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KEPT IN CHECK

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EQUALITY STILL ELUDES WOMEN IN CHESS

THROUGHOUT THE month of November, the chess world was focused on two men: Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champ from Norway, and Fabiano Caruana, the U.S.'s first challenger for the world title since 1972. The two were locked in battle for the world championship in London. But 3,500 miles away was another tournament: the women's world chess championship in Siberia. If chess seems like a game that shouldn't need to be divided by gender—well, let's just say it's a work in progress.

"The day may come when we may not need separate championships," says Susan Polgar, who became a grandmaster in 1991, the first woman to earn the title in tournament play. "That's the ultimate dream."

Almost all of the world's best players are men. Hou Yifan of China is the only woman in the top 100, and only one woman has ever played for the world championship. (Susan's sister, Judit Polgar, in 2005.) The pool of male players is much larger: Just 14% of U.S. Chess Federation members are female—progress, given that in '09, the number was 10%.

Still, there's more than a word difference between the women's world championship and the world championship. In the women's tournament, 64 players compete in knockout elimination; in the open event, the defending champion plays a challenger, determined by an eight-player candidates' tournament. The prize is smaller for women—$60,000 for the winner, while Carlsen or Caruana will walk away with more than $600,000.

The World Chess Federation announced this year that future women's championships will adopt the classic candidates' format, and the women's total prize will increase to half of the open championship's total. Those are promising steps, but progress has been slow. The first chess player to appear on the cover of SI was women's national champion Lisa Lane (above) in 1961. Lane was the first to formally protest for women to be paid more, organizing a demonstration at the '66 U.S. women's championship in New York.

Lane won her second title there, but the protest didn't work. She soon quit competitive chess. "I tried. That's all you could say," says Lane, now 80. Fifty years later women are still trying.

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