noted that the current generation of male players exhibits a distinct difference, actively engaging in training and competition alongside their female counterparts.
However, achieving parity in influence both on and off the chess board for women players will require additional time.
Addressing socio-cultural obstacles hindering women’s entry into chess is a crucial step towards rectifying this power imbalance.
“Once there are more female players, there will be more of them in the top levels of the sport.”
The other way to encourage more women to play chess is by increasing the number of women-only tournaments.
“The more women play chess, the more claim they have over the sport.”