Competing in the World Team Chess Championship in Jerusalem this week, Ilana David from Beersheba is the first-ever Israeli woman to lead an all-male team. And she is, understandably, exasperated by the label.
“I am also the only woman in this open chess tournament – as always,” she exclaimed to The Times of Israel, speaking at the opening of the championship where 12 teams, including Israel, competed for the title. world title this week- long competition.
David holds the title of Women’s International Master, won the Israeli Women’s Chess Championship in 1980 and was twice part of the Israel Olympic Chess Team, among other accolades.
“For me, being a good chess player is so normal, but for the world, I am a kind of exotic bird. When I first came to Israel and participated in tournaments of chess, people looked at me as if to say, “What are you doing here? Are you here by mistake?”
The problem persists worldwide today.
“Even in female-only chess games, there are often few female captains,” David said, explaining that although captains don’t play, they have the function of organizing and leading the team, signing match protocols and advising players on the offer or acceptance of draws or abandonment of games.
“There is a general feeling that men are more suited,” she adds. “Some people still believe that women aren’t strong enough to lead a team.”
“It’s not due to biology”
Women are sorely underrepresented in professional chess as a whole. While the majority of chess tournaments are open to everyone, they are almost always male dominated.
Of approximately 1,700 grandmasters, only 37 are women, and there are currently no women among the top 100 players in the world according to FIDE, the International Chess Federation.
“It’s not about biology,” Judit Polgar, widely regarded as the greatest female chess player in history, told The Guardian. “It is just as possible for a woman to be the best as any man. But there are so many difficulties and social barriers for women in general in society. That’s what’s blocking. »
In 2021, Nona Gaprindashvili, a pioneering chess champion and the first woman in the world to be named a chess grandmaster in 1978, sued Netflix for defamation after her hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” falsely claimed that she had “never faced men”.
In fact, Gaprindashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia has played and won against many men’s champions in his career.
In her legal statement, she described Netflix’s error as “patently false, in addition to being grossly sexist and derogatory.”
Some male chess giants, such as world champions Bobby Fischer of the United States and Garry Kasparov of Russia, were known to disparage female chess, the latter once saying that female chess players should stick to having children. Kasparov was forced to swallow his words after Judit Polgar beat him in a match in 2002; she described her victory as “one of the most remarkable moments of my career”.
Polgar’s career included being ranked No. 8 in the world and qualifying for the Candidates Tournament, in which the winner out of eight players faces the world champion in a duel for the title.
In September 2022, an Israeli chess grandmaster and commentator was sacked from the International Chess Federation after he said a female player wanted to be “like the men”.
David started learning to play chess at the age of 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, where for the most part chess was highly respected and encouraged for men and women. women.
She was taught by her father and grew up playing alongside Garry Kasparov.
“We grew up together playing chess at the Olympic Palace in Baku,” David recalls. “We then traveled together for chess tournaments, he with his mother, me with mine.”
“Competing in chess at a high level was not just considered ‘professional’ but rather ‘super-professional’,” she adds, recalling how, as a 14-year-old prodigy, she received an allowance equivalent to the salary of a young engineer, accompanied by private coaching, free trips and numerous gifts.
“It was completely grand.”
Today, such conditions are almost unheard of, especially for female players, she said, adding that there is a big difference in the prize money awarded to women-only chess championships compared to men, which which also discourages female players from pursuing the profession. .
Although the percentage of women in chess remains very low, David notes that in recent years “there is more support for chess in Israel, thanks to the work of the Israel Chess Federation”, citing a program that enables young children to study chess at school. school.
“Even if a child doesn’t become a chess champion, it will give him so much skill. It will serve them for the rest of their lives,” she says. “It’s a great contribution for the future.”
The Jerusalem World Chess Championship runs until November 26. The Israeli team did not reach the round of 16, finishing fifth out of six teams in their group.