Thoughts on International Women's Day: Remembering Vera Menchik

by André Schulz
3/8/2022 – Today is International Women's Day, also in chess. The first strong female chess champion was Vera Menchik. José Raul Capablanca, who died 80 years ago today, on 8 March 1942, was one of many strong players who respected her. Vera Menchik died 26 June 1944 during a German V-1 flying bomb attack on London during World War II. Now it's war again. "Love is more important than victory", says musician Jason Kouchak and is currently writing a musical about Vera Menchik.

ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2022 ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2022

Your key to fresh ideas, precise analyses and targeted training!
Everyone uses ChessBase, from the World Champion to the amateur next door. It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.

More...

8 March is International Women's Day. The idea for such a day came from an initiative of socialist organisations before World War I who wanted to support the struggle for equal rights for women, the right to vote for women and the emancipation of women workers.

Women's Day was celebrated for the first time on 19 March 1911. At the Second International Conference of Communist Women, held in Moscow in 1921, International Women's Day was then set for 8 March each year. In 1975, the United Nations (UN) joined in and hosted a celebration of the "United Nations Day for Women's Rights and World Peace" on 8 March 1975. The first UN World Conference on Women followed in Mexico City in the summer of 1975. The following ten years (1975-1985) were declared the Decade of Women.

The World Chess Federation FIDE has joined this initiative and celebrates women in chess on 8 March. The year 2022 was even declared the "Year of the Woman". The idea was to especially support women in chess in 2022 but with Russia's attack on Ukraine politics has intervened and all peaceful efforts to improve women's equality have taken a back seat. However, there are still some efforts.

80 years ago, on 8 March 1942, José Raul Capablanca, World Champion from 1921 to 1927, died of a stroke in New York. Ten years earlier, Capablanca had given a revealing interview to the Spanish newspaper ABC, in which he was asked about his career and special events in his chess life. One of the questions was about women in chess:

Question: Are there women who play good chess?

Capablanca: One. Her name is Vera Menchik. She is Czechoslovakian and Slavic and was trained in England, where she now lives. She played against me and she is very strong.

Vera Menchik

Menchik was the first and only woman to play on a par with the masters before World War II. She was born 16 February 1906 in Moscow, and had a Czech father and an English mother. In 1921, after the Russian Revolution, she went to England with her mother and her sister Olga, who also played chess well. Menchik had learned chess from her father when she was nine years old and after joining the Hastings Chess Club in 1923 she soon achieved considerable success.

 

In 1927, Vera Menchik won the first official Women's World Chess Championship, which was played in parallel to the Chess Olympiad. With ten wins and one draw she dominated the tournament from beginning to end and became clear first. In the following years, until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Menchik defended her title in six World Championship tournaments. In these six tournaments she won 78 games, drew four and suffered only one loss. In 1937 Menchik also played a World Championship match against Sonja Graf from Germany, which Menchik clearly won (+9 =5 −2).

Vera Menchik during a simul against 20 opponents, played at the Empire Social Chess Club in London 1931.

Before World War II chess was predominantly a male-only and as the only woman in this male world, Menchik was looked down upon somewhat derisively by the masters of the time. Albert Becker even suggested that anyone who lost to Menchik should automatically be admitted to a "Vera Menchik Club" – of which he soon became one of the first members. However, Menchik had no chance against Capablanca: Menchik lost all seven games she played against the Cuban.

But she defeated a number of other top players.

 

Menchik's career could have continued for a long time, but she died at the age of 38 during World War II. On 26 June 1944, she was killed together with her sister and her mother by a German bomb attack on London.

Obituary in the British Chess Magazine:

You almost feel like you've been transported back 100 years. On 8 March 2022 there is war again and people are dying in Ukraine. Many well-known chess players live in Ukraine.

One can draw some more parallels between the time 100 years ago and now. At the beginning of the last century, there was a world war that lasted four years. Now a war has started in Ukraine, which we do not know how it will develop. From 1918 until the early 1920s, the Spanish flu raged, killing millions. For the last two years, people have been fighting the Covid 19 virus.

Now and a hundred years ago, chess was popular and "in fashion". As the first woman in top international chess in the 1920s, Vera Menchik embodied a feminist ideal on the path to equality. She even inspired the fashion magazine "Vogue" in 1929 to create a cover picture with chess motifs. Vera Menchik was the real Beth Harmon of the last century.

The fate of Vera Menchik inspired musician Jason Kouchak to write a musical about the world's best female chess player at the time, under the motto "Love is more important than victory. (Jason Kouchak).

Jason Kouchak

Menchik came to England as a refugee from Russia. She barely knew English, but she was able to express herself in chess. "Chess is a quiet game and therefore the best hobby for a person who cannot speak the language properly" (Vera Menchik).

The musical about Vera Menchik, "A Queen Before Her Time", is to be performed in Holland Park in May and at this year's Chess Festival in London in July.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Remembering Vera Menchik:

Links


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.

Discuss

Rules for reader comments

 
 

Not registered yet? Register