An Instagram post by an 18-year-old Indian chess player has sparked a conversation on attitudes towards women in the sport.
Divya Deshmukh, who is an International Master (the second-highest title in chess), wrote the post after taking part in the recent Tata Steel Chess tournament held in the Netherlands.
She said her chess videos often received online comments that focused on her appearance rather than her games. “It’s a sad truth that when women play chess, [people] often overlook how good they actually are… and every irrelevant thing is focused on,” she wrote, adding that she had wanted to address the issue “for a while”. She felt it was high time women were equally respected.
She said the behaviour of the audience at the tournament venue in Wijk Aan Zee had irked her. “I got told by people how the audience was not even bothered with the game but instead focused on every single possible thing in the world: my clothes, hair, accent and every other irrelevant thing,” she wrote.
The organisers of the tournament later issued a statement supporting her and said that they “remain committed to promoting women in chess and ensuring a safe and equal sporting environment”.
Deshmukh told the BBC that she has been receiving hateful comments related to the way she dresses, looks or speaks since she was 14 years old. “It makes me sad that people don’t pay the same kind of attention to my chess skills,” she said.
Sexism is still an under-discussed topic in chess, which is one of the few mainstream sports where men and women often compete against each other. Deshmukh’s post has ignited a crucial conversation and even Susan Polgar, the world’s first woman grandmaster, has joined in.
She shared her own experience on X (formerly Twitter). “I did not even touch make-up until I was in my 20s… It is because I was tired of being sexually harassed/assaulted and hit on constantly by male chess players,” Polgar wrote.
Former Indian grandmaster Koneru Humpy, who started her career in the 1990s, told BBC that there is more equality now, compared with when she began playing.
She had stunned the world by becoming the then-youngest female Grandmaster at the age of 15 (this record was broken later).
Humpy recalls being the only female player to compete in open tournaments and men wouldn’t like losing to her. She felt more female players would result in a change in prevailing perceptions.
Nandhini Saripalli, a chess player and coach, told BBC that she has experienced first-hand the consequences of such biases both as a player and coach. She claimed parents are keen to have their children mentored by a male coach “because they feel that male players are more talented”.
Saripalli says online trolling of women players was rampant. She claims while playing a male opponent, she has had men telling her online that she would be easily defeated. She also came across male players who’ve said that they don’t feel the need to practice if their opponent is a woman.