Monday, February 27, 2012

Chess in a dress

I’m bad at chess. One of the advantages of this is that when I play it against strangers on the internet I don’t get accused of cheating, but I’d still like to be better. It tends to surprise people how bad I am because I’ve always been pretty good at mathsy things. It surprises me too, but I think what’s killing my game is that I don’t take enough interest in what the other player’s thinking. As anyone who doesn’t suck at chess knows, that’s pretty important. If you’re too self-absorbed, they’ll have a plan and then catch you unawares with it, and you’ll lose. But now I may have hit upon a solution.

Regular readers will know that a while ago I read and enjoyed a book about psychological research into differences between men and women. If I remember rightly, she said (among other things) that when people imagine themselves as being of a particular gender they adopt the psychological traits they think people of that gender tend to have. One of the traits people in my country tend to associate with women is seeing things from other people’s point of view. Empathy, sympathy, emotional intelligence: whatever you call it,  the chances are that on some level a 21st century Briton like me will think women are better at it. This is meant to work even if you've read and been broadly persuaded by a book suggesting the stereotypes may be largely unfounded. So if I want to be better at chess, I just need to write a first-person story from a woman’s point of view, and then use my magical mindreading skills to rumble my opponents' plans. Those strangers on the internet won’t know what hit them.

Now, I can imagine someone pointing out that the best chess players in the world are mostly men, and at the very highest level they’re all men. Presumably there’s something men are good at which outweighs the women’s ability to read minds. Well, one thing is that the technique makes you assume the traits you think women have, not the traits they actually have. Men may be actually just as good at mindreading as women are, but as long as I think women are better, if I think myself feminine I should become better. Another thing is that even if male dominance in chess is caused at least in part by psychological differences between men and women, these differences might benefit the men in obsessively learning openings and practising, rather than making them better players practice-hour for practice-hour. So I don’t think my hypothesis should be dismissed out of hand.

I did think I might be able to get in touch with my telepathic side by wearing a dress when I play, but it was suggested to me that this might actually draw attention to my maleness, since I’d be thinking ‘I’m a man in a dress’. I don’t know which way this effect would go, so I should probably test the hypothesis using the story method, which I understand is more standard. I’ll test the dress method too though, because if it works then it might catch on and top players would need to turn out in drag to stay competitive. That’s a turn of events for which I wouldn’t mind being responsible.

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