Maria does the broadsheets

8/18/2004 – On August 2nd we published an interview and some moderately daring pictures of Russian WGM Maria Manakova. Two weeks later letters and calls are still coming in, from newspapers and magazines all over the world. If you are not disturbed by partial nudity take a look at these followup stories in the Telegraph and Spiegel

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First of all, just in case you have been on a business trip to the moon or something, here's the original article as it appeared innocuously on August 2nd, just after the Dortmund Super-GM had ended. It contained an interview Maria Manakova had given to the popular Russian magazine MK-Voskresenye and a picture of the woman grandmaster on the cover of Speed magazine, graciously supplied to us by our colleagues in New in Chess. We had cautiously cut off the bottom of the image so as not to offend certain sections of our readership.

But of course offend we did. Dozens of letters protested the sexual content of the interview and the pictures. Typical is a letter from a strong US player (who wishes to remain anonymous with his views): "The latest article on Maria Manakova was the most classless article I've ever seen about chess online. It was unbelievably offensive for so many reasons, and in my opinion it shames the entire ChessBase name to allow such a thing to be printed. The 'sexy chess articles' are simply convoluted attempts to popularize chess. Meanwhile the chessbase.com website seems to glorify such things on a regular basis. It's definitely ok to stir up some excitement for attractive young female players, but you need to be decent and tasteful about it. ChessBase doesn't need to try so hard, it just looks ridiculous, and makes chess look ridiculous as well."

A completely different reaction came from English GM Nigel Short, who writes a weekly chess column for the Sunday Telegraph. Nigel was most amused by the piece and decided to use it in his next story. The column ran as follows [full text here, but you need free registration to reach the page]:

"While browsing the chessbase.com website the other day, I came across a fascinating article on the Women's Grandmaster, Maria Manakova, from the Russian magazine Speed.

Naturally, it was not the cover photo of Maria, in which she seems to have forgotten to wear most of her clothes, that aroused my attention, but her profound answers to the searching interview inside. Asked whether there were any 'real men' among the GMs Kasparov, Kramnik and Karpov, our heroine replied: 'I am attracted to charismatic people. Kasparov definitely takes the lead here... his energy has a great effect on everybody... near him. There is something attractive about Karpov too. But maybe I am a bit perverted? As for Kramnik... he is neither bad nor good... He should have offered Kasparov a re-match. He didn't – he was simply scared. Such men don't interest me.'

Well, there we have it in a nutshell. If we want to pull the babes in the ultimate mating game, we have to be virile and charismatic, not flaccid and cowardly. Unfortunately Kramnik, whose achingly dull chess of recent years has disappointed even his heterosexual male fans, still doesn't seem to have got the message, as his latest dreary performance in Dortmund, Germany, reconfirms. Perhaps, according to some higher cerebral criteria, his draw-festooned path to the final could be viewed as a fine technical accomplishment. Then again, perhaps not. I suspect nobody really gives a damn. It was not attractive chess, that is for sure."

Then, a couple of days later, before the column was due to appear, something very unusual happened. For the first time in the eight years he had been writing for the Telegraph Nigel's editor called to say that there was a serious problem with his piece. But not what you think. Apparently the prestigious London newspaper was reluctant to bury the article in the back pages of the newspaper, but decided to move it to the front. The Telegraph had already set it journalists to track down Manakova and a bevy of chess players and experts. We see the results in a giant half-page story on page three of the main section.


Article on Maria Manakova on page three of the Sunday Telegraph of August 8, 2004


Nigel Short's original column on page 17 of the "Review" section of the newspaper

Naturally the Telegraph had got hold of the original photo of Maria Manakova "partly wrapped in a fur coat that leaves very little to the imagination, smiling suggestively at the camera". Here are some excerpts from the article:

This 30-year-old woman grandmaster has caused a minor sensation in the otherwise stuffy world of chess with a series of raunchy photo shoots for glossy magazines. "Women use their sexuality to promote all kinds of sports," she said last week as she sipped a cup of Earl Grey tea at the fashionable Cafe des Artistes in central Moscow. "Why not chess?"

Her pictures and forthright views have caused a backlash from members of the somewhat staid chess establishment. She was ranked 20 among the world's female players in the 1990s, but only recently began to exploit her looks. In a recent interview she poured scorn on female players in "dirty, baggy trousers", urging them to wear miniskirts instead to attract sponsors. "Enough of begging for money from businessmen and politicians who happen to fall in love with chess to their own misfortune," she argued. "It's time to work for this money, if not with behaviour then at least with appearance." She has studied marketing and journalism and last month agreed a deal with a Russian national television channel to host two shows about "the mysteries of chess".


The Sunday Telegraph included a picture of an earlier women's world champion
contenders Sonja Graf and Vera Menchik (1936)

Natalia Shustayeva, the deputy director of the Russian Chess Federation, noted tartly: "If she manages to attract finance like that it's wonderful, but I'm not sure it will come off." Alexander Roshal, the editor of 64-Chess Review, said that the Russian chess establishment viewed Manakova with extreme skepticism. "She crossed the line that separates chess from vulgarity," he said. One of Britain's leading women chess players, Jovanka Houska, also criticised her for "cheapening" the image of the game. "She could be a far better ambassador for chess than this," she said between games at the British Chess Championships in Scarborough. "You shouldn't need to take your clothes off to get publicity. It's a cheap shot to grab attention."

There was support, however, from Nigel Short, the Commonwealth champion and The Telegraph's chess columnist, who said he believed that the game's image needed a boost. "The stereotypical image of a chess player is a nerdy guy, but Manakova reminds people that they are not all like that," he said. "The chess world comprises all types, including some very attractive women. Whatever attracts people to the game must be good. Why should it be that chess is the only aspect of human life which doesn't contain sex?"

  • You can read the full article on the Sunday Telegraph web site. Registration is required, but this is painless and gives you access to three excellent chess columns (by Nigel Short, David Norwood and Malcolm Pein).

 

This week we opened the Spiegel, one of the most influential political news magazines in Europe. And there she is again, in full glossy colour, with the quotes by Roshal and Houska which were in the Telegraph article.

In addition the Spiegel spoke to Germany's top woman player, WGM Elisabeth Pähtz. "I wouldn't do that myself," Elisabeth said, "but if Manakova's undressing helps chess, why not?"

The messages and phone calls have not stopped, from editors and news programs around the globe. This week we were contacted by a radio show and newspaper in London, the New York Post, magazines in Paris and Milan, even an Asian chess magazine which sought the original photo of Manakova for the cover of their next issue.

We will return to the subject of Beautiful Women in Chess and the reaction of readers to our reports in the near future. We also (unrepentantly) thank Denis Markov for drawing our attention to the original interview and the activities of Maria Manakova.


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