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Women’s World Chess Champion but reluctant role model

SIM Ξ Chess

Exclusive by Penny Hopkins


In 2015, 23-year old Mariya Muzychuk became Women’s World Chess Champion for the first time. She beat the Russian Grandmaster, Natalia Pogonina, 2½-1½
in a tight battle in Sochi in March.

Her parents, both chess coaches, encouraged Mariya and her sister Anna to play and Mariya soon realised that she wanted to devote herself to chess and
what she could achieve in the sport,

“I started to play chess very early. At the age of two both of us knew all the chess rules and could play a normal chess game. My parents have played the
main role in my chess career and I am very thankful to them for their support.”

Mariya’s promise was noted as early as 2001 when she won the girls’ under-10 Ukrainian Championship,

“It was a big achievement for me,” she said, “and I understood that I wanted to practice chess professionally.”

Her schoolmates were impressed by Muzychuk’s skills, but she was a reluctant role model,

“Many of my schoolmates came up to me and said that they were also interested in taking up chess and asked me how it was possible to do so. And actually
it was very difficult for me to persuade them that this game is not easy and requires a lot of time and energy.”

And although she thinks she has had an impact, especially on girls in Ukraine, when it comes to playing chess, she also says

“At the moment I like to see that the girls are interested in playing chess but, to be fair, there are many parents who think that this game is not for
girls and prefer them to do some other activities like music and dancing”.

It is only really since winning the World Championship in March 2015 that she has come to realise just how important her achievements are,

“Chess is not such a popular kind of sport in our country but after coming back home from the World Championship in Sochi I had many interviews and
meetings. I am very glad that this win was also very important for my country as I even met with the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko who presented
me an Order of Merit. It was a great honour for me that my result was estimated so high.”

Chess is, and always has been, a male-dominated sport. Fewer than 2% of Grandmasters are women, mainly because so many more men play than women. The game
is largely separated on gender lines, and there are two categories of tournament; women-only and mixed. There are, officially at least, no male-only

In reality some women take part in very few so-called “mixed” events and tend to stick to those for women only. But there are notable exceptions to this,
with some women eschewing the women’s tour completely and entering the mixed events only. The highest rated woman in chess history, Judit Polgár, from
Hungary, competed regularly against men but never competed for the women’s world title. In 2005 she was the first woman to play for the world championship
title: at the time she was rated eight in the world according to the FIDE (World Chess Federation) rankings.

Polgár has since retired from chess, but still, as of 2015, no woman has ever been world champion, and only a few have made it into to the list of top
500 players.

Although some of the inequality in chess can be put down to the number of male and female competitors, other gender-related arguments still rage on.

There are a number of forum threads discussing the segregation between men and women’s chess and women’s capabilities (or otherwise) when it comes to strategy
and concentration.

In an interview with “New in Chess” magazine in April 2015 UK Grandmaster, Nigel Short, weighed into the argument by asserting that

“Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess…. [they are] hard-wired very differently”.

These comments came hot on the heels of those from Gary Kasparov,

“Women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players: they are not great fighters”.

So what is Muzychuk’s take on all this? Actually she is surprisingly pragmatic,

“Many words have been said on this topic and of course I read some of the works and a few times I have taken part in questionnaires about it, but I don't
divide chess in to "women’s chess" and "men’s chess".

“If we look at the current situation we clearly see that men are dominating but I think there are objective reasons for that. I can name some of them:
according to statistics the number of boys starting to practice chess is much higher than the number of girls; chess is a kind of sport which requires
a good stamina (we work on chess every day many hours, the tournaments lasts about 2 weeks...) and men have this quality much better developed; there
were also brain tests, the results of which said that the way men think is better for chess.”

And when asked as to emotion versus logic she is equally forthright,

“I can't say that women are not logical but it is a fact that we are much more emotional.”

There is no clear path to equality in chess, but there varying paths to success, and both Polgár and Muzychuk, have found their own.

It is clear that Muzychuk doesn’t consider her emotions to be holding her back or preventing her from reaching her goals; she is not going to waste her
time differentiating between the male and female game. Nor does she allow herself to be defined by her gender; she will play whoever is across the

“I think it is very difficult to compete with men in general but I try to play both women and men in tournaments as you learn a lot and improve your skills
when you play against strong opponents.”

It’s hard to argue with this logic and surely Muzychuk will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming year. She will be defending her title against
world number one, Hou Yifan in March 2016 in Lviv in Ukraine.


For more women in sports articles from Penny visit her website