Women in Chess Speak Up on Sexual Harassment

Players are setting up nonprofits looking to build a community, break the silence and make the game safe

Women in Chess Speak Up on Sexual Harassment
A woman chess player makes a move during a game. (Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images)

The international master and nine-time British women’s chess champion Jovanka Houska was 18 when she first felt it — a light touch on her waist. “I was taking the stairs with a senior male grandmaster. It happened routinely after that — hands on waist, shoulders. I was told that he did it with other players too and that I should feel flattered. I later learned that the same person had initiated conversations with my sister when she was 15,” she told New Lines.

Houska was in her 20s when the same grandmaster asked her if she had started having sex. “At some point, he decided that I was attractive. Luckily, I was a lot more mature and worldly when the question, ‘So, when are you and I going to fuck?’ was crudely thrown at me,” she said. Oftentimes, when she would offer an opinion on chess, he would say things like, “Oh, well, you know, the difference between a bishop and a knight,” questioning and disregarding her knowledge of the game.

Even now, as a commentator, Houska often finds herself at the receiving end of sexist remarks during tournaments. YouTube live chats are filled with disparaging comments, such as “You’re just an IM [international master],” “You know squat about chess” and “Go back to the kitchen.” “It can knock you down,” she said. (International master is a ranking just below the title of grandmaster, awarded by FIDE, the International Chess Federation, which once earned is held for life.)

She is not the only one. In the last couple of months, several international women chess players have spoken to New Lines, sharing their experiences publicly for the first time. For many, it is hard to put their career and opportunities on the line. Of those opening up, comparatively few have been active players at the top of the game.

It all started earlier this year, in February. When two-time U.S. women’s chess champion Jennifer Shahade put out a statement on X (formerly Twitter) accusing Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez — one of the most recognizable faces in American chess — of sexual assault, it kickstarted a wider resistance among women players, who have since spoken about their own experiences of sexual harassment in chess. Shahade herself has said that she made the statement after learning of multiple reports of alleged misconduct by Ramirez, including involving a minor, and was approached by at least 10 others afterward.

It was only in October, however, eight months after Shahade went public with her allegations, that St. Louis Chess Club — a prominent club where Ramirez was employed as coach and commentator until he resigned in February — released a statement, owning up to being “silent for too long,” admitting their “failure to publicly step up and fiercely advocate for keeping chess safe” and promising not to “repeat mistakes.”

In May, the U.S. Chess Federation said that it had launched an independent, third-party investigation in late 2022 when complaints from two individuals were received alleging misconduct by Ramirez. The focus of the investigation was to determine when U.S. Chess had knowledge of these allegations and to examine the actions it had taken in response. The investigation concluded that the federation’s response was “timely and appropriate” and the Executive Board voted to both ratify the resignation of Ramirez and permanently ban him from being a U.S. Chess member.

However, in September Shahade resigned as the director of the U.S. Chess Women’s Program, a position she had held since 2018, after she said she was greeted with “hostility instead of support” by the U.S. Chess Federation, and was “consistently minimized or ignored” after she came forward with the allegations.

Encouraged by Shahade’s public stand, 14 women chess players in France, who are also “survivors of sexist/sexual violence,” wrote an open letter in August titled “Nous, joueuses d’echecs” (We, women chess players) urging more women to speak up. Over the next few days, the number of signatories rose to 100, and several women got in touch with them to share how they were harassed by their trainers when they were 14 or 15 years old and ended up quitting chess.

“Unlike a boy who can just focus on chess and nothing else, from a young age girls have social barriers to scale,” said Woman International Master Mathilde Congiu, who was among the players who wrote the letter. “They have to put up with demeaning jokes about whether they’re smart enough to play chess. Slowly, these jokes shape their confidence, self-worth and ambition.” It happened to her too, she said. “When I was younger, I would join in the laughter with everyone else at such jokes because you just feel awkward and don’t know how else to react.”

Hungarian-American Grandmaster Susan Polgar also took to social media to share about her own episodes of harassment, calling herself a “victim many times over.” “There are many known male chess players who have a history of tormenting female players/coaches/arbiters/organizers/volunteers. … I’m not holding my breath for their punishments,” she wrote on X.

Professional chess is overwhelmingly dominated by men, because women drop out of chess at faster rates, particularly between the ages of 16 and 18. Women make up only 11% of classical-rated players and 2% of Grandmasters. At the moment, there are no women players in the top 100 rankings. A recent study by New York University, which examined gender bias in chess, found that most participants — 90.6% of whom were men — thought that the highest potential chess ratings of female players were lower on average than those of men, that women were less interested in the game and that they were more likely to drop out due to low ability.

In numerous instances, sexual assault has forced women players to quit the game. The horrific experiences of being stalked, threatened, groped, harassed and bullied have scarred players for life and made Beth Harmon’s run-in with sexism in the hugely popular 2020 Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” seem mild, almost revisionist.

Alicia (name changed on request), an active female player, alleged that a male grandmaster raped her while drunk at the end of a team championship. “Some of us players went out for a few drinks. I woke up the next morning in the room of a grandmaster. It was a man whose persistent sexual advances I’d turned down in the past. He raped me that night,” she told New Lines.

Though she had little hope, she still went to the police. “A few male players, who were the grandmaster’s friends and were also around drinking that night, gave false testimonies. The case led nowhere. I’ve not quite recovered from the trauma. Its impact is visible in my chess levels. It’s taken me five years to even talk about this. I don’t have the stomach to put my name to it for the world to see. He could make my life hell again,” she said.

A player, who didn’t wish to be named, told New Lines of the time a male player made unwarranted advances toward her during a tournament in Italy. Despite her protests, he continued to stalk her, she said. Wary of running into him again, she pulled out of a tournament and skipped another one as he was going to participate in them. “I know other female players with similar stories. It’s both bizarre and sad how we have to keep ducking and hiding just to play tournaments without being harassed,” she said.

Being in the minority in chess hurts women more, said Andreea Navrotescu, a French international master and Olympiad individual silver medallist, who was also one of those who wrote the open letter. “A sort of group effect takes over when men are together, drinking after tournaments. Most stories don’t get out and [men] are almost never punished,” she said, which has emboldened such behavior to continue unchecked. “I don’t see attitudes and mindsets changing overnight, but surely a lot more people are talking about it now than ever before. Women in chess coming together will have an impact in the long run.”

Similarly, Argentinian Woman International Master Ayelen Martinez opened up about the time when a trainer misbehaved with her under the pretext of offering her a chess session while she was 16. “He asked me to meet him for a session in a tiny room. As soon as we were alone, he grabbed me by my arms. I somehow managed to free myself from his grasp and ran out of the room. I was shaken. This was two hours before my game.” He later showed up right beside her board while her game was on, she said. “Imagine trying to focus on the game as a young girl while the man who groped a couple of hours ago, stands staring at you a few feet away.”

Martinez, who was leading the tournament until then, ended up losing that day and eventually finished in third place. When a complaint was lodged with the Argentinian chess club where the incident took place, she learned that the trainer had previously harassed other female players but had faced no action. “He had also been found watching porn at the club. The other women he had harassed were somewhat casual players. They quit chess. He was banned from the club after my complaint. The club’s argument for not banning him earlier was that ‘he hadn’t hurt anyone,’” she said.

In August, two-time Olympiad member and English International Master Sabrina Chevannes also took to X to share disturbing experiences of sexual harassment that she faced as an active player, ranging from being groped as a young teen by an older, well-known grandmaster to being raped. Since then she has faced intimidation, backlash and vitriol, and has alleged that her X account was also hacked. She also received a cease-and-desist legal notice from a chess player claiming defamation, who demanded that she take down her posts even though she hadn’t named the perpetrators.

“I have a lawyer helping me now and we’re not taking down any posts. It’s my story, my truth. I have nothing to hide,” she said. Over 30 women have so far reached out to her, and she has also set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover legal and mental health support fees for chess players in similar instances.

Chevannes, who decided to quit chess in 2017, vividly recalls the tipping point. “It was all the things that I hated about chess — toxic culture, bullying and harassment — summed up over one tournament weekend,” she told New Lines. “The systemic racism in U.K. chess is horrible. I was being constantly bullied with cheating allegations after a previous bunch of good results,” said the player, who is Black. One evening, when she went to the bar after losing a game, the teasing did not stop. A male player said, “‘Oh so your engine must’ve stopped working,” another player tried to get overfamiliar and aggressive with her, she said. “I just screamed, ‘Get the fuck off me!’ and left. I woke up the next morning with no desire to play even a single game anymore. I was done with chess.”

She claims to have written to the International Chess Federation, popularly known by its French acronym FIDE, almost 15 years ago about chess coaches in the U.K. harassing women, and even minors. “These were coaches who had zero chess qualifications. So, I asked FIDE to enact official eligibility criteria for chess coaches. But they essentially asked me to piss off. It’s disappointing. Bodies like FIDE inspire little hope.”

Ravindra Dongre, a member of FIDE’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission, which looks into sexual harassment complaints, among other breaches, told New Lines that they have only seen social media posts but haven’t received any formal complaints. “We will act if victims approach us,” he said. However, several players told New Lines they choose not to approach FIDE since they are disenchanted and do not trust the organization.

Dana Reizniece-Ozola, deputy chair of the FIDE management board, admitted to the trust deficit that exists between players and the parent chess body. “Building that trust is the most difficult part,” Reizniece-Ozola told New Lines. “Not just competitive chess, even FIDE itself has been male-dominated for ages so there’s perhaps a feeling that it may not be a safe space for women. As a woman myself, I’d want there be to one focal point for female players, not just for the redressal of sexual violence cases but also for its prevention,” she said.

Hence, she said, FIDE had recently entered into a partnership with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit working toward ending sexual, emotional and physical abuse of athletes, since there are “gaps in their policies” and FIDE lacks the required expertise to deal with such matters in-house. “Setting up policies will take a few months but it’s the shift in mindset — for everyone to realize that this is necessary — that will take longer. That women are speaking up is a good thing. It means that no matter how inert organizers and national federations are at present, sooner or later everyone will be forced to act.”

The 14 French women players who wrote the open letter in August are setting up the Women’s Chess Association, a nonprofit based in France that will act as an international community for women in chess. While the finer details are still being drawn up, they said they are looking to have two kinds of memberships, one exclusively for women and the other open to both men and women in chess. “We want it to be an inclusive body. It’s important that men are sensitized and made aware of what women face in chess,” said Yosha Iglesias, a French FIDE master and one of the 14 women.

Meanwhile, Emilia Castelao, a 23-year-old historian, chess player and master’s student in Austria, has set up the Women in Chess Foundation (WICF), along with online chess personality Michael Duke (also known as Mr. Dodgy), which is running training sessions for volunteers so that certified “advocates” can be present at chess tournaments globally from next year onward. They are hoping to have at least 50 advocates in 15 countries by the end of this year, and be at the tournaments in Houston, Las Vegas and Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands. They are also in talks with the Norway Chess Federation to have their advocates at the women’s supertournament next year.

Their first training session was attended by members of the Berlin Chess Federation, English Chess Federation and Chess.com, and the foundation is also working with federations and clubs to draft and implement guidelines for preventing misconduct. “It sounds pretty insane that there has been no global women’s chess organization so far. There have been smaller bodies that largely work locally. Like Jennifer’s (Shahade) 9 Queens,” said Castelao.

Shahade is an advisory member of the WICF board, and Martinez and Houska are members of the board. Both WICF and the Women’s Chess Association wish to operate as independent bodies and hope to synchronize efforts.

Chevannes hopes this discourse won’t fall silent anytime soon. “I worry that after a couple of weeks, no one will be talking about this anymore. And the men who’ve belittled, assaulted and driven women away from the game might just go ahead and do it all over again. We just can’t let it happen.”

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