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November 29, 2005

Chess chicks

Some intellectual pursuits, like math, which I majored in at college, have a reputation for attracting a bunch of geeky, socially maladept guys who can't get dates, and no women to speak of. Like most generalizations, this has some truth to it, enough truth to justify the generalization, but it's not entirely fair.

With that disclaimer, I have to mention the field of chess. I'm not a chess player, but chess seems to me to attract the same kind of socially maladept guys that math attracts. So I was interested in this article in the New York Times entitled "Sex and Chess. Is She a Queen or a Pawn?"

There are enough women in chess to make an impression and few enough to attract a lot of attention.

VANESS REID, a 16-year-old student from Sydney, Australia, runs cross-country, plays touch football, enjoys in-line skating, swims and goes bodyboarding. She also has a cerebral side: she plays competitive chess. She represented Australia at a tournament in Malaysia in 2002 and played in a tournament in New Zealand this year.

While Ms. Reid is clearly no novice at the game, she isn't exactly taking it by storm. She is not on the World Chess Federation's list of the world's 50 top female players. In fact she is ranked 47,694th among both men and women. But Ms. Reid, who has auburn hair, light-blue eyes and a winning smile, is arguably the top player in the world based on a more subjective criterion: her looks. A Web site called World Chess Beauty Contest ( ranks her as the world's most beautiful woman in the game.
The site was started by two Kazakh brothers, one of whom opines that "Chess desperately needs some glamour." So this is how chess gets that glamour:
Alexandra Kosteniuk, 21, a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned Russian grandmaster who is ranked fifth in the world among women and 525th over all, models and uses her Web site to sell photos of herself posing in bikinis next to giant chess pieces. [A safe-for-work photo of her appears with the Times article.]

Maria Manakova, 31, who is the fourth-ranked woman in Russia and who is ranked eighth on the Beauty Contest site, attracted attention last year when she posed nude for Speed, a Russian magazine. She followed it up by posing for Maxim and the Russian edition of Playboy.
Now, what they do away from the chess table is mere gossip; what they do at the table is serious business.
Steve Immitt has directed chess tournaments around the United States for more than two decades. * * * Mr. Immitt recalled a tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla., in which a male player complained that his female opponent was a distraction. Mr. Immitt went to investigate.

"She was distracting," he said. "But there was nothing I could do. It was the beginning of April, right after spring break, and she was dressed appropriately for the time of year. It wasn't anything against the law. I told the guy, 'You are going to have to call upon yourself to overcome the distraction.' He ended up losing the game anyway, but I am not sure that was from being distracted."
Maria Manakova, the one who posed nude, insists that she would never deliberately try to distract her opponent: "I don't need to distract my opponent or do something. I can do it after the game if I want. During the game I just want to play good chess." I'll bet her opponent wants the same thing; the question is whether he's able to pull it off.