Carlsen. Kasparov. Fischer. In the male-dominated landscape, the women in chess are certainly catching up.
The world history of chess has seen a preponderance of male chess icons — Carlsen, Kasparov, Fischer, Alekhine, Capablanca, Nakamura, and the list goes on.
Female chess icons have been few and far in between, and it is quite ironic considering the fact that the most powerful chess piece is the Queen, and nothing gives chess fans more excitement than a queen sacrifice.
But the Queen has not always been the most powerful chess piece.
Historian Marilyn Yalom pinpoints the 1470s as the time the Queen developed its powerful move set — as documented in a Catalan poem that featured a game between Spanish players. Chess historians speculate that the emergence of female world leaders (such as Queen Isabella of Spain whose rule began in 1474) was the likeliest impetus for this change in the rules of chess.
Likewise, female chess masters have been catching up, despite the separation between men and women in chess tournaments. Here are some of the best female chess players you should know about.
1. Vera Menchik
Vera Menchik was the first Women’s World Chess Champion, a title she won in London in 1927, undefeated in that tournament.
This woman was so strong and brilliant that she had to play in the stronger and more-experienced men’s division with giants such as Alekhine and Capablanca. But because of her gender, she would often be on the receiving end of bias and prejudice.
Once, before a 1935 chess tournament, she got tired of all the mistreatment and remarked that she “was looking forward to drinking some men’s blood.”
Vera had a fruitful chess career. She became the head of the British Chess Federation, she also became a chess columnist and editor. Aside from that, she also played tennis and enjoyed psychology.
Unfortunately, during the heat of the Second World War, a German V-1 rocket landed in the house where Vera and her family lived. As a tribute to her, the winner of the Women’s Chess Olympiad receives the Vera Menchik Cup.
2. Nona Gaprindashvili (GM)
Nona Gaprindashvili was the first female to have been awarded the Grandmaster title. Yes, this woman literally broke the division and had to be awarded the “male” Grandmaster title.
She played in 12 World Chess Olympiads through 30 years — a testament to her consistency and resiliency as a top female player. Gaprindashvili also won the Soviet Women’s championship 5 times, and she became the women’s world champion at age 20 in 1961. She held the world title for 16 years.
Her fighting spirit extends further beyond the chessboard, such as when she sued Netflix for incorrectly stating that she never competed with men on The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix settled with her for an undisclosed amount.
3. Judit Polgar
Ask any chess enthusiast what is common with Carlsen, Kasparov, Karpov, Spassky, Kramnik, and Anand. He’ll probably tell you that they are all World Chess Champions, which would be correct. But another answer is this: Judit Polgar beat all of them.
Judit Polgar is the strongest female chess player of all time. She’s the female GOAT.
At one point, her live ELO rating was 2735, making her a “Super” Grandmaster. She was also the only woman to have breached the world’s top ten chess players — she was eighth in the world in 1996. She was the only woman to have been a serious candidate for the World Chess Championship. There was no kidding around for this lady.
4. Janelle Mae Frayna (WGM)
Janelle Mae Frayna is the first ever Filipina Woman Grandmaster (WGM), making her one of the best women in chess. She hails from Legazpi, Albay, and she was awarded the title in 2017 at age 21. On top of this, she is a three-time, and current, Philippine Women’s Chess Champion.
All her over-the-board achievements shine brighter considering that she graduated cum laude and valedictorian with a degree in Psychology from Far Eastern University. When asked about the most important qualities that enabled her to achieve this much, she said: “Grit, hard work, and determination. When I started playing chess, I wasn’t champion material; there’s nothing special in me. I just know I have to work hard to get what I want — to win trophies.”
There are many challenges for women in chess — societal norms and prejudice to name a few. But WGM Frayna said that in her experience, it is the biological clock of a woman and the cultural trait that once a woman gets married or starts a family, she could no longer compete at the same level. Fortunately for the Philippines, Janelle is focused on playing chess and improving her game.
For the young girls reading this who aspire to play chess, WGM Frayna reminds you all to have fun, enjoy the process, and always give your best.
Banner image from Judit Polgar on Facebook.