Today marks International Women’s Day, a global event that celebrates the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present, and future. On such a day it would be easy to highlight more young girls coming into chess with the resounding success of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit – but instead, I’d like to pay tribute to the Beth Harmon of her day, namely Vera Menchik, whose contribution to our game should never be forgotten.
Menchik was born in 1906 in Moscow to a Czech-Russian father and English mother, who went on to become the original trailblazer for the women’s game. She had no real equal among her own gender and went on to become the first Women’s World Champion. She had an uninterrupted reign from 1927 to 1944, having successfully defended the title eight times, with the remarkable overall record of 78 wins, four draws, and one solitary lost game.
She was so strong that she became the first woman ever to play in the British Championship and the first of her era to play in top master tournaments. Some members of the fraternity of male chess masters were openly hostile towards her inclusion, such as Austrian master Albert Becker who founded the “Vera Menchik Club” when she was invited to play at Carlsbad 1929. Membership was to be awarded to anyone who lost to her (with draws counting as half- or candidate membership) – and with supreme irony, it was male chauvinist Becker himself who became the club’s first member!
Originally, the “club” was considered a joke. But very soon it became obvious that Menchik’s legacy – the idea that in chess a woman can compete on an equal basis against a man – was a reality, and after Becker others soon followed. Among her most famous victims was Dr. Max Euwe (twice!), who would go on to become world champion in 1935; the legendary eight-times US champion Sammy Reshevsky; and British champions Frederick Yates, Sir George Thomas, Mir Sultan Khan, William Winter, C.H.O’D. Alexander and Harry Golombek.
And for the complete record, out of 437 tournament games against male opponents, she won 147 – though she didn’t fare all that well against the very top elite of the era, hammered by Jose Raul Capablanca (9-0), Alexander Alekhine (7-0), Mikhail Botvinnik (2-0), Paul Keres (2-0), Reuben Fine (2-0) and Emanuel Lasker (1-0).
In 1921 Menchik’s family moved from Moscow to England and she married an Englishman (Rufus Stevenson, who died in 1943). Tragically, aged just 38, and in the last year of WWII, she became one of the thousands of London victims of the deadly ‘doodlebugs’. On June 27, 1944, a V1 rocket annihilated Menchik’s home in Clapham, where she lived with her mother and sister. All were killed instantly. The devastation also obliterating her trophies, scoresheets, and notebooks.
Internationally, Menchik is honoured by being the first woman to be inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame; her native Czech Republic (and the former Yugoslavia) printed postage stamps commemorating her; and FIDE, the game’s governing body pays homage to her with the trophy for the Women’s event in the biennial Chess Olympiad being called ‘The Vera Menchik Cup’.
Curiously, whilst recognised elsewhere, as English Chess Federation president and national journalist/editor Dominic Lawson wrote in his Daily Mail column, Menchik is a world-beating heroine shamefully neglected in her adopted country with no recognition whatsoever. His righteous case is that here is the only British world chess champion and she has effectively been “effaced from our own history of female achievement”.
Dr. Max Euwe – Vera Menchik
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5.e3 Be7 6.Nf3 0-0 7.Rc1 a6 8.cxd5 exd5 9.Bd3 c6 10.0-0 Ne4 11.Bf4 Nxc3 12.Rxc3 Re8 13.Qb1 Nf8 By a transposition of sorts, we find ourselves in the so-called ‘Minority Attack’ in the Queen’s Gambit Exchange, where white aims to follow-up with a4 and an eventual b5 push to break up black’s queenside pawns, and then hoping to win the ensuing endgame. 14.b4 Ng6 15.Bg3 Bd6 16.a4 Bxg3 17.hxg3 Bd7 18.Rfc1 Qf6 19.b5 The thematic break. 19…axb5 20.axb5 Rec8 21.Qc2 Qd8 22.bxc6 Rxc6 23.Rc5! Forcing black to capture on c5, and having to endure a difficult endgame with the pawns on b7 and d5 set to become a big headache for Menchik. 23…Rxc5 24.dxc5 Ra5 25.Qb2 Qa8 26.Qb6 Nf8 27.Ne5 Ra1 28.Rb1 Rxb1+ 29.Bxb1 Be6 30.Kh2 Nd7 31.Nxd7 Bxd7 32.Qc7 Qc8 33.Qxc8+ Bxc8 34.Ba2 Be6 35.Kg1! Intending the king march Kh2-g1-f1-e2-d3-d4, where it is clear that Menchik will have to fight very hard to earn a draw. 35…Kf8 36.Kf1 Ke7 37.Ke2 Kf6 38.Kd3 The first ‘wobble’ from Euwe with a hasty move – in hindsight, better was 38.Bb3! and bringing his bishop into the game. After 38…Ke5 39.f4+ Kf5 40.Bd1 Kf6 (Not 40…Kg4? 41.Kf2+! Kf5 42.g4+ Kf6 43.Bf3 as white is ideally placed to win the endgame after Kf2-e2-d3-d4 etc.) 41.Kd3 Bf5+ 42.Kd4 Be4 43.Bg4! with the plan of Bc8xb7, and try to win from here. 38…Ke5 39.g4! Very clever from Euwe, who in a stroke rids himself of the handicap of his doubled g-pawns. 39…g5 The point of Euwe’s ingenious play is that 39…Bxg4? 40.f4+ Ke6 41.Kd4 and Black is set to lose the d5- and b7-pawns (or alternatively d5- and f7-pawns). 40.g3 Threatening f4+, and now forcing Menchik’s hand. 40…Bxg4 41.f4+ gxf4 42.gxf4+ Kf6 43.Bxd5 Bc8 It looks like a futile defence, but Menchik has a deep hidden resource she’s relying on – and one that Euwe sleepwalks right into. 44.Bf3 The clear winning plan was 44.e4! and following up with Ke3, f5 and Kf4. 44…Ke7 45.Kc4 Kd8 Menchik gives the resigned air of being in dire straits here with her brace of retreating moves – but she is in fact setting-up a very clever swindle that Euwe obligingly falls into. 46.Kd5?? Unwittingly, Euwe walks right into the trap patiently being set by Menchik. The way to play to win is the more circumspect 46.Kd4! Ke7 47.e4 – but Euwe gets seduced by his king becoming even more dominant than it is. 46…b6!! [see diagram] Wakey! Wakey! It’s a remarkable and very instructive endgame resource, as Menchik catches Euwe sleeping as the sad plight of the world champion-to-be’s king and bishop on the same diagonal turns out to be a big table-turner. 47.c6 Of course, taking the pawn with 47.cxb6 loses the bishop and the game, after 47…Bb7+ etc. 47…Kc7 48.Ke5 Be6! Now the next problem for Euwe is that, with the c6-pawn tying up his bishop, Menchik is going to play …Bb3 and then start running her passed b-pawn up the board – and a bonus for Menchik is that her bishop will also defend the vital f7-pawn. 49.f5 Bb3 50.Kf6 Not losing per se, but the best way for White to save what was once a won game was 50.e4! Kxc6 51.Kf6 b5 52.e5+ Kc5 53.e6 fxe6 54.fxe6 Bxe6 and a draw. 50…b5 51.Kg7? It’s an act of sheer folly now from Euwe, who can’t quite come to terms with the fact that the endgame is no longer winning for him, and he’s probably also too proud to cede the draw against a woman during an era when the fairer sex was universally seen as being the inferior of the species. He simply had to save face now with the bail-out of 51.e4 and the game ending as in the above note. 51…b4 52.Kxh7 It’s too late now for 52.e4, as Black has 52…Bc2! that forces 53.Bh5 Bxe4 54.f6 b3 55.Bxf7 b2 56.Ba2 Bd5!! 57.Bb1 h5! and, with the h-pawn running, white can’t stop both passed pawns after black sacrifices the bishop for the f-pawn. 52…Bc2 53.Kg7 b3 54.Bd5 b2 55.Ba2 Kxc6! This time black captures the c-pawn, as there’s a clever winning tactic that prevents white from capturing on f7. 56.f6 As we’ll also soon see in the game, 56.Kxf7 loses on-the-spot to 56…Bb3+! 57.Bxb3 b1Q 58.Be6 Qb7+ 59.Kf6 Kd6 etc. 56…Kd6 57.e4 Bxe4 58.Kxf7 Bd5+! Equally as lethal as in the previous note! 59.Bxd5 b1Q 60.Kg7 Qg1+ 61.Kf8 Kxd5 0-1 And Euwe resigns in the face of 62.Ke8 Ke6 63.f7 Qg6 64.Kd8 Qxf7 and an easy mate.