Women in Sport: ‘Fuck You, Bobby Fischer: The Emotional Labour of Playing Chess as a Woman’, by Katerina Bryant

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Illustrations by Michelle Baginski.

This essay is the second in a week-long series of commentary pieces that explore women’s experience in sporting culture.


The English Opening

Writing this down for the first time, it feels like a middle class origin story. I’m five years old, sitting in the ‘library’ of my parents’ home. It’s not a large room; books overflow from the shelves. Mum sits across from me, showing how the pieces move. A knight gallops in an L-shape; one, two, turn-the-corner. This is not something she had expected to show her child – the chess set in the corner of the room is ornamental but the glimmering brass pieces on the leather board have caught my attention, and I’m fixated.

Over the next two years, I play mum regularly. I begin to beat her. Then, it’s dad’s turn. He taught mum over the same board I learnt on, one night soon after they were married. I would be born in seven years. He’s a more cautious player than mum, he protects his pieces while she jettisons them forward on a whim. Much quicker now, I begin beating dad too. By this time, I was in year two and had joined the school chess club. I was the only girl in early education who could play and a ‘big girl’ would accompany me to the computer room every Friday. I was amazed by the mounds of pieces, the sound of them crashing as girls emptied them hurriedly from plastic boxes. I’d never had so many people to play, so many moves to make. It was endless.


Emotional labour has been in the academic sphere for over thirty years, since Arlie Hochschild coined the term in her book, The Managed Heart. But in the public’s narrative of feminism, emotional labour has burst forth only recently as a tool to help women understand their homes and workplaces.

In her 2015 essay for The Guardian, Rose Hackman writes of the trap of ‘lean in’ feminism and how pervasive emotional labour can be:

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

In chess, too, emotional labour is king. The community is firmly divided by gender, the few women in the room are paid particular notice just for their presence. Last year, a man in his twenties challenged me to a game after seeing a chess lecture at the Modbury Chess Club. I accepted his offer and minutes after the opening unravelled, he told me that he wanted to play because he believed I had beaten him as a child. Being blonde, a woman and in the South Australian chess community was enough, in his eyes, to identify me despite it being fifteen years later.

When I think of the chess community, I don’t think of the worn out South Australian Chess Centre of my childhood with cracks in the windows running like veins, but rather Diana Labiris’ comments at the 2014 Violence Prevention Conference. Clementine Ford paraphrased her, writing,

Consider White Ribbon Day events. How many men would be donning their little white ribbons and speaking as leaders in the prevention of violence movement while the logistics—the tea, the food, the planning, the clean-up—were all being taken care of by women?

Women in the chess community often take on roles of planning and volunteer work, spending emotional labour on tournaments for their children, partners or sometimes, but more rarely, themselves. Going to chess tournaments throughout Australia as a child, our team would go with the chess coach (a man), the chess volunteer school coordinator (a woman) and our parents. Over the two or so times we flew interstate, it was always a small group of mothers who accompanied us. Mum came every time and not for lack of personal commitments – she’s a full-time academic and lecturer.

I used to play in a weekly tournament every Tuesday night. My team was the ‘Trojan Knights’ and my partner and I keenly awaited our games each week. He was the captain and would send inspirational emails, full of humour and advice, every Tuesday morning. Our friend, Steve, would bring dark chocolate and we would break off meaty pieces as we went over our games to search for improvements. Often, we would stay until it was midnight and the centre was closing. As we walked slowly down the concrete steps after a long night of chess, we were met with the dark thick night air of summer.

Before I write about the gender breakdown of the chess community, I want to make it clear: these are happy memories. I would sit at the chess centre for five hours of a Tuesday evening and the anxieties that constantly circled through my head would fade away as I looked over the checkered board.

Despite my love of tournaments, the fact still remains that in a room of forty people there are perhaps three women. One of them was the woman who is at the canteen. We’d talk of our families, and of course, chess. She works at a newspaper factory, and at the Chess Centre she makes coffee for players and sells bags of crisps. She is too busy to play during tournament time.

Of course, with sports like chess, emotional labour is performed by both men and women. This has to be true when men outnumber women to such an extent. When considering high-level play, one percent of Grandmasters are women. At tournaments, women account for less than five percent of players. So of course I see men volunteering their time and skill to the chess community, but I am still discomforted by the fact I see women putting forward more than their share into a community that doesn’t support them as much as it should.


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The Fried Liver

Playing chess in primary school, I don’t remember many of my games. I remember going interstate to play in national tournaments and I keenly remember being at Mt Buller in Spring. Running down the ski slopes with no snow, sun shining, long grass scratching at my legs underneath my white school socks. The catering was always notoriously bad so after the afternoon round, we would crowd around the board eating chocolate teddy biscuits from the ski shop to go through the moves with our coach.

The next year we stayed at a boarding school in Canberra. It was the first time I saw a urinal and we found a picture of a busty woman in a bikini, torn out from Zoo Magazine, in one of the bedside drawers. We thought it was funny, my teammates and I, how this world of chess was so different from the all-girls school we knew.

When we came home from the tournaments, we were awarded little brass badges to pin onto our school jumpers. They were presented at the Friday morning assembly, after the other sports. I remember it always felt like an afterthought, not something prestigious like lacrosse or tennis. The teachers would smile half-heartedly and I once heard a classmate call us freaks. But I still liked chess, and having our own room to practice in at lunchtime felt special. It was private, quiet but alive, and away from the repetitive rounds of handball that occupied us most lunchtimes.


At the ‘Evelyn’ tournament I took part in in 2015, I saw more women and girls than I had ever seen before milling about at the centre. My buzz was only dimmed by every arbiter, coach and support person being male. The attendance numbers were equal in gender, despite only women and girls playing. When we gathered at the beginning of the five-day tournament to discuss protocol, the arbiters mentioned how they wouldn’t have to struggle to read the game notation because women’s handwriting is always neat.

But picking up on all these instances of discomfort at gender norms is a long and arduous road to go down. This is my life, not a list.


The Lawn Mower

I stopped playing in high school. I was bored of spending my Friday nights at the Chess Centre; I decided to focus on my studies each weekend and spend my Friday nights wandering around in Rundle Mall with my friends. About five years go by until I meet the person I will spend my life with. On a Sunday morning one day, spreading a blanket out on the concrete garden of his unit, we play together with an old set. It’s from my childhood; the pieces are Simpsons characters. Homer the King, Marge the Queen and Maggie, sucking on her dummy, is the pawns.

Both of us are terrible. We lose pieces frivolously and forget whether Lisa is supposed to be a knight or bishop. But we keep playing. I buy a new board on a trip to San Francisco and we begin to play whenever we can, filling the quiet moments in bars, at gigs, and in parks.


When we talk about emotional labour, it’s often referring to our immediate community. Our workplaces, our homes. Yet when I look at the small, but global, chess community, I see that the gendering of chess and volunteer time has had global ramifications. Considering the big names in chess, previous World Champions and rising young stars, there is a friction between how women and men use their time.

Susan Polgár, Grandmaster and chess advocate, has established a non-profit that supports young girls and boys learning to play chess. With a particular focus on young women and girls, it encourages chess as a regular fixture in children’s lives. Susan’s sister Judit, known widely as the most successful woman chess player in history, has also created a foundation that sponsors research and innovation in incorporating chess into the educational realm.

This is not to say that male chess players have not engaged in chess or charity in as enthusiastic a way. Garry Kasparov has founded his own foundation and has spent the years after being the World Chess Champion as a human rights activist and one of Vladimir Putin’s greatest critics. Previous World Champion Vishy Anand opened his own home in 2015 to feed and house people in the slums who were effected by floods in Chennai, India. Rather, I want to show that women pursue educating children, both girls and boys, about chess and extolling its benefits to the world at the same rate as men despite their participation in the sport being a nineteenth of what male participation is.

And when we look at the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, we see he has chosen to build interest in chess through more commercial ventures. He offers branded chess boards and in-app purchases for ‘Play Magnus’, an app where the user can play Magnus at any age. He is a model for G-Star Raw. When you Google Magnus, one of the first searches you will see is “Magnus Carlsen net worth”.

Magnus is the perfect lens through which to view the chess community. A 26-year-old, now-wealthy man plays king. He is idolised and as such, has become a complicit part of the gendering of chess whether intentional or not.

He is the enigmatic male genius, as Bobby Fischer was. Actively profiting from his genius seems only natural, while women not only donate their emotional labour to the game, but struggle to receive sponsorship for their own tournaments.


The Windmill

Little ones come into my classroom. I teach them how the pieces move and they pick it up quicker than I imagine. We’re soon onto piece development and endgame strategy. I have my favourites. Don’t all teachers? One little girl is five and she loves to win; she doesn’t cry when she loses like the older kids. She gets angry, fiery. Her moves are bold, if not always sound. Her older sister doesn’t play as well; she would rather take her time promoting all of her pawns into queens than find the checkmate. But her heart is still full of the game. She brings snacks to share with her teammates.

My first chess class has six girls and one boy. No-one is older than eight, so most of the time is spent reassuring them that it’s all just a game. “We win some, we lose some.” This is my way of begging them not to cry. Once a little boy sobbed on my shoulder so hard that he couldn’t speak, my white shirt soaked grey with tears. I learn to bring lollies in case someone loses two or three games in a row.

One day we learn about the history of chess. The kids ask me who the World Chess Champion is. I tell them its Magnus Carlsen from Norway. Is Magnus a boy’s name? Yes, I reply and the little boy in my room smiles and puts his fist in the air. The girls frown, perturbed it’s not a girl in the coveted spot. I don’t tell them that a woman hasn’t come close to being number one, or that no women have ever played in the World Chess Championship. Instead, I try to live in their world, where girls are king.

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The longer I pay attention to the main players of the chess world, the more I see how women use their platform to counteract the damaging things the men around them have been spouting for so long. Bobby Fischer’s comments about women made in 1962 are well known: “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man.” Unlike Fischer, many male chess players don’t go so far to challenge a woman’s overall intelligence but prefer to critique the loftier but still insidious idea of ‘instinct’. Contemporary English Grandmaster, Nigel Short, has said that women and men are “hard-wired very differently” and this shows on the board.

Why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage.

Kasparov, former World Chess Champion, too has commented on “imperfections of the feminine psyche” and a lack of their “killer instinct.”

These ideas ensnare the chess world mostly, I think, because many men use the low rate of women’s participation to support the idea that women are intellectually incapable. These ideas, to them, go hand in hand. And this cause and effect mentality (read: women are intellectually deficient, therefore can’t play intellectual games) allows men in the game to escape detection. Their actions do not effect the comfort and stability of women’s participation, so there is no need to be concerned at our decided absence.

Over the years, I’ve become less surprised by the sexism sprinkled through male chess champions’ comments. Perhaps it’s like a politician and their next gaffe; something to be expected at any moment. Many of us mistake chess players for the world’s best thinkers, but laying out a champion’s words on the table make the picture seem much more fractured. It’s a fallacy that someone can’t be both informed and ignorant. But let’s not look too much at the men here, they get enough attention – it’s the women who need to be seen.

Judit Polgár is somewhat of a chess superhero. Her aggressive play has inspired many young women, among them Jennifer Shahade, a US Women’s Chess Champion. In her book, Chess Bitch, Shahade looks back at her early playing style and how she would emulate Polgár: “I see my chess style was loaded with meaning – to be aggressive was to renounce any stereotype of my play based on my gender.”

Polgár is not regaled in chess because of her style, but because of her results. She has beaten both Short and Kasparov, men who have publicly said women cannot be champions. When interviewed by Maclean’s, Polgár was asked about her wins and if she had ever personally received an apology after Kasparov’s comments. She replied, “But later he accepted me, by talking with me as another serious chess player.” To be accepted as equal, she implies, is the greatest win. In the same interview, Polgár is asked about the gendered division of the sport and the biological thought behind such a division. She responds, as all women chess players have done before and will do after her: a) the women’s league is a safe space for women to play with other women; b) there is nothing biological about women playing less than men, it is entirely social.

And this, perhaps more than Kasparov’s outright sexism, is the problem. Women players are performing this draining emotional labour again and again, they have to defend themselves and their gender in every interview. Not only that, we have to try to educate the person sitting across from us. We need to prove that it’s not shocking that we’re at a tournament.

At my local tournament, only once have I played another woman. The man next to her leant over to both of us and said, “You know, you never see that happen. A woman playing another woman.” He thought it so novel that he had to inform us. He didn’t realise that when you’re one of the only people in the room that is different in some way, you notice immediately. And week after week, it takes a toll.

Explaining and justifying our presence and our ability to play is a never-ending performance. Most importantly, it takes our energies away from the board in front of us and reiterates how we are outsiders in the chess community. No matter how supportive men are of women participants, this is a labour that is ours alone. It doesn’t even touch them.


Zugzwang

Zugzwang is a situation in chess where one has to make a move, and any move made will be to your serious detriment. Imagine you have two pieces on the board; your king and a pawn. Your pawn can’t move because its path is blocked by one of your opponent’s pieces. You have to move your king but any square you move to would result in your immediate checkmate. The only square that is safe is where you are at this moment. You cannot stay still. You must move, and this is the bind of zugzwang, a word that comes from the German ‘zug’ (to move) and ‘zwang’ (compulsion).

I’ve stopped playing. I still teach chess but the only games I play these days are in my own classes. If anything, my game is worse for it. I’m so used to making ‘bad’ moves to construct positions from which the kids can learn that I’m always overlooking key positions.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided to stop. Maybe it wasn’t a decision; it just became an absence. I was tired. During my time at the Chess Centre, I felt like I was playing for my gender, not myself. I represented more than who I am, and as a very average chess player that became exhausting. Maybe that’s why you only hear about women at the top of male-dominated fields. The women who don’t have the skills to back it up become strung out, exhausted by the conversations around “you don’t see many women here” over and over again. My partner and I don’t play much anymore, either. He won’t play in tournaments. If I’m not comfortable being there, he isn’t either.

It’s a sad last move, a sad ending to my chess story. I can’t bring myself to play now. The chess board my grandfather built, one square at a time, still sits on my bookshelf. The pieces are from the forties, classic Staunton design and I keep them tucked away in a wooden box meant for floppy discs. Pieces of the past, sitting and waiting to be used. One of the bishops is knocked about, green-tinged and tired.

I pass by that board and those pieces everyday, but I haven’t yet felt the desire, burning and alive as it once was, to reach for it and play. Beginning a chess game means being open, willing to put every bit of yourself into the next move. It’s a contract between me and the board, and I can’t do it anymore. Picking up my heavy, chipped pieces remind me of what it is like to be worn down by the world of chess. I am brittle, like that old green bishop. I’m trapped by my own zugzwang – play another game and I might lose any lingering love of chess forever. So for now, and perhaps always, my box of pieces stays shut.


Katerina Bryant is a writer based in Adelaide. Her work has appeared in the Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and the Meanjin Blog, amongst others. Her essay ‘A Pig in Mud’ was shortlisted for the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers.

Michelle Baginski works with mark-making tools to communicate visually, creating posters, murals, cartoons and drawings that uplift, inform, connect and challenge. Fervently dedicated to drawing by hand since circa 1983.