Skip to main content
Original Issue

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN

SHE WAS AMERICA'S FIRST CHESS STAR, BUT 50 YEARS AGO, AT THE PEAK OF HER FAME, LISA LANE WALKED AWAY FROM THE GAME—FOR REASONS THAT STILL RESONATE WITH TODAY'S TOP FEMALE PLAYERS

IN 1972, Bobby Fischer made his third appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. He was at the peak of his fame; the show was taped shortly before he was crowned world chess champion and aired just after. The audience went just as wild for him as for the episode's other guest, Mick Jagger. ("You brought a fan club with you," Cavett quipped.) American chess was more popular than ever—before or since—and it was hard to tell who was more of a rock star.

In his monologue, Cavett had wondered about women's chess: specifically, why there wasn't more of it. "There's only one woman's player whose name I know," the late night host said. "That's Lisa Lane, and the only thing I recall about her is that she's dead."

The subject came up in Cavett's conversation with Fischer. Asked if he thought that chess was sexist, Fischer replied, "I don't think it is at all. I'd welcome some girls in chess." Did he know any girls who'd tried? "Well, there was Lisa Lane. By the way, I think you said she was dead? She's around."

Cavett apologized. Fischer was correct: Lisa Lane was around. Yet Cavett's flub was, in a sense, understandable. Lane had spent several years as the women's national champion, but, more than that, she'd been one of the most compelling chess stars of the '60s. In 1961 she became the first chess player on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. (Fischer followed, a decade later, as the second and only other.) National media wrote breathlessly about how she played "like a man" and trash-talked opponents; they luxuriated in details about her personal life, particularly her love life. And then, suddenly, while reigning as women's national champion, she quit. She left New York City, where she'd been part of the country's most vibrant chess scene, and stopped playing in competition. By 1972 she'd been gone from public life for five years.

But she certainly wasn't dead. She hadn't fallen out of love with chess either. Instead, she felt that chess had fallen out of love with her—that it was no longer willing to accommodate a woman who wasn't interested in matching the game's narrow standard for an ideal female player. Lisa Lane is still alive today. So is women's chess, locked in the same fight for equal opportunity.

LAST NOVEMBER, the chess world was laser focused on two men in London: Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, who were battling for the world championship. Carlsen, a Norwegian, had held the title since 2013; Caruana, an American, was the United States' first challenger since Fischer in 1972. The two played 12 matches, followed by a tiebreaker round after each of the initial dozen ended in a draw. Carlsen, once again, emerged victorious.

But 3,500 miles away there was another battle of chess elites. The Women's World Chess Championship was held at the same time—in Western Siberia. The format was different, with 64 women playing in a frenzied knockout tournament rather than head-to-head. The purse was smaller: The female champion, China's Ju Wenjun, walked away with less than 10% of Carlsen's haul. And the best woman in the world, China's Hou Yifan, declined to participate, as she has since 2016, when she announced that she'd no longer play in a system with such a drastically different structure for women.

The World Chess Championship is not, formally, a men's championship. It used to be—until 1986, when a top female player, Susan Polgar, fought to qualify and had "men's" removed from the official title. Now it's known as the "open championship," but the name marked only a small step toward including women. More than three decades later only one woman has competed for the open championship: Judit Polgar, Susan's younger sister, who is widely considered the best woman ever to play the game. Her championship appearance was in 2005. Since then no other woman has even come close.

Hou Yifan is currently the only woman in the world's top 100; there are six in the top 500. But women aren't disproportionately outnumbered just at the top of the leader board. They're disproportionately outnumbered everywhere from youth competitions on up. Just 14% of US Chess Federation members are female. That might seem low but it's a record high, reached in 2018.

That's a far cry from what it was in the 1960s, when the federation once described its women as "only a handful" in a press statement, so few that they didn't bother with an exact figure. This was when Lane—a few years after her first national championship and just before her 25th birthday—opened a chess club in Greenwich Village, aptly named The Queen's Pawn. The year was 1963, and she lived in a studio apartment above the club. It was open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.; she'd play and set up games all afternoon and night. When she closed up, she'd head out with her club's regulars to a bar a few blocks over on Sixth Avenue, drinking and talking chess until 4 a.m. Then she'd head back to her studio, sleep until noon and rise to go downstairs and open the club in time to do it all again.

When The New Yorker covered The Queen's Pawn in 1964, Lane was described as "the world's most glamorous chess player." She didn't stand out as her era's most talented player nor did she finish as the most successful. But Lane was unlike anyone in American women's chess: pioneering and polarizing, unconcerned with public perception. "I enjoyed myself immensely," Lane, now 80, says. "I had a nice life for a little while there. I was doing what I wanted all the time."

Unlike many top players, she didn't begin as a child. Lane discovered chess in her late teen years, after she'd dropped out of high school in her native Philadelphia. She stumbled across students playing while she worked a part-time job at Temple University, and she was immediately intrigued. Lane began studying obsessively and playing as much as possible, gaining attention in coffee shops until she was introduced to Attilio Di Camillo, one of the city's best players. He began coaching her and invited her along when he played in the U.S. Championship in New York City in 1957.

Di Camillo didn't win. A 14-year-old prodigy, Bobby Fischer, did. But on the train home Lane told Di Camillo how impressed she'd been. Someday, he said, she could play in a championship tournament of her own: "If you're willing to work, you can be the women's champion in two years."

He was right. Exactly two years later, in 1959 at age 21, she became the women's national champion.

That Lane had been playing for just two years was only one factor that made her championship remarkable. Her background was conspicuously different from that of most top women, most of whom were well-educated or from well-to-do families or both. Lane was neither. She'd never known her father. Her mother worked several jobs; Lane and her sister boarded with various families while growing up. Between dropping out of high school and finding chess, she'd held several jobs, struggling to make something stick. "I had some unhappiness in my life, and chess was a way to get away for a bit," she says. "It was an escape, and it was something that I was good at."

When she took up the game, the media had little interest in women's chess. Lane changed that. Her story was eye-catching—young, talented, a quick rise to the top—and so, too, were her pictures. Lane was conventionally gorgeous, a point that was considered relevant in news features, match coverage and promotional material. When SI featured her on its Aug. 7, 1961, cover, the table of contents described her as "a girl who is not only beautiful but a chess champion as well."

Lane didn't particularly care. Chess was her priority; how people perceived it, or her, simply didn't matter. "It didn't bother me," she says. "I wasn't a deep thinker about anything but chess in those days. I didn't really think about the connection between my looks and my chess, except that it got attention."

It did. The New York Times' Sunday magazine, LIFE and Newsweek all seized on Lane just a few years into her chess career, before she was even an established pro. She wasn't famous for a woman chess player. She was quickly becoming famous, period, unlike any of her peers. For instance, Lane's rise came while a woman named Gisela Gresser was dominating U.S. women's chess—she won nine national titles between 1944 and 1969, including five in the '60s. But when Cavett tried to recall a female player on air in 1972, it was Lane he thought of, not Gresser.

"For this reason alone, I'm the most important American chess player," Lane said in The New York Times in 1961. "People will be attracted to the game by a young, pretty girl. That's why chess should support me. I'm bringing it publicity, and ultimately, money."

Swagger like that only boosted her allure. "I get a lot of love letters from other chess players," she told the Times. "I read them, I laugh, and then I file them. Letters from grandmasters go on top." She talked about how she hated to lose, how she couldn't look at someone who beat her, how she certainly did not throw an ashtray at one opponent. (She threw it at the table; when it broke, a piece struck him. But she didn't throw at him.) She was competitive in everything: She bought the yellow dress that she wore on the cover of SI with money that she won from Fischer in a poker game. (The two became friends; she could beat him at poker, she says, but he always won at Ping-Pong.)

In 1962, Lane played again for the women's national championship; this time she came in second to Gresser, losing in the final round. The next year she opened her chess club and began preparing for one of her biggest events: the '64 candidates' tournament for the world championship. She finished 12th out of 18—though she did beat Gresser, who was 14th. Lane was near the top of the women's game in the U.S., but international competition demanded more, and she was beginning to realize that she might not be able to get there.

Part of that was talent. But Lane also lacked the time and money that top players in other countries could put into their preparation. There weren't many serious prizes in American chess in the 1950s and '60s, and there weren't any targeted for women. For most top female players, who were almost exclusively independently wealthy, that didn't matter. But Lane—unmarried, without family money, living in the tiny studio above her chess club—needed more support.

Her frustration with chess economics spiked in 1963, when she was passed over for a spot on the national team for the Women's Chess Olympiad. It was customary for the country's top two women to go; Lane was second at the time, behind Gresser. But she didn't get the call. The US Chess Federation picked Gresser and a lower-ranked woman named Mary Bain. When Lane demanded an answer and went to the media to get it, the federation acknowledged that part of its reasoning had been that both Gresser and Bain could pay all of their own expenses for the tournament in Yugoslavia. "Since when did you have to be a millionaire to represent your country in sport?" Lane asked the Associated Press.

A few years later her resentment peaked. The 1966 U.S. Women's Championship prize pool was $600. The U.S. Championship had just posted a pool of $6,000. A difference by a factor of 10 was simply too much.

Lane was disappointed but not surprised—and she turned to men for help in raising awareness of the pay gender gap. She rounded up a group of male players from her club and had them picket the championship tournament in New York City. They wore sandwich boards that read, ONE MAN IS WORTH TEN WOMEN? and WHAT GOOD IS A KING WITHOUT A QUEEN? A man burned his US Chess Federation membership card in protest on the sidewalk.

Lane did well at the event; Gresser tied her, meaning that they'd share the title of national champion. But the protest didn't go over well—"the other women were embarrassed"—and it didn't achieve her goal of closing the pay gap. The news coverage didn't touch what she'd received for, say, revealing the name of her boyfriend. Chess Review's story ran under the heading "Hoax or Reality?" suggesting that the protest was so ludicrous that it might as well be fake.

Lane was frustrated, and she was beginning to sour on competitive chess. The women's title had become a strain that she couldn't escape; it was impossible to play without being conscious of the weight of her gender and legacy and place in the game. She was growing tired, and she didn't see a chance of financial or cultural change. She was ready to drop competition. In 1967 she did.

IN THE half century since Lane walked away, change has come slowly in the sport. There is still a wide gap in prize money for men and women: At the 2018 World Chess Championship the total prize was $1.1 million; at the 2018 Women's World Chess Championship, $450,000. Consider the playing field, though, and the gap looks far bigger. Two men split the $1.1 million; 64 women shared the $450,000. The women's champion, Ju Wenjun, took home $60,000. Carlsen left the men's event with roughly $620,000.

Some progress will be made this year: In November the World Chess Federation announced that beginning in 2019 the women's championship's prize fund will increase to half of the world championship's, and the tournament will switch to a similar structure—two top players going head-to-head rather than a 64-player bracket. (The two female competitors will split $550,000.) The new prize fund and structure have come after years of pushing from top female players. But when it comes to increasing the stature of women in chess, better conditions for top players are only one piece of the puzzle. Another is building a foundation of young talent. The United States had never made a concentrated effort on the subject, but that's changing.

For starters, there's been an increase in girls' tournaments. The US Chess Federation sanctioned its first girls' competition in 2003, the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls' Invitational. From 2010 to '18, participation at the junior high level increased by 23.7%—a jump driven by an 88.6% increase in girls' participation. And, as expected, more girls overall have led to more talented girls. In October, two eight-year-olds, Texas's Rachael Li and Minnesota's Alice Lee, earned an "expert" rating. No American girl so young had ever become an expert; suddenly, there were two. Their wins broke another barrier: On US Chess' October 2018 ranking of eight-year-old players—boys and girls—Li and Lee were No. 2 and No. 3.

From 1991 to 2000, four women became grandmasters, including Susan and her sister Judit. From 2001 to '10, 18 women did the same. Since 2011, there have been another 13. With the changes to the Women's World Championship, there's hope for even more progress. The growth among girls gives hope, too—not just for individual players, but for the chess establishment to crack the code on women's success and break down the cultural and financial burdens that once seemed inescapable.

TODAY LISA LANE lives on an isolated country road that branches off a marginally less isolated country road. The property is an hour and a half north of New York City, in the Hudson Valley's hamlet of Carmel, but it feels even more remote. (The nearest neighboring institution is a monastery, three miles away.) She moved to the region when she walked away from chess, and she's been in this farmhouse for exactly 40 years.

In 1960 a reporter named Neil Hickey interviewed her for The American Weekly. They hit it off; the following year, they ran into each other on the street and began dating. For the first time, Lane had something other than chess on her mind. In 1962, at the Hastings International Chess Congress in England, she couldn't stop thinking about him. It irritated her. So she decided to walk out of the tournament. "It interfered with my concentration," she says. "The first time that something interfered with my concentration!" In 1969, Lane and Hickey married.

While Lane spoke about her chess for this story, Hickey was in the next room, going through old photographs. ("She was such a big star in Russia. The Russians were all interested in chess, it was like their baseball, and she was like Mickey Mantle.") In the '60s, however, their relationship was a grand scandal. When Lane landed back in New York City from England, she was swarmed by reporters and followed through the streets. "Love Crowds Chess Off the Board," exclaimed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When Hickey refused to share any details, "Lisa's Lad Leery" ran in the Associated Press.

The coverage's tone was typical. Lane's chess ability, her success, her personality—they were unladylike and unexpected, if not downright unseemly for a woman. Falling in love? Finally the media decided that she'd done something that made sense. In the public eye, her status as a chess player was now secondary to her status as a girl in love. Her story had become larger than herself, and her chess wasn't part of it.

After she left chess, she looked for something else that could consume her in the same way. It didn't take long. After reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring she grew interested in environmentalism, approaching it with the same obsession that she once had for chess. In 1971, she started a health-food store in Carmel, N.Y., which she kept open until 2005. A WHAT GOOD IS A KING WITHOUT A QUEEN? board stayed in the basement until she closed up shop.

Chess did not define her life, as she'd expected it to. Instead, it was the beat and background of just one decade. The reverse is also true: Lane, once the most dynamic player in the women's game, did not come to define it, either. Her career was cast as a glamorous blip on a more serious record; her story, if mentioned at all, is a wild footnote to the accounts of more accomplished women.

Even after she quit, Lane still played chess casually; she couldn't give up entirely. Online chess gave her a new outlet, though fading eyesight has kept her from playing that for several years.

"I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life," she says. "I haven't figured that out yet. Not being able to drive, I have to find something that'll make enough money for a private chauffeur." She's joking, but only a little bit. "I'll figure it out." She's always been fond of hard plans, fairness, clean lines; she doesn't want any differently for life in her 80s.

She went off the board once before, and it served her well enough, but she's no longer interested: "The only thing I really ever stumbled into was being the U.S. Chess Champion."

"THE WOMEN'S TITLE HAD BECOME A STRAIN THAT LANE COULDN'T ESCAPE; IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO PLAY WITHOUT BEING CONSCIOUS OF HER GENDER AND LEGACY."