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Too many girls in chess abandon the game in high school: governing body

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There is something about the high school years that makes female chess enthusiasts stop playing, the game's governing body says.

According to the Chess Federation of Canada, while interest in playing competitively wanes for both genders in their teens, the percentage of girls who drop out is higher than boys, resulting in abysmally few women at the game's top levels.

For the Canadian Youth Chess Championship in Montreal this Tuesday, about one-third of the 320-odd players are girls — a stark contrast to adult competitions where women make up about five per cent of the field on average.

"It's difficult to say exactly why that happens, but it does," said Vladimir Drkulec, the chess federation's president.

"I had a girl that I was teaching that finished second in Canada in the under-14 girls' (competition), and she retired from chess after that... That seems to be a recurrent happening."

Yelizaveta Orlova, who has represented Canada in international chess events, was about the same age when she stopped playing for a year and a half.

The 19-year-old, who has been playing since age four, said she started feeling self-conscious at 14 as chess was not seen as a traditionally cool pursuit.

"The reaction of one of my friends was kind of like, 'Really? You play?'" she said. "It wasn't even the fact that he was joking about it. It was the tone that kind of set it off.

"I was young; that's when girls tend to overthink about a lot of things."

Orlova added that boys, on the other hand, seem to worry less about social status at that age, and more male chess players stay in the game.

Rebecca Giblon, 17, the current sixth ranked female player in Canada, said in lower-level tournaments, boys also gravitate toward unprofessional behaviour and foster an unwelcoming environment.

"Thirteen- to 15-year-old boys aren't mature even on a good day," she said. "The players at local tournaments make jokes about stuff.

"Not specifically going against me because I'm a girl, but it's just among a huge list of making fun of everybody for everything."

Canada currently has 10 men who have been awarded the grandmaster title — the highest level in the game — but no women, though some countries have several. The world chess governing body has both male and female titles, but women are eligible for the harder-to-get male title as well as women's titles.

The Canadian government provides no funding to chess.

Orlova, who was born in Ukraine, said Canada lacks a strong chess culture and places more emphasis on physical sports such as hockey and basketball.

"When you go to Europe, chess is actually a fairly well-known game," she said. "Many people here, they don't even say the word 'chess,' they mistake it for the word 'chest.'"

Drkulec said that even in Michigan, the state that borders Windsor, Ont., where he is based, the proportion of women who play in tournaments is about three times that of Canada.

To encourage more female participation, the chess federation created two women-only national titles last April that are easier to attain than their open-category counterparts.

The titles faced opposition even from within, with some saying it suggests women cannot compete intellectually with men. The motion to create them passed with 10 voting members — nearly one-third — either indicating no or abstaining.

Drkulec acknowledges that argument, but said it's an idealistic view.

"I want more people playing chess," he said. "If we followed (that) argument, we would have even fewer women playing.

Drkulec added that while it is difficult to pin the lack of female participation to a specific factor, it does exist — and it perpetuates itself.

Giblon said it can be discouraging that there are few other women in Canada's chess scene.

"I really do feel that sometimes I'm sort of alone in this," she said. "When I was little, that did sometimes make me feel like, 'Why should I even do this if there's no one else like me?' but I just kept pushing through."

Drkulec said the federation has stepped up efforts to target women and girls — female-only titles and events, for instance — but it would be a challenge to reach its goal: a 50-50 gender ratio.

"We are encouraging our members to do more in that area, but that's all we can do," he said. "The federation itself is just basically the members — we have one full-time employee."

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