Who Was The Forgotten Female Chess Star

Who Was The Forgotten Female Chess Star


If you are one of the millions of people who loved Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” and started playing chess because of that show then you might be surprised to hear that it was even earlier when women were competing against men than what was portrayed in the show.

Vera Menchik is the forgotten chess star that was the first true female chess champion, she competed against the best male chess players in the world and held her own in the rankings in most of the tournaments she entered, she couldn’t really crack the super elite Russian grandmasters but she was personally praised by Alekhine but also ridiculed by other male players.

Keep reading to learn all about Vera Menchik and how she rose to the top before even World War 2 becoming the first female chess player to be taken seriously.

The First Woman to Play Chess Seriously

The first woman who played with men and won was Vera Menchik, this remarkable woman was the first true strong female chess player in the world.

She was strong enough back then to become the first Women’s World Chess Champion and held this title from 1927 until her tragic death in 1944.

To put things into context, Menchik dominated women’s chess in a way similar to Emmanuel Lasker, but for less time. Another comparison would be Alexander Alekhine, another world champion who died on his throne.

Vera Menchik paved the way for every other woman that came after her, for example Nona Gaprindashvili and Maya Chiburdanidze, who were also able to compete against grandmasters, and then later Judit Polgar, probably the best female chess player ever, she made it to rank 8 and played in the FIDE World Championship tournament.

A Difficult Childhood

A young Vera Menchik

But Vera’s rise to the top of the chess world was not an accident, similar to the main character in “The Queen’s Gambit” Menchik had a difficult childhood because her childhood was interrupted by Russia’s 1917 revolution.

She was born in 1906 in Moscow, Russia. Her father was Czech and her mother was English. At first everything went smoothly for Vera; her father was an estate manager for wealthy families and her mother was a governess.

She enjoyed an upper middle-class lifestyle and attended a private school for girls but everything changed in 1917 with the revolution.

The Menchik family found themselves in the middle of a civil war and living under a regime which saw even the upper-middle class as suspect. Their large home and mill had to be shared with others and eventually the family lost ownership of it.

Vera’s private school stopped existing altogether and instead she had to attend public school. She later described the change in conditions in a letter in 1943:

During the winter of 1919-20, my school was for some time without water, heating or electric light, yet the classes went on, and the students, read by the light of a few flickering candles or an oil lamp, and then perhaps had an hour’s walk home through the snow, for all traffic stopped after working hours.

It was in these difficult times when her father taught Vera how to play chess, she continued to play in school and even entered tournaments there.

In 1921 her situation changed again, her parents divorced and went their separate ways. Her dad left back home to Czechoslovakia while Vera and her sister Olga went with their mother to England.

They ended up living on their grandmother’s house in England’s southeast coast in Hastings.

Becoming a Master

It was in England where Vera Menchik became the player that we remember today. Because she only spoke Russian she couldn’t communicate with others in England. This led her even more to chess as she could play with anyone without speaking the same language.

She took her chess studies seriously and joined a local chess club, Hastings Chess Club. It was in here that she received lessons from her first coach and played against Géza Maróczy a famous player back then.

In a way she was lucky that Hastings was a popular place for chess tournaments. She slowly rose through the ranks in the club, played in club matches and tournaments.

By 1926 she was already placing at her first men’s tournament, and in the 1929/30 season she debuted in the Premier tournament which was the highest level at the time of the Hastings competition.

Women’s World Champion

By this point Vera was already the world’s strongest woman player in the world by a wide margin, she won the first ever Women’s World Chess Championship in 1927.

While the prestige of this tournament was low at first it continued to improve every year, but even so Vera Menchik was always a step above everyone else in these tournaments.

She successfully defeated challengers six more times after 1927 up until her death, most of the time she won by large margins and it was clear that she was the strongest woman in the world of chess.

In fact, the only player who even came close to challenge her was the talented German player, Sonja Graf. She came close in the 1939 World Championship tournament and only needed two more points to win.

Tournament Success

Vera on the board

Up to this point Vera was a very strong player but she still lacked wins versus male opponents, this was going to change in 1929 when she started performing well in open tournaments all over the world.

In 1929 she tied with Akiba Rubinstein for second place at a tournament in Ramsgate, here she finished just one point behind Capablanca and ahead of her former coach Maróczy and many other masters.

After this great result, Vera was a sensation in the chess world. She was invited to other tournaments and the most important one of these was Carlsbad 1929, which was to be the strongest chess tournament since the end of World War 1 up to that point.

The Carlsbad tournament featured super strong players like: Capablanca, Rubinstein, Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Bogoljubov, Tartakower, Marshall and so on…

Because of the strength of this tournament, everyone expected Vera to finish last, and sadly she did. But her results were still impressive for the time.

At Carlsbad her biggest win came from Albert Becker from Austria. The player had joked previously that any player that lost to her should join the Vera Menchik Chess Club, making him the first player of that club, ouch!

Praise From Alekhine

After her first 15 games in Carlsbad Alekhine had this to say about Vera:

I have suspended final judgment so far about Miss Vera Menchik of Russia, because the greatest caution and objectivity in criticism are necessary regarding any one so extraordinary. However, after fifteen games, it is certain that she is an absolute exception in her sex. She is so highly talented for chess that with further work and experience at tournaments, she will surely succeed in developing from her present stage of an average player into a high-classed international champion.

She indisputably has attained her three points against the strong masters, but it is little known to the public that she also has attained superior positions against Euwe, Treybal, Colle and Dr. Vidmar. She was beaten by Dr. Vidmar only after a nine-hour match. It is the chess world’s duty to grant her every possibility for development.

Thanks to the world’s champion praise, Vera was considered for many tournaments, and indeed she won her first price that same year in Barcelona. It was the first time a woman had won a prize in an open tournament ever!


Vera continued to compete for another 15 years after Carlsbad, typically she would finish in the lower half of the strongest tournaments in the world like Hastings and Margate. But she did beat Grandmasters every once in a while, and she did really well in the lower tier tournaments where she had a much higher chance to win.

Unlike Beth Harmon from “The Queen’s Gambit” Vera never reached the top of the food chain in chess. Most of the time she lost to the strongest players of her day, but that only made her victories that much sweeter.

For example, Menchik only scored three draws at Moscow 1935, losing the other 16 games. However, her draw with Salo Flohr played a big role in the final table, as Flohr failed to secure clear first prize, instead sharing it with Mikhail Botvinnik.



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