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Biography of Vera Menchik, British chess player, of Russian origin, absolute dominator of women’s chess from 1926 until her tragic death in 1944, during World War II.
This young British woman was the world’s first female chess champion.
Also, Vera Menchik is the longest reigning female chess world champion in history. She retained the title for 17 years.
Her participation (under the Czechoslovak or British flag) in the women’s chess championships, resulted in 87 victories, 11 draws and 4 defeats.
Vera Menchik’s early years
Vera Menchik was born in Moscow on February 16, 1906. The following year, in 1907, her sister, Olga Menchik, was born.
Her father was Czech, his name was Frantsevna Menchik, and he was the administrator of several properties of a Russian nobleman, in Moscow.
Her mother was English and her name was Olga Illingworth. She was the governess of the children of the Russian nobleman to whom her husband administered the properties.
When Vera was nine years old, her father gave her a chess game and taught her how to play.
Three years later, in 1919, her school’s chess club organized a tournament. Vera Menchik came in second.
After the Revolution, her father lost a mill he owned, and eventually the large house where the family lived. The marriage broke up and the father returned to Bohemia.
Vera Menchik’s family went to England
In 1921, her mother moved to Hastings, England and took Vera and Olga with her.
At Hastings, Olga was a student of the great chess player Géza Maróczy. This teacher instilled in her the technical concepts of the game.
Thanks to her teacher, although Vera Menchik did not have a spectacular game, she mastered the basic strategic concepts. She showed that she was able to take advantage of her positions until she obtained advantages over her opponents.
Vera Menchik’s first steps in chess
In December 1923, encouraged by her teacher, Vera participated in the first Hastings Chess Championship. Got a draw against Edith Price, the then British chess champion.
The following year, in the Hastings 1924 Christmas Chess Championship, she played again in Group A, first class, and finished second.
In the last round of the Winners Group, she played against Edith Price and they tied again.
Vera Menchik wins in chess competitions
In 1925, she had the opportunity to play two games against Edith Price.
Vera Menchik won both games and was the best chess player in England. But, since she was not British, she could not participate in the national championships in England.
In January 1926, Vera Menchik won the first Women’s Open Championship organized by the London Imperial Club. Her sister Olga had also signed up and placed third.
A year and a half later, in July 1927, coinciding with the First International Chess Olympiad, held in London, FIDE (Federation International des Echecs) decided to establish the first World Chess Championship for women.
In this First Championship, Vera Menchik represented Russia. Twelve players participated.
Vera was proclaimed World Chess Women’s Champion, winning with 10.5 points. No losses, a table game and 10 games won. She was 21 years old. In second place was the Swedish player, Katarina Beskow.
Vera Menchik successfully defended this title eight more times in all the championships held during her life.
Of the 83 games she played on the nine occasions she played in it, she won 78, made draws in four and lost one.
Vera Menchik’s dominance in women’s chess tournaments was absolute and indisputable. She beat her great rival Sonja Graf by a wide margin.
The notable chess player in world competitions
Starting in 1928, she decided not to take part in exclusively female competitions, unless they were world championships. She started competing in chess tournaments with some of the best teachers in the world.
In 1928, at the London Women’s Chess Championship, Vera Menchik won first place and her sister Olga second.
Two years later, in Hamburg, Vera revalidated her World Champion title, in a tournament with five players. It took a point of advantage to the Austrian Paula Wolf-Kalmar.
Vera Menchik was the absolute champion in the 1930s
Vera’s talent and dedication were unbeatable in chess competitions in women’s tournaments.
She represented Czechoslovakia at the Second International Women’s Chess Tournament, 1930, in Hamburg. She came in first place, winning 6 games and losing a single game.
She represented Czechoslovakia again at the Third International Women’s Chess Tournament, held in Prague in 1931. It was a closed double-round tournament with five players.
Vera Menchik achieved the full points and conquered first place, winning 8 games, and without losing any. The Austrian player was in second place.
In 1933, she again represented Czechoslovakia at the Fourth International Women’s Chess Tournament, held in Folkestone (a coastal town in the south-east of England).
The tournament was a double round with eight players. Vera Menchik again achieved full points, winning all 14 games and losing none. She led the second, British Edith Price, by five points.
In 1935, Vera represented Czechoslovakia at the Fifth International Women’s Chess Tournament, held in Warsaw.
It was a one lap tournament, among ten players. Vera Menchik came in first place, with 9 wins and no losses. She took two and a half points from the second, the German Regina Gerlecka.
In 1937 Vera represented Czechoslovakia at the 6th International Women’s Chess Tournament, held in Stockholm.
This time it was a 14 round Swiss tournament with 26 players. Vera Menchik endorsed her title again, winning all games and 14 points. Italian Clarice Benini was second.
In 1939, Vera Menchik represented England at the Seventh International Women’s Chess Tournament, held in Buenos Aires.
It was a closed tournament, with 20 players. Vera Menchik was first, with 18 points. She won 17 games, lost 1, and took draws in two. Former German world champion Sonja Graf came second.
International chess competitions were interrupted due to the outbreak of World War II.
The Vera Menchik Club
In 1929, Vera Menchik managed to register to play in the Chess Tournament in Carlsbad, the spa town of Czechoslovakia.
One of the participating teachers, the Austrian-Argentine Albert Becker, found it ridiculous that a woman, and a 25-year-old girl, dared to measure up against the established teachers.
With the complacency of many others, he proposed that, in the “unlikely” case that any player be defeated by the “English”, he became part of a men’s club, which would be called “Club Vera Menchik“.
Ironies of cruel fate: in that same tournament, thanks to Vera’s unexpected talent, master Albert Becker had the honor of being the first member of the “Club Vera Menchik“. Many of the most illustrious players of that golden age of chess followed:
- Harry Golombeck (British International Grand Master, 3-time champion of England).
- Frederick Yates (6 times champion of England).
- Edgar Colle (won 5 times the Belgian Chess Championship, and 6 times the Belgian Chess Federation Championship).
- Samuel Reshevsky (eight-time US chess champion).
- Savielly Tartakower (Polish Jew, one of the great chess figures).
- Jacques Mieses (famous chess master, German).
- George Thomas (twice chess champion in England, was defeated six times by Vera Menchik.
- Akiba Rubinstein (Polish Jew, great chess player, considered one of the best finalists of all time, his games are still studied throughout the chess world).
- Max Euwe (former world champion), was defeated twice by Vera.
In total, until the tragic death of Vera Menchik, 41 players entered the “Club Vera Menchik“, defeated before the fine positional style of the student of Géza Maróczy.
Vera Menchik managed to participate in men’s tournament
Despite her youth and harsh criticism, from the first championship she managed to break the forecasts and win half of the possible points.
She did this with subtle strategy and smooth, slow and forceful positional play.
Her first tournament with grandmasters was at Scarborough in 1928, where she finished seventh with 4.5 points out of 9. She defeated teachers Yates, Michell, Schubert and Wenman.
At the 1929 Schev Tournament, a Swiss played seven rounds. She was in second place, half a point behind Capablanca and tied with Nimzowitch.
Indian master Sultan Khan, champion of India and champion of the British empire, was defeated by Vera Menchik. It is almost amusing the fact that the Indian teacher did not want to return to his country for two years for fear of ridicule from his compatriots.
The very young Vera Menchik irrefutably demonstrated that chess is not a game exclusively for men.
The numerical preponderance of men in competition chess is not a matter of gender-attributable skills, but rather sociocultural attitudes rooted in our society.
Vera Menchik is said to have stated: “We women have no past in chess. But we have present and future“.
Starting in 1929, Vera Menhik participated in several Hastings tournaments.
The largest and strongest tournament Menchik played in was the 1935 Moscow tournament.
World champions Botvinnik, Capablanca and Lasker participated.
There, Menchik finished in last place out of 20 competitors, with a score of 3 points.
There were 3 tied games, none won and 16 lost games.
In her career for the world chess elite, her third places in the tournaments of Maribor 1934 and Yarmouth 1935 stand out.
And, above all, her second place in the Ramsgate 1929 tournament. She was only half a point behind the winner, world champion Capablanca.
Vera Menchik was the only woman who participated in these grandmaster competitions during the first half of the 20th century.
The last years of Vera Menchik’s life
In 1937, at the age of 31, Vera Menchik married Rufus Stevenson, twenty-eight years her senior.
Rufus Stevenson was a subscription editor for the British Chess Magazine and a member of the West London Chess Club. Later, he was secretary of the “British Chess Federation“.
Rufus Stevenson passed away in 1943. Vera went to live with her mother and sister Olga. They arrived at a house on Gauden Road, in the Clapham area, south of London.
In 1944, Britain was reaching its sixth year in World War II. Vera Menchik was 38 years old and still held the title of Women’s World Chess Champion.
In June 1944, a V-1 bomb destroyed her home, killing Vera, her sister, and her mother.
All three were cremated at the Streatham Park Crematorium on July 4, 1944.
In 1992, the world again enjoyed the genius of another woman who entered to compete in world chess: Judit Polgar.
Acknowledgments from the chess world to Vera Menchik
Currently, the trophy for the winning team in the Chess Olympiad Women’s Tournament, is called the Vera Menchik Cup.
In 2011, Vera Menchik was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Notable chess games played by Vera Menchik
- Frederic Lazard vs Vera Menchik, Paris 1929.
- Mir Sultan Khan v. Vera Menchik, Hastings 1931.
- Vera Menchik vs George Alan Thomas, Poděbrady 1936.
The face of the stamp is that of Sonja Graf, German chess champion (1908-1965).
Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.