March 31, 2016

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

By International Master John Donaldson, member of the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame selection committee

The word trailblazer is overused, but it is the right term to describe Sonja Graf-Stevenson—one of the newest inductees into the World Chess Hall of Fame. Born in 1908 in Munich, Germany, Graf-Stevenson used chess as a way to escape an abusive father. She then became one of the first female professional chess players in the 1930s.

Like her great rival Vera Menchik, the first women’s world chess champion, Graf-Stevenson was fortunate enough to become the protégé of a strong player during her formative years—in her case, Siegbert Tarrasch (Géza Maróczy for Menchik). In all other aspects, the two women could not have been more different.

Menchik was a quiet and private person, while Graf-Stevenson is described by chess champion and author Jennifer Shahade in her book Chess Bitch as follows:

“She was a radiant woman who knew how to enjoy life. She travelled at a breakneck pace throughout the countries of Europe, partied until dawn, smoked, made friends easily and preferred to play against men… A woman ahead of her time, Sonja’s chess career gave her confidence and freedom, allowing her to pursue a wild and original life.\

Vera Menchik was clearly Graf-Stevenson’s superior when they played matches in 1934 and 1937