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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 29, 2010

Women are making their mark in chess

By Peter Henner

In 1949, well-known chess commentators Fred Reinfeld and Irving Chernev wrote: “Every radio comedian and nightclub wit has several entries in his card index file about the possibility of a woman’s becoming President of the United States. The idea that a woman might become our chess champion seems equally ‘comical.’”

Bobby Fischer, enfant terrible of the chess world and the only American to win the world championship, reportedly defended his male chauvinism by stating that there were no women grandmasters.

Things have changed. 

There have always been women chess players, and there were always a few who could compete at the highest levels. In 1929, an Austrian chess master derided women’s world champion Vera Menchik for entering a strong international tournament by saying that anyone who lost to her would join the “Vera Menchik Club” – he became the first member.

Ms. Menchik died in the bombing of London in World War II, before the advent of the modern system of international chess titles.

From the 1950s until the early 1980s, women’s chess was dominated by Soviet players. The Soviets also dominated the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

The Soviets did not like to have their women playing in open tournaments. A separate system of titles for women was established, including international titles of Woman FIDE Master (WFM), Woman International Master (WIM), and Woman Grandmaster (WGM). No cogent explanation was ever offered for separate titles for women.

In the sixties, few women obtained titles other than “Woman” titles. Today, there are about 20 women who have achieved the title of Grandmaster, although women are still eligible for the far less prestigious women’s titles.

In the 1970s, the strongest woman player was the Georgian Nona Gaprindashvili, who was one of approximately 25 WGMs. In 1978, she became the first woman to win the title of Grandmaster. That same year, she also lost the women’s world championship to another Georgian, 17-year-old Maya Chiburdanidze.

In the early 1980s, a young Swedish woman named Pia Cramling challenged the existing system by refusing to play in any tournament that was limited to women, and by playing on the Swedish “Men’s” team.

In 1984, Hungarian Susan Polgar, who, at 15, was the eldest of the three Polgar sisters, was the top-ranked woman player in the world. Susan, as well as her sister Judit, would eventually become Grandmasters. (Their sister Sofia is “only” an International Master.)

Susan later moved to the United States and has been very active in promoting chess in this country. Judit achieved the title of Grandmaster (at the age of 15 and five months, at the time the youngest player of either gender to reach the title), has been a serious contender for the World Championship, and has been ranked as high as eighth in the world.  Still, as of July 2010, she is the only woman in the top 100 players in the world.

Today, no chess player at any level, whether at a club or competing in a strong international tournament, can assume that he will have an easy game because he is paired against a female opponent!

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