Jennifer Shahade on the rise of chess and its gender disparities

A recent chess cheating controversy made headlines on many of the major news outlets. It was a great (or at least public) moment for a game that often doesn’t get mainstream attention. But when chess does make headlines, many can’t help but notice it’s often about male players. So where are all the female players that were all the buzz following “The Queen’s Gambit”? Was that just a minor blip of interest or has the game actually been reaching females?

Good news, said Jennifer Shahade — a two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, woman grandmaster, director of the women’s program at the United States Chess Federation and author of several books on chess. There are more women playing — and yes, that is partly due to “The Queen’s Gambit,” she added. Before the drama aired, just 22 percent of incoming members on, a website used by more than 20 million people to play chess, were women, compared to 27 percent after the show aired.

But the portion of female players playing the game has been growing steadily for a while, she said, even before the show.


Still, she said, disparities do exist: At this point, just 10.7 percent of 40,000 ranked players with a standard rating, one of several ratings based on the game’s length, are female, according to Grid analysis of the Federation’s data. And of the 1,700 chess grandmasters — the highest title awarded by the International Chess Federation — only 39 are women.

Grid spoke with Shahade about how the chess community is trying to diversity and the stigma female players still have to battle. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

G: Where does interest in chess start and how are girls being encouraged to play?

Jennifer Shahade: There’s a lot of investment in scholastic chess for school-age children, who, while they might go on to do other things, keep their understanding of and passion for the game. There are nonprofits all over the country that have the philosophy that if you give chess to kids, it will kind of equalize education and give opportunities to kids who might not be as good at some traditional subject. The surge is fueled by a lot of those people who learn chess as a kid and now have like a lifeline to continue exploring it online.

The two biggest factors for the emergence of stronger female chess players are classic chess programs, and in particular, the United States Chess Federation, which I work for, and the Saint Louis Chess Club. It has a big budget to do innovative chess work, which has been really helpful to the rise of chess.

G: During the pandemic, many chess players turned to online streaming as a source of income. Has streaming chess games brought more women into the fold?

JS: There are a lot of really popular women streamers, including the Alexandra and Andrea Botez [the Botez sisters], Anna Cramling, Anna Rudolph and Nemo Qiyu Zhou. These are really big names who are not only making money from their channels, but also from endorsements. You generally have to be very good at chess and have a strong personality, though there are some streams where part of their shtick is that they learn chess with the viewer, which is cool.

That’s been really inspirational to new generations because they see that you can succeed in multiple ways as a chess player. You could become really successful as a grandmaster, or you could become a chess coach or a chess streamer — there are all these different and interesting career paths that didn’t exist before.

G: Are underrepresented chess players stigmatized at all for being in a mainly male field?

JS: While harassment and abuse of female chess players online is still regrettably pervasive, there are more tactics used against it than there used to be.

For instance, most streamers have moderators who are really good at shutting down abusive comments right away. There are a lot of tools for temporary bans or banning specific words that have allowed women to take up that space without constantly being harassed.

It’s really wonderful to see because when I was doing a lot of streaming in the past, some of the comments were just so horrible and they can be very discouraging to women to continue doing chess or to doing chess entertainment.

There is also more interest in keeping people, including children, safe. A few years ago, the U.S. Chess Federation implemented the safe play policies, modeled after the SafeSport policies, which most Olympic sports use. Having an official way to report any kind of abuse you might encounter is important.

Finally, in 2018, the U.S. Chess Federation instated a gender affirming transgender policy. This summer, the French Chess Federation has changed its policies, which are close to the U.S. version and recognized transgender players.

G: Has the chess community tried to be more inclusive of underrepresented groups, such as girls?

JS: In chess, there’s often this debate about whether or not there should be the “women’s grandmaster” title, which doesn’t require as high a rating as the “grandmaster” title.

It can help people understand why it exists if you look at the history: There are countries where there’s never been a woman grandmaster, and when one is crowned it spurs a lot of initiatives to help girls.

In chess, a lot of girls drop out in junior high school — a lot of kids, period, drop out in junior high school. But for girls you see a more precipitous dip. That’s because they sometimes become the only girl of their age group who plays chess.

Sometimes that can be lonely or even logistically problematic, in terms of sharing a hotel or traveling together. It’s a self-perpetuating situation because there are fewer girls in chess, so it’s harder for them to multiply.

I’m the director of the women’s program at U.S. Chess Federation, where we have a girl’s club to encourage more girls to get into the game and to retain the ones who are already there.

G: Part of your program is about creating an actual physical space just for girls at competitions. Can you talk about why?

JS: There are usually live events, where both boys and girls play in the same sections. The girls are going to be outnumbered when they play in a tournament, and the girls club is a place for them to go after the round to socialize and meet other girls.

They’re still competing in this mixed field while creating bonds with the other girls in the tournament. It’s kind of like a kid’s version of a lounge. There are also organizers around the country who create girls events. When people first hear about them, sometimes they ask why should girls play in separate tournaments in chess? But in reality, girls love it because it allows them to compete against their friends or make friends that they can travel with to other tournaments.

G: On a very basic level: Why should people learn to play chess?

JS: The number one reason is to lose yourself in a state of total flow. Chess is almost like an aquarium — it pulls you in and you sink into it. It’s a gateway to flow experiences for young people. Even if they don’t continue playing chess forever, they understand what it’s like to not be thinking about hundreds of notifications because something about the mental challenge and the size of the board draws people in.

A lot of research shows that people are really happy when they’re able to focus on one thing. It can really be the happiest part of someone’s day to be meditating or exercising or playing chess, where they’re not thinking about all of the worries of the world.

Number two is international networking possibilities with people that are different from them — whether they are from different countries, from different socioeconomic backgrounds or are different genders — all sorts of different people that you meet from chess that you might not ordinarily find in your circles.

And there is decision making — that you’re able to make your own decisions and live with the results, and also that you’re going to make mistakes and you have to forgive yourself. If you want to play a mistake-free game, then you basically can’t make any moves. That is a really good lesson for life.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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Jennifer Shahade on the rise of chess and its gender disparities


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