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I started competition at age 11, and left at 16
November 25, 2013 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Framed as a letter in words and pictures to Magnus Carlsen, the new World Chess Champion, French comic artist Fanou recalls her experiences as a girl with an interest in chess and all the reasons why she still holds that world at a distance.
posted by Narrative Priorities (46 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was excellent and echoed a conversation I had just the other day. I only wish her handwriting were more legible.

she writes like a boy
posted by 256 at 5:05 PM on November 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


That was great. Good for her, and I hope more women speak out in the chess world. (The world gets changed one world at a time.)
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on November 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


I almost wrote "Jeez, just how much potential does the patriarchy actually deprive us of?" but I'm pretty sure I don't actually want to know.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:38 PM on November 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


I've mentioned this before (like three days ago, even), but the thing that really stood out to me about boys playing chess growing up was that we were ridiculously immature. Like... you'd get jabbed in the ribs randomly by someone, all the way up through high school. How did we not outgrow this sort of thing? It was restricted to chess practice, too--we behaved much more normally the rest of the time. (Okay, I never jabbed anyone in the ribs, but I got jabbed once or twice.) Chess was by far the meanest environment I was in as a kid. I quit in 9th grade and then came back in 10th--I wasn't that good and was tired of being a crappy player in an environment that was all about jockeying for status (even if out of proportion to your actual talent as a player). Nothing I've said is really gendered, but where I grew up, chess certainly selected for people who could put up with a certain type of immaturity (even if they didn't participate), and that could well be gendered.

I only wish her handwriting were more legible.

I think it's standard French handwriting. Not that that enables me to read it easily. Or at all in places.
posted by hoyland at 5:40 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


tractorfeed: I suspect the answer to that is infinite.

I think I'm glad I don't have any "typically male" hobbies after all.

I am so tired of hearing how virtually everything always boils down to guys being assholes towards women.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:41 PM on November 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I could type up a transcript and post it as a comment, if that would be helpful and/or appropriate?
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:48 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can I vote that the rest of this thread we talk about gender-based discrimination and harassment in competitive chess instead of gender stereotypes in writing styles?
posted by not_the_water at 6:02 PM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


I could type up a transcript and post it as a comment, if that would be helpful and/or appropriate?

Depending how long it winds up being when typed out, linking to a pastebin file might be a better choice.
posted by jessamyn at 6:09 PM on November 25, 2013


The image quality seems to be a lot better here
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:11 PM on November 25, 2013


wait, sorry, that link just goes to the first page - if you open each page in it's own window, though, it isn't so choppy-looking
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:13 PM on November 25, 2013


That was beautifully written.

It pains me to think of how often I've seen this pattern, in many worlds that aren't the chess world.

There are a handful of women I follow in various pro video gaming communities, and it kills me to see the non-stop barrage of hurtful misogynist comments directed at them. I know I couldn't handle it, and each time we lose one of these people, I wonder how much this factored in, and regret we didn't do more to stop this. And I fear so much for the next wonderful person we'll lose.

How is it that we don't have social structures for banishing miscreants whose primary contribution is hate? In online contexts, isn't this a technical problem worth solving? Perhaps it's naive of me to think this is so easily solvable, but I can dream...
posted by probu at 6:31 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's a transcript that I quickly typed up, for anyone who wants it. (Apologies for any errors, I didn't have a huge amount of time to do this tonight!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:39 PM on November 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


I am glad that I am old enough to be able to read handwriting/cursive. This was a very sobering read.
posted by nostrada at 6:44 PM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Those kids! Here's 13 year old Pia Cramling vs 13 year old Garry Kasparov - it was a draw.
posted by VikingSword at 6:46 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Particularly well written for someone not writing in their native language.
And what a hard story! Ugh -
posted by From Bklyn at 6:56 PM on November 25, 2013


This was amazing, thanks.
posted by dejah420 at 6:57 PM on November 25, 2013


Nowhere in that narrative do I read anything about her will to win, to smash through her opponent's pawn structure as white, or as black to overcome the tempo disadvantage and crush white into a crying pile of shame. Overall, I would say she simply lacked the heart for it.
posted by Ardiril at 7:25 PM on November 25, 2013


That may or may not be true -- I personally think that her opinions on strategy were outside the scope of the comic she was drawing -- but that doesn't negate the appalling manner in which she was treated by her mentors and her fellow players.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:30 PM on November 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Nothing I've said is really gendered, but where I grew up, chess certainly selected for people who could put up with a certain type of immaturity (even if they didn't participate), and that could well be gendered.

There is this -- but also, the implementation of "immaturity" can be different depending on who's being interacted with.

I played roleplaying games when I was younger, and although I was in a fairly select crowd there was That Guy there -- noticeably immature and yes, very given to things like poking at people and invading their space with objects, things like that. But if Bob sat next to That Guy he'd suddenly find that That Guy was grinning like a fool while slowly migrating his book into Bob's pile, and if I sat next to That Guy I'd suddenly find that That Guy was gazing raptly at me while playing with my hair.

There's a bit of a difference in end-user experience there.
posted by sparktinker at 7:56 PM on November 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


Nowhere in that narrative do I read anything about her will to win, to smash through her opponent's pawn structure as white, or as black to overcome the tempo disadvantage and crush white into a crying pile of shame. Overall, I would say she simply lacked the heart for it.

The girls and the women have to have that much more heart to deal with the idiocy that gets flung at them and them only.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:00 PM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the transcript.

I enjoyed playing chess but I also knew after a certain point, I wasn't interested in being competitive. I was good but only up to a certain point. (And I was among people where where had a NEIGHBORHOOD CHESS TOURNAMENT once so well ...). Mostly, though, it made me feel like there wasn't much point in playing. I was doing it for fun and camaraderie. Others were ...

And that's the way I feel a lot about various board games. I'm happy to have fun and to be competitive. But I don't have it in me to be so cutthroat to win. There are too many games of Risk I've managed to make it to the last two just to lose.

And it may just be my game philosophy doesn't work when it comes to winning. But I think I'm OK with that. I'd love to play chess with people again who are just in it for the fun and not in it for the win.
posted by darksong at 8:03 PM on November 25, 2013


"When faced with a hostile environment it's better to leave before it scars you forever."
Exactly. There's really no healthy reason for someone who's been repeatedly abused to stay in an abusive situation, except maybe to help others escape that situation, but that wouldn't be the outcome here. A woman can't get in a misogynist's head and convince him to act like a human being and treat her like a human being. Better to save herself, she doesn't owe him anything.
posted by bleep at 8:07 PM on November 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


What this has told me is how much of what I was taught - I'm 47 - is sexist.

And, well, I'm sorry for being that. I didn't want to be. I tried not to be. But it was clear that I was taught to be.

But I have a question. When can I say that you're beautiful? When can I say that you're wonderful? I'm not asking to mock. I'm asking because I don't know, and some of you are beautiful, and some of you are wonderful, and almost all of you in those categories are female.

Sincerely. -

Erik.
An Old Guy trying.
posted by eriko at 8:19 PM on November 25, 2013


It's sort of a more complicated topic than a MeFi thread about women and chess can probably sum up simply for you Erik, but it's the sort of thing you could bring up in AskMe or even with the friendly folks in MeFi Chat. Not trying to put you off, just saying the answer is probably more of an ongoing conversation than just a single set of comments.
posted by jessamyn at 8:23 PM on November 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


The men in that story were not genuinely expressing how beautiful and wonderful they thought she was.
posted by bleep at 8:28 PM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


The men in that story were not genuinely expressing how beautiful and wonderful they thought she was.

Also, even if they were -- per the headline, she competed in chess from age 11 to age 16 and per the article she left at age 16 in the wake of one of her chess teachers sexually abusing her.
posted by sparktinker at 8:42 PM on November 25, 2013


Chess often brings out the worst in people. Here's another comic about chess and assholish behavior.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:51 PM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fair enough, Jessamyn -- and thank you, for all of us, for that. For the very confused me, I'll look to those places for answers for me.

As to here? I just hope that some understand that we don't want to be sexist, that we actively try not to be sexist, and yet, thanks to years o f lessons of how to act around other human beings, will act in what are basically sexist ways. I don't mean to be so, hell, I often don't even know when I am doing it, but retrospect, it becomes clear.

I really wish I could stop the 25 year old me from showing up, but he was drilled into me. This is why a nearly 25 year older me wonders.

The men in that story were not expressing how beautiful and wonderful they thought she was.

Um. This is now why I'm completely lost, because, well, I don't have words for how beautiful and wonderful I think she is.
posted by eriko at 9:15 PM on November 25, 2013


Well, eriko, you could start by not hitting on any 13-year-old girls, and also not saying anything to a 13-year-old girl that could easily be misconstrued as hitting on her.

You could continue by considering the context of your interactions with girls and women and asking yourself, "Why is this person here? What kind of compliments would she appreciate from me in this context?" If the context is not "date" or "beauty contest" but instead "competitive strategic game" or "intellectual challenge" then chances are a comment on a woman's appearance is not what she is looking for.

If the men she had encountered in the chess world had limited their comments to things like, "You're a BEAUTIFUL strategist -- I never saw that move coming," and "You're a WONDERFUL opponent to play against -- young people like you with such enthusiasm make the game fun again for old fogies like me," then she might still be playing.
posted by BlueJae at 9:57 PM on November 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


Um. This is now why I'm completely lost, because, well, I don't have words for how beautiful and wonderful I think she is.

The question is: are you calling her beautiful/wonderful because you want to make her feel good, or are you calling her beautiful for your own satisfaction? If it's the latter, it seriously doesn't need to be said. You can privately feel and think that she's beautiful, but there's something patronizing and dehumanizing about expressing sentiments about how a woman is beautiful in the way you could call a painting beautiful. And not even that, but she's probably heard it a billion times over and over again, most of the time in the most in sexual, objectifying, or patronizing ways - as her artwork expresses. She knows that men see her in this light. There's not a single day she gets away without someone reminding her of that fact. You don't need to be the next reminder in a chain of thousands upon thousands.

But if you genuinely do want to relay a compliment that would make her feel good, general rules of thumb that would land you on the safer side would be: make it specific and appropriate to the context, focus on her achievements rather than looks, and don't linger on the compliment or expect anything in return for the compliment. In this circumstance, there's no shortage of things to compliment her for. The depth of her reflection and writing is obviously brilliant. Her art is fantastic and has a humane feel to it. She's rather courageous for speaking out in an environment that actively generates harassment of women who do so. In light of all of that, it feels weird that the default compliment is "beautiful", which means nothing and says nothing except "thanks for being here."
posted by Conspire at 9:57 PM on November 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


From the transcript:
By the time I reached 13, a year after you did, comments of another nature arose:
...
I remember a player whose remarks were so rude I resigned the game to escape his jokes on my hair, face, chest.
...
... made blatant come-ons during analysis after?


Further on:
The worst had yet to come, though: at age 16, I was sexually abused by one of my club's teachers, someone I trusted and respected.

If I called up my father, who is nearly 70, and asked him what he thought of a 25-year-old man making "blatant come-ons" to a 13-year-old girl, he would be very clear about what the problem was and have several ideas about possible solutions. Some of them would even be legal.

Granted that Dad does text me from his iPhone and all, so he's managed to keep up on the curve pretty well, but somehow I'm thinking that hapless confusion on this point is not the invariable result of oh woe the tiems they change so fast.
posted by sparktinker at 10:58 PM on November 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Nowhere in that narrative do I read anything about her will to win, to smash through her opponent's pawn structure as white, or as black to overcome the tempo disadvantage and crush white into a crying pile of shame. Overall, I would say she simply lacked the heart for it.

The idea that this mindset, and this mindset only is what defines a competitive spirit or a will to win, is itself an enormous part of the very problem we're discussing right here. It's not enough for women to train hard and play well, they have to make sure that every tiny detail of the ways they act, dress, talk, walk, etc. conforms to some previously-defined version of what a "real" chess player is like (substitute mathematician, politician, leader, doctor, geek... you get the picture). I've done this myself as a woman working in a math field. It's exhausting and truly takes away from your ability to just do what you came to do, the way that men are able to without being interrogated on whether their intentions are pure enough, on whether they are a "real" member of their chosen community.
posted by augustimagination at 11:05 PM on November 25, 2013 [15 favorites]


As a father of a seven year old girl who is very mathematical and just starting to learn chess, I find this incredibly truthful, real, and depressing. If anyone has any positive stories / role models for being a female chess player - or suggestions for supporting such a child through the inevitable patriarchal crap she will have to deal with, and probably already is - that would be much appreciated. Thanks.
posted by iotic at 11:25 PM on November 25, 2013


tiny detail of the ways they act,

I see your point, but competitive spirit is not "a tiny detail". In fairness, we'll never know whether she didn't have the competitive spirit to begin with, or whether those terrible experiences knocked it out of her.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:26 AM on November 26, 2013


I wasn't framing 'competitive spirit' itself as a tiny detail, but trying to talk about the myriad assumptions we make about just what constitutes these broader qualities that are deemed essential for the community to recognize players as 'legitimate'. I'm skeptical of the idea that there's one right way to have/express a 'competitive spirit'. Moreover, I'm suspicious that this type of behavior- and intention-policing within male-dominated fields enforces the entrenched gender stereotypes about constructs like competitiveness, which just goes on to reinforce the overarching idea that women don't belong. Which, in turn, helps normalize the treatment of the women who are there as novelties and jokes rather than as other human beings.
posted by augustimagination at 12:56 AM on November 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've gone to tournaments with an attractive female friend. It was really eye-opening seeing how constant was the nerd-leering etc.
posted by thelonius at 3:38 AM on November 26, 2013


Also, even if they were -- per the headline, she competed in chess from age 11 to age 16 and per the article she left at age 16 in the wake of one of her chess teachers sexually abusing her.

This really bears repeating. If you think that her love of the game or competitive spirit or whatever should have carried on through a little thing like sexual abuse from her own teacher, then I have no polite words for you.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:10 AM on November 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


How is it that we don't have social structures for banishing miscreants whose primary contribution is hate?

Someone decided that duelling over points of honor wasn't socially acceptable would be my hypothesis.
posted by mikelieman at 4:30 AM on November 26, 2013


Doesn't the act of playing competitive anything for 5 years indicate competitive spirit? Not many children are forced to play chess.
posted by bleep at 4:42 AM on November 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The derail about her 'lack' of competitive spirit reads like victim blaming. She was writing about the misogynous environment around chess, not about chess itself. When (association) football players point out racism in football grounds, they don't mention dribbles and crosses, yet these people who play at the top flight obviously don't lack competitive spirit. Enduring abuse does not show competitive spirit and I'm glad she wrote her story.

Should a girl be able to enjoy a game of chess without being harassed? If your* answer isn't a clear yes, it might be time to have a long, hard think.

*general you.
posted by ersatz at 6:09 AM on November 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Maybe I'm in the minority here, but Ardiril's comment on "competitive spirit" struck me as sarcasm/jest.

In any case, an interesting read.
posted by permiechickie at 6:54 AM on November 26, 2013


Nowhere in that narrative do I read anything about her will to win, to smash through her opponent's pawn structure as white, or as black to overcome the tempo disadvantage and crush white into a crying pile of shame. Overall, I would say she simply lacked the heart for it.


This is either really misplaced sarcasm or really offensive. A comic about how she left chess because of massive harassment issues doesn't discuss things that aren't about harassment.

As to here? I just hope that some understand that we don't want to be sexist, that we actively try not to be sexist, and yet, thanks to years o f lessons of how to act around other human beings, will act in what are basically sexist ways. I don't mean to be so, hell, I often don't even know when I am doing it, but retrospect, it becomes clear.

A really quick primer: are you commenting on her looks if you are at a non-looks based event? Inappropriate. Are you telling her you'd like to sleep with her? Inappropriate.
posted by jeather at 7:00 AM on November 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The other thing re aggressiveness is that it's not about whether competitive spirit is a tiny detail, it's that Bob the Baduk Player, for instance, doesn't necessarily have to mention his desire for his enemies' entrails in an article that's not about his approach to the game -- he's more likely to be assumed to have it without the need to explicitly mention it. Hence, he's not called on as much to be cautious that every tiny detail of his behavior is impeccable with regard to a (likely shifting) Platonic ideal of a player in order to be taken seriously.
posted by sparktinker at 8:05 AM on November 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even if she doesn't have a hugely competitive spirit who cares? Shouldn't women be able to participate at all levels without being harassed? They shouldn't have to be exceptional to participate.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:35 AM on November 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Even if she doesn't have a hugely competitive spirit who cares? Shouldn't women be able to participate at all levels without being harassed? They shouldn't have to be exceptional to participate.

Yes. Exactly this.
posted by augustimagination at 8:58 AM on November 26, 2013


I was never super serious, but I also quit playing chess when I was maybe 11 or so, then briefly picked up again in my 20s and abandoned it pretty soon after I realized that, working in tech, the last thing I needed was more sausage parties in my life.

Apart from the immediate out of line comments and behaviors, there's just a constant, low level grunching. Mostly benign, well intentioned comments and actions that contribute to a constant state of self consciousness. To the point that almost every time you get really wrapped up in a problem or a pursuit or something, someone plucks you out of it by interjecting some comment about their perceptions of your appearance or demeanor. So much so that it becomes a constant presence, this idea that people are watching you and forming opinions about how you look and how you behave no matter what you happen to be doing. Most discrete incidents aren't inexcusably rude, but cumulatively, they drag you down and they mess with your ability to concentrate on the things you want to concentrate on. It seems like every time you start to hit a groove, working on some problem or another, someone interrupts to tell you what you look like doing it, reminding you to always be self conscious and thinking about other people's perceptions. To the point that even when it's not actually happening, even when you're alone, those thoughts just live in your head.

When it comes down to it, I think that the one thing I envy most about men is their unselfconsciousness. Just being able to go through life doing things without thinking about what they look like doing those things and how someone else might be perceiving them.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:13 AM on November 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


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