Friday, September 21, 2012



By Ajit Chaudhuri, September 2012

Life as an unemployed bum (oops, sorry, mature student!) is tough – I’m broke, the light at the end of the tunnel is not discernable, the journey from where I was 18 months ago has been long, hard and, by most rational indicators, steeply downhill, and, by virtue of moving back to the bright lights of Delhi, these facts are thrown at my face often. But, before you, dear reader, start reaching for your handkerchief, let me tell you that if one has to be a bum, then the summer of 2012 was the time for it – with one sporting extravaganza after another, Euros football, Olympics, Para-Olympics, et al, combining fantastic performances with wonderful TV coverage.

For me, the standout Indian sporting performance of the summer was one that did not hit the headlines – not the medal winners at the Olympics, creditable though that was, and not the footballers who won a third straight Nehru Cup. It was the Indian women finishing fourth in the August/September Chess Olympiad in Istanbul (the men finished 35th). The team consisted of D. Harika (who is one of only 27 women in the world who are men’s Grandmasters) on the first board, Esha Karavade on the second, the glamorous Tania Sachdeva on the third (who also won an individual medal with 9 out of a possible 11 points), and Mary Ann Gomes and Soumya Swaminathan sharing the fourth.

Now, I have a confession to make – I rarely watch women’s sports. Why did I make an exception here? I wish I could impress you by saying national pride, or an abiding interest in chess, but that would be stretching it. The fact is that there were some beauties out there, the quality of play (in my semi-educated opinion) was pretty good, and the combination of the two, to me, is irresistible.

Yes – women chess players are good looking! Now, I can already hear a collective and simultaneous ‘what?’ and ‘bullshit!’ and the composition of scathing responses that suggest an ocular check-up and question my medication! So, this note attempts to present my case in a logical manner.

I could begin with a list of beauties who play chess – Alexandra Kosteniuk, playing fourth board on the winning Russian team at the same Olympiad, a men’s grandmaster, and the 2008 women’s world champion, is also a swimsuit model, and Sachdeva herself could set any catwalk alight. But what would that prove? At best, we would be able to agree that the listed players are beautiful – the ability of the list (or the sample) to speak for women chess players as a whole (or the population) is debatable, and the conclusion would be considered as having ‘low external validity’. Sceptics would correctly suggest that this is a case of ‘cherry picking’, or selection of data so that a study provides a desired result that could be misleading or even contrary to actuality – acceptable for a defence lawyer in court, or for my kids (who use the politicians’ and industrialists’ children in their class as a benchmark) when making a case for more pocket money, but not for a wannabe academic looking to glamorize women’s chess. And contrarians would come out with a list of extremely ugly chess players (they exist!), use my own arguments to draw the opposite conclusion, and thereby render my findings as nonsensical.

I am bothering you with a long criticism of this method because it is frequently used to draw dramatic conclusions and make dumb policies. A series of case studies, with each describing the benefits of some development project on a particular individual or family, actually say very little about the efficiency, effectiveness and impact of the project as a whole. That many terrorists on the USA’s watch-out lists are south Asians should not mean that Homeland Security feel me up with extra vigour when I enter the country. That some white Toyota Qualises are used as taxis should not mean that beggars ignore me (yes, I do drive one) at Delhi’s crossings. But hey, what do I know?

So how, instead, should I make my case? I will attempt this by falsifying the opposite argument, by attacking the two critical assumptions that drive the presumption that women chess players are ugly – that chess players are brainy, and that brainy women are ugly. I will list the best women chess players using robust criteria – have to be among the top ten women players as per the September 2012 FIDE rankings AND have to be men’s grandmasters – as per the assumptions, the best are the brainiest and therefore should be the ugliest. And I will judge them on the basis of pictures taken while playing chess (not while modelling, or while getting married, when photographers are kinder) so as to be consistent. Now, if this sample isn’t particularly ugly, what can we conclude? One, that the women are possibly exceptions or, in statistical parlance, ‘outliers’ – an acceptable argument if there are one or two lookers among them, but not more – by definition, we can’t all be exceptions! And two, that the assumptions don’t hold, which in turn renders the conclusion, that women chess players are ugly, as untenable!

What does the research say? Here are descriptions of the 8 women who meet the criteria, in the order of their September 2012 FIDE rankings.

No. 1 – Judit Polgar of Hungary – a true role model! Though by far the best woman player in history, she doesn’t play in women’s tournaments. She was the youngest ever men’s grandmaster when she first became one, in 1991, beating Bobby Fischer’s record by a month. She has been a top ten men’s player (best ranking was 8 in July 2005, currently 48), and she played third board on the Hungarian men’s team at the 2012 Olympiad. She has cracked every gender barrier in chess. And looks-wise – she is a stunner!

No. 2 – Anna Muzychuk of Slovakia (Ukrainian origin) – another stunner!

No. 3 – Hou Yifan of China – this child prodigy is the reigning women’s world champion and played top board for the 2nd placed team at the 2012 Olympiad. The Chinese were leading until the penultimate round, when a shock draw with lowly Kazakhstan paved the way for a Russian win. I am bypassing my appraisal of Hou – can’t look at her ‘that way’ as she is just 18 years old.

No. 4 – our very own Koneru Humpy of India – she decided against taking part in the 2012 Olympiad (which makes the 4th place finish even more of an achievement), with her confidence low after a battering from Hou Yifan in the final of the women’s world championship. She is another who prefers playing in men’s tournaments. Looks-wise, ordinary (but by no means ugly)!

No. 5 – Zhao Xue of China – she played second board on the Chinese team at the 2012 Olympiad – looks-wise, cute!

No. 6 – Nana Dzagnidze of Georgia – looks-wise, a beauty!

No. 7 – Katerina Lahno of Ukraine – she played first board for the team that pipped India to 3rd place – looks-wise, also a beauty!

No. 8 – did not make it to the sample, as she is not a men’s Grandmaster!

No.s 9 and 10 – Nadezhda and Tatiana Kosintseva respectively of Russia, sisters, and playing third and first boards respectively for the winning Russian team at the 2012 Olympiad – looks-wise, both of them are stunners!

I rest my case!

A concluding thought – should oomph-ey Hindi films, beauty pageants and mujrahs be worried at these findings, and time releases, events and performances so as not to clash with women’s chess tournaments? Well, maybe not! Being able to reject a hypothesis (the hypothesis in this case being that women chess players are ugly), as I hope I have convincingly done, is significantly different from proving the alternative (that women chess players are beautiful). There is little to suggest from this analysis that ornithologists and high-end prowlers need to re-think their prime locations.


Random Reflections said...

Dear Scholar; it was a refreshingly innovative research report. Congratulations for the painstaking work on the chess queens!
As is the wont of scholars, let me critic your piece by suggesting that the measurement technique for 'beauty' has not been spelt out or 'validated'. You may like to work on that to turn in a 'stunning' paper.
Best of luck

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Dear Random,

Thank you for this.

You have very precisely identified the weak spot in the note - the subjective assessment of beauty.

I am a little apprehensive about taking on the task you suggest. This is mainly because, if I do (or anyone does) succeed in providing a valid framework a) a Nobel prize awaits (and I am reluctant to let my life change with the prize money) and b) my life insurance premium will be significantly enhanced (which, on a doctoral scholar fellowship, would be difficult to meet). A better person is required for this.

Thanks again for reading and commenting.