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Women of Chess

The Early Players

Queen Isabella obviously knew something about chess, but her actual ability to play the game is not known. Unfortunately women before and after Isabella may not have had the opportunity to develop talent in chess. Or perhaps they had the opportunity to improve, but for whatever reason weren't able to successfully compete against their male counterparts. Recent events have changed this reality.

Psychologists have long been interested in why women were unable to be competitive with men at the highest levels of ability. Some suggest it's their inability to withstand the rigors of tournament chess, while others simply argue that most women aren't interested in pushing little pieces of wood around a table for hours and hours.

These views don't really provide much of an answer but, nonetheless, their naïveté exemplifies some tendencies that might be part of a more plausible social explanation. Perhaps a slightly more realistic view has more to do with gender-based disparities in opportunity and encouragement.

Traditionally, with chess as in other realms of social life, women are not encouraged or expected to play with the men. The successful performance of women in the executive workforce, however, has demonstrated that if the opportunities had existed a couple of hundred years ago, more women would be in those positions today.

So it is with chess. Given enough time, the percentages of women interested in competing in the game will increase and give this male-dominated game a serious (and long overdue) dose of "distaff" competition.

Because women were somewhat discouraged, or even banned, from participating in the men's game, women's chess progressed separately from its male-dominated counterpart. In the middle of the 19th century, women's chess clubs started to become popular, and in 1884 the first women's tournament was sponsored in Sussex, England.

The first women's world champion was Vera Menchik in 1927. Menchik was born in Moscow in 1906. When she was 9, she learned the game from her father. The family moved to England in 1921 where her chess training kicked into high gear. She was 21 when she earned world championship status.

She was a formidable international competitor, although her games against grandmasters were usually less than her best. She was able, however, to beat two of the world's finest players. Samuel Reshevsky, in a winning game, overplayed his allotted time and lost. Max Euwe was defeated by one full point. Euwe said after the game, "I didn't expect her to see so much."

Sadly, Vera Menchik was killed in a London air raid in 1944; but she'd already set the pace for other women to follow.

Opportunities for women to become accomplished chess masters in the old Soviet Union were abundant -- at least by comparison to the Western world -- particularly following the 1950 revival of the women's chess championship after it had been put on hold during World War II. For decades Soviet women triumphed over their international competition through the use of intensive and supportive training programs that were established to bring the most promising players to the absolute peak of their ability.

The women's champions include: Ludmilla Rudenko, Elizaveta Bykova, Olga Rubtsova, Nona Gaprindashvili, and Maya Chiburdanidze. At age 21 Gaprindashvili claimed the women's world title and Max Euwe declared her an equal to Vera Menchik. Chiburdanidze, for her part, was considered the first female chess prodigy.

The Contemporary Players

Judit Polgar, Xie Jun, Maya Chiburdanidze. These are the names of the top three women in chess today, according to FIDE. All are grandmasters. (The FIDE ratings are updated on a regular basis.

At age 15 Judit Polgar had the incredible distinction of breaking the decades-long record held by Bobby Fischer for being the youngest grandmaster in the world. (Fischer was a few months older.) She earned the title in December 1991, by winning the Hungarian championship. Polgar also defeated Karpov and Anand, two of the world's strongest male competitors, and was the first woman to win the U.S. Open Championship.

Polgar is currently listed as number 32 in FIDE's top 100 chess competitors of the world. Her play is aggressive and consistent enough that she may one day take the chess world by surprise and become the first female world champion. Her sisters, Zsuzsa and Zsofia, are also world-class competitors. (Zsuzsa defeated Xie in 1996 for the women's title.)

Chinese great Xie Jun, is a former women's world champion and another talented chess player to continue watching. She defeated Chiburdanidze for the title in 1991, finally breaking the hold of the Russian/Georgian women.

After years of champion play, Maya Chiburdanidze has dropped in her overall world ratings (as most players do as they get older), but continues to exert an extremely strong influence on women's chess. Her role as an inspiration to other female players cannot be overemphasized.

Other players who will continue to exert a strong influence -- not just in women's chess but throughout the entire game -- are Zhu Chen, Alisa Galliamova, Pia Cramling, Harriet Hunt, and Antoaneta Stefanova.

Women's chess is no longer something to be relegated to tiny newspaper columns or to be dismissed by men who think it does not offer enough competition. Women have proved the arbitrariness of gender divisions on the chessboard since they began to play in the public eye. Bobby Fischer's female equivalent is possibly already out there, watching and waiting for her time to come. When it does, she'll turn the world of chess on its head and redefine the game.

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