Kavalek in Huffington: Women in chess – a few tales (Part 1)

5/7/2012 – Lurking in the background, hiding their identity, they seem mysterious, magical, beautiful. At first they observed the game from a distance, but as centuries went by, women were drawn closer to the chessboard. Still, for ages they could not play chess in public and it took courage and determination to break into the male dominated game. GM Lubomir Kavalek takes a look at some who paved the way.

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Women in Chess: A Few Tales

By GM Lubomir Kavalek

Three Sisters

Women have come a long way since 1555 when the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola finished her famous painting "The Chess Game." Did Anguissola play chess? Her patron was the Spanish King Philip II, who also supported Ruy Lopez de Segura, the priest who gave us the Spanish Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5). Lopez wrote the chess manual Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juago del Axedrez in 1561, six years after Anguissola finished the painting of the three sisters Lucia, Minerva and Europa. Did they meet? Did they discuss chess?

We can observe that the chessboard is set up wrong, with the dark square in the right corner - a common occurrence in today's TV commercials. The youngest Anguissola sister is looking at the misfortune of the one to her left, perhaps already aware that one day she would beat them all. But for the time being, the oldest is the best and she looks to the audience as if waiting for applause. They could be the 16th century answer to the Polgar sisters.


Susan Polgar (right) with her little sisters Sophi (left) and Judit

Marcel and Eve

Some artists can't resist the temptation to show nude women at the chessboard. We have seen paintings of Madame de Remusat playing chess with Napoleon Bonaparte at the Malmaison castle in 1804. On one canvas she is fully dressed; she plays in the nude on another.

In early 1980s I visited Paul and Mary Belin at their monumental estate Evermay, the largest private property in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Once inside, Paul showed me a painting of two naked women smoking and playing chess. He acquired it in Paris. "It was banned from public display," he said. "Do you know why?" Nudity would be too obvious, so I chose chess. "No," said Paul triumphantly." Because they smoked cigarettes!"

Nudity was displayed in Julien Wasser's photo of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with the naked Eve Babitz at the Pasadena Art Museum on October 18, 1963. "I was a naked pawn for art," Babitz confessed in Esquire in 1991. Jennifer Shahade, a former U.S. women's champion and author of Chess Bitch: women in the ultimate intellectual sport, retaliated in 2009. She came to pose at the chessboard fully dressed, but her male opponent was stripped bare.

Lonely and alone

In the 19th century women began to make inroads into chess. Since they were not allowed to play in chess clubs with the male members, they tried to play against each other. Contrary to popular belief, the all-women chess clubs didn't form in New York in 1894 nor in London in 1895, but in Holland in 1847. According to former world champion Max Euwe, the attempt of the brave Dutch ladies lasted only a year.

Some women were able to follow chess because the game was played in their families. One of them, Edith Winter-Wood, composed some 2000 different chess problems during her lifetime, but was hiding under the name Ms. or Mrs. J. W. Baird. Her works were elegant and precise.

She earned first prize for a three-mover published in Hackney Mercury in 1893.

[Event "Mate in three"] [Site "?"] [Date "1893.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Baird, W.J.."] [Black "Hackney Mercury"] [Result "*"] [Annotator "GM Lubomir Kavalek/The Huffington Post"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/8/2k5/2P5/2N5/2N3Q1/3K4 w - - 0 0"] [PlyCount "5"] 1. Qg7 $1 {A beautiful key move, limiting black king's options.} Kc6 (1... Kd6 2. Nb5+ Ke6 3. Ncd4#) (1... Kb6 2. Nb5 Ka6 (2... Kc6 3. Qc7#) 3. Qa7#) (1... Kxc4 2. Qd4+ Kb3 3. Qb4#) 2. c5 $3 Kxc5 3. Qc7# *

Another composer was Mathilda Fagan (1850-1931) from Italy. In 1875, her chess problems appeared in the City of London Chess Magazine. She was also a good over-the-board player. But when Fagan won the tournament in the male-dominated Bombay Sports Club in 1882, she was almost disqualified because she was a women.

Even in 1970 the men were still reluctant to play against women. During the tournament in Wijk aan Zee, one of the best Georgian women, Nana Alexandria, and I were supposed to play two separate simultaneous exhibitions. I proposed to Nana to play together an alternate exhibition - one round she, the next round me. The idea went nowhere. "I am not going to play against that woman," said one man and several others nodded in agreement.

It was much better in 1997 when Zsuzsa Polgar and I played an alternative simultaneous exhibition in Washington, D.C. It took place on the eve of the vote in the U.S. Congress to admit Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO. Our opponents were all men, some of them Congress members or their assistants, but nobody complained about playing Zsuzsa.

Amazing Menchik

Vera Menchik (1906-1944) was the first women's world champion who could play successfully against the best male players. She almost stirred an international conflict. Three countries claimed her: she was born in Moscow, played chess mostly for Czechoslovakia, married an Englishman and died in London.

Menchik won the first official women's world championship in London in 1927 and defended the title six times in tournaments with an incredible overall score of 78 wins, four draws and one loss. She also defeated the German Sonja Graf in two world title matches in 1934 and 1937. Menchik played positionally most of the time, but she could deliver a nice tactical blow.

[Event "Wch (Women)"] [Site "Semmering"] [Date "1937.07.13"] [Round "14"] [White "Menchik, Vera"] [Black "Graf, Sonja"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D46"] [Annotator "GM Lubomir Kavalek/The Huffington Post"] [PlyCount "41"] [EventDate "1937.??.??"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "16"] [EventCountry "AUT"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nc3 d5 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nf3 Nbd7 5. e3 c6 6. Bd3 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. e4 dxe4 9. Nxe4 Nxe4 10. Bxe4 Nf6 11. Bc2 c5 12. dxc5 Qa5 13. Be3 Bxc5 14. Bd2 Qc7 15. Bc3 Be7 16. Qe2 b6 17. Ng5 g6 18. Qf3 Bb7 19. Qh3 h5 20. Rad1 {It doesn't look pleasant for black and Graf blunders.} (20. Rae1 Qxc4 21. Nxe6 fxe6 (21... Bc8 22. Bb3 Qb5 23. Nc7 $18) 22. Bb3) 20... Ng4 $2 ({Graf should have challenged Menchik with} 20... Qxc4 $5 {She was probably afraid of} 21. Rd7 $1 {but that runs into} Bxg2 $1 {and black escapes} ({but not} 21... Nxd7 $2 22. Qxh5 $1 $18) 22. Qxg2 Nxd7 23. Nxf7 Rxf7 24. Qxa8+ Nf8 25. Bxg6 Qg4+ 26. Kh1 Qxg6 27. Rg1 Bg5 28. Bd2 Rg7 29. Bxg5 Qf5 $11) ({Another try} 20... Rad8 $6 { allows} 21. Bxg6 $1 fxg6 (21... Rxd1 22. Rxd1 fxg6 23. Qxe6+ Kh8 24. Rd7 $18) 22. Qxe6+ Kh8 23. Be5 Qc6 24. Qxc6 Bxc6 25. Rxd8 Rxd8 (25... Bxd8 26. Ne6 Kg8 27. Nxd8 $18) 26. Nf7+ Kg8 27. Nxd8 Bxd8 28. Rd1 Nd7 29. Bb8 $16) 21. Rd7 $1 { A beautiful decoy. The rook deflects the queen, allowing a spirited queen sacrifice} (21. Rd7 $1 Qxd7 ({White would have a clear advantage after:} 21... Qxh2+ 22. Qxh2 Nxh2 23. Rxe7 Nxf1 24. Bxg6 e5 25. Nxf7 Kg7 26. Nxe5+ Kf6 27. Rxb7 $18) 22. Qxh5 $3 gxh5 23. Bh7#) 1-0

The Czechs honored Menchik with a postage stamp designed by Zdenek Netopil. He could not make up his mind, but eventually let her smile. It was issued February 14, 1996. Menchik held her world title for 17 years, the longest of any woman. Last year, she was inducted into the Chess World Hall of Fame - the first woman among chess giants.

During the 1929 Karlsbad tournament, the Austrian master Albert Becker founded the Vera Menchik Club. He suggested that anyone who loses to the lady should become a member. He was the first victim, but there were others. Among her most famous casualties were dr. Max Euwe and Sammy Reshevsky. Out of 437 tournament games against male opponents, she won 147.

She didn't fare well against the very top players. She was hammered by Jose Raul Capablanca (9-0), Alexander Alekhine (7-0), Mikhail Botvinnik (2-0), Paul Keres (2-0), Reuben Fine (2-0) and Emanuel Lasker (1-0).

In 1921 Menchik's family moved from Moscow to England. Vera was 15. When she saw bottles of milk left outside of English homes, Menchik said: "In Russia, they would immediately be stolen." The quote didn't make it to Elizaveta Bykova's biography of Menchik. Bykova had a different idea of what should be taken.

A Stolen Pawn

It was not an ordinary pawn, but a pawn touched by three world champions. Mikhail Botvinnik's last move of the 1948 world championship was 15.b4. The b-pawn brought the Soviets the first world title and had to be immortalized on film, but Botvinnik was nowhere in sight. The film crew covering the historical moment spotted a boy who demonstrated the game on a big wallboard. His jacket matched Botvinnik's and they asked him to make the move with the b-pawn.

The Soviets had no problem doctoring photographs. Whoever fell out of Stalin's favor disappeared from historical pictures. Now they added a fake hand. It belonged to Jakov Estrin who became the 7th correspondence world champion in 1976.

A few moments later during the celebratory chaos, another hand appeared and removed the b-pawn from the board. Five years later the thief became the women's world champion. The stolen pawn brought her luck. Her name was Elisaveta Bykova and she was the strongest of the three Soviet women who held the world title after Menchik's death.

Acknowledgement: the top photo by Peter Mayer from Hospodarske noviny is from my recent trip to Slovak town of Nitra where we celebrated the 50th anniversary of my blindfold simultaneous exhibition against ten club players. The photo is from Roman Cerulik's headquarters of the K-CERO company where the celebration took place.

– Part two to follow –

Original column hereCopyright Huffington Post


The Huffington Post is an American news website and aggregated blog founded by Arianna Huffington and others, featuring various news sources and columnists. The site was launched on May 9, 2005, as a commentary outlet and liberal/progressive alternative to conservative news websites. It offers coverage of politics, media, business, entertainment, living, style, the green movement, world news, and comedy. It is a top destination for news, blogs, and original content. The Huffington Post has an active community, with over one million comments made on the site each month. According to Nielsen NetRatings, the site has around 13 million unique visitors per month (number for March 2010); according to Google Analytics the number is 22 million uniques per month.


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