Chess star Nigel Short stands by claims women not 'hardwired'' to be good at game

The British chess grand master Nigel Short in Devonport, Auckland, this week for the New Zealand Chess Championships.
Jason Dorday

The British chess grand master Nigel Short in Devonport, Auckland, this week for the New Zealand Chess Championships.

NIGEL SHORT is nowhere to be found at the imposing 19th century deconsecrated church in Devonport where the New Zealand Chess Championship is being played. He's just lost to a Chinese female grandmaster, Wenjun Ju. The custom is to stay back and analyse your game with your opponent, but he's taken off. The worried-looking tournament organiser, Murray Chandler, admits the result could be interpreted as a shock upset. 

But it emerges that Short, former world title challenger, trenchant chess critic and latterly, most famous for the suggestion that women might not be "hard-wired" for chess success, isn't perturbed. In his ordered logician's brain, there's no irony to be found in losing to a female player: Ju's ranking is similar to his, so of course, defeat is conceivable. He's back at his rented villa, "disappointed but not angry", feet on the coffee table, glass of red in his right hand, tweeting with his left, and his remaining attention concerned with whether Angelo Matthews can see Sri Lanka to victory over New Zealand in the cricket.

Nigel Short multi-tasks: an interview and watching the cricket.
Jason Dorday

Nigel Short multi-tasks: an interview and watching the cricket.

On Wednesday, Short will take to Aotea Square in downtown Auckland for an exhibition in which he will play 20 games simultaneously. This is nothing spectacular: he once took on and defeated 75 schoolboys at once. But this time, all his opponents will be female and the event is tagged 'Beauty versus the Beast'. This, he says, was Chandler's idea, but he agreed readily. "He thought it would get some publicity ... it was a nice gimmick and we thought 'just do it'." Actually, he says, there's a couple of boards left unfilled, so people should apply. "I'm all for encouraging woman to play chess, I always have been, so I'm very happy that there are people who are eager to play against me."

It seems a rather incendiary move from Short, who still seems a touch bruised by his last toe-dip into the world of gender politics. 

His original story, in all fairness, written for the scholarly chess journal New in Chess, was a fairly gentle series of musings on the incontrovertible fact of the lack of world-class women chess players. But after surveying various possible answers, it did end with a provocative conclusion: "Men and women's brains are hard-wired very differently, so 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. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact."

Short's defeat to Chinese grandmaster Ju Wenjun was considered something of a surprise.
Jason Dorday

Short's defeat to Chinese grandmaster Ju Wenjun was considered something of a surprise.

It passed by New in Chess' cerebral readers without hurrah, until some weeks later it was picked up by Britain's Daily Telegraph, then hurriedly followed by a host of other newspapers, some with unsustainably hyperbolic headlines: the Telegraph's, for example, was 'girls just don't have the brain to play chess', something Short certainly did not say. 

Most people, he says, haven't read his original article, which wasn't initially available online. "A lot of the problems came from the headlines: just fabricated quotes, it's one of those things," he says. He'd actually thought it would be controversial because it has a few digs at chess' top female players, the Polgar sisters Judit and Susan (he once called them "trained monkeys"). Nobody, he says, in the chess world, found it worth of comment and most top female players - he reels off a list of names - agreed with him. 

But, he says, at least people paid attention, even if they misquoted him. He didn't think many of the articles particularly advanced the debate. Some skewed off into whether chess was sexist, which Short hadn't talked about at all. He doesn't think it is, he says. Most of the competitors at Devonport St Paul's, however, fit a fairly tight demographic that you can see could feel unwelcoming to some outside its boundaries. Actually, he says, there were points that he made in his follow-up about women's advantages in the chess world: that a comparatively low ranking gets you invitations and prize money that men at a similar level can only dream of. All safe so far.

Short relaxes in his rented Devonport house after round four of the New Zealand championship.
Jason Dorday

Short relaxes in his rented Devonport house after round four of the New Zealand championship.

"What I said wasn't very controversial and was self-evident.... but then you have a journalist from the Daily Telegraph go and speak to some mad feminist". Ah, here we go. "There are people with agenda and this is the sort of militant feminist agenda and they like to be outraged and this is what started it, the response of one woman, and she somehow stood for all women in chess."

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Now, Short, who usually speaks with a vaguely Stephen Hawking-esque neutrality that betrays nothing of his Lancashire roots, gets briefly agitated for the only time. "There was a woman on NZ television [TV3's Hilary Barry, three times actually] calling me a twat ... does she know what a twat is? That's pretty damn rude." 

The chess prodigy

Nigel Short was a genuine chess prodigy. Taught by his father, he was a grandmaster by the age of 19, and by 24, was ranked third in the world. 

If chess only rarely catches the public eye - think Bobby Fischer, the battles between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov - then in Britain at least, Short's 1993 world title contest with Kasparov was one of those moments, not hurt by their genuine antipathy. When asked who he thought would qualify to play him for the title, Kasparov said: "It will be Short, and it will be short". Short described Kasparov as "a very nasty guy and a very unpleasant man".  Did they truly dislike each other back then? "I think that's probably correct," says Short, peremptorily. 

While he was defeated comfortably, it was attention Short enjoyed, if only because it seemed like due reward for all the unobserved hard work that preceded it. "I've done alright in chess," Short says. "You can always look back and say I should've done this better and this could be improved, but on the other hand I think I've done enough things which I can be pretty satisfied with and they compensate for those times when you fail."

There's always been a theory that chess players peak in their early thirties, then slowly decline. Short agrees. He had about a decade in the top 10, but hasn't been ranked that high since he was 32. At 50, he says, he's the oldest player in the world's top 100: "I am the dinosaur". Outsiders, he says, would assume that your knowledge store continues to grow, but don't account for the gradual impacts of pressure and tension. He lost today, he says, because of making poor calculations.

And yet he continues on, a mid-30s flirtation with the idea of becoming a Conservative MP long since dismissed. To keep fresh, he says, he varies his openings, takes some risks, and takes himself to different corners of the chess world. And so here he is in New Zealand, escaping the European winter (his wife Rhea and two children at at home in Greece, where Short has a small olive grove), and because he's never won a tournament in Oceania, although he admits this is "hardly the most lucrative" to pursue (the top prize is a mere $2,000).

"For me, chess has been a blessing, because I have had a life which has been fascinating," he explains. "There are jobs which would make more money, but it's not everything in life. I have so much of my identity wrapped up in chess: it's nice actually, to come here, to the other end of the earth, and people are still familiar with you. There is something which is very satisfying about that and it's always nice to be recognised." 

He wouldn't, he thinks, like the anonymity of a regular job. "People ask what I'd be if I wasn't a chess player, and I think I'd proabably be like my elder brother - a lawyer - which is a good job, but I think the world has enough lawyers. I give more to the world as a chess player than being yet another of that great profession." 

When he first came here in 2005, he toured and gave exhibitions, and he returned in 2014, both times to a fair bit of attention. He's flatting this time with a New Zealand player, Chris Benson, one of the four investors who paid for the trip, jokingly nicknamed 'The Valet'. Burton seems very excited. He gets to watch Short review his game each day, he explains. Sometimes he asks why Short made a move and gets told 'work it out yourself'. 

"He would be the equivalent of a top Premier League player coming over to play for Auckland City - he would stick out like dog's balls," Burton says. "But having Grandmasters over here and realising they're almost human, that you can go up and talk to him and listen to their post mortems, you realise that there's nothing superhuman about them, it's quite inspiring."

If the idea of entering Parliament has faded, and Short has quit as Britain's representative to the game's world governing body, FIDE, he still remains a bristling critic of the game's rulers. His calmness in the face of the hard-wiring scandal may be that of someone who has been here before.

"I would say that FIDE is not cleaner than [soccer's governing body] FIFA, and in many ways, I would say it is probably more corrupt, and I find that very depressing, to be honest," he announces. "With football... there is going to be some scrutiny of these things, and eventually things start to unravel, whereas in chess, there is all sorts of things going on." 

Short despises FIDE's president, a character named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who believes he was kidnapped by aliens from his flat in 2007 and given a guided tour of their planet. Ilyumzhinov, a ruthless former president of the remote, rustic Russian republic of Kalmykia - elected on a platform of a free cellphone for every shepherd - and friend of Gaddafi, Assad and Saddam Hussein ("an intelligent and cultured man, and he supports chess, he understands its value") believes chess comes either direct from God or from aliens. Short: "I'm not going to get invited as the president's wild card [to any tournaments]. I'm not high on his list of favourites."

He's most frustrated that most serious writing on chess has been on Ilyumzhinov's beliefs, rather than his actions. "He shouldn't be out of office because of his crank opinions,  but for a number of reasons like supporting President Assad in Syria. I think all of this stuff is a distraction. It suits him very well to have people think it's enough [to be] writing about him believing in pixies, when there are a lot of things not being reported." Chess worldwide, he says, is stagnating, unable to attract serious sponsors because "the moment they google chess they're put off". A shared loathing of Ilyumzhinov has healed relations between Short and Kasparov - who together once formed a breakaway governing body. These days, Short says, he "gets on fine" with his former nemesis, and they talk from time to time; Short campaigned unsuccessfully for Kasparov in the FIDE presidential elections two years ago.  

In his native England, he says, the game appears at least to be stabilising after some difficult years, despite the English deposing their chief executive in favour of having none at all ("you just think, for f---'s sake, what are you doing you idiots?"), and his observation once that the English don't like chess because they don't like intelligent people.

I compete with the cricket to draw him out on what does make a good chess player, given his thoughts on the dearth of female stars. Well, he says, in his case, he learned early, he read a lot - his mum would get him chess books from the library - and he had a "deep immersion", playing more chess as a young man than anyone else in the north of England. "So you find those that are the most 'naturally' talented are the ones that practised the hardest. It's a myth to say that people come out of the womb and say that they're born with this great aptitude for the game."

Not that means he agrees with the Hungarian psychologist, Laszlo Polgar, who set out to prove a chess player could be manufactured by intensively coaching his three daughters, including the best-ever female player, Judit Polgar (who incidentally has a winning record against Short). "His argument is that he has proved you can train people to become Grandmasters," says Short, "but that is complete rubbish: all he's proved is that he can train two of his three children to be Grandmasters. What would be interesting is if he would take an orphan and conduct the same experiment there - let's say three kids from some rough background ... I have no doubt if you put in the time then they're going to be up to a decent level, but that they're going to play like Judit Polgar? I doubt it."

Short cites Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, which suggested the minimum IQ to win a Nobel Prize was about 130. "Clearly, if you're a dwarf, you're not going to succeed as a basketballer, and I think it's the same as chess - you need a modicum of intelligence. But to be a top player, you don't need to be a genius, there are many other factors that come into it." Among those appears to be love. The only time the cricket is far from his attention is when he's talking directly about the game itself - it's ability to stave off Alzheimer's disease, the lure of its "infinite complexities". Even at 50, Short remains in love with those 64 black and white squares.

Beauty vs the Beast, Aotea Square, Auckland, Wednesday January 11, 11am. 

 - Sunday Star Times

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