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Vera Menchik

Full name Věra Menčíková
Country Russian Empire
Soviet Union
United Kingdom
Born 16 February 1906
Moscow, Russian Empire
Women's World Champion 1927-44

Vera Menchik (Czech: Věra Menčíková; Russian: Ве́ра Фра́нцевна Ме́нчик Vera Frantsevna Menčik; 16 February 1906 - 27 June 1944) was a British-Russian chess player who gained renown as the world's first women's chess champion. She also competed in chess tournaments with some of the world's leading male chess masters, defeating many of them, including future World Champion Max Euwe.

Early life

Her father, František Menčík, was born in Bystra nad Jizerou, Bohemia, while her mother, Olga Illingworth (c. 1885-1944), was English. He was the manager of several estates owned by the nobility in Russia, and his wife was a governess of the children of the estate owner.

Vera Menchik was born in Moscow in 1906. Her sister Olga Menchik was born in 1907.

When she was nine years old her father gave her a chess set and taught her how to play. When she was 15 her school club organised a chess tournament and she came second.

After the Revolution her father lost a mill he owned and eventually also the big house where the family lived. The marriage broke down; her father returned to Bohemia, and in the autumn of 1921 Olga and her daughters went to Hastings, England, to live with Olga's mother.

As Vera spoke only Russian she hesitated to go to the local chess club, but at last on 18 March 1923 she joined the Hastings Chess Club and began to take lessons from John Drewitt. Then she became a pupil of the grandmaster Géza Maróczy. During 1923 she played in several team matches.

In December 1923 she played in her first Hastings Congress and got a draw against Edith Price, the then British ladies' champion.

In the next Hastings Christmas Chess Congress 1924/25 she played again in Group A, first class, and finished second with five points out of seven. She met Miss Price in the last round of the Group of the Winners and again drew.

In 1925 she contested two matches against Edith Price, winning both of them, and she was considered the strongest lady player in the country; as she was not British she could not enter the national competition.

In January 1926 she won the first Girls' Open Championship at the Imperial Club in London with her sister Olga coming third. In 1927 she retained this title and Olga came second. Next year Vera was too old to play, and Olga again came second.

Women's World Championships

She won the first Women's World Championship in 1927 and successfully defended her title six times in every other championship held during her lifetime, losing only one game, while winning 78 and drawing four games.

She won two matches against Sonja Graf for the Women's World Champion title; (+3−1=0) at Rotterdam 1934, and (+9−2=5) at Semmering 1937. Sonja Graf was the second strongest women's player in the world at the time and coached by the legendary Siegbert Tarrasch, but looking at both the games and the final result, their playing levels were completely different; Menchik was considered head and shoulders above any female chess player of her time.

This observation was supported by the fourth world champion Alekhine, who, writing about one of her victories against Sonja Graf in 1939, wrote that "it is totally unfair to persuade a player of an acknowledged superclass like Miss Menchik to defend her title year after year in tournaments composed of very inferior players", the specific tournament in question being the seventh Women's World Chess Championship.

International tournament results

Starting in 1929, she participated in a number of Hastings Congress tournaments.

A list of her results in Hastings, year by year;

The biggest and strongest tournament Menchik played in was the Moscow tournament of 1935, which featured World Champions Botvinnik, Capablanca, and Lasker, as well as a host of elite players and future GMs like Flohr, Ragozin, Spielmann, Levenfish, Lilenthal, etc. Here, Menchik finished in last place, 20th out of 20 competitors, with a score of (+0−16=3).

Other major international tournaments include Karlsbad in 1929, where she finished last, 22nd out of 22 players, with a score of (+2−17=2), and Lodz in 1938, where she finished 15th out of 16, with a score of (+1−9=5).

Menchik's best results at international tournaments came at Ramsgate 1929. This was a Scheveningen system match, with 7 players from one team competing against 7 from another. Menchik finished with an unbeaten score of (+3−0=4). In 1934 she finished in 3rd place out of 9 players at Maribor, behind Lajos Steiner and Vasja Pirc, but ahead of the likes of Rudolph Spielmann and Milan Vidmar, with a score of (+3−1=4). In 1942 she won a match against Jacques Mieses (+4−1=5). It should, however, be noted that Mieses was 77 years old at the time, and no longer an active tournament participant.

The "Vera Menchik Club"

When in 1929, Menchik entered the Carlsbad, Viennese master Albert Becker ridiculed her entry by proposing that any player whom Menchik defeated in tournament play should be granted membership into the Vera Menchik Club. In the same tournament, Becker himself became the first member of the "club". In addition to Becker, the "club" eventually included Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander, Abraham Baratz, Eero Böök, Edgard Colle, Max Euwe, Harry Golombek, Mir Sultan Khan, Frederic Lazard, Jacques Mieses, Stuart Milner-Barry, Karel Opočenský, Brian Reilly, Samuel Reshevsky, Friedrich Sämisch, Lajos Steiner, George Alan Thomas, William Winter, and Frederick Yates.

Late life and death

In 1937, at the age of 31, Vera Menchik married Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson (1878-1943), twenty-eight years her senior, who was subscriptions editor of British Chess Magazine, a member of the West London Chess Club, and later honorary secretary of the British Chess Federation.

In 1944 Britain was nearing its sixth year in World War II, and 38-year-old Vera, who was widowed the previous year, still held the title of women's world champion. On 27 June she, her sister Olga, and their mother were killed in a V-1 flying bomb attack which destroyed their home at 47 Gauden Road in the Clapham area of South London.

The trophy for the winning team in the Women's Chess Olympiad is known as the Vera Menchik Cup.

Notable chess games

Vera Menchik

Preceded by
none, first champion
Women's World Chess Champion
Succeeded by
vacant, then Lyudmila Rudenko

(no champion from 1944-1950)