Chess and Sexism: Can the Game Be Made Safer for Women?

Reports of sexual harassment and even violence have shaken the world of chess for months. Women are now speaking out and demanding change.

“I guarantee you there is no woman who would say she has never heard a stupid remark,” Ingrid Lauterbach told DW. The president of the German Chess Federation (DSB) has herself experienced situations where someone wanted to hug her, give her a kiss on the cheek, or worse — without her consent.

Lauterbach is an international chess champion and has played in international tournaments for decades. While she has never experienced any physical assault, she knows the typical comments all too well. The chess world, including the DSB, needs to address the elephant in the room – sexism.

Open protest

Chess had its very own #MeToo moment at the beginning of August. Affected women from the world of chess rallied together to write an open letter demanding change.

“We female chess players, coaches, referees and managers have experienced sexism or sexual violence at the hands of male chess players, coaches, referees or managers,” the letter read. It was signed by more than 100 women from around the world.

One of them is German national player Annmarie Mütsch. She recently told German news magazine “Spiegel” that she had canceled her participation in important tournaments in order to avoid certain people she would rather not meet.

German chess player Annmarie Mütsch was among those who signed the open letter

German chess player Annmarie Mütsch was among those who signed the open letter. Credit: Paul Meyer-Dunker

So is chess particularly affected by sexism? Grandmaster and DSB spokesperson Josefine Heinemann doesn’t think so. “Of course, I have been hit on at a chess tournament before and maybe it was a little bit uncomfortable. But I wouldn’t classify that as sexual harassment,” Heinemann said.

Situations like those aren’t exclusive to the chess environment, she said, they are part of everyday life. It is a problem facing society as a whole.

Greater danger beyond the board

There is, however, one major difference in chess: Women are greatly in the minority, with only 10% of all players identifying as female. Women-only tournaments do exist, but if female players want to challenge themselves at the top level, they have to take part in mixed tournaments to advance their careers.

It’s also unique to chess that younger women often compete face-to-face against older men, which can cause annoyance if the woman wins. “There is often a comment, especially when older men lose to younger girls,” Heinemann said.

The grandmaster, however, sees an even greater danger beyond the chessboard. “From my point of view, there are already a lot of stupid comments on the internet. Some things I read on there leave me shocked.”

The internet provides anonymity, and the inhibition threshold falls drastically. Lauterbach also believes that modern communication channels and chess websites make it easier to communicate with people against their will. On the other hand, the internet also provides a platform for those affected by sexism to fight back.

Shahade as the pioneer

Women no longer want to stay silent. In February, two times US champion and influential chess writer Jennifer Shahade posted on what was then called Twitter, but is now known as X: “Time’s up.” In her post, she described the sexual misconduct she had allegedly experienced at the hands of chess grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez.

Within minutes, many people commented, detailing similar experiences in the past. Among them was a man who confessed he had witnessed Ramirez allegedly assaulting a young woman in 2011, but he didn’t think it was an issue back then.

By that time, various abuse scandals had already caused uproar worldwide. So how did no one seemingly notice anything in chess? Ramirez says he is cooperating with various investigations and looks forward to giving his side of the story.

Were such allegations just all too common in the past?

According to German player Mütsch: “Since I signed the open letter, I’ve thought more about the incidents I’ve experienced. I’ve thought of so many things that I wasn’t even aware of before.”

No clear point of contact

American-Canadian chess player and influencer Alexandra Valeria Botez set up an initiative for an anonymous, international database to collect cases of sexual harassment and abuse in chess worldwide. A reaction she deemed necessary, as no major steps have been taken by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and except for the Ethics Commission, there is no point of contact for those affected by sexual misconduct.

Ingrid Lauterbach is president of the German Chess Federation (DSB)

Ingrid Lauterbach is president of the German Chess Federation (DSB). Credit: Arne Jachmann

The commission, however, wouldn’t be the right place to go, according to Lauterbach. She says the commission works very slowly and it would certainly be better to address those responsible face-to-face. She has one wish for the future: “That everyone pays closer attention. And that goes for the referees and coaches too.”

Looking forward, she believes it is particularly important to get more girls and women into the sport at all levels.

The German Chess Federation has been working on measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence in the sport since 2021 and is looking to expand this concept further. Its website directs users to a contact person solely for this purpose. In Germany, that point of contact is provided by the “Safe Sport Contact Point”, which is run by the government, the states and organized sports.

Lauterbach hopes that better education at the grassroots level can bring greater awareness of sexism in chess. It must be very clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated, she said.

“I think we have to get to the point where the deterrent is so high that no one can allow themselves to do this anymore.”

This article was originally written in German.

This story was originally published on DW.