Illustration from Die Schachspieler und ihre Welt by Arpad Bauer (Berlin, 1911)
First, we offer from old literature a digest of quotes and references on the theme of chess and women.
The Chess Player’s Chronicle, 1848 (pages 371-372) had an account of the annual dinner of the Northumberland Chess Club on 2 November of that year, at which J.J. Hunter’s speech was reported as follows:
‘Mr John J. Hunter then said there was one indispensable toast, always sure of a most cordial reception, but which had not yet been given, and, lest it should be omitted, he incurred the responsibility of proposing it. The toast he meant was “The Ladies”. He had found amongst the fair sex many formidable opponents in the chess field, and although some gentlemen professed to make it a point of gallantry to indulge them with a conquest occasionally, he believed they now frequently made a virtue of necessity, and veiled a want of skill under an appearance of respectful deference. On the present occasion, therefore, he proposed “The Ladies, and especially those who are chessplayers”.’
‘Chess and the Fair Sex’, on pages 121-122 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 15 March 1881. The unnamed author’s declarations included the following:
‘… there are none with whom we should imagine the game of chess should find greater favour than with the fair sex. As a rule, they have at their disposal a greater amount of leisure than men have. Their duties are lighter – if, at least, we except from the list those which the inexorable law of fashion requires they should fulfil. It must often happen they grow weary of that terrible ordeal of pleasure in all its ever-varying phases which Society deems imperative. Fashionable novels, after a few experiences, are apt to grow wearisome, and in the evenings especially, when the men folk are at their clubs, ladies must often feel the need of something intellectually attractive – something that is likely to arouse in them a stronger interest than scandal-mongering and the ordinary small talk of the day. There was a time when a knowledge of chess was looked upon by women as well as men as a valuable accomplishment; and there is no reason why it should not be so regarded now.’
‘Moreover, as we read some little time back in a short treatise on the game – “not only should it” – that is, chess – “share the drawing-room, but become an ever-ready resource against listlessness and indolence. Experience vouches its value as a domestic charm; and every young lady will do wisely in acquiring the power of adding its fascination to the attractions of Home”.’
‘We say unreservedly that chess is a game which is worthy of being cultivated by ladies. It is pleasantly quiet, and they possess many of the qualities which should characterize the votary of the game. They have patience, they are nice in calculating, as well as quick in devising a means of attack or defence. It has far too much variety ever to grow tiresome, and especially in the long wintry evenings, if only as affording rest from the unceasing whirl of fashionable pleasure, should it once more find a place among the recognized home pastimes of the day.’
‘Das Schachspiel und die Frauen’ by H. von Gottschall in the May 1893 Deutsche Schachzeitung (pages 129-133). One of the more sympathetic articles on the subject published in the nineteenth century.
‘A Scientific Hint for Women Players’ on page 196 of the September 1897 American Chess Magazine:
‘Verily, this is a world of strange happenings, and still stranger explanations. Many conservative men (a fair correspondent avers they are brutes more or less) have strongly contested the claim that a woman could play a consistently good game at chess. They persistently declare that, though the play of this or that woman may be, at times, of a fair order, it is inevitably erratic, and subject to those illogical aberrations which science, as exemplified in chess, most severely frowns upon. Now, if there is any foundation for this charge, it is evident that the women’s game must be affected by some extraneous cause that does not influence the men, and there has been much puzzled inquiry as to what that cause can be. It has remained for the Troy Times to solve the great mystery. It declares, on the authority of “a great scientist” – what a pity we do not know his name – that the cause of the present intellectual activity of our women-folk is due to the use of wire hair-pins. He explains the matter in a charmingly lucid manner which, as so often happens with scientific explanations, leaves the unscientific reader in rather more of a muddled entanglement than ever, but when “boiled down” it amounts to this: that the wire hair-pins excite “counter-currents of electricity”, whatever they may be, and so bewilder the wearer’s brain with strange vagaries, and lead them to do whimsical things. Now, it would be well for players to take note of this, for the “wire hair-pin” theory explains many things. It is evident that when a woman wears a handful of wire hair-pins there is an amount of electrical disturbance going on around her scalp that puts good chess out of the question. When she wears shell contrivances her head is clear and cool, and she plays the fine, winning game her friends admire. So, in future tournaments, one of the rules governing the play should be: “All ladies-players are requested to wear shell hair-pins.”’
‘Oriental Women Chess Players’ by Margherita Arlina Hamm is a brief article on page 203 of the September 1897 American Chess Magazine.
‘Ladies in Chess’, on pages 61-62 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 19 April 1899. A general article on developments in England.
The above photograph is of Frau Ad. Keller of Elberfeld as Caïssa in the prologue to the operetta Der Seekadett. It appeared opposite page 44 of the Barmen, 1905 tournament book.
Lasker’s Chess Magazine (April 1906, pages 276-277) reproduced an article entitled ‘Women and Chess’ from The Saturday Review. Some extracts follow:
‘… in the whole of its enormous literature there does not appear the name of any woman among the stars of the first, second or third magnitude. One may go through volume after volume containing thousands of games and not find a single one played by women which any editor has thought worthy of a permanent record.’
‘A careful examination of the games of players whom the world recognizes as great reveals the fact that the faculties and qualities of concentration, comprehensiveness, impartiality and, above all, a spark of originality, are to be found in combination and in varying degrees. The absence of these qualities in woman explains why no member of the feminine sex has occupied any high position as a chessplayer.’
‘In the composition of chess problems, the element of competition is absent, and many women are considered good composers. Here the critic can and does exert a little influence. But when we look at the winners of tournaments for composing problems the names of women are again conspicuous by their absence.
It seems quite clear that women have so far been unable to hold their own in open competition. Whether, or to what extent, it is a matter of physical constitution, we are unable to say. But a change in the spirit of women chessplayers might work wonders. The existence of “ladies’ chess clubs” is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members. Of course, if exclusiveness is more important to them than improved play, they will continue in this way. If any women have any idea or ambition of holding a high position in the chess world apart and independent of sex, they will endeavor to meet all-comers in practice and so pave the way to take part in general tournaments. No player has ever existed who has been more than a shade superior to his contemporaries, and if women continue to play only with women the best of them cannot hold their own in a general tournament, because of the poor standard of the play they have been engaged in.’
Alekhine was to voice a similar argument regarding Vera Menchik when annotating a 1939 game of hers on pages 220-221 of Gran Ajedrez (Madrid, 1947): ‘… it is totally unfair to persuade a player of an acknowledged superclass like Miss Menchik to defend her title year after year in tournaments composed of very inferior players. It is not surprising that after so many tournaments she has lost much of her interest, and plays some games casually, much below her strength. But such accidental difficulties could not possibly be decisive in a championship, if it were settled, like any title of importance, in a match and not in a tournament.’
‘Women’s Sphere in the World of Chess’, an article on pages 4-6 of the January 1908 American Chess Bulletin also quoted a few paragraphs from the above-mentioned Saturday Review article and commented:
‘To all of which we respectfully submit that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” and that women as a class can well afford the loss of any additional prestige the game of chess might hold forth to them.
The home has been and still is woman’s chief stronghold, whence she can achieve conquests that keep mankind under permanent subjection. Surely the average club room, with its smoke-laden atmosphere, is not the magnet to attract her, and it is here where mere man obtains the foundation of his knowledge and experience which his “concentration, comprehensiveness, impartiality and originality” are destined, in isolated cases, to transform into the genius of mastership. That no woman has attained a high position in chess because of the absence of certain qualities, as alleged, clearly is not proven …’
The article in the Bulletin also featured the chess columnist Rosa (Rose) B. Jefferson of Commercial Appeal (Memphis) and Luella Mackenzie of Iowa. The latter ‘furnishes another example of a woman more than holding her own in competition with members of the sterner sex. Correspondence chess is her particular sphere, and this style of play certainly holds forth special attractions to women devotees of the game, most of whom have neither the opportunity nor inclination for cross-board practice at leading clubs.’
‘Das Schach und die Frauen’ by S. Tartakower on pages 122-125 of the January 1921 issue of Kagans Neueste Schachnachrichten. In amongst some historical facts about women’s play, Tartakower gave his views on their relative lack of playing strength:
‘Der einzige Grund, warum es die Frau auf dem Schachgebiete noch zu keiner Virtuosität brachte, liegt wohl darin, dass das Schach keine eigentliche Kunst ist, sondern auch einen Kampf darstellt, einen Sieg erstrebt, zu dessen Erreichung stets eine gewisse Rücksichtslosigkeit gehört, welche Eingenschaft eben dem holden Geschlecht viel zu wenig eigen ist.’
‘Sohin sind die Beziehungen des zarten Geschlechts zu unserem edlen Spiele sehr mannigfaltig und, wenn das Schach das Leben verschönt, so verschönert die Frau das Schach.’
Below is an English translation:
‘The only reason why women have not yet achieved virtuosity in the field of chess is probably that chess is not a proper art but also depicts a battle with the aspiration of victory; attainment of victory always calls for a certain ruthlessness, which is precisely a feature far too little present in the fair sex.’
‘Thus the connections between the gentle sex and our noble game are richly diverse, and while chess brightens up life, women brighten up chess.’
Tartakower included the article on pages 9-12 of his booklet Am Baum der Schacherkenntnis (Berlin, 1921).
‘Die Frau im Schachleben’ by Paula Kalmar (‘Austria’s first woman chess master’), on pages 21-23 of the March 1923 Wiener Schachzeitung. The article, originally published in the Neue Freie Presse of 20 February 1923, focused on chess life in Vienna and her own chess career.
‘Die Frau und das Schach’ by K. Ziebert, on pages 33-37 of the February 1926 Deutsche Schachzeitung. A general discussion, with few specific facts.
‘El Ajedrez y la Mujer’: editorial on page 369 of the August 1935 issue of El Ajedrez Español noting the increased interest in chess among women.
‘The Advance in Women’s Chess’ on pages 149-151 of the April 1936 BCM. A discussion of initiatives within FIDE and various national bodies to develop women’s chess.
‘The Present State of Women’s Chess’ on pages 125-130 of the March 1937 BCM was a follow-up article, largely concentrating on England. A ‘postscript’ was published on pages 189-190 of the April 1937 BCM and a ‘second postscript’ on page 260 of the May 1937 issue.
A review, by E.L.W., of women’s chessplaying and organizational activities was given in ‘Women in Chess’ on page 177 of the August 1937 Chess Review.
‘El Ajedrez y la Mujer’ on pages 57-58 of Enroque!!, September 1941. An overview of the development of women’s chess.
A paragraph from Clive James’ television column in The Observer, 11 October 1981, page 48:
‘Why have there been so few important female chessplayers? Arguments about social repression have never satisfactorily answered the question. The Freudian view, summed up in a classic paper by Ernest Jones, is that the game represents a man’s oedipal attempt to kill his father, but a simpler view would suggest that women just aren’t nuts enough. The World Chess Championships (BBC 2) are a case, or perhaps two cases, in point. Korchnoi is fairly obviously some sort of weirdo. We have not forgotten the poisoned yoghurt [sic] and the enemy thought-waves. But Karpov, if you look closely, is even weirder. With Korchnoi some of the obsessiveness remains unfocused and spills out in the form of dingbat behaviour, as it did with Bobby Fischer. But with Karpov it is all beamed straight at the chess-board. Get between him and it and you’ll fry.’
An interesting book of which we have a copy inscribed by the author is My Way with Polio by Owen Dixson (London, 1963). On pages 75-76 he describes a visit with a female friend to the Gambit Chess Rooms, Budge Row, London, which were run by ‘a famous British woman player, Miss Price, who had herself won the English Ladies’ championship when in her prime’:
‘As we entered the tea-rooms I was aware of a surprised look on the face of Florrie, the waitress who usually served me, but as she took my order without comment my friend and I sat down at a table and began to set up the men on the board. At that moment there arrived on the scene a very irate Miss Price. As I rose clumsily to my feet she snapped, “The Gambit is for men only – women are not allowed”. I was astonished, never having heard of the ban. “Surely you know”, she went on, “that we don’t permit men to play with girls here. I am afraid she will have to go!”
I looked helplessly at my companion, who was an unusually good woman player whom I had beaten in an inter-borough 100-board match between Woolwich and Greenwich a week or two before and who was anxious to get her revenge. There seemed to be nothing for it but to beat an ignominious retreat. But Miss Price, who was really a very good sportswoman, relented and let us play our game – more than that, she even condescended to watch (and criticize) the closing moves.’
Dixson’s autobiography, which is well worth seeking out, contains many chess reminiscences concerning such figures as Vera Menchik. His off-the-board exploits included participation in the 1959 Daily Mail air race between London and Paris, in which he drove the majestic vehicle shown below:
When was the first mention in chess literature of a title such as ‘women’s chess champion’? The bidding opens here with a paragraph from page 213 of the July 1879 La Stratégie:
‘Madame Gilbert, “la Reine des Echecs”, a accepté un match, par correspondance, avec Melle Ella-M. Blake, de New-Berry, Etats-Unis, dont la réputation comme amateur d’échecs est très grande dans le Nouveau-Monde. Cette lutte intéressante commencera aussitôt que Mme Gilbert aura terminé plusieurs parties qu’elle joue en ce moment. La victorieuse sera le champion des échecs du beau sexe.’
Luca D’Ambrosio (Bolzano, Italy) mentions a tournament in Meran in 1924 which occasioned the term ‘unofficial European women’s champion’ on page 4 of the Meraner Zeitung of 26 January 1924:
‘Eine geradezu sensationelle Veranstaltung aber ist das Damenturnier, das Meldungen der besten Spielerinnen des Kontinents und Englands in einer in Europa bisher noch nie gesehenen Besetzung aufweist. Die Siegerin des Turniers darf sich getrost als inoffizielle Europameisterin bezeichnen.’
The final standings were: 1-2 Cotton and Holloway (England) 5½; 3 Stevenson (England) 5; 4 Michell (England) 3½; 5 Kalmar (Austria) 3; 6-7 Gülich (Czechoslovakia) and Pohlner (Austria) 2½; 8 König (Germany) ½.
Of the successful players in Meran, Miss Cotton is probably the least known. Our correspondent notes that she was named in the Kurzeitung und Fremdenliste Meran Nr. 24 of 16 February 1924 (page 3) as ‘Cotton-Meirchin Charlotte Helene, Private, London’.
The crosstable was given on page 104 of Schachjahrbuch 1924. I. Teil by L. Bachmann (Ansbach, 1925). Page 129 of the April 1924 BCM reported that after the tournament three of the participants (Holloway, Cotton and Stevenson) defeated three others (Kalmar, Gülich and Pohlner) in a double-round London v Vienna match which the magazine described as a ‘unique event, we believe, in chess history’. Noting Miss Cotton’s death, page 92 of the March 1929 BCM remarked that ‘on various occasions she competed in the British women’s championship’. We should like to present one or two good games by her.
From page 14 of our publication Chess Characters, volume two by G.H. Diggle (Geneva, 1987) we present another article by the ‘Badmaster’ (BM), originally published in the January 1985 Newsflash. It will be recalled that G.H. Diggle (1902-1993) wrote of himself in the third person.
‘The December Newsflash quotes some highly interesting remarks from various learned sources on the alleged inferiority of women chessplayers, who it appears are subject to “biologically programmed ‘interrupts’ which prevent them from concentrating on an intellectual task effectively”. The Editor, with superhuman courage, has actually invited readers’ comment.
The BM considers himself admirably qualified to educate the chess public on this subject, having spent a whole afternoon at the BCF Congress last August watching the grandmasters and grandmistresses of tomorrow, i.e. the “Under Elevens”. There were 16 boards in action, manned mainly by the male sex, but with a large sprinkling of “diminutive damsels”. For chessboard deportment the BM was forced to award the ladies the palm. They sat upright – and indeed their wide-awake appearance was such that some of the “slouching seniors” across the gangway did not benefit by the comparison. In matters of tournament ritual and etiquette they clearly “knew their onions”, and though the rate of play was fast and occasionally hectic, there was “no clock vandalism”, and they recorded their moves with the precision of old professionals. One very small maiden, it is true, did discover that she had missed one out and proceeded some distance down her opponent’s lane in the score-sheet motorway, but she then put up her hand to summon the Controller, a kindly man with a beard who sorted things out in no time. Only four boards started with P-K4 for White and Black – there was what Morphy called “that pernicious fondness” for the Sicilian, but both sexes had got hold of the need for development, and one young lady had cleared her back yard and castled long by the ninth move. Middle-game observation was keen-eyed, and there were few blunders. It was in the endgame that the real weakness showed, and here the greater staying power of the males, and the “biologically programmed what’s-its-name” of the fair ones began to come out. Two hours’ tournament chess is hard graft for a girl of nine on a hot day – the attention begins to wander as the pieces thin out, and there is a tendency to give check or to swap rooks just to get the move over, irrespective of “open file” consequences. The longest game of the day was between a lady who could have only just seen nine Summers and a solid youth some months older. During the middle game “the female proved more deadly than the male” and emerged with king, rook and three pawns against “Solidarity’s” mere king and two pawns. But alas, they were passed pawns well up the board, and the unhappy maiden, instead of bringing her king across to face them, went on checking with her rook until it finally went for a Burton, and “Solidarity” emerged with king and queen against king and three poor isolated pawns. Even then, apparently more through caution than sadism, he deliberately mopped up the three harmless stragglers and refrained from embarking on the final attack until “all was safely gathered in”.
While these titanic struggles were in progress, a large muster of parents relaxed in the Tea Lounge. One lady, apparently discussing her daughter’s defeat on the previous day, uttered one of the most profound truths ever heard at a Chess Congress. “It seems”, she observed mysteriously, “that there are some positions you can’t get out of”.’
Rod Edwards (Victoria, BC, Canada) writes:
‘Your Chess Records article has given information on the earliest recorded chess clubs but not on the earliest recorded women’s (or ladies’) chess club. I propose the following as a candidate, on the basis of Staunton’s answers to correspondents in the Illustrated London News:
“‘Margaret J.’, Kensington. – The establishment of a Ladies’ Chess Club, is, indeed, an event in the history of the game, and one of the most pleasing evidences of the progress this fine intellectual discipline is making in society. Let us hope the example set by the ladies in Kensington will be followed by our countrywomen in other directions. The game played between Miss E. and Miss M. is excellent in style, and calculated to afford a very high notion of the capabilities of the fair combatants. Can it be possible they have attained such knowledge of the game in three months’ practice only?” (27 November 1847, page 346.)
“‘R.T.C.’–‘V.’–‘Amazon’. – The Ladies’ Chess Club, to which we alluded in our last, is established at Kennington, not Kensington; and is to be called ‘The Penelope Club’. We presume it will be composed exclusively of female members; but, possibly, as an incentive to excellence, an exception to this rule will be admitted in the case of the leading player of the time, who might without impropriety be entitled to the privileges of an ‘Honorary Member’.” (4 December 1847, page 371.)
The game mentioned in the first of these items would seem to be the one published in the January 1848 issue of the Chess Player’s Chronicle (pages 23-24), between “Miss C.” and “Miss M.”, which Staunton claimed to be the first game involving women ever published. You gave the score on pages 63-64 of A Chess Omnibus (C.N. 2447).
There is one other somewhat curious answer to a correspondent (apparently, the same “Margaret J.”):
“‘M.J.’ – We had not overlooked your question, but could hardly imagine you were in earnest. What would be said to such a procedure as giving the names of several private gentlemen, accompanied by comments on their age, looks, personal deportment, and acquirements, in a public newspaper, simply to gratify the curiosity of a few amiable admirers? The proposed name is very appropriate. We shall hope to hear from you again.” (18 December 1847, page 402.)’
A contribution from Robert John McCrary (Columbia, SC, USA):
‘Concerning the earliest ladies’ club, the Chess Player’s Chronicle, volume five, 1844, page 64, quotes a toast at the annual dinner of the Liverpool Chess Club as follows:
“Mr W. Lockerby gave ‘The Ladies’, and in so doing stated that the formation of a Ladies’ Chess Club, and the admission of ladies to their annual festivity, would enhance the pleasure of both sexes.”
The earliest recorded, actually-played, game involving a woman that I have found is given on page 112 of Amusements in Chess by Charles Tomlinson (London, 1845). He presents the first 32 moves of a pawn-and-move game won by the Automaton against “Miss Hook” in London, evidently in 1819 or 1820:
The same game is on pages 55-56 of The Turk, Chess Automaton by Gerald M. Levitt (Jefferson, 2000), where White is named as “Hook”, without the “Miss”. Levitt gives the date as 1820. Tomlinson concludes with “and wins” after Black’s 32nd move, but Levitt adds four more moves.’
From page 52 of Better Chess by William Hartston (London, 2003):
‘One of the best excuses I ever heard was from a man who had just lost to a female opponent. “She completely disrupted my thought processes”, he complained. “Every time I tried to calculate something, I’d begin: ‘I go here, he goes there’, and then I’d have to correct myself: ‘No, it’s I go here, she goes there’.”’
Michael Ehn (Vienna) sends us from his archives a photograph dated 1872:
Eliot Hearst (Tucson, AZ, USA) writes:
‘What is the record for the number of simultaneous blindfold games played by a woman? In all the research for our book Blindfold Chess John Knott and I never came across any report of a scheduled, well-regulated blindfold simultaneous display by a woman.’
Information on blindfold displays by women is still being sought. In the meantime, Jerry Spinrad (Nashville, TN, USA) has provided this report concerning Mrs J.W. Gilbert on page 1 of the Hartford Weekly Times, 4 November 1871:
‘Lady chessplayers are not so numerous as those of the opposite sex, probably chiefly due to the bump of reason not being as fully developed.’
Source: article in the St Louis Globe-Democrat quoted on page 12 of the January 1917 American Chess Bulletin.
Peter de Jong (De Meern, the Netherlands) sends this article from page 334 of the 14 March 1896 edition of Black and White:
‘Ladies at Chess
By H.N. Pillsbury
Ladies have latterly invaded almost all the fields hitherto occupied by men, but at the beginning of last year they had not yet gone so far as to form a chess club for themselves. That was a state of affairs which only needed to be noticed in order to be remedied, and so the Ladies’ Chess Club came into existence in the month of January 1895. In the beginning it did not include many members, and the members, instead of spending their afternoons in paying calls, used to meet at one another’s houses and study the Royal Game. But the institution was one of the things which, since they meet a long-felt want, are bound to have a rapid success, and before long the list of members had swelled to such dimensions that it was felt to be necessary to have a club-room. This was found, and Monday evenings were devoted to the game, the afternoon visits being still kept up, until the members obtained their present premises, where the weekly meeting is held from three to half-past ten. At the Hastings Tourney, in the section for ladies, no less than seven of the offered prizes were won by LCC members, and they have done very well in their 23 matches against various London clubs. ’Tis true, they have only thrice scored victories, and only twice drawn the match; but, upon the other hand, it must be remembered that they were playing against those who have had vastly more experience than themselves. They might reasonably enough have demanded odds, but they understood that in such a pursuit as this to take a beating intelligently is to go some distance towards gaining the power to inflict a beating at some future encounter, and so they have played on equal terms.
Moreover, although two victories out of 23 matches is not a high rate of success, the record looks better if you say that in the first 20 matches the games lost were 106½, those won 79½. The success of the club as an institution has gone on increasing, and the members already number close upon a hundred. The founders have received the pleasant flattery of imitation, and their happy idea has been copied in Paris, Brooklyn, New York and other cities. There is even talk of a cable match betwixt the club and one or other of the American institutions. The present premises are at 103 Great Russell Street. Lady Newnes is President, while Mrs Bowles, as match captain, has done much to secure the successes which have been chronicled. She is also, for the present, secretary and treasurer. Miss Field is the first lady who has essayed the difficult task of playing blindfold against several opponents simultaneously. Mrs Fagan has played with success in the matches, and is an excellent composer of problems. Lady Thomas, who was the Hastings champion in the Ladies Section, is among the vice presidents. She has played as many as eight games simultaneously. One of the most promising members is Mrs James, who only began to play the game a year ago, and has already won prizes. A tournament has been proceeding with 32 competitors; and the announcement of a 50 players aside match between the Ladies Club and the Metropolitan is a testimony to the energy and enthusiasm displayed.’
An additional paragraph appeared on page 356 of Black and White, 21 March 1896:
‘The Ladies’ Chess Club concerning which Mr Pillsbury lately wrote in Black and White has added another to its list of successes, defeating the Metropolitan Club by 25½ games to 24½. Thirty of the ladies insisted on playing on equal terms with their opponents, but the remaining 20 accepted odds: six of their opponents surrendering a queen, and the others a rook or a knight. Mrs Arthur Smith writes, concerning Mr Pillsbury’s article, that there was a Ladies’ Chess Club in Brighton from 1881 till 1894, when it was merged into the St Ann’s Club.’
Pillsbury’s article was accompanied by photographs of Lady Thomas, Mrs James, Miss Field, Mrs Fagan and Mrs Bowles. The follow-up item had a drawing ‘Ladies at Chess in London’ by J. Barnard Davis.
This photograph of Gisela Kahn Gresser comes from page 52 of The Year Book of the United States Chess Federation 1944 edited by Montgomery Major (Chicago, 1945).
John Blackstone (Las Vegas, NV, USA) draws attention to an article about her on page 29 of the New York Post, 10 September 1945. We reproduce her views on women’s chess:
‘The usual reason given for men being better players is that chess has been a man’s game for centuries and they’ve had more time ... There may be physical reasons too. There’s great strain involved in tournament chess, and men have more physical endurance than women, as well as more discipline and concentration.
I think maybe the reason they have more concentration ... is that women are too intelligent. They have more important things to do than play chess. To be a really great player you have to give up your whole life to it. Why, I know a musician who started playing chess and it kept him away from home so much that his wife left him. He got fewer and fewer musical engagements and after a while he never knew where his next sandwich was coming from. Now you know women are too realistic for that. But I must say ... he was happy.’
As regards her own chess career (at that time she was the US women’s champion) she stated:
‘I’m afraid ... that chess fascinates me more than anything – and I hate to admit it. I consider it an art, but one of the lower arts. To spend so much time on something that’s not really constructive hurts my conscience. I don’t spend all my time on it ... but I could.’
‘Women and Chess’ by S. Snell on pages 81-82 of the March 1947 BCM. Personal reminiscences by a writer who was the only woman member of her club. (‘…in a long life-time I have known only two women who played chess – and I taught it to one of them’.)
‘As I owe much in alertness as well as pleasure to this great game, I wish women could share this – with the exception, perhaps, of those whose work requires considerable mental concentration. It is the average woman I have in mind – women whose horizon is bounded by shopping, housework, cooking, mending, and so on, varied by an occasional cinema or play, and a not-so-occasional gossip.
These interests of hers, useful and necessary though they may be, leave a great part of her mind fallow. It is stamped on and trodden down by routine, conventions, hard-and-fast habits. Under such conditions how can anything grow? There are many implements for digging up this fallow soil. The choice lies with individual temperaments. For my own part I have chosen chess …’
‘Women and Chess’ by Elizabeth Westrup on page 203 of Chess Life, July 1961. A brief overview of female chessplayers throughout the centuries. The concluding paragraph read:
‘Why don’t more women in this country play chess? Many, of course, are just too busy with the everyday affairs of life. And yet a number of women do find time for bridge and canasta. Those who do play chess usually hesitate to venture into a chess club where they know there will be few women, if any at all. However, once they learn the game and begin to play seriously, they find a great deal of mental stimulation and pleasure in it. Even getting beat by a good player can be fun, but winning a game from a man who considers himself a top-flight player is one of the most satisfying experiences a woman can have.’
The above quotes appeared in C.N. 3274. A correspondent, Michael Clapham (Ipswich, England), mentioned in C.N. 3282 that pages 12-19 of Chessworld volume 1 number 3 (May-June 1964) had an article by Norman Reider entitled ‘The Natural Inferiority of Women Chessplayers’. Another additional item is ‘Among Women Chess Players’ on page 13 of the January-February 1941 American Chess Bulletin; it provided an overview of women players in the United States.
A priceless addition comes from page 99 of the April 1924 American Chess Bulletin. The passage is by Ernest Reel and was quoted from the Milwaukee Sentinel:
‘A woman’s mind is a market place crowded with so many mental reflections that it is hardly fair to ask her to concentrate on what is purely a man’s game. Chess is the weak spot in her mental armor. When a woman plays at chess she is apt to rest her chin on her hand and incidentally display her rings. While in deep meditation as to how to capture the king she suddenly is attracted by the arrival of a friend clad in exquisite furs. The fair player’s thoughts are diverted to the smart apparel shop. As soon as her strict attention slips its anchor the winning move of the chess game, which would stick like a burr in a man’s mind, rises like a shadow across her memory. Her chess atmosphere then becomes foggy, and the social atmosphere decidedly clear.
Women trying to play chess are like people leading horses they dare not ride. It will never be a woman’s game. Sammy Rzeschewski need only fear the rivalry of Cecil [sic – Celia] Neimark until her avenue of understanding includes the boulevards of dress, society and love. Up to that period a woman may win at chess – after that she has other battles to conquer.’
Alasdair Alexander (Dunfermline, Scotland) writes that he has been entertained by the views on women and chess in Donner’s The King (Alkmaar, 2006), e.g. the articles on pages 92-94, 151-152, 162-164, 256-257 and 278-280. Our correspondent quotes a line from page 280, at the end of an annotated game from the 1978 Dutch women’s championship:
‘A game as the one above can only be understood against the gigglingly nervous background – “we’re only girls, you know” – of women’s chess. It ought to be abolished.’
In the article on pages 162-164 Donner discussed the reaction to his view that ‘women cannot play chess’ (which he had expressed on the grounds, inter alia, ‘that women are much more stupid than men. And because they are much more stupid, they lack the ability to amuse themselves’):
‘I was even accused of racial discrimination. “Donner forgot to add blacks to his statement. It should read ‘women and blacks cannot play chess, because they are more stupid than we are’”, was foisted upon me by a lady of Amsterdam. This lady misunderstood. Black men can play chess all right, black women cannot. That is the whole point.’
That article was written in 1972. Mr Alexander observes that Donner adopted a different tone on pages 256-257 when writing about Nona Gaprindashvili after her performance at Lone Pine, 1977:
‘An unprecedented success for the women’s world champion and a severe blow for all those who, in the face of the rising mudslide of feminism, thought they had a final foothold in the conviction that women at least cannot play chess.
... There is no denying it any more: notions as to women’s physical or mental deficiency are as of now no longer based on fact. Even in the field of chess, there is at least one woman who rates as a world-class player. For inveterate masculinists and for those who must write jocular pieces to earn a living, this is a serious setback, which will naturally not prevent us in the least, for that matter, from continuing our courageous struggle unabatedly.’
It is difficult to imagine a world championship title being decided in an event whose participants did not know that they were contesting the title, but that happened in 1927.
A 12-player tournament in London was won by Vera Menchik, as shown by the crosstable on page 372 of the September 1927 BCM:
The plans outlined on page 66 of the February 1927 BCM had merely indicated that one of the events (others were a premier tournament and a major tournament) that would take place alongside the International Team Tournament in July was ‘a women’s tournament (... limited to 12 players)’. It was held on 18-30 July 1927 and was not billed in advance as being for the women’s world championship.
Reports on Vera Menchik’s success mentioned in various terms the title that she had won:
‘The title of world’s woman chess champion was established for the first time, the winner being Miss Vera Menchik of Hastings, who has been a resident of England for several years, although she learnt to play chess in Moscow. Her mother is English and her father a Czechoslovakian.’
‘Das Damenturnier gestaltete sich zu einer Art Weltmeisterschaft, da die berufensten Anwärterinnen auf diesen Titel mitkämpften. Den Sieg errang Miss Vera Menschik, eine in London lebende junge Russin, deren hohe Begabung schon lange bekannt war.’
‘Il a été décidé qu’un championnat FIDE pour Dames serait institué. Les invitations à participer à ce tournoi international devant se faire par l’intermédiare des fédérations respectives des concurrentes.
Un chapitre spécial sera ajouté de ce fait à l’art. 3 du règlement des épreuves de la FIDE.
La gagnante du tournoi organisé par la “British Chess Federation” à l’occasion du IVe Congrès de la FIDE est proclamée Champion de la FIDE.’
‘Die Siegerin im Damenturnier erhält den Titel “Schachweltmeisterin” (Woman Champion of the World).’
‘Il est décidé d’instituer un championnat FIDE pour dames, celles-ci ne pouvant y participer que par l’intermédiaire de leurs fédérations respectives. La gagnante du tournoi de Londres (Miss Vera Menchik) est proclamée championne de la FIDE.’
In its August 1927 issue (page 326) the BCM referred to ‘the Women’s Tournament, which we understand is to be recognized as for the Women’s Championship of the World by the FIDE’. Page 390 of the September 1927 BCM included the following in its report on the meeting of FIDE delegates (London, 28-30 July 1927):
‘It was agreed that Article 3 of the Rules of the FIDE should be altered to include a Women’s championship of the FIDE, and this was made retrospective so as to award the title to the winner of the Women’s Tournament of the London Congress, 1927.’
The formal position was set out in FIDE’s minutes of the London meeting, i.e. on pages 7-8 of the Procès-verbal du IVe congrès; Londres, 28-30 juillet 1927:
As regards the exact date when the FIDE delegates took their decision, the following comes from page 6 of the Times, 29 July 1927, in a report on the previous day’s FIDE working session:
‘The delegates also decided that the winner of the women’s tournament in the General Congress should be awarded the title of Woman Champion of the World, and this honour will fall to Miss Menchik.’
Throughout its earlier coverage the Times had referred simply to the ‘Women’s Tournament’.
It remains to be ascertained how exactly the decision to award the world title came about. After reporting that for the ‘Women’s Tournament’ there was an entrance fee of £1, that the prizes were £20, £15, £10 and £5, and that non-prize-winners would receive 10/- for each game won, page 200 of the May 1927 BCM stated: ‘It is hoped to persuade the FIDE to nominate the winner of this event their first Women’s Champion.’ That information was provided in an account of the meeting of the British Chess Federation’s Executive Council on 23 April 1927; is it possible to find documentation on the exchanges between the BCF and FIDE in 1927?
Although page 66 of the February 1927 BCM had recorded
that the tournament would be ‘open to the entry of players of all
nationalities’, and although the magazine’s crosstable, shown
above, listed ‘Miss Vera Menchik (Russia)’, the comments in FIDE’s
Procès-verbal should be borne in mind: for (future) women’s
championships, players could participate only via their respective
federations. Thus María Teresa Mora Iturralde did not play in a
women’s world championship tournament until 1939, shortly after
her country, Cuba, had been admitted to FIDE. The Soviet Union
joined FIDE in 1947.
Parochial considerations naturally played a role in the coverage of Vera Menchik’s victory in London. From page 11 of the Manchester Guardian, 1 August 1927:
‘Miss Menchik appeared in the programme as of Russia, but as she has lived for several years in Hastings and there learnt to become an expert player, Hastings is entitled to claim the credit of providing the first woman chess champion of the world.’
An example of the publicity accorded to her is on page 5 of the Courier and Advertiser (Dundee), 30 July 1927:
Vera Menchik contributed a brief article to the Daily Mail, 5 August 1927, page 8:
As reported on page 3 of the FIDE President’s Compte-Rendu, at the 1928 General Assembly in The Hague Alexander Rueb singled out Vera Menchik’s achievement:
‘Par rapport aux autres tournois de la BCF il faut mentionner spécialement le beau succès de Miss Vera Mentschik [sic] qui a vu couronner sa maîtrise du jeu par le titre de “Championne du Monde”.’
The tournament was indeed a memorable success, but can more be discovered about the circumstances? And, a key additional question, where are the game-scores? Here, at least, is one, Vera Menchik’s win against Edith Price, from page 10 of the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic, 13 August 1927. It was played in round seven on 25 July 1927:
1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 g3 d6 4 d4 Bg7 5 Bg2 O-O 6 O-O c6 7 Nc3 Re8 8 h3 Be6 9 d5 cxd5 10 cxd5 Bd7 11 Be3 Na6 12 Qd2 Nc7 13 Rfd1 Nb5 14 Nxb5 Bxb5 15 Rac1 a6 16 Nd4 Bd7 17 Qb4 Rb8 18 Kh2 Bc8 19 Qc3 Nd7 20 Qc7 Qxc7 21 Rxc7 Nc5 22 b4 Na4 23 Rdc1 Kf8 24 Be4 Rd8 25 Bc2 Nb6 26 Bb3 Rd7 27 R7c2 Rd8 28 Ne6+ Bxe6 29 Bxb6 Bf5 30 Bxd8 Bxc2 31 Bc7 Rc8 32 Rxc2 Resigns.
An early book exclusively devoted to a women’s chess event:
Notwithstanding the title, the world championship tournament, won by Ludmila Rudenko, took place from 20 December 1949 to 16 January 1950. The frontispiece:
The ‘thought for the month’ on the inside front cover of the October 1950 Chess Review, in ‘Chernev’s Chess Corner’:
‘“Chess is as much a mystery as women” – Purdy.’
See too page 1 of Winning Chess by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld (New York, 1948). How far back can this well-known remark be traced?
Newspapers are forever reporting alleged anger, fury, etc. vented ‘last night’. (Profound discontent generally seems nocturnal.) The original report about Nigel Short, in the Daily Telegraph of 20 April 2015, illustrates how news stories may nowadays be confected from Twitter, and one tweet grabbed is a claim that Short’s comments were ‘incredibly damaging’. (‘Incredibly’ generally means ‘very’.) Last night’s ire is a curiously delayed reaction to an article by Short, ‘Vive la Différence’, on pages 50-51 of the 2/2015 New in Chess – an issue which was published a month ago but evidently remained unavailable last night, and even today, given that much of the coverage bears little relation to what Short wrote in the Dutch magazine.
It is incredibly easy to express simplistic views on the topic of chess and women in ignorance of the key factors, whether biological, cultural, psychological, sociological, etc., which may or may not explain any differences between male and female chessplayers, whether now or in the past. We have made that last sentence as woolly as possible to underscore the futility of such general, synthetic ‘debates’, which concern, in full or in part, questions of opinion and taste.
If Nigel Short’s New in Chess article contained factual mistakes, misquotations, faulty statistics, bad writing or plagiarism, there would be every reason to complain, but we have seen no attempt to rebut, even, this important paragraph of his on page 51:
‘Given Susan Polgar’s undoubted genuine achievements – such as being the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title conventionally by making three norms – it is tragic that her brand is tarnished by extravagant and literally incredible claims like her supposed world record in 2005 of playing 1,131 games consecutively (winning 1,112!) in just 990 minutes. This works out at just 52.5 seconds per game – although it would be somewhat less when one takes into account bathroom breaks. Given that she was walking around the whole time, which causes a second or seconds to be lost on [e]very move, for this record not to be fictitious would require an extraordinary high number of Scholar’s Mates. It is hard to understand why an emotionally stable individual would even imagine anyone else might believe this record to be genuine.’
Nigel Short’s article was so bad that few, if any, top-level masters have expressed agreement with it. Nigel Short’s article was so good that few, if any, top-level masters have expressed disagreement with it.
There are other possibilities too, of course, and of all the lessons to be learned from the shambolic, sprawling rumpus over ‘Vive la Différence’ (an article still being discussed by individuals who have not read it) a neglected one is mentioned here, in the context of any current issues (as opposed to history and lore): the lack of a proper on-line chess forum where topical controversies can be discussed in depth; where comprehensive and comprehensible coverage is founded on facts and informed opinions; where contributions bear the writer’s real name; where hearsay is absent; where wit is welcome but glib illiterates are not; where Internet links are supplied only if they lead to something worthwhile; where irrelevancy and repetition are avoided; where strong criticism of people and of ideas is expressed solely if based on substantiated information; where all relevant sources are cited; where points are not deemed true, or even noteworthy, merely because they come from the mainstream media; where press articles by non-chess-specialists are treated not with automatic gratitude but with particular caution; where misquotation is excoriated; where the debate, however lively, is moderated with rigorous even-handedness; where good linguistic standards are ensured; where contributors and readers are treated with the respect that they deserve; where anyone, including top-level masters, would be proud to have a contribution posted.
Wanted: one topical chess forum where 100% of the contributions are worth reading, and not 100 forums where 1% are.
On pages 36-37 of the 4/2015 New in Chess Nigel Short has written a follow-up article, ‘A Beautiful Minefield’, discussing reaction to ‘Vive la Différence’ (published on pages 50-51 of the 2/2015 issue). A brief extract:
‘On 20 April an article appeared in The Daily Telegraph entitled “Nigel Short: Girls Just Don’t Have the Brains to Play Chess”. Never mind the fact I didn’t say that, it was a catchy headline to set me up as a misogynist pantomime villain. In extraordinary rapid succession came a whole series of similar articles, in The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, many with totally fabricated quotes and grotesque distortions – such as the Daily Mail’s “Women aren’t smart enough to play chess because the game requires logical thinking, says British Grandmaster”, despite me having said nothing at all about logic.’
Indeed so, notwithstanding Raymond Keene’s assertions in an item for the Spectator placed on-line on 22 April 2015 (i.e. over a month after the 2/2015 issue of New in Chess appeared):
‘According to Short’s comments, the female brain fails in the logic department, hence girls will never be able to match boys over the chessboard ...
Even if Nigel has a point about logic, at least one of the greats of chess history is not on his side. As the brilliant tactician and incandescently creative world champion Alexander Alekhine once said, “chess is not only knowledge and logic!”.’
(What Alekhine ‘once said’ can be found in the final note to his victory over Reshevsky, Kemeri, 1937, in his second volume of Best Games.)
Many so-called journalists, from Raymond Keene upwards, have written about Nigel Short’s ‘Vive la Différence’ article without bothering to read it, but it cannot be assumed that they, or the hordes of unpaid opinionizers on-line, would have had anything worth writing even if they had read it. C.N. 9051 observed that ‘technology increasingly encourages people, including the uninformed and illiterate, to share their opinions about tout ce qui bouge’. The complex issues concerning chess and women, and Nigel Short’s views thereon, merit rigorous scrutiny and discussion. That has yet to start.
The tornado of the past two months has contributed virtually nothing, beyond providing a text-book example, notable well beyond the chess world, of how the media often operate nowadays. At their worst, they wake up late, scavenge, copy, misinterpret, invent, pontificate and then move on to wreak havoc elsewhere. The process is aggravated by a recent development: convergence of the viciously shallow press and on-line outlets such as Twitter, so that kneejerk reactions abound and maelstroms are inevitable.
In such circumstances, no mature discussion of the relative weakness, or otherwise, of female chessplayers is possible. What has been on abundant offer, however, is incontrovertible proof of the irremediable weakness of commentators, irrespective of their sex.
Has any article in chess history been so misrepresented as Nigel Short’s on female players in New in Chess?
C.N. 9218 reported a denial by Fischer, although not from a primary source, that he had ever claimed an ability to give knight-odds to any woman in the world. The claim was attributed to him in the Ginzburg interview (C.N. 9155), and below is the alleged exchange between Ginzburg and Fischer, on page 50 of Harper’s Magazine, January 1962:
‘“Lisa Lane has said – and lots of other people agree – that you’re probably the greatest chess player alive.”“That statement is accurate, but Lisa Lane really wouldn’t be in a position to know. They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.”’
Whether or not Fischer spoke those words, or anything similar, they have been widely disseminated, and the name of Nona Gaprindashvili has somehow been drawn in. Below are three passages written by Larry Evans:
‘Why, of [sic] why, are there no lady grandmasters?
This tedious topic was kicked around long before Bobby Fischer proclaimed: “Women are weakies. I can give knight odds to any woman in the world. To Nona even, a knight!” Russia’s Mikhail Tal politely demurred: “Fischer is Fischer, but a knight is a knight!”’
Source: a syndicated column by Evans published in, for instance, the Sunday Oregonian, 2 December 1973, page F3.
‘Bobby Fischer probably regrets ever saying: “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat ... To Nona even, a knight!”’
Source: a syndicated column by Evans published in, for instance, the Oregonian, 15 March 1976, page B6, and reproduced on page 71 of Evans’s book The Chess Beat (Oxford, 1982).
‘... Bobby Fischer’s boast over 30 years ago that he could give a knight to any woman – even world champ Nona Gaprindashvili. “Fischer is Fischer. But a knight is a knight”, pooh-poohed Mikhail Tal.’
Source: Chess Life, February 1995, page 17.
In a discussion of the Harper’s Magazine interview on page 361 of Impact of Genius (Seattle, 1992) R.E. Fauber wrote:
‘He denounced “girls” as “silly” and branded them “weakies”. He offered to give knight odds to any female chess players. The Soviets joined in the general hilarity by offering to pit newly-crowned women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili against him, at those odds. Fischer did not respond.’
We offer some factual observations:
1) The word ‘silly’ is not in the Ginzburg interview. The word ‘weakies’ is on page 51, but in a different context, i.e. not specifically about females who play chess:
2) The words attributed to Fischer by Ginzburg were not an ‘offer’ to give knight odds but a claim that (hypothetically or theoretically) he could give such odds;
3) Nona Gaprindashvili was not mentioned in the Harper’s Magazine interview, and at that time she was not ‘newly crowned’ (Fauber) or ‘world champ’ (Evans). She did not win the women’s world championship title until October 1962, about nine months after publication of the interview.
On page 367 of the December 1963 Chess Review Petar Trifunović wrote:
‘Someone once asserted to the writer that women’s chess is very weak, declaring as proof that Bobby Fischer said he can give knight odds to the women’s champion. The writer doesn’t know that Fischer said anything of the sort, but is sure no-one can give knight odds to Nona Gaprindashvili.’
Chess Review added an editorial footnote:
‘Some years ago a magazine article did quote Fischer to that effect. But he has said he was improperly quoted on many points, out of context or otherwise. Certainly, he did not mention Nona Gaprindashvili as she was not then women’s champion.’
4) We do not know where and when Mikhail Tal may have made the remarks ascribed to him.
5) During the second match between Fischer and Spassky, 30 years after the Ginzburg interview, Fischer was asked about women’s chess by Cathy Forbes at the fifth press conference, on 5 October 1992. Below is the exchange, as transcribed on page 152 of No Regrets by Yasser Seirawan and George Stefanovic (Seattle, 1992):
Forbes: ‘Why, in your opinion, do women generally not play chess as well as men?’
Fischer: ‘Well, it seems to be nature, but perhaps with time they are improving and I assume that they will continue to improve.’
From Harper’s Magazine, January 1962, page 52
Olimpiu G. Urcan (Singapore) notes a remarkable interview with Fischer (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
Vladislav Tkachiev (Moscow) asks what rules have ever existed, whether before or after the foundation of FIDE, which specifically permitted women to play in men’s tournaments, or specifically disbarred them from doing so.
We continue to add quotations, whether lyrical or, more likely, contumelious. From page 5 of the Daily Mail, 5 September 1921:
A further item is on page 678 of the November 1926 BCM:
‘Under the heading of “Chess for Women”, we are told, on the Woman’s Page of a daily paper which once had an excellent chess column, but now ordinarily disregards chess:
“This ‘ancient and most honourable game’ has largely remained beyond the ken of women, but now we read that a woman has taken first place in an open tournament, not through the leniency of man, but by her own brilliance. This has come as something of a shock to many, as the game has always been considered a masculine one.”
It would be interesting to know to what “open tournament” this paragraph refers. The shock does not appear as yet to have produced repercussions in the chess world.’
Do the realms of chess problems and studies offer any relevant facts or arguments? In particular, do rigorous articles exist on the relative absence of women from those fields?
Hassan Roger Sadeghi (Lausanne, Switzerland) points out a webpage on women chess composers.
C.N. 1916 quoted some of Garry Kasparov’s replies in an interview published on pages 61-73 of Playboy, November 1989. They included the following on page 70, in response to the question, ‘How about women chess players?’
‘Well, in the past, I have said that there is real chess and women’s chess. Some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition. I think this is very simple logic. It’s the logic of a fighter, a professional fighter. Women are weaker fighters.
There is also the aspect of creativity in chess. You have to create new ideas. That’s quite difficult, too. Chess is the combination of sport, art and science. In all these fields, you can see men’s superiority. Just compare the sexes in literature, in music or in art. The result is, you know, obvious. Probably the answer is in the genes.’
The interviewer then said: ‘Do you realize that you’re expressing a sexist point of view, and that Western women will be enraged by it?’ Kasparov replied:
‘Yes, but I’m not concerned. I’m sure that women can do many things better than men in many fields. I think it’s wrong to want to be compared all the time, to want to be equal in everything. Men and women are different.’
C.N. 10433 quoted from page 268 of Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov with Mig Greengard (New York, 2017):
‘I won’t hide from the fact that I did make regrettably sexist remarks about women in chess around this time. In that 1989 Playboy interview I said men were better at chess because “women are weaker fighters” and that “probably the answer is in the genes”. The possibility of gender brain differences aside, I find it almost hard to believe I said this considering that my mother is the toughest fighter I know.’
In the final edition of the Myers Openings Bulletin (December 1996), pages 45-49 discussed women’s chess, and a sample paragraph follows, from page 46:
‘A couple of truths are undeniable: there is more than muscular strength to distinguish men from women, and women don’t play chess as well as men. Before the feminist hordes descend, note that I said “don’t”, not (necessarily) “can’t”. This may not be the same everywhere, but a generous estimate is that not over 5% of rated players are female. The difference is more pronounced at the top, where only one woman (Judit Polgar) is in the top 100 players; I think she is the only one who has ever been. As for quality of play, how many books have you seen that are the “best games” of particular women? Which openings are credited to women? You might say it just shows their good taste, but since the MOB started in 1979 not one woman has ever paid me for an MOB subscription, except as a gift for someone else.’
Myers then discussed some theories and scientific studies on the difference between male and female chessplayers. As ever in such cases, reading the full article is recommended.
‘There are not many references to women’s chess in the Victorian age. ... Chess, like other games, breathes more freely in coatee and costume than it did in corset and crinolene.’
D.J. Morgan, BCM, September 1954, page 295. For other remarks by him, see Chess Morganisms.
From page 209 of Winning with Chess Psychology by Pal Benko and Burt Hochberg (New York, 1991):
Wanted: the full text of, and exact source for, Andersson’s remarks in Svenska Dagbladet. His interview with the publication (early September 1989) was referred to in an editorial, ‘Kvinnligt och manligt’, on page 313 of the October 1989 Tidskrift för Schack.
There was a reprise of the phrase ‘unworthy and degrading’ on page 215 of Winning with Chess Psychology, when Benko was discussing Lone Pine, 1977, in which Nona Gaprindashvili was a participant:
That passage was used on page 163 of Players and Pawns by Gary Alan Fine (Chicago, 2015):
The endnote on page 254:
And so alleged words by Andersson about losing to women became a generality about losing to children.
From page 151 of the June 1957 Chess World:
‘But being female does have its limitations. Since, in Australia anyway, women do not seem to have the same natural ability as men, they can never be serious threats in a mixed tournament, no matter how hard they may study and prepare.
However, as long as a woman does realize the limited heights that her chess can ever reach, then she can certainly find chess a most interesting pastime in an atmosphere where there is definitely no unfair bias against women.’
Those were the concluding paragraphs of an article ‘“Only Old Fogeys Play Chess”’ by Daphne Hewson on pages 103-104 of Chess World, May-June 1967. Purdy added an editorial note:
‘Miss Hewson’s second-last paragraph has no demonstrable scientific basis. The only boys who get good at chess are those who study it. Teach chess to more girls of around nine or ten, well before they get too interested in boys and inundated with homework at secondary school, and you’ll get results.’
‘There cannot be many men who are capable of losing a game to a woman without turning purple with rage. We venture to predict that as soon as men learn to accept defeat more gracefully, more women will play chess, and play it better. But when are men likely to start accepting defeat more gracefully?’
Source: page 290 of The Fireside Book of Chess by I. Chernev and F. Reinfeld (New York, 1949).
Pages 253-254 of the September 1875 City of London Chess Magazine gave, with ‘notes by A. Burn, Jun.’, the well-known Gilbert v Berry game (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 O-O Nxe4 6 Re1 Nc5 7 Bxc6 dxc6 8 d4 Ne6 9 dxe5 Qe7 10 Nc3 Bd7 11 a4 O-O-O 12 b3 f6 13 Qe2 Qf7 14 Ne4 Rg8 15 c3 h6 16 b4 f5 17 Ng3 g5 18 Nd4 Nxd4 19 cxd4 Re8 20 b5 cxb5 21 axb5 Bxb5 22 e6 Qg6 23 Qxb5 f4 ‘and White announced mate in 19 moves’) courtesy of the Hartford Times. The game prompted some general comments on women’s chess on pages 227-228 of the same issue of Potter’s magazine:
‘We present this month a correspondence game – taken by us from the Hartford Times – between Mrs Gilbert, of Hartford, Connecticut, the strongest lady player in the United States, and Mr Berry, of Beverly, Massachusetts, in which the former announces a mate in 19 moves. The immeasurable superiority of trousers chess is often vaunted, and the natural incapability of women for excellence in the game is deduced from certain propositions, any one of which is a fact taken for granted, though neither self-evident nor demonstrable. The strength of men’s prejudices and of their boot-holding extremities are [sic] generally about on a par, and very often they cooperate. Their physical superiority they use first as a force, and then as an argument. Excluding the ladies by the rule of fist from clubs and associations, discouraging their home play, and pooh-poohing their first timid efforts, the masculine countenance then lights up with an idiotic grin which seconds the enunciation. “Women play? Can’t do it, sir; Nature wills otherwise. Let them cook and sew, that’s what they can do, sir.” Very much would we like to get hold of one of these oracles, place before him the position in which Mrs Gilbert announced “checkmate in 19 moves”, and ask him to find out how it was to be done. If, moreover, we could extract from him a pledge that he would not dine until he had solved it, then our cup of happiness would be overflowing, for we should have delicious visions of many dinnerless days as the just punishment of irrational prejudication. There is this further to be said, that to study a position when you are told there is a mate in 19 moves is quite a different thing from conceiving the idea of it in the first instance, and then working up the possibility into a certainty. Mrs Gilbert says that it was one of the severest intellectual tasks she ever attempted. We have no doubt of it, especially in a case like the present, where the defence is not forced to a particular line of play. The human mind with difficulty grasps such a succession of sequences, even with the solution given, and such an achievement in one of the depreciated female sex ought to have two effects – shake the prejudices of men and create self-confidence in women. We should like to see chess become more general among the latter. Why should it not be a common thing for a man and wife to have a game before going to rest? Much more companionable and reasonable, we should say, than the one soaking his brains with numerous nightcaps, while the other spends a listless half-hour unpinning her back hair and counting her spoons.’
From page 20 of The Great Jewish Chess Champions by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow (New York, 1986):
‘Madame Chaud [sic – Chaudé] de Silans, one of the better female players, had this contemptuous remark on why her own sex didn’t do better: “Women can’t play chess because you have to keep quiet for five hours.”’
The remark had been ascribed to her by A. Soltis on page 209 of Chess to Enjoy (New York, 1978), sourcelessly as usual.
Pages 9-10 of the Listener, 7 July 1960 reproduced, under the title ‘The Feminine Touch in Chess’, some observations by Elaine Pritchard in a radio talk on the BBC’s Network Three. A few extracts:
Vera Menchik, in contrast, had the perfect temperament, a natural ability furthered by study and a fine positional sense. She was sound rather than imaginative in her play. Although she appeared completely absorbed in chess, her life was not entirely devoted to the game. She had a great sense of fun, was a fine bridge player, and had a keen appreciation of the arts.’
C.N. 10162 included this cutting from page 7 of the New Castle Herald, 28 March 1923:
The caption prompts us to give the following:
CHESS, 14 September 1935, page 19
CHESS, May 1949, page 195
CHESS, End-December 1965, page 129.
‘Chess will never become as popular among women as whist is because chess means good hard work, and it doesn’t give a chance to think of anything else.’
‘... it is not a game that will ever become widely popular among women in general. It is too much like work. It takes all of your thought and time and intent while you are playing it, and doesn’t allow any side conversations at all.’
Those remarks, by Mrs Charles Edward Nixdorff, are taken from an article in the Boston Post (can a reader supply that original publication?) which was reproduced on page 24 of Lasker’s Chess Magazine, April 1908:
C.N. 10165 also gave additional information about the Burgess v Nixdorff match.
From C.N. 7721:
See too the article ‘Sollen Frauen Schach spielen?’ on pages 133-144 of Paul Schellenberg’s book Lachschach (Berlin and Leipzig, 1921).
Eduardo Bauzá Mercére (New York, NY, USA) has provided an article by Esther Singleton on page 27 of the Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 July 1895:
Remarks ascribed to Arthur Rider (Hastings, 1938-39) were discussed in C.N. 10685.
From pages 106-107 of CHESS, December 1938:
‘Weymouth, Mass., had an application for membership from a woman. But as none had ever been accepted before, the committee rejected it. We imagine most clubs would vote the other way – after all, every additional member adds his (her) bit to the strength of a club. Any opinions?’
From the ‘Editor’s Mail-Bag’ section on page 191 of the February 1939 issue:
‘Signing himself “Not a Misogynist” (this is the last straw!), a correspondent from St Ives writes:
“In your December issue you say ‘after all, every additional member adds his (her) bit to the strength of a club. Any opinions?’
Yes, I have one at all events, and that is that women do not add strength to a chess club, but the exact reverse. Not only is their chess strength, as a rule, nil, but their characteristics such that chess clubs, even as reading rooms, are always quieter and pleasanter where they are absent.
‘Not a Misogynist’.
I enclose my card.”’
The correspondence column on page 266 of the April 1939 CHESS had the following:
‘Only one reader, J.G.I. of Southampton, stood up for the ladies as members of chess clubs, in answer to “Not a Misogynist’s” damning indictment in No. 41. O, age of chivalry!’
A discussion on the topic of women in chess is on pages 116-120 of The Psychology of Chess by W.R. Hartston and P.C. Wason (London, 1983).
Much information is available in Rhoda A. Bowles’ columns in Womanhood. They were reproduced in two volumes (1899-1903 and 1903-07) by Publishing House Moravian Chess in 2016 and 2017.
Material on individual female players is listed in the Factfinder.
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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.