My visit to the World Chess Hall of Fame

A significant part of a St. Louis block is devoted to the world of chess.  There is the Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Chess Club, and also a chess-themed restaurant, Kingside Diner, with a King on the men’s room door and a Queen on the women’s room.  The facilities are world class and very welcoming for the visitor; I am honored to have been given a personal tour (and to have eaten fish and chips there).

If you see a Slavic-looking face walking down this street, you simply assume it is a chess player.  In general, I am very interested in the idea of creating extreme mini-universes, a’la Robert Nozick’s concept of utopia.  This is what the chess utopia looks like, and it is in St. Louis.  In this world, rating matters more than race or gender or age.

Many of America’s best chess players now live in or near St. Louis, and the two best college teams — Webster and SLU — are both in or near St. Louis.

One lesson is the power of philanthropy in an otherwise under-supported domain.  I am instead used to seeing donations in “crowded” areas, such as economics or politics.  Rex Sinquefield, a former finance economist, and the developer of index investing, has been the major force behind the rise of St. Louis in chess.  The game is now played in more than one hundred of the local schools.

The strangest moment for me was reading through the plaques in the Hall.  I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them.  All at once, I learned when each had died, and which of the few remained alive.


I followed Tyler’s link in wikipedia and I ended up in the FIDE ranking. I noticed that the top 20 men players have a ranking from 2843 (Carlsen) to 2745. Women start at 2654 with a difficult to spell Chinese lady.

I wonder if there are obvious explanations for this (number of players, something in the ranking system I am unaware of...) or it might seem to be explained only by some politically incorrect assumptions.

Anyone knows it?

Brains are different and assuming the contrary will impose pain on both genders and a lot of confusion.

It could be genetics, but the simplest explanation is... the normal distribution. Chess is more popular among men. Even if men and women are identical in talent, if you take 10,000 draws from men and 1000 from women, the top 20 draws are probably going to be men.

just a thought en passant. For some reason, genetic perhaps there are far more male geniuses (and idiots) than women geniuses. Many of these male geniuses are socially inept, withdrawn and strange. They tend to be attracted to tough sciences, engineering, computer games and math. coincidently the same skills that lend themselves to chess mastery.

I don't want to be pedantic, but if the distributions are normal with same average and variance, the top 20 should have the same proportion of the overall population, i.e. we would expect on average 2 women in the top 20.
Running 10000 simulations of populations of 10000 men and 1000 women (using IQ as the random variable) gave me an average of 10% women in the top 20 (as expected) and a standard deviation of 8.3 (percentage points), which is pretty high.
Of course I have no idea of how many women like chess, or put effort in it, compared to men. I'm not sure if the politically incorrect explanations is that women have different interests, or that have a lower variance and are thus underrepresented at both ends of the distribution (both seem plausible to me), but to have this kind of disparty in numbers at the top the top the difference in numbers would have to be huge. Wikipedia says that there are 1441 Grandmasters, of which just 31 are women. If the distributions were identical, it would mean that chess is 45 times more popular in men than in women.

Saint Louis looks really nice, by the way. Thumbs up Tyler and sorry for the statistical rambling.


“St. Louis looks really nice...”

My adopted hometown gets so much mud slung its way that this... thank you. There is much that is good here.

>if the distributions are normal with same average and variance

What do you mean by "if", citizen?

@Mike The claim is that the distribution of men’s and women’s chess playing ability is identical, but because there are just a lot more men playing chess than women this explains the men dominating the rankings at the very top. Looking at the FIDE rating list ( players with a chess rating). There are 260.1K men and 30.6 K women, a ratio of men to women of 8.75. If the distributions were identical you could closely approximate the women’s distribution by simply starting from the men’s distribution and randomly removing ~9 out 10 entries from the men’s distribution.

After doing this, you would find that ~ the top 11 women would have ratings that are within the top 100 rating interval of the men’s distribution. In fact there’s only one (Hou Yifan) who is ranked 96th overall. More telling is that Hou Yifan is itself an outlier among the women . There is is a gap of 86 ELO rating points between her and the second woman. She is significantly better than the rest of the women. The second highest rated woman Ju Wenjun of China ( currently rated 2567.9) would be ranked #405 on the Men’s list. Claim rejected //QED

What are the odds the two highest women are Chinese and what does this mean for the West?

@Charbes A. The probability based on population is about 4 %, but it’s not very meaningful because population is only one of many factors. China and India are up and coming in chess. Probably the internet allowed more people to play games and find instruction for free but in China it’s also encouraged and sponsored at the state level. Some countries have historical ties to chess and encourage it through school chess programs ( Armenia for example) or state sponsorships and programs. Some countries don't play much chess ( e.g.Japan: they play Shogi). During the communist era, The Soviet Union was the dominant chess country, chess was a national sport but China was nowhere ( Probably Mao thought the game bourgeois, decadent and reactionary 😉) It’s popular in Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Hungary, Armenia are strong. Its’s much more popular in Norway now because of Carlsen.

I think it’s not that different from any sport in that respect. Take soccer in Germany, they have excellent talent developing programs for youth where talented youngsters starting at 11 can go to special schools where they get top soccer instruction every day ( for free) and also continue their studies. Basically if you have talent your talent is spotted early , nurtured and your path to the top level is smoothed out. As a result it’s hard if you are a kid in Germany with a talent in soccer to be overlooked and not be offered sophisticated coaching and help. The results show impressively at the national level. Chess is similar. Make the game popular, the playing base broad, spot the talent, help the talented ones with expert coaching methods and you can get world class results.

What on earth makes Hou harder to spell than Carlsen?

The answer is not PC. Women have the same mean IQ, but a lower standard deviation. Their distribution is bunched tighter. So you get more very smart men and more dumb men. Same if you look at Nobel prize winners in Physics or medal Field winners. It’s definitely dominated by men. You might also notice that for Nobel prize winners in Physics, the Askenazi Jews are way over represented.

Meant as reply to @Massimo

The Fall 2017 issue of Mankind Quarterly was on this topic. The lead article said men's mean = 102, SD = 16, women 98 and 14.

And it apparently turns out that most tests show equal means because they are normed to reach that result, since it was always assumed to be the case.

Not "assumed" to be the case. It was thought desirable to advance boys and girls equally in grade school classes, so the measure was designed to get that result. It was not thought desirable for PC reasons, as far as I know, but for social ones. So you use numbers of verbal and math questions to get that result. That's legit.

What about "g"? Is it equal between sexes?

"I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them. All at once, I learned when each had died, and which of the few remained alive."

Chess doesn't kill people. Kings and knights kill people. Bishops pray for their souls.

OK that's a quality comment Thiago.

To talk about chess without mention of the "Kreutzer" Sonata is foolhardy. As was once written, "‘Count Tolstoi, who is now staying at St Petersburg, is said to be devoting himself enthusiastically to the study of chess. It is reported that he and his wife and children are playing as if their lives depended on the results. The tables in the various rooms are marked out as chess boards, and the dogs and other pets are named after the chess pieces. This sort of thing of course cannot last.’

Beethoven’s adagio puts forth a notion of duality that can be found in the dialogue between Socrates and his student Plato. The andante jests at that notion, and the presto throws sex into it. Tolstoy, then, tightens the rack to the limit…as Plato’s student Aristotle did with math.

I meant haircut, the presto trims the hair!

I am not Thiago. I am myself.


Pretty odd not to allow that Queens kill people too.

And why won’t you ever reveal your approximate chess rating Tyler? A little embarrassed sir?

The most rudimentary of google searches would tell you that he was a very strong and highly rated player as a young man. You embarrass yourself.

Google search says his highest ELO was 2230.

To play chess is a sign of a gentleman, to play chess well is a sign of a life wasted.

It was my understanding that the definition of a gentleman was someone who could play the accordion, but doesn't

Mencken: A gentleman is one who never strikes a woman without provocation.

"The game is now played in more than one hundred of the local schools." I suspect that that doesn't mean what it says. I suspect it means that in >100 local schools chess games have been institutionalised under the eagle eye of teachers.

At my school when we got older we mostly stopped playing chess and took up variants of whist, contract bridge being the favourite.

What, no cribbage?

That too, but not much for the ex-chess players. It did suit apprentice old-geezer-in-the-pub types.

St. Louis guy here - I think it means that there are active chess clubs in 100 local schools (I was surprised the number was so low, but have never looked up or approximated the number of schools in the area, so I’m not sure why I was surprised).

My youngest son (8 years old) was in his first tournament today, and did quite well (says papa) - something like 30% of students in the school play as part of the club. Two elder
brothers with the opportunity did not, so we’re about average on participation.

The kids think it’s fun, coaches are volunteers.

It’s a thing here, especially, though not exclusively, for the brainy kids.

Pfffst. “Contact Brifge”...

When I was a teen, we played “FULL contact Bridge”.

fascinating post! certainly really thought-provoking :)

It's unfortunate that there's not even one major business hall of fame (widely recognized with a significant physical museum). Perhaps the Forbes 400 is supposed to suffice, but it's no wonder that a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company is less likely to have a Wikipedia entry than a guest star on Gilligan's Island.

Nozick's philosophy isn't only extremely well reasoned, it is also very well written.
It looks like his utopia might have finally found some people to man its barricades, at least in spirit, if not consciously.

Bonus trivia, as Ray Lopez, who like Tyler has/had an ELO rating better than I ever had - the top five non chess professionals who were the best chess players in the Western world from the 30s on -

1. Edward Plunkett

2. Marcel DuChamp

3. That guy who beat Bobby Fischer off piste not once, not twice, but three times( off piste means not at a chess club) in Brooklyn in the 50s and whose name Fisher never revealed (my fictional cousin Mark? maybe)

4. the philosopher Max Black

5. the novelist and poetaster Samuel Beckett

Lots of other famous people who dabbled in chess did not really understand the game. Did Bogart, at 1600, understand chess at more than a talented teenager's level? Probably not. Max Black was disappointed in the low level of his fellow Cornell professor Nabokov's play, although one can understand the Russian professor's enjoyment of the rules of the game, and Asimov and Kubrick and the other better-known celebrity gaulfiers and ghibbisti were not, as far as I know, even amusing in their earnest mistakes - but I could be wrong .....

"will little Brainy Bobby be the stockbroker man will Heather find a job that won't interfere with her tan" - Vitamin C

Vitamin C asked, on graduation day, a question not completely related to the question of whether or not the chess club had done well or would do well in the future:

"will little Brainy Bobby be the stockbroker man will Heather find a job that won't interfere with her tan?"

(for the record, never letting Bob know my cousin was a better chess player than Fischer, not once or twice but three times, I helped him find a mate - oh by the way it is an understatement to say he became the stockbroker man - he was the lead lawyer, before he was 40, for one of those guys who are in the top 100 billionaires of the world because - in that case - the billionaire in question understood the Manhattan stock and bond market like, really well.
As for Heather, we all have hobbies, and she not only found a job that would let her pursue such hobbies, but she married - of all people - my best friend Josh. I was his best man. Good times.)

And I - I gave away my mint copies of the Ballantine Fantasy label paperbacks in the early 80s to the local Good Will Store (an hour's drive from San Francisco). Over the hills and far away, indeed. Well, I almost taught two not very large dogs to talk, once, and I gave Mark a couple hints, back in the day, that made him a better chess player. And there was that day at Burger King where I was told that I obviously knew what it takes to keep the floor clean. (after I had given the hints to the better chess player than Fischer, life is funny that way)

there were easy words - walk, yes, now, one two, one two - and the verbs were (although all in the present or subjunctive tense - me too, me too) fairly easy as well. I did not have the heart to ask them to learn to many nouns: after all, we were friends, and we wanted the same things (suppertime, nap time, water, running, jumping, remembering, not forgetting, meeting again after such a long time, the smile that one can not help but express when one wants that which is good for whomever one is with at the time)

Dutch Defense, Dutch Defense, King's Indian Defense. Unrecorded. Off piste.

Mark was good with over-enthusiastic competitors. I lived in the present and subjunctive tense and so my memories are not what they should be. Just kidding, of course.

Smyslov Geller 1955 was close

for a dog any time apart is a long time. in case you didn't know

I was rooting for Geller but Smyslov won fair and square, as far as I know

This is much better than Mc.

Well Mc will probably never like me but someday Mc too may do this: say, in fact, this - people say the internet is a big place and maybe it is but what for the love of God inspires anyone to say something like this:
no matter how big the internet is I tried to bring it down to human size by explaining, on a rare day that does not occur often (astronomical numbers were my milk and bread from my early youth!) that there was a drama there back in '55 (I could write a screenplay but Heath Ledger (Smislov) and Ralph Richardson (Geller) are no longer available so I decline to bother): in all the vast territories of the English-language internet, somebody had to say - Smysolv won fair and square, as far as I know.

But Geller - Geller was the guy whom only Ralph Richardson could play. Maybe Alan Rickman if he dieted more than he wants to. Both gone

1955 I remember

Proverbs 8

cor ad cor loquitur

Geller died in 1998, Smislov in 2010, Richardson (who would have played Geller in my movie) in 1983, all aged more than 70. God is often generous in the number of days he gives us. Rickman, my first choice to play Smislov, died in 2016 a few weeks short of his 70th birthday, and Heath Ledger, my other first choice, died (in 2010, I think) at a young age.

Lots of people say lots of things on the internet. Let me say this (please). Let's remember, for a moment, Geller and Richardson and Rickman and Smislov and Ledger, and let us be happy for those who were fortunate enough to love them in this life. I remember the weather when all of them were young - really I do, I don't need to describe it (you can find very good descriptions of weather in so many places!) - and when they and their wives and friends and family had, now and then, days of transcendent happiness - when that happened, I remember those days, too, although none of us knew each other. (Maybe, by 1974, I was a friend of a friend of Geller's - but just maybe, I am not sure). Try and remember, too.

i am actually very humble and only put this effort in to amuse some and to help others know they are remembered

I remember Judy, I told you I would remember and I remember

We laughed.

Lermontov said: we live on novelty, so much less demanding than commitment

But you remember and I remember, Judy.

God bless Lermontov anyway I have memorized so much of his poetry

Well, I realized I was getting on in years when I read that Mark Diesen had died a few years back. He had been a force in the DC chess scene at the time I was active in tournaments in that area.

“If you see a Slavic-looking face walking down this street, you simply assume it is a chess player.”

Not an outrageous assumption, but keep in mind that St. Louis has one of the largest expat Bosnian populations in the world, and also that the Chess Hall is close to a major medical center and the tech district in the city, both of which might also account for Eastern European faces walking the street.

Still, there are also a lot of Slavic-native chess players in the US, and a whole bunch can probably be found in the near vicinity of the Chess Hall on any given day.

I’d go 50:50.

>In this world, rating matters more than race or gender or age.

Now, why would he mention this obvious fact? Just to tell Democrats that this place is not for them?

Cowen: "I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them." What is it about chess that attracts so many highly intelligent but eccentric and socially undeveloped young men (yes, mostly men), who often end up alone and obscurity? Cowen's depiction of the chess club reminds me of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a 1993 film that is not about Bobby Fischer - it's about a child chess prodigy, the real life Joshua Waitzkin. The character in the film played by Laurence Fishburne, a speed chess hustler in Washington Square Park who greatly influenced the film's central character, is alone worth seeing the film. Him, and the contrasting strict instructor played by Ben Kingsley. The scenes of the flamboyant Fishburne character hustling in the Park contrast with the scenes of the dour character played by Kingsley in the grim chess club are what stick in the mind. If I were to accidentally walked into the chess club, I'd turn and run as fast as I could. To the Park and the speed chess hustler.

You should look up some of Ben Finegold's lectures to very young students at the St Louis Chess Club. Much like a hustler, he trash-talks the kids constantly and makes obscure (to the kids) pop culture references throughout his talks, which confuses them--and when they ask questions he yells angrily "no talking!" Good stuff.

It used to be corporate sponsorship of chess was fairly common in European countries, Germany for example, compared to the United States. And then of course prior to that there was a kind of vast state sponsorship in the USSR for much of the 20th century. In the United States there is of course the long history of anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter and others' writings about that. What are some of the companies that have sponsorship tournaments in the past? (I've forgotten.) Why was corporate sponsorship become a thing in Europe and not the United States, and why isn't there more of it in both? What sorts of products do chess players and people who like chess tend to buy? Are chess players just too 'calculating' to have strong brand loyalties?

"also a chess-themed restaurant, Kingside Diner, with a King on the men’s room door and a Queen on the women’s room. The facilities are world class and very welcoming for the visitor; I am honored to have been given a personal tour"

Tyler, I don't think this reads the way you intended it to read :P

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