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Original Issue


Why have I yet to meet a woman who plays decent social chess? There's no known biological reason why women shouldn't be able to play the game. They have minds to ponder with, eyes to perceive with and fingers to push pawns with. Women are unquestionably imaginative, and there are surely as many imaginable moves in a chess game as there are stars in the sky. Yet only 4% of all U.S. Chess Federation members are female. Queen's gambit? Declined.

In an age when women are invading male bastions from Wall Street to the Congress, society still doesn't encourage them to play chess. By and large, fathers don't teach daughters, boyfriends won't play girl friends; in general, men avoid playing games with women. Their excuses are as feeble as those once used to discourage women from becoming scientists and mathematicians: Chess isn't ladylike or sexy, women don't have the patience or logic—what's a nice girl like you doing in a seedy chess club like this? King's gambit.

The few girls who learn the game as children tend to drop it as teenagers, when they discover it's more fun to date than checkmate. Typically, they have no one to play with—other girls don't, and boys won't. Women occasionally get games with men but then wish they hadn't. There's a celebrated story—one that many people say is true—about a man who suffered a heart attack and died while playing chess with a woman. She was convinced he had dropped dead on purpose rather than lose to her.

But that's going to extremes. Most men can't imagine losing to a woman. When they do, instead of asking for rematches, they suddenly have trains to catch. Knight's Tour.

"Men have kicked me under the table and blown smoke in my face," says Mary Lasher, a Seattle player who has written extensively on the scarcity of women in chess. At the 1984 Chess Olympiad in Thessaloníki, Greece, each American male player received a $1,500 honorarium, plus additional payment for doing well. The women were paid only $1,150 apiece, with the promise of a "nice surprise" for a good performance. Fourth-ranked Rachel Crotto of Venice, Calif. finished second. She's still waiting for her surprise. U.S. women's champion Diane Savereide of Santa Monica, Calif. knows how Crotto felt. "I was once invited to a Connecticut event," she says, "but all they wanted me to do was play five-minute exhibition games before the actual tournament began. They couldn't believe a strong woman player existed." Queen trapped.

Still, there are more reasons for the dearth of women in chess than a mere overabundance of male chauvinists. The emerging, ambitious yuppie women see no career in chess; in fact, not a single American woman earns her living playing the game. Inna Izrailov, the third-ranked woman in the U.S. and a computer-science major at Yale, says, "I don't know any woman who wants to be a professional, because it's hard to survive in the real world. I want a career and a life." A professional chess life for a woman is possible in only a few places. Sweden, for one, where females are trained as intensively as male tennis players; one prodigy, Pia Cramling, has beaten Viktor Korchnoi. Soviet Georgia, for another, where talented women are given coaching and held up as role models; Nona Gaprindashvili was honored by having a chess school named after her. According to Georgian folklore, every bride's dowry should include a book of poems and a chess set. No wonder the only two women who have been awarded the title of Men's International Grandmaster—Gaprindashvili, 43, and current world women's champion Maya Chiburdanidze, 24—are Georgians. Chiburdanidze, who has been called "Bobby Fischer in a dress," has held the women's title for seven years and has won international men's tournaments in Spain, Germany and India; meanwhile, she's studying full time to be a cardiologist. Queen's side attack.

Granted, the U.S. has a handful of women who, like Izrailov, take the time to play in tournaments, but few understand the game's creative possibilities, and as a result most women never get started at all. "Chess is a snore and a bore," says one otherwise intelligent and enlightened woman. The problem is that chess is usually perceived as war, and men have long been considered more warlike than women. The more harmonious side of chess—a duet for two musicians—is frequently ignored in the heat of combat. Says Manhattan's Diana Lanni, the 13th-ranked U.S. woman, "Chess is pretty, creative, esthetic and artistic—all things women are supposed to be interested in." Alas, few women are exposed to such beauty. Queen rooked.

Many chess masters find it hard to attract girls to their classes in schools. Recently, at Brooklyn's Poly Prep Country Day School, visiting master Les Braun was demonstrating how to play the game. On the fringe of the crowd two girls watched. But when chessboards were set up and Braun began playing volunteers, the girls were off to talk with their friends. "I play," one of them said later, "but I'd rather socialize." This in a game in which the queen is the most powerful piece. Queen sacrifice.