As the former president of my junior high chess club (which happened to have more girls than boys in it), I'll wager that there would be no story at all if the chess players in question were male and sexy as all get-out.
Sex and Chess. Is She a Queen or a Pawn?
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 earlier this year by Vladislav Tkachiev, 32, a Kazakh grandmaster who is ranked 83rd in the world, and his brother, Eugeny, 39. The younger Mr. Tkachiev, who appears in photos to be well-built and boyish looking, said they had started the site to raise the profile of the game. "Chess desperately needs some glamour," Mr. Tkachiev said. The brothers are not the only ones trying to inject some glamour, or at least sex appeal, into the game. 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.
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.
The efforts to spice up the game mainly emanate from Eastern Europe, whose players have long dominated the sport and where cheesecake displays are less likely to draw complaints about the exploitation and the objectification of women.
And capitalizing on sex appeal is also not exactly a new idea in competitive sports. Before Ms. Reid, tennis had Anna Kournikova and beach volleyball had Gabrielle Reese and soccer had Mia Hamm.
Mr. Tkachiev said that the people who do not play the game have a wrong opinion about chess. "They think that it is only a game for those who are quite inactive and unattractive and aged," he said. "It is simply not true. This is a very democratic game for anyone. There are a lot of attractive people, whether female or male. We decided to show this side of chess."
So the stereotypes are wrong and always have been? Not exactly. "In general there are much more women in chess than before," Mr. Tkachiev said.
Other players agree. Steve Immitt has directed chess tournaments around the United States for more than two decades. In recent years, he said, he has noticed not only that there are more women playing but that they are better and more attractive.
Still, women are vastly outnumbered in tournaments. So their participation can be a distraction, drawing crowds around them, Mr. Immitt said. They can also distract their male opponents, some of whom do fit the stereotype that Mr. Tkachiev disputed. 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."
One indisputably attractive woman who plays chess is the supermodel Carmen Kass, who was elected president of the Estonian Chess Federation last year and is dating Eric Lobron, a German grandmaster. But if Ms. Kass draws stares, it is not at the playing tables; she does not compete.