“There is definitely no woman who would say that she has never heard a stupid saying. She has experienced that someone might want to hug her when she didn’t want to. Or someone might want to press a kiss on her cheek, even though she doesn’t want it. Or even worse,” Ingrid Lauterbach told DW.
The President of the German Chess Federation (DSB), who is an International Champion herself, has been playing in international tournaments for decades. Although she has never experienced a physical assault herself, she knows the typical sayings. Like the rest of the chess world, the DSB is called upon to tackle this problem: sexism. It’s everywhere. And chess also had its very own #MeToo moment at the beginning of August.
Those affected from the chess world addressed the public with an “open letter” to demand changes: “We, chess players, coaches, referees and managers, have experienced sexist or sexual violence carried out by chess players, coaches, referees or managers.” , the letter says. Over a hundred women from all over the world signed this letter – including the German international Annmarie Mutsch. She recently told the news magazine “Spiegel” that she had even canceled important tournaments because she had met certain men there that she would rather not meet.
Is chess particularly dangerous for women in this regard? “Of course I was once hit on at a chess tournament. Maybe that was a bit unpleasant. But I wouldn’t classify it as sexual harassment,” says Josefine Heinemann, grandmaster and active spokesperson for the DSB. Above all, this didn’t just happen to her in chess, but also in normal life outside of this sport. Sexual violence is a problem for society as a whole, not a chess-specific problem.
Unusual constellations on the board
But something is different in chess: women are a minority there, their share is only ten percent. There are all-women’s tournaments, but if you want to play in top-level sport as a woman, you also have to take part in mixed tournaments in order to progress. And only in chess do girls sit opposite an older man in a competitive situation. And that can lead to irritation for the other person if the younger woman wins. “Especially when older men lose to smaller girls, there is often a comment,” says Heinemann.
However, the grandmaster sees a greater danger beyond the board: “From my point of view, there are a lot of stupid comments on the Internet. I find what I read very shocking.” Anonymity on the Internet contributes a lot to this because the inhibition threshold drops. DSB President Lauterbach also believes that modern communication channels make it easier to establish unwanted contact. On the other hand, the Internet is also the place where those affected are now fighting back.
Shahade is the first
Women no longer want to remain silent. It started in February when Jennifer Shahade, two-time US champion and influential chess author from the United States, posted the following on X: “Time is up”. There she described how she had experienced “sexual misconduct” at the hands of chess grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez.
Within minutes, many women responded that they had experienced something similar. A man also tweeted that he had witnessed Ramirez assaulting young women – and that he didn’t know any better in 2011. At this point, various abuse scandals had already caused a stir around the world. But apparently no one noticed anything about chess?
“Since I signed the letter, I’ve thought more about the incidents I’ve experienced. I’ve remembered so many things that I wasn’t even aware of before,” said Mutsch. Maybe because it was so commonplace?
There is currently an initiative led by the American-Canadian chess player and influencer Alexandra Valeria Botez, who wants to create an anonymized, international database that stores all cases of sexual abuse in chess worldwide. Also because FIDE, the World Chess Federation, has not yet responded to this issue. There is also no contact point for those affected – the only contact person would be the ethics committee.
Ingrid Lauterbach, however, doubts that the Commission would be the right point of contact – and not just because it works very slowly. But because it would certainly be better to address those responsible directly on site. Overall, she hopes for more attention to this problem: “That we look even more. That referees also look. That coaches pay more attention.”
In the long term, it would be particularly important to increase the proportion of girls and women at all levels in order to then have more female referees and coaches. The DSB has been working on measures to prevent sexual violence in sport since 2021 and wants to further expand this concept. He names a contact person for this on his homepage. In Germany, however, the “Safe Sport Contact Point”, which is jointly supported by the federal government, the states and organized sport, provides direct contact with those affected.
Chess offers great opportunities for women
If girls and women stay away from chess, it is a loss for the sport. And a loss for women, who miss out on development opportunities. Especially since chess offers great opportunities for women and girls to do better at school or university, says DSB President Lauterbach. If it were possible to attract more girls and women to the sport of chess, it would of course first have to be ensured that they can feel safe.
Lauterbach relies on education at the grassroots level, where awareness of the problem is not yet sufficient. And: It must be clear to all perpetrators that their behavior will not be tolerated. “I think we have to get to the point where the deterrence becomes so high that no one can afford to do this anymore,” said the President of the DSB.