Lisa Lane - The first chess beauty queen

by ChessBase
10/21/2010 – While Alexandra Kosteniuk made headlines by promoting beauty and glamor along with her chess, 50 years ago two-time US Women's Champion Lisa Lane graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was the subject of pictorials in Life magazine, Newsweek, and more. This singular personality was decades ahead of her time in promoting chess. A portrait by Sarah Beth.

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Lisa Lane – US women's champion

By Sarah Beth

NM Dan Heisman is a Philadelphian chess player. He has a page devoted to the Philadelphia Modern Chess Hall of Fame, an informal selection of important players from that area.  This list contains the name of a Philadelphian chess player whose presence played heavily in the eventual chess career of Marianne Elizabeth Lane, better known as Lisa Lane. Mr. Heisman describes Arnold Chertkof as "a legendary Philadelphia master, a tournament regular who was always hanging around local events. Everyone knew Arnold, and he could give a good game to anyone. An unforgettable chess character with a keen sense of humor."  What Mr. Heisman failed to note is that sometime around 1957-8  Lisa Lane met Mr. Chertkof in a coffeehouse she frequented called the Artist's Hut.

"I met her," said Arnold, heaving a sigh. "I played with her. She was very interested. She wanted to improve. Arnold was a member of the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club, then housed in a handsome old home on Locust Street, in an area of churches, luxury hotels, studios, real estate offices, and imbued with a faded, centuries-old charm. "I took Lisa to the club," Arnold rumbled on, "and she became a member. I got Attilio Di Camillo to watch her play. I sort of had to persuade Di Camillo to do it."

Attilio Di Camillo

Let's backtrack a bit for a peek into Lisa's life journey to the fateful meeting in the Artist's Hut.

Lisa Lane was born on April 25, 1938.  Her father was a skilled laborer who operated a glass-roller leather glazing machine. He was more interested in horseracing than in his family and disappeared from her life before she was two.  Her mother had a great deal of difficulty raising her two children alone and Lisa spent much of her childhood here and there. She resented an article that claimed she had lived in an orphanage. ["For a time, her mother was forced to keep Lisa in an orphanage and a home for fatherless girls." - Look, Nov. 22, 1960], claiming "I never knew my father. It isn't true that I grew up in an orphanage. My mother worked, and my sister and I boarded with different families while we went to school. We lived with my grandmother in Wyndmoor."

Lisa Lane as a young girl

Although she was a good student and well liked by her teachers, Lisa exhibited strange behavior at school and dropped out of high school, a year before graduating. A few years later she became a "special student" at Temple University trying to complete her high school curriculum while taking some college level courses.  During that time she was involved in an accident in which the car she was driving struck and killed an elderly pedestrian who stepped out in front of her.  She was never charged with any negligence in the incident, but shortly after she dropped out of college and started hanging around coffeeshops all night learning and playing chess. At this same time she invested her savings, partnering with a poetry-writing attorney, in a bookstore that specialized in poetry. Predictably, the store, The Trident, closed before too long.

Although she played at a myriad of coffeeshops, such as the Guilded Cage, the Humoresque and the Proscenium, the Artist's Hut seemed to carry the most magnetism. It was there where she fist saw chess being played and there that she met the man who introduced her to Attilo Di Camillo.  According to Lisa, "I worked 8 or 12 hours a day on chess. I'd work with Di Cam all morning and then play chess at the club all afternoon and evening. Then the next morning Di Cam and I would go over the games, and he would point out what I did wrong."

Lisa went to New York with Chertkof and Di Camillo where they saw Bobby Fischer, age 14, win the US championship. Inspired by Fischer, Lisa won the Philadelpia women's championship a few months later and the next year beat out all the women in the U.S. Amateur Championship tournament in Asbury Park, N.J. In 1959, exactly two years after watching Fischer seize the US title, Lisa won the US Women's title.

Nine days after winning the US Women's title, Lisa married Walter Rich, an aspiring Philadelphia designer whom she met in a coffeehouse when he "beat the boy who brought me."  During their less than two years of marriage, Lisa all but abandoned chess, but after their separation,  went into full-time training.  To support herself she started promoting herself and giving simuls.

Lisa Lane gives a six-board simul in the window of Philadelphia's Quaker City Federal

"...when she moved from Philadelphia to New York to prepare for the World Women's Candidates Tournament, Lisa has been a virtual recluse in a silent apartment on West Twelfth Street. There is just enough furniture in the flat for herself, two Siamese cats (named Nimzovitch and Philidor after chess players), two sets of chessmen and some seventy-three books on chess. A clock (a double-faced tournament timepiece) and a telephone are Miss Lane's only contacts with off-board life. There is no radio, television or phonograph in the apartment."

She moved to a small spartan flat in NYC in February of 1961 where she spent most of her waking hours honing her chess skills for the upcoming World Women's Candidates Tournament to which she and Gisela Gresser (a former and future US women's champion) had been invited, along with sixteen other female players from around the world to determine who would challenge Elisaveta Bykova for the title of Women's World Champion (Bikova beat Olga Rubtsova for the title in 1958).

She had a less-than-great performance in the Women's Candidates Tournament in Vrnjacka Banja, Yugoslavia tying with Gresser for 13th-14th place out of 18. Nona Gaprindashvili won the tournament (+10-0=6) and went on to beat Elisaveta Bykova for the Women's World Championship by a landslide +7-0=4.

During the Hastings Reserve tournament, the end of 1961 - beginning of 1962, Lane withdrew from the tournament after two loses, one draw and one adjournment. It was reported that she claimed she was homesick and in love (with her future second-husband, Neil Hickey)  -  what wasn't reported was how much she hated to lose.

"I don't care how well I play if I lose," she said. "I have to win."

Unfortunately, 1964 proved to be a bad year for one who despised losing as much as Lisa Lane. First, she lost the US Women's Championship to Sonja Graf-Stevenson (who would die on March 6 of the next year ). Then she came in 12th out of 18 in the Women's Candidates Tournament a half point ahead of Gresser this time (It was won by Alla Kushnir of Russia, who eventually lost the women's championship match to Nona Gaprindashvili of Georgia).

"Seated at a chessboard, she is a chain-smoking, aggressive
player with remarkable concentration...

She opened her own chess studio, the Queen's Pawn Chess Emporium, in 1964.

The Emporium is a chess shop and chess parlor on Sheridan Square in the Village. It was started last February by Miss Lane who was United States women's champion in 1959 and 1960, and it has a sign outside that says "Chess" in six languages. In the window are chess sets of ivory, olivewood and alabaster, a magnetic set for travelers and a set with pieces molded in the shape of covered wagons, scouts and Indians. A large board hanging vertically has a chess problem on it. Inside the shop are rows of chess tables, each with two chairs. At a counter on one side, beverages and pastries are sold. Some of Miss Lane's trophies decorate a mantel. The shop used to sell paperbacks, and once the merchandise was disposed of, the shelves were converted into paneling. Miss Lane, it developed, had done a lot of the carpentry herself. For playing, the rates are fifty cents for the first hour and thirty cents for each hour thereafter. Chess lessons are given by Sonja Graf, who is the current United States women's champion.

On May 11, 1966 Lisa Lane became co-US women's champion, sharing the title with Gisela Gresser. While in New York Lisa played at the Marshall Club or Rossolimo's Chess Studio.

"...her potential ability to renovate the public image of chess as a game for ugly intellectuals is enormous. 'For this reason alone I'm the most important American chess player,' says Lisa. 'People will be attracted to the game by a young, pretty girl. That's why chess should support me. I'm bringing it publicity and, ultimately, money."

Bobby Fischer playing Lisa Lane

She considered her contemporary and then US men's champion, Bobby Fischer, the greatest player ever. Fischer considered all women players weak: "They're all fish. Lisa, you might say, is the best of the American fish."

That's the last we hear of Lisa Lane as a chess player. She and her husband eventually opened a shop in Carmel, NY, called Amber Waves of Grain that specialized in  "Vitamins, Herbs, Bath & Body Oils, Homeopathic & Flower Remedies, Crystals, Geodes, Jewelry, Windchimes, Waterwalls, Feng Shui Accoutrements, Yoga & Meditation Accessories & much more!"


Based on article originally published at
Lisa Lane: chess champion (Look, November, 22, 1960);
Queen of Knights and Pawns (Sports Illustrated, August 7, 1961)
Queen's move (Sports Illustrated, April 23, 1962)
I Have to Win (Newsweek, May 22, 1961)
Queen of Pawns, etc (The New York Times Magazine, June 4, 1961)
Chess Candidate, Owner of Queen's Pawn Chess Emporium (The New Yorker's Talk of the Town, September 19, 1964)

While all the quotes, in italics, came from these articles, I didn't cite the individual source for each quote.

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