In chess you don't need to be physically strong. Well, you need some kind of endurance, but is it the real reason why there aren't any super strong women GMs?

Yes, I know about Hou Yifan and Judit Polgar, but they aren't even close to being world champion.

I understand that there are a lot more men chess players than women, but how many women are in top 100? Even the disproportionate number of players can't explain this.

What is the reason then? Can we deduce that men are smarter than women or shall we conclude that there are more geniuses among men than geniuses among women?

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    Here is an article that deals with it.
    – user18196
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 14:32
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    @David. I found the article nice, so that I shared. But I agree chess history can't explain it completely. The answer is a challenge for neurologists too. I sugest the poster to search an alternative answer at psychollogy and neuroscience
    – user18196
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 15:27
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    Related: chess.stackexchange.com/questions/6282/…
    – Ant
    Commented Jul 20, 2019 at 11:39
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    Ok, so in 2017 we had the following article on Chess.com:chess.com/article/view/…, where we find the quote "At the time of writing, there are 1,594 grandmasters in the world. Of these, 1,559 are male and 35 are female. This proportion is consistent with the number of men and women playing chess." In your post we see "I understand that there are a lot more men chess players than women, but how many women are in top 100? Even the disproportionate number of players can't explain this." Do you disagree with the article?
    – Scounged
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 19:58
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    wait judit polgar did reach 2700+ and was a world championship candidate in 2005 right?
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 16:50

7 Answers 7


I don't know a lot about chess or even gender differences in cognition, but I do know enough that chess involves certain aspects of cognition and that there are gender differences in cognitive ability. For your question, about the number of super GMs, the average abilities of men and women is more or less irrelevant. You need to look at the tails of abilities. Again, there are differences in the tails. Men are better (both on average and at the extremes) for some abilities and worse at others. Women tend to excel at verbal and social cognition while men excel at spatial aspects of cognition.

In addition to cognitive differences, men and women react differently to competition and my guess is you cannot be a super GM without a strong competitive side. There are also social and cultural differences between men and women. Even if there were equal numbers of recreational players, that doesn't mean there would be equal numbers of competitive players (or similar rates of individuals willing to dedicate their lives to chess).

The popularity of competitive chess may well stem from its emphasis on male dominated traits (i.e., spatial cognition) and its lack of emphasis on verbal and social cognition.

The source of these gender differences (i.e., nature/nurture or intrinsic/learned) does not really matter, as the end result is that there are differences. As to whether these differences can explain the lack of women super GMs, it is not clear. That said, given there are measurable differences in cognitive abilities, reaction to competition, and social and cultural influences, it seems wrong to conclude that the lack of women super GMS means that men are smarter than women or that there are more male geniuses.


Women played chess as much as men did for a while until the beginning of the 17th century. At this time, chess rules changed in that the queen and bishop gained much more significance and power in the game. Chess became a more competitive sport, not just a casual game among the wealthy.

Chess went from a leisurely game played between lords and ladies to a cut-throat competitive sport played in public houses and cafés, and therefore considered an unseemly activity for women.

For the next 300 years, society continually sent the message of "chess is not for women."

The reason there are no women super grandmasters (players at the top) is because there are hardly any girls signing up to start playing chess anymore.

However, there are some seemingly contrary examples

In the Netherlands at youth level (< 10) there are almost as many girls as there are boys, and sometimes a girl wins the national championship for her age. But most of them quit during early teens, I think mostly because they prefer other hobbies. By 18, there is the typical huge difference.


For further reading, read this article about why only two of the world's top 100 chess players are women

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    "Women played chess as much as men did for a while until the beginning of the 17th century." Do you have a reference for this? Beyond fact-checking the claim, I'm curious about how we could even know this. Like, did historians discover a scientific survey from a few hundred years ago that showed data for this claim?
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 8:30
  • Ohhh I see... you were citing this blog post, which cites a historical fiction, "Birth of the Chess Queen" (or as that review calls it, a "historical fable").
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 9:12

The stating of the question implies an agenda but I'll do some answering anyway.

For one, I was disappointed to see no mention of Vera Menchik here. First women's world champion, she defeated many of the best males of her time, including World Champion Max Euwe (twice!) as well as Sammy Reshevsky, Jacques Mieses, and Lajos Steiner. Hastings 1930-1, Euwe lost only one game in the entire event -- to Menchik.

Now, the OP states, without any visible support, that the disparity of cannot be explained by population, but that's something my own experience of over a decade organizing a good portion of the strongest events in my state leads me to believe is absolutely true. The percentage of female chessplayers in the events I organized was well under 1 percent of the total players (in close to half of those events, it was 0). And if, over that same period of time, we decide to use total unique players (every individual counts as 1 player, no matter how many events of mine they played in) that number would be no higher. Hence the disparity in number of players would easily explain the population difference in the top 100. In fact, I'm impressed there are 2%.

Moving on from that, I've yet to see anything prove the popular notion that chessplayers are smarter than the general population. We can all think of top-level chessplayers who have advocated some pretty hare-brained ideas. I've known a number of very smart people who never proceeded past beginner levels in chess, and others who did. Weak correlation at best, it seems to me.

I think we should dismiss the "genius" allegation in the original question the same way. No proof for it at all.

One of the more interesting fields for this study is in the very young players. In the USCF lists the concentration of females in the top 20 or top 100 lists is higher at the earlier ages than later, with numbers at 10% or more being female on the young lists, going down to 2% or so on the older ones. This parallels my experience as a chess coach; there were more female students in my younger classes than my older ones.

I've spoken to some of the more promising ones about why they stopped. Reasons for walking away from chess were varied. Some did it because of what we would term "socialization" -- they felt pressure from the outside world (peers, family members, other authority figures) to stop playing chess because it just wasn't "something girls were supposed to do." Some did it for the same reason males walked away later in life -- they got too busy, or became more interested in other things (from social pursuits to STEM subjects such as Chemistry or Math).

But for some, the reason was the boys. Not more interested in boys than chess, but less interested in chess because of the attitude of the boys playing it. I know several girls who continued to read about chess, just never showed up or sat down to play it at a club because of the tendency of the boys of similar age (pre-teen to teen) to denigrate them. (The denigration, I can attest from observation, came independently of skill, in fact, the better the boy was at chess, the less he tended to sneer at the girls who played well. It seemed more an outside-the-game tactic employed to keep mediocre boys from losing to a better player. Viewed as such, I would have to say it worked; if she didn't play, it was one less threat for him to face.)


Let us just try to see whether it is possible to give a definite answer to these questions or not. The first major issue is of course to evaluate how many chess players there are. Looking at different sources, one quickly concludes that this number is unknown, which consequently means that the percentage of chess players that are female is also unknown.

However, we may conclude that the percentage of female players in competitive chess is very small by looking at official rating lists and tournament records; for instance, through my own experience in tournament chess I would estimate the percentage to be between 1 and 5 percent. With this estimation, there is nothing strange with seeing only one female player in the top 100 chess players, which is the case today. Indeed, even if none of the top 100 players were to be female this would still not be very remarkable given the small proportion of female players.

So right at the get-go we get trouble even addressing the legitimacy of this question since we don't have much data. But let's say we somehow retrieve the exact percentage of female players for argument's sake, and that this percentage is not sufficient to satisfactorily explain the difference in performance between men and women in chess at the very elite level.

Could it be used to argue that this means that men and women have different cognitive abilities in general? The answer is no, and a resounding one at that. Looking at the very elite individuals in a given discipline gives us little to no information about the average Joe, since the elite performers will of course be extreme outliers which have very little to do with the average performers.

Could it be used to argue that there are more male outliers than female outliers when it comes to chess performance? Yes, but it would hold no explanatory power as to why that is. Are there more male super-talents in chess, or is it a matter of environmental factors, such as women being actively discouraged to participate in chess regardless of their talent? How on earth would we get this type of data? It is one of the fundamental issues with psychology to determine how much external and internal factors will affect an individual's cognitive performance (and psyche in general), and due to ethical consideration there is a clear lack of research data on how big of a role these factors play in forming an individual although it has been establised that both types of factors are very important.

The question whether different groups of people have different inherent cognitive abilities on a population level (men vs. women, blacks vs. whites, etc.) has been asked and investigated many times, and every time that I'm aware of the same things tend to happen. Either the investigation produces no significat findings whatsoever, or the investigation fails to take into account potentially important confounding factors.

So to answer your question I would say that 1) it is impossible to answer the question in the title due to lack of information, 2) chess cannot be used to argue that "men are smarter than women", and 3) one could possibly argue that there are relatively more male chess-geniuses than female chess-geniuses (assuming we have sufficient data to support such a claim), but this would only be a descriptive statement and there would be no way to answer why that is using the percentage of female chess players as the only factor considered.


Chess is a zero-sum game: both players can't win. This is more attractive to boys who are naturally more aggressive than girls, especially teenagers. Furthermore, it's a solo sport, so social skills which girls master earlier and better than boys cannot be put to good use.

As a result, girls tend to pick different activities instead of chess. As fewer women go into chess than men, naturally fewer women excel at it.


At the professional level, women often play in women-only events where the competition is much weaker (and easier for them to get prizes or sponsorship), so they grow to become fish that cannot survive in shark tank. Until women willingly opt for stronger events, they can never compete on an equal footing with men.


Saying men are better than women in chess (and therefore perhaps smarter) due to the number of super GMs is baseless conjecture. Considering the set of male players is far larger than the set of female ones, of course it follows that most of the players in the top 100 will be mainly male.

A better metric would be taking the average rating of all male players and comparing it to the average rating of all female players, and if I had to guess I'd say these numbers would be around even. But this isn't a perfect test either, since the sample size of female players will be magnitude(s) smaller.

Also, back when Judit Polgar played, she competed actively with the top players of the era (and managed to beat multiple world champions).

  • You might be interested: en.chessbase.com/post/explaining-male-predominance-in-chess which tries to correct for the biases in the data and still sees a difference (in fact the more female players there are in a country, the larger the rating gap is with the male players).
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 23:15
  • From that same link, Georgia is a country in which there are 30% female chess players. Searching the FIDE rating lists, the top female players in Georgia is Nana Dzagnidze, rated 2515. She's #12 on the rating list if we include male players, 171 points below the top male Georgian player Ivan Cheparinov. I'm downvoting your answer, because saying men are better than women at chess clearly isn't a baseless conjecture.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 23:19
  • To add to the point of Allure, if performance is not the measure of playing better, what is? Making adjustments in measuring how good someone is at something usually defeats the purpose of the competition. If one would do the same in sports, e.g. consider many other factors along with performance, the one getting 1st place in a race might be the one finishing last. Would you call that fair? Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 13:04

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