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World Chess Championship for Women
Menchik, Gaprindashvili, Chiburdanidze, Xie Jun, Polgar : remember those names!

(March 2004) Ask any chess player to list the World Chess Champions and you're likely to get an answer like 'Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, ...' or maybe 'La Bourdonnais, Staunton, Anderssen, ...' It's a rare player who will ask, 'Which champions : men or women?'

It's easy to forget that there is no such thing as the Men's World Champion, because there is no rule restricting the title to men only. It's also easy to forget that the Women's World Champion is a title which has been as hotly contested as any of the Fischer - Spassky, Karpov - Korchnoi, or Kasparov - Karpov matches of recent chess history.

The history of world class women's chess began with the formation of FIDE in 1924. Although FIDE had no impact on the World Chess Championship for more than 20 years, its impact on women's chess, which had been largely ignored, was immediate and profound.

At its 3rd Congress, Budapest 1926, FIDE organized several events, among them a team tournament and a women's tournament. At its 4th Congress, London 1927, those events morphed into the first Olympiad and the first Women's World Championship.

The reign of Menchik

The 1927 Women's Championship was won by Vera Francevna Menchik, born 1906 in Moscow, daughter of a Czech father and an English mother. At the age of nine she learned chess and as a teenager moved with her family to London, where she took chess lessons from Geza Maroczy (Hungarian, 1870-1951), at the time one of the top-10 players in the world.

Menchik's dominance of women's chess was absolute. Except for the second Olympiad, The Hague 1928, the first seven Women's World Championships were held every two years together with an Olympiad. Menchik won all seven events, losing only one game and drawing four out of 83 games played. She also won a 1937 title match against her chief rival, Sonja Graf-Stevenson (German/American, 1914-1965).

Tournaments (1st place Menchik)
Venue Plyrs 2nd place
1927 London +10 -0 =1 12 RR Beskow
1930 Hamburg +6 -1 =1 5 DR Wolf-Kamar
1931 Prague +8 -0 =0 5 DR Wolf-Kamar
1933 Folkestone +14 -0 =0 8 DR Price
1935 Warsaw +9 -0 =0 10 RR Gerlecka
1937 Stockholm +14 -0 =0 26 SS Benini
1939 Buenos Aires +17 -0 =2 20 RR Graf
Matches vs. Graf
1934 Rotterdam +3 -1 =0  Non-title match
1937 Semmering +9 -2 =5  Title match

(RR : Round robin; DR : Double round robin; SS : Swiss System)

In 1937 Menchik married Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson (British, 1878-1943), a U.K. chess organizer. Stevenson's first wife Agnes, four times British Women's Champion, had died tragically in 1935, when she walked into the propellers of the airplane waiting to take her to the Warsaw tournament.

Menchik also met a tragic death in June 1944. She was killed with her mother and chess-playing sister during one of the last German air attacks on London. The British Chess Magazine wrote,

The death by enemy action of Miss Vera Menchik removes not only the greatest woman chess player of all times but a charming personality. The world will remember her for her chess prowess, for her exceptional skill as a woman player who had beaten in tournament play such gifted players as Euwe, Sultan Khan, Sir George Thomas, Alexander, and Yates. In such company, and she played in several of the Hastings International tournaments and others of similar grade, she usually obtained about 33%, though in the Maribor tournament of 1934 she finished third, behind Pirc and Steiner but ahead of Rejfir, Spielmann, Asztalos, and Vidmar.

Her game was characterized by solid position-play, with the definite aim of bringing about a favourable end-game and of avoiding wild complications. The ordinary stratagems of the game, small combinations and the like, were of course part of her equipment, but she lacked that imaginative, inventive spirit without few become really great players.

The last sentence ('she lacked that imaginative, inventive spirit') was a common observation about early women's chess. Whether valid or not at the time, the prejudice that women's chess is somehow boring or uninteresting has long ceased to be true.

FIDE introduces cycles

Like most organized chess, FIDE lay dormant during the 2nd World War. After the death in 1946 of World Champion Alexander Alekhine at Estoril, Portugal, FIDE took control of all activities related to the World Chess Championship. It organized events to produce a new World Champion plus a steady supply of challengers from staged competitions. Parallel to this FIDE introduced a similar system for the Women's World Championship.

The first women's event was a 16-player round robin with entrants from 12 countries, started December 1949 at Moscow. Soviet players captured the first four places. Liudmila Rudenko of Leningrad won the event (+9-1=5), one point ahead of 2nd place Olga Rubtsova of Moscow. 'Rudenko was born in the Byelorussian town of Lubny in 1904. She learned chess from her father, a school teacher, who was a great lover of the game.' (Kotov & Yudovich, The Soviet School of Chess)

The first Candidates Tournament for women was held at Moscow in 1952. Elizaveta Bikova won the event (+11-3=1), one point ahead of 2nd/3rd places, earning the right to face Rudenko in the first modern Women's World Championship match.

Behind by one point in the last game, Rudenko needed a win to retain the title. She fought hard, but lost. Bikova thus beat Rudenko (+7-5=2) to become the second women's World Champion. '[Bikova] was born in a peasant family in the village of Bogolyubovo, Vladimir Region, in 1913, and lived in Moscow after 1925. She was taught chess by her older brother.' (Kotov & Yudovich)

The second Candidates Tournament, Moscow 1955, was won by Rubtsova (+13-2=4), one-half point ahead of 2nd place. FIDE decided that the World Championship would be a triangular match of the three strongest players in the world. Rubtsova won at Moscow in 1956, one-half point ahead of Bikova who finished five points of Rudenko. 'Chess was always a favourite game in the family of Olga Rubtsova. Her father, a professor in Moscow, had first-category rating in his student years and often competed in tournaments of Moscow's strongest players.' (Kotov & Yudovich)

With no intervening Candidates event, Bikova regained the title at Moscow in 1958, beating Rubtsova (+7-4=3). She accomplished the first successful defense of the title by beating Kira Zvorikina, winner of the Candidates Tournament, with a score of +6-2=5 at Moscow in 1959.

The reign of Gaprindashvili

The fourth Candidates Tournament, Vrnjacka Banja 1961, was won by Nona Gaprindashvili of Georgia (+10-0=6) two points ahead of 2nd place. Gaprindashvili crushed Bikova (+7-0=4) in the title match, Moscow 1962, to become the fourth Women's World Champion.

Gaprindashvili defended her title against Alla Kushnir of Russia in matches at Riga 1965 (+7-3=3), Tbilisi/Moscow 1969 (+7-2=5), and Riga 1972 (+5-4=7). Her last successful title defense (+8-3=1) was against her compatriot Nana Alexandria of Georgia at Pitsounda/Tbilisi 1975.

For the 1970-72 cycle, FIDE introduced the same qualification sequence used in the unrestricted World Championship : an Interzonal Tournament followed by a series of Candidates Matches. The first Women's Interzonal Tournament, Ohrid 1971, was won by Alexandria ahead of Milunka Lazarevic and Tatiana Zatulovskaya. The three were joined by Kushnir in the Candidates Matches, where Kushnir beat Alexandria (+6-2=1) in the final match at Kislovodsk 1971.

The reign of Chiburdanidze

The 1976-78 cycle saw two Interzonals at Roosendaal and Tbilisi. Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia finished second at Tbilisi behind Elena Fatalibekova, the daughter of Olga Rubtsova, third World Champion. Fatalibekova was eliminated in a semifinal Candidates match by Kushnir, but Chiburdanidze beat Alexandria (+3-2=5), Elena Akhmilovskaya (+4-3=5), and Kushnir (+4-3=7) to earn the right to challenge Gaprindashvili.

When 17-year old Chiburdanidze beat Gaprindashvili (+4-2=9) at Tbilisi in 1978, the torch passed from one generation of Georgian women champions to the next. She defended her title against Alexandria at Borsomi/Tbilisi 1981 (+4-4=8), Irina Levitina at Volgograd 1984 (+5-2=6), Akhmilovskaya at Sofia 1986 (+4-1=9), and Nana Ioseliani at Telavi 1988 (+3-2=11).

FIDE changed the format for the 1985-86 cycle by reintroducing a Candidates tournament, Malmo 1986, in place of the matches. The winner of the Malmo tournament, Elena Akhmilovskaya, is better known today as Mrs. John Donaldson. She eloped with the American IM during the 1988 Olympiad in Greece, where Donaldson was the team captain.

The reign of the Hungarians and the Chinese

The Georgian domination of women's international chess ended abruptly at Manila 1991, when the young Chinese star Xie Jun beat Chiburdanidze (+4-2=9). She had earned the right to be challenger by finishing second behind Gaprindashvili at the 1990 Interzonal in Kuala Lumpur, tying with Alisa Maric at the Candidates Tournament, Borzomi 1990, then beating Maric (+3-1=3) in a tiebreak match.

Xie Jun's victory set the stage for a clash with Zsuzsa (Susan) Polgar, the eldest of the famous Polgar sisters -- Susan, Sofia, and Judit -- of Hungary. When Judit emerged as the strongest of the three, the family decided that she would seek the unrestricted World Championship, while Susan would seek the Women's World Championship.

Polgar, 23 years old, easily won the women's Candidates Tournament, Shanghai 1992, three points ahead of Ioseliani and Chiburdanidze. The FIDE rules stipulated that the top two candidates would meet in a final match to decide Xie Jun's challenger. Since Ioseliani had the higher tiebreak, she was tapped for the match with Polgar.

Few observers expected the Polgar - Ioseliani match to be more than a formality. At the start of the 8-game match, Monaco 1993, the Hungarian outrated her Georgian opponent by 100 rating points. After Polgar won the first two games and drew the next three, she needed only one point in the last three games to clinch the win. Ioseliani won the sixth game, drew the seventh, and won the eighth to take the match into a two-game tiebreak.

Polgar won the first tiebreak game, but Ioseliani won the second, forcing a second two-game tiebreak. When the pattern repeated -- Polgar winning then Ioselani -- FIDE ruled that the match would be decided by a lottery. This time Ioseliani won, eliminating Polgar from the cycle.

The title match was an anticlimax. Ioseliani's luck ran out and Xie Jun defeated her decisively (+7-1=3) at Monaco 1993.

The next cycle was all Polgar's. After tying with Chiburdanidze in the Candidates Tournament, Tilburg 1994, she beat the ex-World Champion in the final match (+4-0=3), St. Petersburg 1995. She went on to beat Xie Jun (+6-2=5) at Jaen 1996, giving the Polgar family its first World Champion. The chess world did not suspect that this would be the last classic match played on the terms in effect since Bikova - Rudenko 1953.

The next Candidates Tournament, Groningen 1997, was organized concurrent with the first of the FIDE World Championship Knockout tournaments. Alisa Galliamova and Xie Jun finished 1st and 2nd, seeding them into the final match. Susan Polgar's sister Judit competed in the Knockout event, but was eliminated in the second round. Her best result in FIDE Knockout events was Las Vegas 1999, when she was eliminated in the 5th round by Alexander Khalifman, the eventual winner of the tournament and the title.

The final match in the Women's Championship was scheduled to be played in Shenyang, after sponsors from China made the best offer for the prize fund. Galliamova refused to play the entire match in China and the win was awarded by default to Xie Jun. The title match would be Polgar - Xie Jun II.

By the time FIDE announced the date and venue for the title match, Polgar had given birth to her first child. She considered that the time to recover from childbirth and to prepare for the new match was insufficient. She requested that the match be postponed, FIDE refused, and negotiations broke down.

After the contract deadline passed, FIDE declared that the title match would be played between Xie Jun and Galliamova. The forfeited Candidates match was to be resurrected as a title match! The 1999 match, with a venue split between Kazan and Shenyang, was won by Xie Jun (+5-3=7).

A year later, at New Delhi 2000, Xie Jun defended her title by winning the first Women's Championship played with the knockout format. She beat her compatriot Qin Kanying (+1-0=3) in the final match of the six round event. The Chinese dominance was reconfirmed when Zhu Chen beat Alexandra Kosteniuk (+2-2=0; +1-1=0; +2-0=0) in the final match of the Moscow 2001 knockout event.


In March 2004, when this article was written, there were no plans for a future Women's World Chess Championship. The loss is not only women's, it's the world's.