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Basketball, like soccer or golf, is a sport where women and men compete in separate leagues. But even in the world of chess, there's a sharp gender divide. Sean Phillips, our technical director and self-described chess nerd, went to the U.S. Women's Chess Championship last month to find out why.

SEAN PHILLIPS: The pieces fly in a game of speed chess. It's a way for fans to keep busy until the start of the final round. The site, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

It's no run-of-the-mill chess club but a palace with a designer black and white interior, carved tables with inlaid rosewood boards and a fleet of big screens looming like Jumbotrons. And everyone there is about to witness a true force of nature.

(Soundbite of thunderstorm)

PHILLIPS: No, I'm not talking about the storm that drenched the arriving players but about international master Irina Krush.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, not at all. And Irina has just played rook to C6.

PHILLIPS: Krush, and yes, that really is her name, stormed through the field without a single loss.

Unidentified Woman #1: And the U.S. Women's Championship is over. Irina Krush is the champion for the third time. Congratulations to Irina.

(Soundbite of applause)

PHILLIPS: Women's chess can be a touchy subject because chess is a sport of the mind. And while it might be okay to say women aren't as muscular as men, it's clearly offensive to say they aren't as smart.

The International Chess Federation ranks the world's players and also awards them titles. The two most difficult to earn, grandmaster and international master, are open to anybody. But below them is woman grandmaster. Irina Krush holds that title but doesn't use it anymore.

Ms. IRINA KRUSH (International Master of Chess): I just don't see the point of having these separate women's titles. I'm not sure what they indicate. Women can play with men. They do play with men now. They can earn the same titles as men.

PHILLIPS: Women have been allowed to compete with men at the top events since the late '80s, but there's still a big performance gap. In the most recent list of the top 100 chess players, only one was a woman. International Master Matt Shankland says women-only titles and tournaments add to the problem.

Mr. MATT SHANKLAND (International Master of Chess): For women to actually make marks in the chess world, I think we need to have some women really get toward the top. And for that to happen, they need to have to jump through all the same hoops that men do, because if they just get, you know, free cookies now and then, they don't have as much incentive to improve.

PHILLIPS: A blunt argument. Do away with women's titles, tournaments and the associated prize funds, and women will have no choice but to improve.

Ms. JUDIT POLGAR (Grandmaster of Chess): I always say that women should have the self-confidence that they are able to be as good as other male players and to reach the highest level but only if they are willing to work and take it seriously as much as male player does.

PHILLIPS: That's grandmaster Judit Polgar, by far the strongest female chess player in history. She's the only woman to ever beat Garry Kasparov, the only woman to reach the top 10 on the mixed-gender list and could easily be women's world champion, but she never plays in women's events.

Ms. POLGAR: Many other girls, they don't focus on chess so much. Their ambition most of the time is to become ladies' world champion. If they would have a higher goal, they would also reach higher.

PHILLIPS: But women's tournaments are crucial, in the opinion of Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women's champ and author of the book "Chess Bitch." She says eliminating them would be disastrous for the developing cadre of female chess pros.

Ms. JENNIFER SHAHADE (Author, "Chess Bitch"): Because all the tournaments that were basically the way for them to make a living would be canceled. So they'd just get other jobs and stop playing chess.

PHILLIPS: At the closing ceremony in St. Louis, Irina Krush was awarded $16,000 for winning the U.S. Women's Championship. That's less than half the prize collected by the male winner of the overall championship, but it's enough that she can devote her time to chess and stay a role model for a new generation of girls.

And Jean Hoffman, who co-founded the chess outreach group 9 Queens, says that if enough girls take up chess, it could have a big impact on the gender gap.

She cites research published in the journal Psychological Science that shows when girls aren't outnumbered, they play just as well as boys.

Ms. JEAN HOFFMAN (Co-founder, 9 Queens): And so if we can somehow create these competitive environments where they are competing and they're continuing to compete as adults, as women, then you could really see some changes at the upper levels too.

PHILLIPS: In the meantime, Hoffman and others have proposed eliminating titles like woman grandmaster while retaining women's tournaments. As Jennifer Shahade put it, there are plenty of women's colleges, but graduates don't hold women's Ph.D.s.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Phillips.

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