“Her Turn: Revolutionary Women of Chess” highlights the stories of a diverse number of female chess players from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries. Through photographs, medals, trophies, periodicals, and other artifacts, it explores the struggles that these women faced over generations, and also celebrates their accomplishments as players, organizers, and writers.
The Women’s World Chess is played to determine the women’s world champion in chess. Like the World Chess Championship, it is administered by FIDE.
The 1897 International Ladies’ Chess Congress, organized by the Ladies’ Chess Club of London and held in conjunction with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, was the first international women’s competition. The competition was won by Mary Rudge, one of the best female players in England at the time.
The Women’s World Championship was established by FIDE in 1927 as a single tournament held alongside the Chess Olympiad. The winner of that tournamen did not have any special rights as the men’s champion did—instead she had to defend her title by playing as many games as all the challengers.
Thirty years later, London also hosted the first Women’s World Chess Championship, which was won by one of the early superstars of women’s chess, Vera Menchik. Through her example, Menchik, the first woman inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame, paved the way for generations of female players to come.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a trio of talented players—Adele Rivero, Mona May Karff, and Gisela Gresser—dominated early U.S. Women’s Chess Championships.
Trophy from the Mary Bain Memorial United States Women’s Open Chess Championship, c 1972-1973
Some of these women faced difficulties in their early careers—both Mona May Karff and 1951 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Mary Bain recollected not being allowed into chess clubs because of their gender. Still, they remained devoted to the game. Following her death in 1972, this U.S. Women’s Open Chess Championship trophy was created in honor of Mary Bain’s dedication to chess.
Gisela Gresser and Arnold Denker at the 1944 New York City, New York, U.S. and U.S. Women’s Chess Championships, 1944
The first U.S. woman to earn a master’s rating and among the first seventeen to hold the title of woman international master, Gresser finished or shared first place in the U.S. Women’s Championship nine times between the mid-1940s and the late 1960s. This photograph of Gresser playing against Arnold Denker was taken by Nancy Roos.
Nancy Roos not only tied with Gisela Gresser for first in the 1955 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, but was also a professional photographer whose work appeared frequently in Chess Review, Chess Life, and the California Chess Reporter.
Jacqueline Piatigorsky, Gisela Gresser, and Julian GresserAnalyzing a Chess Position while in Emmen, The Netherlands, during the 1957 Women’s Chess Olympiad, 1957
Future U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductees Jacqueline Piatigorsky and Gisela Gresser represented the United States in the first Women’s Chess Olympiad, which was held in Emmen, The Netherlands, in 1957. In addition to winning an individual bronze medal on Board 2 at this competition, Piatigorsky is best remembered for organizing two of the greatest American chess tournaments, the 1963 and 1966 Piatigorsky Cups.
Lisa Lane, the 1959 and 1966 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, learned to play chess at age 19. She quickly rose to the top ranks of American women’s chess, competing in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship only two years after taking up chess.
Competitors in the 1972, St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, 1972
At the then-record age of 13, Rachel Crotto (pictured fourth from the right) competed in her first U.S. Women’s Chess Championship in 1972. John Collins, mentor of Bobby Fischer, wrote in his famous book, My Seven Chess Prodigies, that Crotto aspired to become “one of the strongest players in the country, not just one of the strongest female players.”
Pictured on the cover of the November 1979 issue of Chess Life are three of the top American players of the mid-1970s through mid-1980s: Ruth Haring, Rachel Crotto, and 2010 U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductee, Diane Savereide.
“A Surprise Contender” Article in The Washington Post, 1981
Baraka Shabazz was the first African-American woman to compete in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, soon to be followed by Collette McGruder. Shabazz’s talent earned her financial support from Eartha Kitt and coaching from International Master Jeremy Silman and National Master Kenneth Clayton.
Susan Polgar’s Trophy from the 1996 Jaen, Spain, Women’s World Chess Championship, 1996
Later trailblazers who overturned gender stereotypes in chess included the Polgar sisters—Susan, Sofia, and Judit. The eldest, Susan, was the first woman to earn the title of grandmaster. She earned this trophy for her victory in the 1996 Women’s World Chess Championship.
Winners of the 1990 Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, World Youth Championship, 1990
In one of the early victories of her chess career, Judit (pictured second from the left) became the first girl to win the open section of the World Youth Chess Festival in 1990. Judit attained the grandmaster title at age 15 years and four months, beating the record previously set by Bobby Fischer in 1958.
Irina Krush vs. Ivona Jezierska at the 1998 Denver, Colorado, U.S. Women’s Championship, November 8, 1998
In 1998, 14-year-old Irina Krush made American chess history when she became the youngest person to win the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship. Krush has distinguished herself as one of the country’s best female players, tying Mona May Karff’s seven wins in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship.
Alexandra Kosteniuk’s Medal from the 2008 Nalchik, Russia, Women’s World Chess Championship, 2008
In the final round of the 2008 Women’s World Chess Championship, Alexandra Kosteniuk triumphed over 14-year-old Hou Yifan to win the title.
In her interview with the WCHOF for this exhibition, Kosteniuk said, “I think the challenges in order to attract girls and women into chess are similar to the challenges that other “non-female” professions have. There are not so many girls (compared to the number of boys) who wish to connect their life with physics or mathematics, going into space, or playing soccer. The answers to this issue are mostly in our social environment and in the way nature created men and women. In order to overcome these obstacles in chess, we have to create more girls-friendly clubs and programs and support girls on their way to reach new chess heights.”
Signed Vinyl Chess Board from the 2009 Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S. Women’s Championships, October 3-13, 2009
This signed vinyl chess board commemorates the 2009 U.S. Women’s Championships. Since 2009, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL), the sister organization of the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF), has hosted the U.S. Women’s Chess Championships. On May 26, 2014, the United States Senate declared Saint Louis the “National Chess Capital” in recognition of the CCSCSL’s educational efforts as well as its hosting of top-level competitions like the U.S. and U.S. Women’s Chess Championships and the Sinquefield Cup.
Her Turn: Revolutionary Women of Chess is part of an effort by the Saint Louis Chess Campus to attract more girls and women to the game. On October 29, 2015, the World Chess Hall of Fame opened Ladies’ Knight: A Female Perspective on Chess, which explores the game through the imaginations of a group of spectacular contemporary artists including Rachel Whiteread, Yoko Ono, and Barbara Kruger. These artists used the lens of chess to examine a variety of issues—from questions of justice to standards of beauty. Soon after the opening of this exhibition, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center revamped its beginner chess classes aimed at women.
Curated by Emily Allred, Assistant Curator, World Chess Hall of Fame