The Middlegame: The struggles behind a queen’s gambit

Female athletes have long struggled for a level playing field in Philippine sports. They battle with constantly reinforced inequalities, tying them down to notions of being “babae lang (just a woman).” 

Even for a board game like chess, which does not mainly require the physical strength claimed to be more present in men, discrimination persists. Filipina Women International Master (WIM) Cathy Secopito believes this to be true.

Cathy is the assistant coach of the UP Varsity Chess Team (UPVCT) and a former member of the national chess squad from 2005 to 2021. She recalled gender disparities in chess tournaments brought by the lack of opportunities given to women by the federation itself.

“Bakit ang ipapadala niyo [sa tournaments] ang daming mga lalaki? Bakit sa national team, walo lang kaming sumasahod [na babae]?” she told TNP. Cathy mentioned the presence of more male champions as a vital factor that influences the gap between the number of men who compete in major tournaments than women. 

To advance in the sport, male and female masters often compete in gender-segregated tournaments, which are not regulated by the same rules. 

The International Chess Federation (FIDE), which governs international chess competitions, recorded nearly four thousand International Masters (IMs) in 2020. This title is given to players who achieved at least a 2400 FIDE rating, along with high-rating performances in tournaments that qualify for the required title norms.

The federation also gives a WIM title for women. It is the second highest-ranking FIDE title with lower requirements than the IM title.

There were 846 international WIMs in 2020. From this number, around 10 are Filipinos.

In 2021, FIDE listed over 1,700 grandmasters (GMs) — the highest title given to chess players worldwide. To date, only 39 GMs are female.

Meanwhile, the highest-ranking title exclusive for women is the Woman Grandmaster (WGM). Its requirements, which include a FIDE rating of 2300, are also lower than that of the unrestricted IM title. Currently, Janelle Mae Frayna is the only Filipina WGM as of writing. 

Cathy shared the hopelessness she and her co-female players felt when playing for the Philippine team. Unfortunately, Cathy said the federation always fails to act on their calls for equal opportunities.

According to Cathy, the disparity between male and female players has long persisted in the national and professional chess scenes.

These female players are established achievers in the sport, but their journey in the male-dominated world of chess has not been easy. 

The opening

Cathy started learning chess at 12 — around the age when other players start their way to becoming grandmasters.

It was her father who taught her how to play. He stumbled upon Cathy playing dama, a local board game similar to chess. Less than a year later, her classmate pushed her to be their section’s representative in their intramurals and from there, she began to show the world what she had to offer.

However, her opening gambit in competitive chess was not welcomed with open arms, especially by male players. Cathy said she felt underestimated by male players who attempt to impress with quick moves, despite the importance of strategic planning in the sport.

“Minsan bibilisan ang tira … Parang [sinasabi nila]: ‘Ang dali lang talunin eh, edi bilisan,’ which is so unnatural sa chess kasi kailangan mo nga mag-isip eh,” she told TNP.

Sometimes, when standing beside male players who were going through competition pairings, she would overhear them saying “Ah, eto kalaban ko — babae.”

But despite discouraging remarks from her male opponents, Cathy found inspiration in Judit Polgar, a renowned Olympian and Hungarian GM whom she ardently watched growing up.

For her, Judit, youngest of the chess-playing Polgar sisters, embodied empowerment in chess, as she constantly proved women’s capabilities by not joining gender-exclusive tournaments and played against only men. 

Cathy also said she resonates with the eldest Susan, who sarcastically said, “I have never beaten a completely healthy man!” as most, if not all, of her unsuccessful male opponents would argue that they were suffering headaches or other health issues.

This was also the case for UPVCT athlete Jeeann Barry — who was also introduced to the sport by her father. She has defeated opponents who used their health as an excuse.

“When I beat [a] male chess player, most of them or their friends around them will say derisive comments like, ‘Sakit kasi ng ulo ko, nahihilo ako’ or ’Na-distract ka ata kasi maganda kalaban,’ Jeeann recalled.

She believes that female players like her are never acknowledged for their skills. When they succeed, it is merely viewed as an “easy win.” 

“Sexism and misogynistic remarks are still prevalent in the chess community, and sadly, most male chess player[s] act like it’s normal behavior for them,she said.

Jeeann said such belittling burdens her to exert twice as much effort compared to her male counterparts. 

The isolated pawns

Through the years, both cultural and social factors isolated female chess players. These are often established by institutions and systems that women grow up in, which put them at a cramped position, and men in an open position to move forward.

WIM Jodi Fronda, who coaches the De La Salle Santiago Zobel Juniors’ chess team, remembers how there were more tournaments for boys during her teenage years. 

By 12, she placed fourth during the Battle of the Grandmasters — a competition held to select and boost members of the Philippine chess team. The prize pool for female players then was only around P100,000, while it was P250,000 for male players.

It was the first time Jodi realized: Ah ganito pala, talagang hindi magiging patas ang girl sa boy.

In 2008, Cathy also joined a national chess tourney that awarded P300,000 to men, while only allotting a fifth of the price for women — P60,000. 

Bakit yung prizes namin mas maliit kumpara sa lalaki?” she told TNP. 

In recent years, however, she noted how this gap gradually shrunk. A female chess player can now win nearly half of what men earn in a single competition. Maroon coach Cathy is now a professional player after retiring from the national team in 2021. 

Meanwhile, Jodi is currently one of the national squad’s oldest active female members. She told TNP that her road to the team was a waiting game, since there were fewer slots allotted for women in her time.

Jodi believes that this may have been influenced by the history of women’s entrance into the sport. In the 90s, Jodi said that there were often only a few female chess players competing in the Olympiad — sometimes even none

At the time, a women’s division did not exist for the national chess team. But when the women’s league was formed, the discrepancy in numbers with the men’s team was immediately apparent: for every six male members, there were only two females. The pattern remained as membership numbers grew.

Amid the gender-tied struggles, Jodi believes female players like her may find themselves asking, Why don’t you find another track?

The adjournment 

Female players Cathy, Jodi and Jeeann — all introduced to the sport by their fathers — prove that the problem of showcasing women’s potential in the sport lies in male-dominated institutions and systems, not in human biology. 

Still, these female players refuse to halt their campaign.

“I believe underrepresented lang yung mga babae … pero when it comes to strength, kayang lumaban ng babae,” Cathy said.

Within the national team, there have also been recent efforts to give more opportunities for women in chess. Jodi is thankful for GM Jayson Gonzales, Philippine women’s chess team coach, because Jodi said “siya ang nagtatayo ng bandera ng mga kababaihan ngayon.” 

Jodi said Gonzales has launched intensive training and proposed numerous events for the squad.

Meanwhile, Cathy acknowledged a groundbreaking development in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines — the formation of an all-female team in the junior ranks. Although UP has yet to form its own team, Cathy lauded this welcome development which allows more female players to enter the sport.

As efforts to make women’s chess more accessible continue to emerge, the UP coach hopes for a proactive community that can focus on grassroots development.

Similar to the programs in their pro team, Cathy believes that free clinics and simulations with schools could encourage more children to grow in the sport. She also hopes that local organizations provide more support for female players so that more women could be given exposure, or join the national pool to boost their chances of advancing their rank.

“I hope that more initiatives from governing bodies and sports programs will push to make the sport more welcoming … for female players,” said Jeeann. “I also look forward to a future when male chess players look at female chess as worthy and capable opponents.”

Chess players across the globe have already made opening moves in their match for visibility. However, they are still in the middlegame, carefully thinking of favorable plays to reach the goal.

Little by little, women are becoming more visible in the sport and are carving spaces in the male-dominated sphere. Much like a pawn reaching the chess board’s edge, there is hope to become a queen.

“Modern days na, dapat equal na talaga to give [women] the opportunity. They deserve to represent, to play equally,” Jodi said. “Let her play kung kaya niya.”

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