Nothing has shocked the sports world more than the recent trans ban in chess, which is known as a mind sport that does not require physical exertion to excel in moving pieces around a board. Following swimming, track and field, and rugby, The International Chess Federation (FIDE) announced its new policy prohibiting trans chess players from participating in the women’s category. FIDE asserted that their trans athletes are still welcome to compete in the Open category.
According to FIDE’s new policy, chess players competing in women-only chess tournaments are required to provide documentation of a gender change that adheres to their government’s regulations. However, even after meeting these requirements, trans women players are not allowed to participate in the women’s category until “further analysis” is conducted, which could take up to two years. This analysis aims to evaluate the “evolving issue” of transgender regulation. Furthermore, women’s titles earned by trans men competitors who later transitioned are set to be “abolished.”
The temporary ban on trans chess players has garnered heavy criticism both within and outside chess communities. One key argument against it is that chess is a strategy game that relies on the intellectual prowess, rather than the physiological “advantages” associated with being a “biological man.” While controversy occasionally arises regarding whether men are inherently better players than women, such a notion is largely rejected by women and men chess players alike. The consensus is that there is no discernable difference in capacity between the sexes in the world of chess.
Chess has a historical reputation as a male-dominated sport, with 2019 data showing that only 14.6% of US chess players are women. Men dominate in chess ranking and population not because they are smarter, but rather from cultural and economic factors. Structural gender inequality, such as men chess players receiving greater prize money, sponsorship, and media exposure, often leads women players to step away from competitive chess when they cannot earn a living from it. Cultural stereotypes suggesting that women are stupider or lacking spatial abilities compared to men have dissuaded many women from pursuing chess professionally. In an interview following the success of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit (2022), Judit Polgar, the only woman chess player to have achieved a Top 10 world championship ranking, expressed her frustration with the “hurtful” and “disparaging” comments made by men about her chess skills. As one of the few women players competing against male opponents, Polgar recalled instances where sexist men would refuse to shake hands with her or engage in unsportsmanlike behavior such as “hitting his head on the board after he lost.”
The enduring gender gap, driven by sexism, in chess, may explain why international federations like FIDE have established separate women’s tournaments. One hypothesis suggests that because there is a smaller pool of female players, resulting in fewer women than men at the top of the chess rating list, women-only competitions can encourage more women players to play, and hopefully, address the gender imbalance and combat the seemingly sexist culture within the sport.
Apart from perpetuating the misogynistic and transphobic narrative that portrays trans women as men who are intelligently superior, FIDE’s policy is also troubling because it seems to be jumping on the anti-trans bandwagon to divert attention from the escalating #MeToo movement within the chess community.
In February, Jennifer Shahade, the two-time US champion, took to X to share her experiences of being sexually assaulted twice by the well-known grandmaster, coach, and commentator Alejandro Ramirez, igniting chess’s #MeToo movement. The Wall Street Journal published a well-researched article about eight women who had endured similar incidents of sexual violence involving Ramirez. An open letter, signed by top French women players and women from around the world who had “experienced sexist or sexual violence perpetrated by chess players, coaches, arbiters, or managers,” was released just two weeks prior to the trans ban. This letter strongly condemned the “harassment and assaults” taking place within the professional chess world, urging female chess players to “denounce the violence” they have suffered.
In other words, trans chess players are being made the scapegoats for the most recent sexual assault allegations in the world of chess.
This explains the extremely vague reference to “further analysis” regarding trans women players’ eligibility to compete in women’s events. FIDE fails to specify the exact “research evidence” supporting any inherent “advantages” of trans women over cisgender women, nor does it clarify what exactly will be “analyzed.” The aggressive and mystifying restrictions targeting both trans women and trans men appear suspicious in a sport primarily rooted in mental abilities rather than physiological attributes.
If the trans athlete ban can teach us anything, it’s that merely having an Open sports category, which ostensibly includes everyone, is ultimately harmful to both trans and women athletes, when the underlying problems—sexism and patriarchy—are not adequately addressed and dismantled.
Siufung Law (they/them) comes from Hong Kong, is a TEDx speaker, a nonbinary professional bodybuilder, and Ph.D. student at Emory University. They are a trans activist actively promoting the transgender-only bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, GA, organized by the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters (IATBP).