Ten Highlights in the Life and Career of Chess Grandmaster Pia Cramling

by Eduard Frey
4/23/2023 – Pia Cramling, the Grande Dame of Chess is celebrating her 60th Anniversary today. Heartfelt congratulations! Looking back and forward, our author, who was a spectator at the tournament where she made her final GM norm to obtain the Grandmaster title as fifth woman on earth, presents fantastic facts and funny figures from an unparalleled biography. | Photo: Carolina Byrmo via hemtrevligt.se

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Born in Stockholm on 23 April 1963, the same year and month as Garry Kasparov, the Swedish legend started playing chess at the age of ten (before that she played football as a hobby) and hasn't stopped since, still playing chess at the highest level. Pia has become a role model and inspiration for thousands of girls taking up chess.

Cramling has been one of the strongest players in the world since the early 1980s, quickly becoming the clear no 1 on the women's ranking list. She overtook world champion Maia Chiburdanidze in the mid-1980s, and after the arrival of the Polgar sisters Susan (then Zsuzsa) and Judit, Pia remained in the top five/ten for decades.

Today, Pia Cramling turns 60. She has been Sweden's top female player for more than 40 years and is regarded as one of the strongest female chess players in history. Cramling is always looking for new ideas, and is especially good in unusual positions. She is also known for her ability to make practical decisions at the board, and all that makes her an immensely creative yet very consistent athlete. She is still competing at the highest female level, a tireless and tremendous fighter. What a legend!

Young Pia Cramling in 1977 at her first individual tournament abroad in Wijk aan Zee in an amateur group. | Photo: noord-hollandsarchief.nl

When she began to compete, she often signed her name simply as P. Cramling. She did not want to reveal anything until it was obvious that this young chess player was a girl. Pia joined a chess club in Stockholm when she was ten and played in her first tournament at the age of 12. Just three years later she was part of the Swedish team at the Women's Olympiad.

She played in her first Olympiad in 1978, and since then has represented Sweden successfully in both the Open and Women's Chess Olympiads. She won her first individual gold medal in 1984, again in 1988, and her last individual gold medal in 2022, 38 years after her first gold!

Four times between 1990 and 2000 Pia Cramling made it into the Swedish team in the open section of the Chess Olympiad, in 1996 she played on board two (with a respectable 5.5/9), sitting next to the legendary Ulf Andersson on board one. So far Cramling has played 13 Olympiads (nine women's and four men's Olympiads, called the open section) for her home country, plus two online Olympiads (with mixed teams) in 2020 and 2021 following the outbreak of the worldwide Covid pandemic.

Pia Cramling with Ulf Andersson, pictured in 2021. | Photo: Twitter Pia Cramling

Ten Highlights - Table of contents

  • Dan Cramling, her older brother
  • First Chess Olympiad
  • The game which brought her fame on the  international circuit
  • The most important tournament of her life
  • The tournament, in which Pia Cramling made her final GM norm to become the fifth woman on earth to earn the male Grandmaster title
  • Cramling family with her husband GM Juan Manuel Bellon from Spain, and Anna Cramling, her daughter
  • Pia dances Polka with Smyslov and Spassky
  • Mrs Gibraltar
  • Women’s World number one
  • Individual gold at the Chess Olympiads within a span of 38 years – Speechless!
  • Bonus: Future World Chess Champion!?

Dan Cramling, her older brother

Pia was indeed born into a chess family, and her father often played correspondence chess. Brother Dan, IM since 1982, born in 1959, that is four years before Pia, became her motivator and early training partner. In an interview with ChessBase in 2018 (link below) Pia said:

"My older brother Dan was my big hero. I did most of the things he did, like playing football. I even played for a team. So, of course, when I took up chess and became stronger, he influenced me and I tried to follow in his footsteps."

In 1981, at the age of 18, Pia Cramling made her debut in the Swedish National Championship, which her brother Dan won outright to become Swedish National Champion. During the 1980s, Dan and Pia participated several times in the same international tournaments, e.g. in the Rilton Cup, the Gausdal Troll Masters (where Pia beat Dan), the Lugano Open or an invitational tournament in Barcelona.

Dan in play against his sister at the Swedish Championship in 1981, organised in Ystad in a swiss system of 13 rounds with 32 participants, the Cramling’s met each other in round 6, a draw. | Photo: Krister Berg via allas.se

First Chess Olympiad

Pia Cramling made the Swedish national team at the Olympiad in Buenos Aires 1978 at the age of 15.5. She played as a reserve and won an individual silver medal with an excellent score of +8=2-1. The USSR women won team gold, but not the men's team: Hungary triumphed.

In the women's event Maia Chiburdanidze won the individual gold medal on board one, and in the open it was Viktor Korchnoi who won gold for the best performance on board one. He came straight from the World Championship match against Karpov in Baguio City, which he narrowly lost. Karpov decided not to play in Buenos Aires, but Korchnoi did not seem to be exhausted at all after the long and grueling match.

Korchnoi, who played for Switzerland, came in after missing the first three rounds, but then played all the remaining eleven rounds and did not lose a single game. He scored 81.8%, exactly the same percentage as Maia Chiburdanidze, who played first board for the USSR in the women's section. Both, Korchnoi and Chiburdanidze finished with a score of +7=4-0.

Worth mentioning: Elena Akhmilovskaya (ten years later: Donaldson-Akhmilovskaya, after a whirlwind marriage during the 1988 Olympics to non-playing US team captain IM John Donaldson) won gold on the reserve board with a clean score of 10/10.

The game which brought her fame on the international circuit

From Kingpin no.31, Autumn 1999, "A questionnaire with Mrs Cramling":

Question: "What is your most memorable game?"

Cramling: "I guess it is my first game against Korchnoi at Lloyds Bank Masters 1982 where I made my first IM norm. Korchnoi had been one of the players I had admired most because of both his enormous fighting spirit and the problems he had had in the Soviet Union. It was like a dream for me to play him. He surprised everybody by taking more than an hour over his 5th move! So it was not so strange that we both (this is my bad habit) got short of time. Korchnoi launched an attack with his queen, rook and knight - the only pieces on the board - but left his own king exposed, which gave me a dangerous counterattack. When Viktor Korchnoi offered me his knight I gladly took it, but then found that I could not escape perpetual check. A simple queen move, threatening mate in one, would have given me the full point! The fact that I, a 19-year-old-girl, had made a draw with World Championship challenger Korchnoi caused a sensation. After the game a huge crowd of players came over to analyse. To sit there opposite Korchnoi with all these famous grandmasters analysing my game was unbelievable."

Things went even better for her: In 1984 Cramling beat Korchnoi, still the reigning Vice-World Champion, in the Invitational Tournament in Biel/Bienne (won by Hübner and Hort together, ahead of Korchnoi, who finished clear third). Pia Cramling, the only woman in the field, finished in the middle of the pack with 5/11).

Cramling vs. Korchnoi 1984. | Photo cartoon: Youtube Anna Cramling

The most important tournament of her life

That same year, a few weeks after her victory over Korchnoi, Pia Cramling met her future husband, Spanish GM Juan Manuel Bellon Lopez in Zürich at the SGZ Jubilee Open, celebrating 175 years of the Schachgesellschaft Zürich (SGZ).

It was a cosy, familiar and charming 9 round Swiss, with 22 invited players, among them six players from the world's top 30, namely Korchnoi, Spassky, Hort, Nunn, Seirawan and Sosonko, other renowned GMs like Gheorghiu, Forintos or Bellon Lopez, and some prominent names from neighbouring countries, IM Tatai from Italy, IM Dückstein from Austria, Kindermann, at that time still an IM, from Germany; in the line-up were also some native Swiss players and local heroes like IM Dr. Dieter Keller (who had beaten Fischer, Larsen, Geller in his adult career), a working amateur on holiday, or unknown amateur Hans Karl from the city of Zurich, plus two women players, namely Tatjana Lematschko and Pia Cramling.

Dr John Nunn of England, now the reigning World Senior Chess Champion 65+, won the tournament outright, half a point ahead of a group of players that included former World Champion Spassky, and Korchnoi, as well as Juan Manuel Bellon.

It was during this tournament that Pia met Juan and Juan met Pia. Both were in a good mood, having just beaten the great Viktor (Cramling at Biel GMT 1984 in July/August, and now Bellon at Zurich SGZ Jubilee Open 1984 in September, both upsets coming in the first round).

Viktor Korchnoi sometimes jokingly referred to these two events in Switzerland within two months of each other, saying that "just after the two of them had beaten me, they fell in love!"

Cramling and Bellon had coincidentally taken part in the Wijk aan Zee festival in 1977 (not in the same group at that time), but they really met in Zurich in 1984.

As a professional and sentimental couple they travelled together to Havana, Cuba, where Bellon assisted Cramling at the 1985 FIDE Women's Interzonal (which was won by Alexandria, but Cramling also advanced to the Women's Candidates Tournament, which was won by Akhmilovskaya, who thus earned the right to challenge the reigning World Chess Champion Chiburdanidze in 1986. However, Chiburdanidze defended her title with a comfortable margin).

175 Years SG Zürich Jubilee Open 1984 with Cramling & Bellon. | Photo: europe-échecs

Cramling: "In 1984 the Schachgesellschaft Zürich celebrated its 175 Anniversary by organizing a high-quality chess tournament. Alois Nagler invited me among the 22 players who participated.

The tournament became a turning-point in my life and that is way Zürich always will be close to my heart. I was not successful in the tournament … but I was lucky in life. During the tournament I met the Spanish Grandmaster Juan Bellon … my partner in life."

Quotation from CREDIT SUISSE MASTERS HORGEN 1995, official tournament book by André Behr, Edition Olms, 1996, introduction by GM Pia Cramling, page 9 (she played in the B-group there, won by Almasi ahead of Hodgson. Ivanchuk and Kramnik co-won the A-group, ahead of 3./4. Ehlvest, Short, eleven players, including Kasparov at only 50%, senior Korchnoi, Vaganian, Gulko, Jussupow, Lautier, and Timman who finished last)

The tournament where Pia Cramling made her final GM norm to become the fifth woman on earth to earn the male Grandmaster title

WGM in 1982 at the age of 19, and already the following year she won the Chess Oscar for Women 1983 (the other three players who received this trophy, which was awarded to women only from 1982 to 1988, at least once are Nona Gaprindashvili, Maia Chiburdanidze and Judit Polgar; later the Chess Oscar voting procedure was reintroduced for a certain period, but then abolished again).

After becoming a WGM Cramling had to fight hard to become a Grandmaster. It was in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, that she achieved her final GM norm. There, after Nona Gaprindashvili, Maia Chiburdanidze, Susan (then known as Zsuzsa) and Judit Polgar, WGM & IM Pia Cramling became the fifth woman in the world to be awarded the GM title by FIDE.

The auspicious tournament was the "Swiss Volksbank SVB Open" in February 1992, among the 266 players in the main group were many strong grandmasters like former Candidate's super-finalist Andrei Sokolov, the eventual winner, and Tukmakov, Gavrikov, Sveshnikov, Rozentalis, also Gulko or Hort, Csom, Gheorghiu, a number of young Brits such as Glenn Flear with his wife Christine, Joe Gallagher, Daniel King, the globetrotter Mark Hebden, the Argentine Daniel Campora, Margeir Petursson from Iceland and Pia's husband Juan Manuel Bellon from Spain, among others.

The road to success wasn't easy, and her round 3 game against Joe Gallagher turned out to be especially nerve-wracking. In the notorious endgame king, knight and bishop against king, Pia had to mate her opponent in no more than 50 moves. After mistakes from both sides, she found the right way and mated Gallagher after making 47 moves in the pawnless ending - three more moves, and the game would have been declared a draw. The entire game lasted 124 moves.

In round 4 Cramling faced and beat another top woman, Georgian Ketevan Arakhamia (later Arakhamia-Grant), also a player with a charming and dignified manner, but a determined fighter on the board. At that time she was also a WGM and was trying to become a GM, which she later managed.

After four rounds, four players shared the lead with 4/4: Cramling, A. Sokolov, Flear and Rozentalis. In round 5 Cramling drew against Flear and in round 6 she had to play Istvan Csom, a long-standing icon of Hungarian chess, team gold medallist at the 1978 Olympiad and individual gold medallist at the 1980 Olympiad, his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Cramling won with black against Csom and now faced Andrei Sokolov (who had beaten both Kasparov and Karpov in 1988) in round 7. Drawing this game and the two remaining rounds secured Cramling shared second place with 7.0/9, half a point behind tournament winner Andrei Sokolov. More importantly, her performance was sufficient for her third and final GM norm. At that time Cramling had an Elo rating of 2530, more than the required +2500 and thus she became a GM. Big party for Pia!

By the way: Already one year earlier, in 1991, Cramling had tried to make a GM norm in Bern, then in a cosy little invitational tournament with GM Viktor Gavrikov, the Elo favourite and runner-up, some talented youngsters like GM Klinger from Austria, who won, GM Gallagher from England, then IM Miralles from France, mixed with promising Swiss players like IM Beat Züger. Cramling, the only woman in the field, finished with 50%, which, of course, was not enough for a GM norm.

As of March 2023, there are 40 female chess players (all living) who have achieved the title of Grandmaster, the highest title awarded by the International Chess Federation (FIDE), which is not to be confused with the separate gendered title WGM for Woman Grandmaster, which is easier to obtain.

Cramling family with her husband GM Juan Manuel Bellon from Spain, and Anna Cramling, her daughter

The Cramling family at the Olympiad in Dresden 2008 | Photo: Twitter Pia Cramling

Pia Cramling and Juan Manuel Bellon Lopez (GM since 1974 and five-time Spanish National Champion) are the first married couple ever, in which both partners are Grandmasters. Hats off!

It was in February 1988 when Pia (WGM, but not yet GM) packed a suitcase and went to Spain, married Juan, and since then they have been travelling a lot together, playing chess. In the ChessBase interview mentioned above, Pia Cramling said: "Without Juan (Bellon), I would have done something else and chess would have become a hobby."

They lived for a long time in Fuengirola, a town and municipality on the Costa del Sol in the province of Malaga in the autonomous community of Andalusia in southern Spain.

Daughter Anna, born on 30 April 2002, is a Spanish-Swedish chess player, Twitch live-streamer and YouTuber who holds the FIDE Master title. Anna represented Sweden at the Baku 2016 Chess Olympiad and recently again at the Chennai 2022 Chess Olympiad. Anna is best known as a successful Twitch streamer.

Anna started playing chess at the age of three while living in Spain, later moving with her family to Sweden at the age of eleven, thus switching federations early on from Spain to Sweden. Throughout her childhood both her parents were active in chess competitions, and Anna usually accompanied her parents to these chess tournaments even as a baby.

Anna started streaming in early 2020, focusing on chess content. Sometimes, her positionally playing mother and her tactically skilled father are guests on her channel, too.

Anna Cramling at Twitch: AnnaCramling - Twitch

In 2013 the Cramlings returned to Sweden after many great years in Spain. Juan, Pia and Anna now all play for the Swedish Chess Federation.

A beautiful and memorable moment: The Cramling family at Baku Olympiad 2016. Juan as captain, Pia and Anna in the women’s team. | Photo: David Llada via Swedish Chess Federation

Pia dances Polka with Smyslov and Spassky

The "Veterans vs. Women" team match in Prague in 1995, sponsored by Joop van Oosterom and called the "Polka Tournament", was by far her greatest moment in this series of dance themes between legends and ladies. Pia Cramling, together with Judit Polgar, was the best scorer with 6.5/10.

Pia played 2-0 against Lajos Portisch, 1.5-0.5 against Vasily Smyslov, 1.5-0.5 against Viktor Korchnoi, 1-1 against Boris Spassky, and only lost her mini-match against Vlastimil Hort 0.5-1.5.

Within ten days, Pia had beaten Smyslov, Spassky, Korchnoi, and Portisch in classical time control!

In this lively dance of Bohemian origin, the ladies performed better; in order not to discriminate between the sexes, it should be pointed out that after ten annual dance theme tournaments between 1992 and 2001, it was the sprightly gentlemen who won by a narrow margin of 299 to 289 points.

Among the prominent Veterans were Smyslov (he participated in all ten tournaments, and despite his advanced age, he still finished three times as individual best or shared best of all contestants), Spassky, Korchnoi (five entries, three times clear individual best), Larsen, Geller, Polugaevsky, Taimanov, Portisch, Hort, Ivkov, Olafsson, Panno, Uhlmann, Dückstein.

Among the prominent ladies were Pia Cramling (six entries, 1992, 1995 individual shared best, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999), Maia Chiburdanidze, Xie Jun, Zhu Chen, Nana Ioseliani, Alisa Galliamova, Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant, and the three Polgar sisters Zsusza (Susan), Zsofia (Sofia), and Judit.

A selection of further notable achievements

Pia Cramling is double European Champion. She won the 2003 & 2010 Women’s European Championship, that means: Gold at the 4th European Women's Chess Championship in Silivri (Turkey) 2003, and again Gold at the 11th European Women's Chess Championship in Rijeka (Croatia) 2010.

In 2006, Pia Cramling won the Accentus Ladies Tournament in Biel unbeaten with impressive 7/10, one and a half point ahead of Monika Socko at 5.5/10 as sole second, Yelena Dembo took bronze, Anna Muzychuk finished fourth, and Ekaterina Atalik and Almira Stripchenko shared fifth/sixth places at 4/10. This double round robin event had been held during the traditional Biel Festival where Alexander Morozevich won the GMT, in which a young Magnus Carlsen, Andrei Volokitin, and Teimour Radjabov, amongst others, also played. Bartosz Socko from Poland, husband of Monika, won then the Biel MTO (Open) on tie-break.

In 2007, Pia Cramling won the MonRoi invitation tournament (women) in Montreal, ahead of Lela Javakhishvili and Jovanka Houska, who shared second and third place. Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant and Iweta Rajlich shared fourth and fifth place. Irina Krush took also part but did not finish at the top.

Pia Cramling co-won the traditional Rilton Cup in Stockholm in 2007/08, the Open saw a 9-way tie on 6.5/9 points, Radoslaw Wojtaszek from Poland had the best tie-break, Pia the second best, in the leading group also Agrest, Kotronias, Nybäck, Kulaots. At the Swedish Championships in 2000, Cramling was close to winning, but in the end finished second behind Tom Wedberg in the tie-break. In 1987 she was runner-up to seven-time national champion Axel Ornstein.

In classical chess Pia Cramling has victories over Smyslov, Spassky, Korchnoi, Geller, Taimanov, Portisch, Csom, Hort, Ftacnik, Uhlmann, Lobron, Miles, Gulko, Alburt, Browne, Benjamin, Rogers, Spraggett, Granda Zuniga, Ponomariov, I. Sokolov or Bologan (see the official Gibraltar stamp below) to name prominent men she has beaten, not including rapid, blitz or online games.

When she was younger, she always played with the boys and was not particularly interested in women's events. Throughout her career Cramling has 'simultaneously' played in closed invitation tournaments and open tournaments, in individual and team events, in men's and women's competitions, in national and international competitions, official FIDE championships and exhibition tournaments such as Ladies versus Veterans. Of course, Cramling also gives chess lectures and lessons, or works as a commentator, but playing on the board is what she loves most.

Mrs Gibraltar

Sweden, Spain and Switzerland are important countries in Pia Cramling's chess life, but can you guess how many times Pia has played at the famous Gibraltar Festival?

Remember, daughter Anna was born in 2002, the famous Gibraltar series started in 2003: Pia has participated in every Gibraltar Masters since the series started, that is 18 years in a row between 2003 and 2020, in fact Pia has played in all 18 festivals (!) and she has won the prestigious women's first prize at the Gibraltar Open a record three times.

Due to the Covid pandemic there was no Gibraltar Open in 2021. In 2022, instead of the traditional January Masters in Gibraltar, there was a team event in the Scheveningen system called "Battles of the Sexes" (Ladies vs. Men). Of course, Cramling was invited as well, making a total of 19 appearances up to and including 2022, unfortunately there was no event at all in January 2023.

Note: In addition, a FIDE GP was held in Gibraltar in the summer of 2021 (without Pia Cramling, who participated in that cycle, but played in Skolkovo, Monaco and Lausanne).

Gibraltar also honoured GM Pia Cramling with a stamp in a collection of four stamps to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their chess festival.

Stamp collection from the Gibraltar Masters 10th Anniversary of the Festival, released in 2012. | Photo: Royal Gibraltar Post Office

Replay her win (featured on the stamp) against Viorel Bologan at Gibraltar Masters in 2006:

Women’s World Number One

In January 1984 Cramling was ranked the clear number one woman in the FIDE Elo rating list, ahead of the three Georgian chess ladies Maia Chiburdanidze (then World Champion), Nana Alexandria and Nona Gaprindashvili (ex-World Champion); plus joint number one in July 1984 (together with Zsuzsa Polgar, Hungary). Pia Cramling remained in the women's top five throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and in the top ten for decades.

Highest rating: 2550 Elo in October 2008 as clear no. 5 in the world, behind Judit Polgar at the top, Humpy Koneru from India, Hou Yifan and Xie Jun, both from China, ahead of Antoaneta Stefanova from Bulgaria and Marie Sebag from France. Remember, to date there are only three women born in Western Europe who hold the grandmaster title in chess: Cramling, the aforementioned Marie Sebag, and most recently Elisabeth Pähtz from Germany.

As of April 2023, Cramling, who plays frequently, is ranked no. 26 in the FIDE list with an Elo rating of 2443, ahead of prominent players (in no particular order) such as Stefanova, Socko, Sebag, Krush, Danielian, Girya, Sachdev, Skripchenko or Pogonina, all of whom are much younger than her, not to mention those who are inactive (remember that Judit Polgar, born in 1976, certainly the most successful and strongest female chess player in the history of the game, retired from competitive chess in 2014 at the age of 38).

Individual Gold at the Chess Olympiads within a span of 38 years Speechless!

An incredible achievement: At the Chennai Olympiad in 2022, Pia Cramling won another, her third, individual women's board one gold medal, 38 years after her first individual board one gold medal at the 1984 Chess Olympiad. Cramling also won individual gold in 1988.

Swedish legend Pia Cramling, in great form at the age of 59, won gold on board 1 with a TPR of 2532, 11 games played, undefeated, ahead of Dutchwoman Eline Roebers, 16, with the same TPR but had played "only" 10 games, which turned out to be the crucial tie-break criteria. Roebers also lost the direct encounter against Cramling, but the Dutch prodigy won silver for her performance on board 1.

The first and the latest Gold medal

Pia Cramling at the Chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki 1984 | Foto: Gerhard F. Hund...

...and at the Chess Olympiad in Chennai 2022 | Photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE

At the Chess Olympiad with your family

An interview with Pia Cramling

Trivia (don't take it too seriously, but it is technically correct): Scandinavian compatriot Magnus Carlsen suffered six Olympic "double failures" (not winning individual or team medals), until he finally won a bronze medal in his seventh appearance at a chess Olympiad as the third-best individual on board one in Chennai 2022.

Bonus: Future World Chess Champion!?

It's far too early, but perhaps in twenty years or so the ageless Pia Cramling will be playing in the annual FIDE World Senior Chess Championships.

Recall that Viktor Korchnoi made his first and only senior appearance shortly after celebrating his 75th birthday and won the title in style (in 2006), Vlastimil Jansa became the Senior World Chess Champion in the 65+ category at the age of 76 (in 2018), Nona Gaprindashvili won her last gold medal in the women's 65+ category at the age of 81 and a half (in 2022).

A wonderful spotlight: Pia Cramling and Anna Cramling | Photo: Twitter

Happy Birthday to Pia Cramling, Health and Happiness, and many more inspiring games to come!


Eduard Frey was born in spring 1967, is an economist (lic. et mag. rer, pol.) and works as a coach in human resources. He learned the game as a child from his father. Chess is a hobby without rating. He has been a frequent visitor to the Biel Chess Festival since 1976, as well as to Lucerne (1982 Olympiad, and the 1985, 1989, 1993, 1997 World Team Championships), and to the international tournaments in Zurich or the Lugano Open series. Frey spoke with many top players; he knew Viktor Korchnoi, Wolfgang Uhlmann and Mark Taimanov more closely.