- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

She has been dubbed the babe of the chessboard, the "hottest chick in chess." And few who watch her play can deny that Alexandra Kosteniuk possesses an unusual combination of brains, beauty and ruthlessness, all at the tender age of 18.
Since finishing second in the 2001 Women's World Championships in Moscow, the young Russian has been compared to a certain famous tennis player from her home country. But the soft-spoken Miss Kosteniuk chafes at the comparison.
"I don't want to be known as 'the Anna Kournikova of chess,'" she says. "I would rather they talk about the 'Alexandra Kosteniuk of chess.'"
She is wary of becoming more famous as a pinup girl than as a serious competitor and is mindful of the challenges that lie ahead. In a game dominated by men, her success is a testament to women's abilities, but one that also underscores an intriguing phenomenon: Why are so few females in the top ranks of chess?
Judit Polgar, No. 13 in the world overall, is proof of this. She is nine years older than Miss Kosteniuk and a far stronger player. But she is also an anomaly: Out of the world's top 100 ranked players, she is the only woman.
Some reasons for this disparity may lie in the brain.
"It's controversial, but there is some body of scientific literature showing a male superiority for nonverbal, visuo-spatial skills" involved in chess, says Dr. Lee D. Cranberg, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School.
Chess requires the ability to visualize what the board looks like several moves in the future a skill involving the right hemisphere of the brain. Verbal and linguistic abilities, on the other hand, reside mostly in the left hemisphere.
While visualizing a series of moves is important, even more crucial is the ability to recognize patterns among the near-infinite arrangement of pieces.
"With a glance at the board, top players will recognize a pattern from games they've studied or played," Dr. Cranberg says. "If you look at speed chess, especially, these players are not analyzing sequences of moves; they don't have time for that."
Researchers estimate that a male grandmaster has, in his memory stores, 50,000 patterns of unique configurations. Pattern recognition, it seems, is at least half the battle.
While many females excel at right-brain tasks as proven by Mrs. Polgar, 26, and her two sisters, Susan, 33, and Sofia, 28, also world-class players such women seem to be exceptions.
This is also true in music composition and mathematics, two other fields relying heavily on the right brain. Knowing which combination of musical notes completes a score or which equations complete a theorem, Dr. Cranberg says, is pattern recognition.
The mystery is far from settled: Despite circumstantial evidence pointing to a "chess mind," as Dr. Cranberg calls it, others are quick to note cultural factors.
Chess is, after all, a formalized war game, where each side has an army. It's no secret that boys more than girls are socialized to be soldiers and to direct armies.
"Women didn't play chess in any great numbers and didn't get training until very recently," says Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist, political columnist and chess player. "Until that is equalized, that factor will make it hard to say whether there is a different aptitude for chess.
"You do see a similar male-female imbalance with great mathematicians. Again, that could be a cultural imbalance; studying math was long considered unladylike.
"If you look at the male-to-female ratio of great composers, it's also overwhelmingly male," Dr. Krauthammer says. "And it's hard to argue that women are discouraged from music. That ratio in music is becoming more even, but it's still not 50/50."
If men do have an edge at right-brain tasks, there are a few popular explanations. One theory suggests it begins in the womb.
Though no solid answer is available, some neurologists have proposed that testosterone produced by the male fetus slows the development of its own left hemisphere and the right brain overcompensates in its development. In female fetuses, testosterone is less present, and the two hemispheres develop at a more even pace.
Supporting the role of the right brain in chess is the unusual number of chess players who are left-handed. As basic anatomy teaches, the left hand is controlled by right brain, and vice versa. Being left-handed may signify the right brain is more dominant, Dr. Cranberg says.
In the late 1980s, he carried out a study of amateur and master chess players. His conclusion: Male chess players were almost twice as likely to be left-handed as the general male population.
Average left-handedness in the general male population is between 10 percent and 13 percent. But Dr. Cranberg found that 18.6 percent of male players were left-handed. However, he was not able to gather a large enough sample of female chess players to perform a similar comparison.
For Susan Polgar, four-time women's world chess champion, biology is anything but destiny. She says, though, that the odds conspire to keep women from reaching the top ranks.
"First, girls at age 7, 8 and 9 get discouraged by society," she says. "And they essentially give up."
Susan Polgar overcame this in her native Hungary and became the first woman in the world to achieve a men's grandmaster ranking.
Smaller purses are awarded in women's chess. The highest amount ever for a women's match was $200,000, compared with multimillion-dollar purses for top men's matches.
Some female players are sidetracked while in their prime playing years. As a woman approaches 30, Susan Polgar says, she must ask herself a question: "Which is more important to have a family or to have a long chess career?"
In the world of professional chess, motherhood is a handicap, she says, and she would know: She is raising two boys.
"Imagine sitting across the board from [Gary] Kasparov or [Anatoly] Karpov playing a game while thinking if your child needs a diaper change or if he or she is hungry."
Stories of male grandmasters who have given up chess to raise children are rare. Chess analyst Tony Rook can think of only one. "A lot of men's chess players don't find the responsibility as close to their hearts as women," he says.
Mr. Rook is a "chesscaster" on Chess.fm, an Internet radio show that provides play-by-play commentary on top matches.
Susan Polgar gave up professional chess full time to raise a family full time. So has her youngest sister, Sofia, who is among the world's top 50 women's players. Judit Polgar is said to be considering motherhood as well.
"These are the top three women of chess," says Paul Truong, the captain and business manager of the 2004 U.S. Women's Chess Olympiad team. "And the world may lose all three to families."
But more women are getting on board, says Susan Polgar. "Women in the last century have made changes won the vote, the right to study with men," she says. "They just need time to catch up."

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