July 15, 2015

Vera Menchik and Women in Chess

By Desiree Dixon

Whether we realize it or not—the game of chess often connotes a specific type of player, usually a man. Although the chess world’s diversity has increased immensely in the last century, encompassing players from all over the globe, there is still a disproportionate gender ratio. Every now and then a visitor to the World Chess Hall of Fame will study the pictures of the members of the U.S. and World Chess Halls of Fame and ask: “Why aren’t there more female chess players?”

As an art historian and blossoming chess historian, I can’t help but relate the query to the popular essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin. She begins her essay with a critique of the title question:

\ so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist \controversy,\ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: \There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.\

In the case of female chess players, the underlying assumption behind the question, “Why have there been no great women chess players?” may be similar to Nochlin’s proposal, “There are no great women chess players because women are incapable of greatness.”

The Russian born Vera Menchik defeated several of her top-ranking male contemporaries in chess matches: Max Euwe and Samuel Reshevsky, most notably. She scored higher than her teacher Geza Maroczy in a tournament and became the first Women’s World Chess Champion at age 21. Looking at the chess rankings of women and men leads to the ever-present question in the analysis of sex and gender: is it nature or nurture? Are women chess players capable of greatness? Does Vera Menchik attest to that greatness even though she never came close to becoming the World Chess Champion?

In some aspects, Vera Menchik fit the chess player mold. She was born in Russia and had a headstart in the chess world, learning the game at nine-years-old. While I have no hard data to support how many women were taught to play chess (especially at such a young age) I’ll assume Menchik was an anomaly. When she was a teenager, she started playing at the Hastings Chess Club and met a top-ranking Hungarian chess player, Geza Maroczy, who became her teacher. Menchik met many unusual circumstances during her life, which encouraged her development as a chess player and eventually led her to soar above her female contemporaries. Yet, she still ranked poorly in co-ed tournaments. In which case, can we truly call her “Great?”

Born in the early 1900s, she was a product of a society that believed women could do little more than housekeeping and caring for children. As a firm believer in the effects of sociology on the collective consciousness, I can’t help but wonder how society’s expectations of women would affect their sense of self-efficacy; and consequently their motivation or sense of priority towards a game like chess. Gisela Gresser, nine-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion once said: “…chess requires extreme concentration, and women as a rule are too realistic about the demands of life to be so wrapped up in a game of chess.”

Sadly, Menchik’s journey to greatness was tragically cut short when she, her sister Olga, and their mother were killed on June 27, 1944, in a bombing raid on London. Vera Menchik was the reigning Women’s World Chess Champion at the time of her death. At 38 years old there is no telling what her untimely death kept her from accomplishing in the chess world. The “Nature vs. Nurture” argument remains unsolved. As a woman in the chess world who rose above all women, yet could not conquer all men, Vera Menchik provides an exquisite case-study for a woman’s potential to excel at the game.

For more information on women in chess, I recommend Jennifer Shahade’s book Chess Bitch, available at Q Boutique.