On Sexual Harassment in the Chess Community

This article was originally drafted for Women's History Month, but was held pending the results of US Chess' investigation into allegations against GM Alejandro Ramirez. This article is not meant to be a response or reaction to the investigation, and was (for the most part) written prior to and independently of it. Rather, it is intended to kick off an informational series that will address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, with the hope of fostering heightened communal awareness about the insidious effects of sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, and other discriminatory “-isms.” The focus of this article is sexual harassment but look for additional in-depth reports on other relevant topics in the coming months.

When I was an active chess parent, a man in the chess community harassed me. It began innocently enough with occasional friendly Facebook messages, eventually progressing to a few shared meals at tournaments that he insisted on paying for despite my protests. Soon the messages accelerated, becoming increasingly uncomfortable and rife with suggestive comments, “My wife doesn’t understand me” confessions, and eventually, invitations to his hotel room. Once it became clear I wasn’t succumbing to his escalating pressure, he contradictorily accused me of a) misreading his intentions, which implied he wasn’t harassing me; and b) leading him on, which acknowledged that he was — with my “encouragement.” Basically, he blamed me for his actions either way. The problem: to some extent, so did I.

In the immediate aftermath, I automatically jumped on the self-blame bandwagon, wondering what I’d done to mislead him. It took a few years of processing before I finally understood that what I’d faced was, indeed, harassment. For a long time, the experience caused me to doubt my instincts, my way of being in the world — and worse, it robbed me of my overall sense of autonomy, self-respect, and personal safety. In retrospect, I realize the harassment unconsciously marked the end of my active chess parent days as well. My son began traveling to tournaments with other vetted chess parents, in part because I wanted to avoid my harasser. And even though many years have passed, I remain affected by the memory: my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I type these words. I am still angry, and I am still ashamed (and even angrier about feeling shame).

What I learned from my experience is that going public is exceptionally difficult — and I’m not alone in feeling this way. For this article, I originally intended to include a range of first-person stories because I believe in the power of personal narratives. But, in a troubling testament to the insidiousness of harassment, I had difficulty getting people in the chess community to come forward. One person said,

“I don’t want to [talk about the harassment] because it took me a while to get over some things. I’m finally at the place where it doesn’t bother me on the daily so I don’t exactly want to revisit it.”

Which is why — after much hesitation — I decided to share my story, because I also believe that I can’t expect others to step up when I won’t.

So while my tale may seem minor in the larger conversation about harassment, misconduct, and assault, it serves as just one example of the ways such encounters — and fear of societal reprisals — contribute to silencing and shaming victims. In my case, I was a parent on the periphery of the scholastic chess community when I was harassed. It was relatively easy for me to step away. I cannot imagine what it feels like to experience harassment as a dedicated player who wants to remain active in the global chess world.


Harassment in the Chess Community

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Sexual harassment also can include generally offensive remarks about gender or sexual identities, such as making inappropriate comments about all transgendered people. It is also important to understand what sexual harassment is not: It is not about physical or sexual attraction. It is about control, coercion, and power. When a former president says, “… she's not my type … in any way, shape, or form,” he’s perpetuating the myth that only “attractive” people can be sexually harassed. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in this perception: in 2021, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that sexual harassment claims are more likely to be believed if the accuser is perceived as prototypically, or conventionally, attractive.

In the chess world — which oftentimes serves as a microcosm of the world at large — harassment does tend to center on women and girls, usually in the form of suggestive or demeaning comments and stares, unsolicited “advice,” invasion of personal space, and unwanted touches (which extends into assault). One vigilant chess father had to intervene several times when adult males would not leave his 11-year-old daughter alone at tournaments. “One of her opponents was pretending to take pictures of the position on the board while the game was in progress, but the tournament director suspected otherwise, told the guy to stop, and called his behavior to my attention,” he recalls. Another time: “This guy was trying to talk to my daughter about enrolling in some sort of chess program. He acted like I was wrong for being upset at him for talking to my daughter, a minor, without my permission. Previously, this guy was offering unsolicited post-mortem analysis to my daughter.”

With the boom in online playing and streaming, harassment now begins with the avatar. One female Twitter user lamented, “It’s not normal that I can’t put my face in my profile photo on a chess website without getting a bunch of requests/harassment.” Another popular female streamer, who asked to remain anonymous, experiences harassment regularly:

“I deal with all kinds of sexist comments on my stream, from people stating that I only have viewers because I’m a woman, or because they find me attractive, and not because my content is good or well-produced or entertaining. In a more serious way, I have been attacked online on Twitter by multiple male titled players who also seek to disparage my content on the basis of my looks, gender, and the fact that I am newer to the game than they are, yet seem to have had more success in growing an audience.”

The same streamer also enjoys participating in over-the-board tournaments, but finds in-person harassment more extreme, to the point where she is wary of attending events alone. “At tournaments I have experienced multiple incidents of inappropriate behavior from men, from being touched inappropriately to having had inappropriate comments made about my appearance. There have been times when I have escalated it and times when I haven’t,” she says, before adding, “I think as a woman in chess, you become used to being a minority and experiencing these microaggressions, some which push uncomfortable boundaries and some which blatantly cross them.”

She continues, “It has made me understand better why more girls drop out of chess. If they are dealing with sexist experiences from a young age then there is no incentive to stay with the game, and it’s safer for them to leave.”

In a March 30th article posted on CNN, WFM Anna Cramling, another popular player and streamer, talks about experiencing harassment as a young girl, and how unwanted comments by men “left her feeling uncomfortable and lonely during tournaments.” When she was 15, she recalls that a tournament official pulled her aside to tell her that she was “distracting the male players” by wearing shorts at a summer tournament. The admonition had a devastating effect on the rest of her tournament:

“I remember going back to the women’s section of the tournament and feeling so embarrassed and guilty that I couldn’t concentrate throughout my whole game — I just wanted to leave.”

“I’ve had weird experiences in the chess world ever since I was a kid,” Cramling says in the article. “From adult men complimenting me at chess tournaments, to receiving DMs from my chess opponents saying things such as ‘I couldn’t stop looking at you’ during our chess game. …it felt weird knowing that someone so much older than me had been thinking about me in that way for so many hours.”

And of course, this article would be remiss if it didn’t address the public allegations against GM Alejandro Ramirez made by US Chess employee WGM Jennifer Shahade. US Chess recently concluded its investigation into the two formal complaints against Ramirez, including Shahade’s, as well as into claims made in the Wall Street Journal article published on March 7, 2023. We released this statement on May 24, 2023, regarding our findings. As per our statement, the primary focus of the investigation was “to determine when US Chess had knowledge of the various allegations and what responsive actions US Chess took.” The independent third-party investigation concluded that US Chess responded appropriately regarding the reports it received about Ramirez’s conduct. Also, as a result of the investigation, the Executive Board voted to ratify Ramirez’s resignation and to permanently ban Ramirez from US Chess membership.

Shahade, in her book Chess Queens, talks about why women and girls are particularly susceptible to harassment and abuse in the insular chess world: “Throughout the chess world, chatter about the looks of the top women players is constant, usually complimentary, but sometimes nasty and invariably inappropriate.” She continues,

“Excessive attention to the looks of female players, especially girls, can bleed into much more nefarious abuse and harassment. It normalizes reducing girls and women to their body parts. ... Some dangers are specifically intense in chess, considering the one-on-one nature of most chess lessons, which are often held in hotels at tournaments.”


Silencing the Victims

Sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault remain among the few crimes where victims are scrutinized as much as the perpetrators. Victim blaming/shaming is too often the default: “What did they do to encourage it? Had they been drinking?” Or, as in Cramling’s case, what she was wearing became the issue, not the men’s behavior. This fear of being blamed or not believed keeps a significant number of victims from reporting sexual harassment. For OTB chess players, the close-knit tournament circuit means that victims most likely will see their harassers at other tournaments — perhaps even be paired with them.

In a 2018 study issued by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, more than three out of four women (77%) and one in three men (34%) said they were victims of verbal sexual harassment, yet only one in 10 women and one in 20 men filed an official complaint or told an authority figure (note that this study did not include non-gendered, transgendered, or other non-binary expressions). According to the Harvard Business Review, many organizations either trivialize sexual harassment or the victim experiences hostility and retaliation for coming forward. Outside of the workplace, victims tend to expect — and often receive — similar judgment from other individuals, family members, or their communities.

Feeling alone and isolated also contributes to victim silence. Within the international chess community, at least 15 female chess players, including minors, had been separately harassed since 2009 via anonymous mail that contained sexually suggestive material such as pornography and used condoms. The harassment only came to light at the 2021 FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss in Latvia — 12 years later — when several female players received these letters at the tournament. GM Valentina Gunina, who had been sent five such envelopes since 2013, told ESPN, “Everyone was so shocked. No one had discussed it, so I thought it was only me.” (emphasis mine)

Similarly, in 2016, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was the first to go public with sexual abuse allegations against Larry Nasser, USA Gymnastics’ (USAG) team doctor. Soon over one hundred women came forward publicly to accuse Nasser, with the numbers eventually swelling to over 300 victims. Although complaints against Nasser dated as far back as 1997, they had been dismissed or ignored until Denhollander’s accusations helped others find the courage to speak out.

Keeping silent about harassment and abuse has repercussions for the victim. If not properly addressed, harassment can lead to anxiety, stress, nervousness, and depression. For chess players who have been harassed, it often means walking away from a game they love. Case in point:

A US Chess member attended a tournament with his college chess team and noticed one of his teammates — the only woman on the team — was distraught after a round, far beyond a lost game. The teammate confessed that her former chess coach, who had sexually abused her, was at the tournament. She was so freaked out that she borrowed the member’s hoodie and tried to pass as male for the rest of the tournament — she even used the men’s restroom. Although the member encouraged his teammate to come forward, she left the team shortly thereafter instead.

As he was relaying this story, the member had a light bulb moment: “Obviously I knew she was upset at the time, but I didn’t make the connection until now that she left chess after this, probably because of this.” The teammate’s tournament history indicates that this was, indeed, her final rated tournament.

Furthermore, silence allows a predator continued unfettered access to other victims.


What US Chess is Doing

In the wake of the USAG scandal, Congress passed theProtecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017.” Among other protections, this act codified the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, as the nation’s safe sport organization independent of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic governing bodies. The Center’s purpose is generally twofold: it gives SafeSport the authority to resolve abuse and misconduct reports throughout U.S. Olympic and Paralympic organizations; and it charges SafeSport with developing and enforcing policies, procedures, and training to prevent abuse and misconduct. It also gives SafeSport oversight in ensuring all U.S. Olympic and Paralympic governing bodies adhere to the Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Polices (MAAPP) that support athlete safety.

While US Chess does not fall within SafeSport’s purview — unless/until chess becomes an Olympic sport — SafeSport offers courses and guidelines that other sports organizations can adapt. US Chess’ Guidelines on Safe Play and Conduct at US Chess National Events(Safe Play), adopted in 2019, is modeled on many of these SafeSport recommendations. Our Safe Play guidelines address sexual misconduct, bullying, hazing, harassment, emotional misconduct, and physical misconduct. They currently apply to all US Chess national events, including those awarded to third-party organizers through the bidding process, and cover players, tournament directors, other event staff, contractors, spectators, and official attendees. The Safe Play guidelines also include a mechanism for reporting violations.

As part of our zero-tolerance commitment to ensuring safe play for all, US Chess has further committed to the following steps:

  • Revising and extending Safe Play policies to include all US Chess sanctioned events.
  • Reviewing all internal policies and procedures, such as coach selection processes and employment practices, as contained in the Employee Handbook.
  • Adopting a training and education program around Safe Play. The training will be a required element for Tournament Director certification at various levels.
  • Developing event communications outlining the Safe Play guidelines and Code of Ethics, specifically identifying prohibited conduct and appointing a contact person for complaints and concerns (this will be specific to each event).
  • Providing resources for minors regarding behavioral expectations.
  • Reviewing our current background screening policies to determine whether and what restrictions to impose on prospective or existing coaches and tournament staff with a record of, for example, crimes involving minors, sexual assaults, and similar offenses.
  • Appointing an advisory group to assist with evolving and implementing changes identified by the independent investigation.
  • Ensuring our members are aware of resources available to them, including the anonymous abuse email and hotline for reporting concerns or complaints.

Additionally, US Chess will continue to focus on change based on feedback received from the public and the chess community, as well as from existing best practices found in other organizations.


What Can I Do?

After the USAG scandal broke out, the organization reviewed and strengthened its policies. But Vince Finaldi, an attorney representing about 300 Nassar survivors in a pending lawsuit, told ABC News that USAG’s efforts alone didn’t “really matter.”

“They had policies and procedures before; they didn’t follow them. They tightened up the policies and procedures, but unless they’re followed, kids are going to be vulnerable and kids are going to get abused,” Finaldi said.

Finaldi’s point is a good one: US Chess can put stronger policies and procedures in place, but we need our members and affiliates to be our allies as well.


If you witness harassment, you can:

  • Create a distraction: Interrupt the incident and give the individual at risk an opportunity to get away. Only do this if you are not putting yourself in danger.
  • Ask directly: Ask the individual being harassed questions such as, “Do you need help?” or “Would you like me to stay with you?” Offer a helping hand, an empathetic ear, and ask how you can best support the individual at risk.
  • Refer to an authority: Bring in an authority figure such as a tournament director, organizer, US Chess staff member, or US Chess-designated ally.
  • Enlist others: If you don’t feel safe stepping in alone, ask a friend or another bystander to help you. There is strength in numbers.
  • Be a witness: If the individual at risk chooses to file a formal report, give them your contact information so you can corroborate the harassment.
  • Talk to the harasser: Ask the harasser questions such as, “Are you aware of how you sounded in that conversation?” Do this only if the situation is safe and you feel confident the harasser won’t get irrationally angry or defensive.

(adapted from RAINN and The New York Times bystander intervention guidelines)


If you are being harassed, you can:

  • Speak out: Tell a trusted friend, family member, tournament director, US Chess staff member, or US Chess-designated ally what happened/is happening.
  • Ask for help: Request whatever support you need to feel safe, such as asking someone to escort you to and from the tournament hall.
  • Write it down: Document as much as you can, such as the date, time, and location of the harassment, what happened, what was said, and who witnessed the behavior. 
  • Keep records: Make copies or take screenshots of any relevant emails, texts, photos, or social posts. 
  • Make it official: Notify local authorities if appropriate.
  • Initiate proceedings: File a Safe Play misconduct report if you decide to pursue a formal investigation through US Chess.
  • Talk to a professional: Find a support group or professional counselor if you need help processing the harassment.

(adapted from The New York Times guidelines)


For those who are being harassed online, the female streamer offers this advice: “With online harassment you can block people and that’s the best thing to do. Reading everything everyone says about you online is also not good for your mental health, so logging off and forgetting about it is really important — engaging with real life and having real-world interactions, and not getting caught up in online drama, is key.”

The chess father whose 11-year-old daughter was harassed is concerned that identifying predatory or harassing behavior can be difficult because “a lot of men approach women and girls [at tournaments] under the guise of being ‘helpful.’” The veneer of “helpfulness” makes it hard to say no, especially for younger players who are taught to respect adults. “Fortunately,” in his daughter’s case, the chess father says “the harassment never escalated to the point where we had to spend a lot of time thinking about it.” He credits vigilant tournament directors who let him know if someone was acting suspiciously.

That vigilance — that allyship — is exactly how we, as a community, can work together to combat harassment.


Final Thoughts

When a victim does speak up, many of us are immediately outraged. But too often our rage is ephemeral. Yes, we may punish the named offender, both legally and in the unforgiving social media sphere. But do we look past that singular incident? Do we convert our rage into creating truly safe spaces? Or do we smugly pat ourselves on the backs for our righteous indignation and wait for another brave soul to step forward so we can get righteously indignant all over again for a brief focused moment in time?

As noted feminist scholar Dr. Sara Ahmed observes in her blog, feministkilljoys, “Too often: sexual harassment is understood as somebody else’s problem. Or if it is recognised [sic] as a problem that problem is located in the body of a harasser, a rogue, whose removal is assumed to remove the problem. The problem remains. And then those who talk about how the problem remains become the problem because they become reminders of that problem. To remind is … to show how sexual harassment becomes a culture; how it works as a network, a web of influences; a set of practices that we are supposed to accept as how things are because that is the way they were.

To dismantle what Ahmed calls the culture of sexual harassment, we must first acknowledge the problem as endemic in our community; second, we must educate; third, we must strengthen policies, implement processes, and develop allyships; and finally (and most importantly), we must offer a safe space to those who might slip away — or who have already slipped away — from a game they love because of harassment. “When you expose a problem, you pose a problem,” Ahmed says, but only by exposing this “problem” can we begin to solve it together. “We should all work to create a safer place for all minorities within this game which is so male dominated,” the female streamer says. That means having zero tolerance for harassment, being mindful when victims speak up, and punishing offenders appropriately. As Cramling says, “Chess trainers, players and especially tournament officials should all set an example to make everyone feel welcome, no matter who they are. Chess is a game for everyone.”

If you are being/have been sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused, or know of someone who needs assistance, here are some resources to aid in recovery and reporting: