The First Women’s World Champion: Vera Menchik

When you look superficially at the world of chess, all you see are men.

And, with really horrible logic, when a woman shows prowess and skill in the so-called Game of Kings, the fact that she is comparatively alone is used to prove that women in general can’t “really” play chess.

This opinion, depressingly, has been expressed by a number of the top players of the game (including a number of women!) Even Eva Repková, chief of FIDE’s Commission for Women’s Chess, has said that chess doesn’t “come naturally” to women, although she went on to say that “music or arranging flowers” are perfectly within a woman’s comfort zone.

These are not the “allies” that women in chess need.

This piece could have focussed on the first woman to achieve a Grandmaster title, namely Nona Gaprindishavili. Or Judit Polgar, the only woman to ever break the top ten in chess. But in some weird way this would play into the hands of those who think women cannot play chess especially well.

To them, the exceptions prove the rule. Or to put it more on the nose, confirm their biases.

Why did it take so long for a woman to become a grandmaster? Why has there only been one woman in the top ten? Why is there, today, only one woman, Hou Yifan, in the top 100?

Isn’t it obvious that women can’t play chess at an elite level, if their collective accomplishments are so few?

It is easy to debunk this “argument.” For most of the past century, only a small minority of serious competitors in chess have been women, which makes the highest achievements of members of such a small group all the more extraordinary. There’s mathematical proof of this; if you want it, read this article.

Today about fifteen percent of serious chess competitors in the world are women, and that number is growing. But a century ago, that number was smaller.

Vera Menchik was born in Moscow in 1906 to a Czech father and English mother. They had a fairly prosperous life which was torn apart by World War One and the Russian Revolution. Fearing for their lives, the Menchik family fled Russia for Bohemia, losing everything. This upheaval proved an impossible strain on her parents’ marriage, which ended in divorce.

Menchik, with her mother and her sister, emigrated to England, where she rapidly developed her impressive skills in chess. In 1927, the first World Women’s Championship was held in London. It was a round robin competition among the top twelve women in the chess world.

Vera Menchik won this event with an impressive score of 10.5/11. She went on to defend her title in six subsequent World Championship matches, achieving a record in these tournaments of +78 -1 =4. That is, in seven of these tournaments, she lost only one game!

Overcoming the turmoil of her early life, she became the strongest female player in her time. No less a player than world champion Alexander Alekhine sang her praises, wondering what the point was for her to defend her title repeatedly against weaker players when she was, in his words, a “player of an acknowledged superclass.” She also proved to be a strong challenge against her male competitors.

The chess world is undoubtedly sexist. It’s an old boys’ club, and there are members of the old guard, to this day, that are reluctant to open the door to women. In 1929 Menchik was invited to participate in an elite round robin in Carlsbad. She was the only woman in a field of 24 players, and her admittance was notably ridiculed by a competitor, one Albert Becker from Vienna.

He mockingly proposed the “Vera Menchik Club,” whose members would be composed of men who lost to her in chess. Fittingly, Becker went on to become the first member of this “club,” losing to Menchik in that very tournament!

Many other top players of the day were also beaten by Menchik, including: Eero Böök, Edgard Colle, Harry Golombek, the top Asian player Mir Sultan Khan, Frederic Lazard, future grandmasters Samuel Reshevsky and Friedrich Sämisch, two-time British Champion George Alan Thomas, and future World Champion Max Euwe, who Menchik defeated twice.

In this we’re reminded of Judit Polgar, who defeated, on at least one occasion, every living world champion, from Botvinnik right up to Carlsen. And yes, this includes Garry Kasparov, who, early in his career, notoriously stated that women couldn’t play top level chess, a view that he has since sincerely recanted.

Any player’s achievement is the result of determination and effort, and in an unwelcoming world Menchik’s achievement is remarkable. As Harriet Morgan said: “Women have to work twice as hard as men to be considered on the same level.” Morgan added: “… luckily that isn’t hard,” but a century ago how true was that?

We also know the role that teaching and encouragement play in the development of talent. Vera Menchik was fortunate to have the support of Geza Maroczy as a trainer. And so we chess instructors are very happy every time a young girl picks up a chess piece for the first time, and proud that our organization stands with many others in the world today that enthusiastically promote chess to girls and women. It can only make the chess world, and the world at large, a better place.

While there were some in the chess world who appreciated and admired Vera Menchik’s talent, there were more than a few who were threatened by her. Vera Menchik blazed a trail for women in what was, and still is, in many ways, a man’s world.

What greater heights she might have achieved, we’ll never know. Menchik’s life was tragically bookended by war. She was killed in London during the Blitz in 1944, still the Women’s World Champion.

Today the Vera Menchik Cup is awarded to the winning team in the Women’s Chess Olympiad, and Menchik has been inducted to the World Chess Hall of Fame. Menchik’s record as longest-reigning Women’s World Champion has never been broken.

Here is a game between Menchik and George Alan Thomas.