Menchik, Vera (1906–1944)

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Menchik, Vera (1906–1944)

Russian-born Czech-British chess player, who reigned as the women's world champion from 1927 until her death in a German bombing attack during World War II. Name variations: Mencik; Vera Mencikova or Věra Menčková Vera Menchik-Stevenson; Vera Stevenson; Mrs. R.H.S. Stevenson. Born Vera Francevna Menchiková in Moscow on February 16, 1906; died in Kent, England, on June 27, 1944; had a Czech father and British mother; sister of Olga; married R.H.S. Stevenson (secretary of the British Chess Federation), in 1937 (died 1943).

Born in Russia in 1906 to a Czech father and a British mother, Vera Menchik moved in 1921 with her parents to Great Britain; the country that was to be her home. By this time, her remarkable abilities as a chess player had already been noted. Soon after their arrival, she won the British girls' championship. Her remarkable aptitude for chess was greatly enhanced by her coach, the Hungarian grandmaster Geza Maroczy, who had also immigrated to England as a result of the postwar chaos in Central Europe. Menchik lived near Maroczy's home in Hastings and had the benefit of learning and receiving encouragement from a virtuoso chess player rather than having to rely on the much more modest talents found at most local chess clubs. Under Maroczy's tutelage, Menchik soon entered a completely different class of chess playing than other gifted young players.

In 1927, the International Federation of Chess (FIDE) established the first world championship for women. This was held in London at the same time as the first international team championship, the first of many Chess Olympiads to come. By scoring 10 wins and 1 draw in 11 games, the 21-year-old Menchik won the championship effortlessly, thus becoming the first women's world chess champion. From then on, she went on to win every women's world championship until her death: Hamburg (1930), 7 points out of 8 games; Prague (1931), 8 of 8; Folkestone (1933), 14 of 14; Warsaw (1935), 9 of 9; Stockholm (1937), 14 of 14; and Buenos Aires (1939), 18 of 19. In these seven championship matches, Menchik maintained an amazing level of superior chess skill, losing only 1 game out of the total of 83 games played.

Soon after she became the women's world champion, Menchik began to play against some of the game's most eminent male players. In 1928, she participated in a Masters Tournament in Scarborough, achieving a 50% score among men and prompting a newspaper to comment: "Of all the sensational aspects of this event, the greatest was Vera Menchik's presence." Over the next decade, while winning the international women's championships, she also played and defeated

many of the game's greatest players, all of whom were men. Among them were Edgar Colle, Dr. Max Euwe, Sultan Khan, Karel Opocensky, Samuel Reshevsky, Sir George Thomas, and Frederick Yates. From Menchik's earliest years as the women's champion, it proved to be unwise for great male chess players to underestimate her abilities.

At the 1929 Karlsbad International Tournament, a prestigious event that drew such giants of the game as José Capablanca, Aron Nimzowitsch, and Savielly Tartakower, Menchik was at first dismissed as a lightweight, a "young girl" who could not possibly compete with seasoned chess masters. Viennese master Albert Becker jokingly suggested that if anyone lost to her they would be inducted into an unlikely organization he called the Vera Menchik Club. Becker was soon defeated by Menchik at Karlsbad, effectively becoming the charter member of the Vera Menchik Club, which would grow into a sizeable entity. Even Dr. Max Euwe, a superb player who was to become a world champion, eventually became a "double member" of Vera's club.

In the early 1930s, Menchik proved to be a formidable adversary to male chess masters. At the Ramsgate competition in 1929, she finished just behind the powerful player Akiba Rubinstein, and one-half point behind the renowned Cuban player José Capablanca. At the same tournament, she finished ahead of both her coach Geza Maroczy and the celebrated George Koltanowski. In other tournaments with the best male players in the game, she finished second in London (1932 and 1934), third in Maribor (1934), third in Great Yarmouth (1935), and third in Montevideo (1939). Although Capablanca defeated her a total of nine times, contemporary chess enthusiasts were impressed by the quality of Menchik's playing against the world champion. Some chess writers described her style as that of "a very scientific player," but also praised her ability to recognize the necessity of using new ideas when the situation called for a touch of innovation.

Chess remained largely a male preserve in the 1930s, even though Menchik's achievements called into question some sexist assumptions. Grandmaster Alexander Alekhine continued to display traces of the widespread prejudice against women in chess held by the game's leading players when he commented: "Vera Menchik is an extremely capable chess player; if she continues her work and training, she will graduate from her current status as an average master and become a first-class International Master." Even he, who was quite aware of Menchik's abilities, could not quite conceive of the idea that one day chess would have a woman grandmaster. Indeed, the title of woman's grandmaster would not be introduced to the game until 1977. It is possible that Alekhine's prejudices were a reflection of his overall political and social views, which drew him into throwing his lot with the Nazis during World War II. Disgraced after the war, he escaped to Spain and then Portugal, where he died in 1946.

In the Soviet Union, a more liberal attitude toward women in the game of chess appeared to have taken root in the 1930s. By the mid-1920s, only a few years after Menchik's departure from Russia, women's chess had become an activity that was both highly organized and encouraged by the new Soviet regime. In 1931, the National Congress of the Communist Party went so far as to decree a new level of support for women's chess as a state-approved activity, a directive that took concrete form in 1932 when a Soviet women's championship was officially created. Menchik's visit to Moscow in 1935 gave a powerful boost to the already thriving arena of Soviet women's chess. She was enthusiastically received throughout her stay, and after her departure it became clear that women's chess had become a permanent feature of the world of Soviet sport.

In 1934 and 1937, Menchik put her women's championship title at stake in unofficially arranged individual matches with her most serious challenger, the outstanding German player Sonja Graf . On both occasions, Menchik defeated Graf decisively. (Oddly enough, both women, although they continued to play under their maiden names, would marry men named Stevenson, creating a situation whereby two Mrs. Stevensons vied for top place in women's chess.) These matches decisively settled the question of who was the leading woman in world chess, even though some controversy remained as to whether or not the games had been official FIDE events or merely off-the-record private matches.

Until recently, chess historians have largely neglected women's role in the game, which is still an almost exclusively male domain. Opinions as to the place Vera Menchik holds in the history of chess vary considerably, and a consensus has yet to be established. Her death in wartime ended her life in mid-career, and it will never be known how much better a player she might have become had she lived another three or four decades. Nathan Divinsky has raised questions about the quality of her performance in men's tournaments in the 1930s, in which she participated as the first woman in history invited to compete against male players. Although she achieved a number of "fine wins" over such world-class players as Euwe, Reshevsky, and Sultan Khan, Divinsky has written that these can only be seen as "modest overall results," and he goes on to suggest that Menchik's best result was the third place she achieved at Maribor in 1934, where she finished ahead of Grandmaster Rudolf Spielmann. Some chess historians have minimized Menchik's 1942 victory over Jacques Mieses, arguing that Mieses, who was a brilliant but also at times uneven player, was 77 years old at the time. Despite these caveats, it was obvious to contemporary professionals and lay people alike that Menchik was a chess player of formidable talent, tenacity, and judgment.

Although she had been born in Russia, Menchik became solidly British in her values and loyalties over the years. In 1937, she married R.H.S. Stevenson, a major figure in the national chess scene as secretary of the British Chess Federation, who died in 1943. Both Vera's mother and her sister Olga continued to live in Britain, and as the tide of World War II swung in favor of the Allies, they and Vera began to look ahead to times of peace when she could once more concentrate fully on chess, which included participating in international tournaments. This hope would not be realized. On June 27, 1944, Vera Menchik, her sister Olga and her mother were all killed in a German air raid on Kent. The postal administration of the Czech Republic issued a commemorative postage stamp for Věra Menčková on February 14, 1996, to coincide with celebrations honoring her on the 90th anniversary of her birth.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia