Review: Vera Menchik: A biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 games, By Robert B. Tanner
Publisher McFarland (Site: www.mcfarlandpub.com)
2016 – 316 pages
By Davide Nastasio
We live in great times, because even chess publishers are acknowledging the huge contributions given by women to our beloved sport! Few books on different women champions have been published.
I have a keen interest in knowing champions of the past, especially when they were women. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for them to enter into a male dominated field, and not give up, but continue to fight till they reached the top!
The best publisher for historical and biographical books is clearly McFarland. The quality of their products is unmatched. When this book came out, I got a copy right away. I admit my ignorance about Vera Menchik, and wanted to know more about her and her historical chess period. For me a book is worth it if the book tells me something I don’t know, otherwise it is a waste of time and money. Growing up, I was an avid reader; my average was around 80 to 100 books a year. Now, I’m older. Family, work, and other stuff make me a very weak reader. Plus the internet and social apps have clearly swallowed a good part of my time!
But that said the book begins in the introduction with important information on how society, and chess, were treating women in the past. At page 3 we find: “As recently as 1937, none of the chess clubs in Boston allowed female members.” This changed in 1938. Digressing, let’s note another amazing contribution made by the author: the collection of the games of Vera Menchik. Now, why is this important? Well, with a click on my database I can have more than 2,500 games played by Alekhine; however, it seems that in the past, the biographies treating Vera Menchik had something like less than 100 games. In this book, thanks to the relentless dedication of the author in collecting books in different languages, and translating them, we have 350 games played by Vera Menchik. Just for this incredible collection of games, the book is a must-have! Thanks to these games we can assess the quality of chess playing in the 1920s and 30s.
Returning from the digression, allow me to refer to the historical period in which Menchik was living: in the U.S., chess clubs (such as in Boston) didn’t allow female members up to 1937-38, hence women couldn’t access chess like a man could. In Hastings, England, as early as 1923, female members were accepted. A full 14 to 15 years earlier than U.S., England admitted women to chess clubs.
This book doesn’t have many pictures of Vera Menchik, because as the author explains in the introduction (page 4), often the quality was too poor for printing, or it was impossible to track down the ownership of the picture for credits.
I totally ascribe to the author’s idea that chess is a culture which cannot be based only on pushing plastic pieces on a board, or the result of the last tournament. We should all do our part in knowing the champions of the past which have molded our modern chess world.
An interesting choice by the author was not to comment on the games of Vera Menchik in the way modern masters today would annotate them. Instead, he prefers to use the annotations and comments published in Vera Menchik’s historical period.
The sketchy biography provided by the author clearly shows how just a little more than 100 years ago, it was difficult to know something about someone who clearly wasn’t famous and important. For example, it is quite strange that her mother, whose last name is Illingworth, was living in Russia. Vera Menchik was born in 1906, and her family was able to escape from the Soviet Union in 1921. Through the biography we come to know that Vera chose chess as a hobby,because it was quiet and didn’t oblige her to speak in English. Clearly it must have been difficult for her to learn it, but again, it is unclear on the reason the mother never taught her English. But by 1933, it seems she was able to speak English well, as noted on the biography by Salo Flohr on Vera. We also find a difference between England and U.S., as mentioned in the beginning of the review. Since Boston chess clubs didn’t accept women till 1938, Vera Menchik joined the Hastings Chess Club in England in 1923. Now a comment made about her strength when she joined the Hastings chess Club is important at page 10: “a weak second class player, possibly a C player by present US standards.” For the USCF, if I understood the book well, a second category should be 1600, following Wikipedia, but for the handbook “USCF Official rules of chess” a C player is rated from 1400 to 1599.
It is clear that Miss Menchik progressed fast, because in England in that time there were a lot of team matches organized between clubs. She rose from board 26 in 1923, to board 1 and 2 by 1930. The author of the book mentions the tournaments she won. Often we forget how important the coach is in chess. In this case, her coach was of utmost importance, since GM Maroczy was coaching her.
Today we remember that name for a pawn formation, but Maroczy was a grandmaster and author of many chess books. We know he was a great coach because Vera Menchik joined the Hastings chess club in March 1923, and by December, thanks to Maroczy’s coaching, she was playing in the 1st Class section of the 1923-24 Hastings Christmas Congress.
Enough with the biography, because I don’t want to spoil all the surprises. Let’s return to review the book.
Part I is about Vera Menchik and the sketchy biography above mentioned; part II is her games, events, and cross tables.
This book is a great example for other chess publishers, because the quality and clarity of the material makes it unique. For example, I loved to browse through the cross tables and be able at a glance to see how Miss Menchik performed, and against which field.
Then, of course, one can see how well the games are annotated.
I also found it interesting to know that she played against some of the legendary classical players in a match, like the following with Mieses.
Part III of the book is dedicated to the writings by Vera Menchik, her articles on openings, middlegame, endgame, and even a political dialog!
The book ends with Part IV, based on appendices, notes, bibliography, and indices. Clearly this is a real chess book, exactly how a chess book should be: very informative, but also bringing to life a champion who lived a long time ago. I like this book, and I’m quite happy that it will add quality to my chess library.
I don’t want to annoy the readers with a lot of games, but we should praise and celebrate this great woman. I’d like to put at the end of this review a few games played by Vera Menchik against other legendary players. This will surely challenge the bias that women play worse chess than men.
This bias, which unfortunately still exists today, is portrayed well by Wikipedia in the following short story: “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.”
Many top male players of that period became members of such exclusive “clubs,” too many to mention. Here are a few of the games with some of its most famous members.
Edgar Colle shouldn’t need an introduction, since surely many play the Colle System, or bought opening books on the Colle.
For those who don’t know Khan, He was British Champion in 1929, 1932 and 1933, a chess genius from India, considered to be one of the 10 strongest players of that period. Today, India is producing many more chess geniuses, and we must all keep an eye on these great players!
Of course also the fifth world champion doesn’t need any presentation!
And for those who are still not convinced how great this chess player was, let me show you the following position:
White just plays 25.Rxf7, which is a big blunder. Can you see how Black continues? The tactical idea behind it is a very simple mating pattern. The end will leave Black a piece up!