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Vera Menchik

First Women's World Champion 1927.

Winner of the Hastings and St Leonards Club Championship in 1930.

The following account is by Brian Denman

She was born Vera Francevna Mencikova in Moscow on 16.2.1906. She had a Czech father, while her mother was half English. Vera's mother had a first name of Olga, which might not in itself suggest an English connection, but the mother's parents had the married surname of Illingworth, which surely was an English name. It seems likely therefore that Vera had a grandfather who was English. Vera also had a sister who was about two years younger than her and was called Olga, like their mother.

On her ninth birthday Vera was given a present of a chess set and we know that her father gave her some instruction in the game. She received her early education in a private school for girls and later went to a public school. The second of these establishments organised a chess circle in which Vera participated. A tournament was started but not completed. At its demise Vera was certain of coming at least equal second.

At the time of the Russian Revolution the Menchik family lived in a six room flat in Moscow, but a notice was served on Vera's father that he must share his rooms or give up most of them. People came up from below bringing their goats and fowls with them. Vera and Olga were not permitted to visit the basement of their flats where many people lived in great poverty. Worse was to come for the Menchik family. Vera's father was the owner of a mill, but this was seized in the unrest and the family was driven out of their home. Mrs Illingworth, grandmother of Vera, fled from Moscow and walked a long way to receive help from the Consul. She left the country and came to Hastings to live. Meanwhile the rest of the Menchik family were made to sweep snow and this adversely affected the health of Vera's mother. In the autumn of 1921, when Vera was 15 years of age, her family left the country and came to Hastings, where they lived with Mrs Illingworth in St John's Road, St Leonards. It is uncertain, however, what happened to Vera's father. As far as I am aware, there is no report of him coming to Hastings with the rest of the family. I considered the possibility that he might have died or been imprisoned during the Russian Revolution, but in the Sussex Daily News of 1.8.1927 Vera is reported as saying that her father plays chess well, but is not a champion. She adds that he is no longer the owner of a mill. These statements, which use the present tense, suggest that he was still alive at the time. Perhaps, however, it might only be through research on Russian soil that one might learn what happened to him.

On 18th March 1923 Vera joined the Hastings CC. She was fortunate in being able to receive instruction from J A J Drewitt and the master, Geza Maroczy. The latter had suffered privation during World War I and, on coming to Hastings , had been allowed to stay at the Albany Hotel for free for a period of time. Vera developed the sound positional judgement, which was to be her hallmark, during this period. She was not known for tactical attacking play, but was particularly good in converting small advantages into wins. She did sometimes get into time trouble, but had a wonderful temperament for the game. Whereas many players prowl around nervously during moves, Vera remained immovable in her chair calmly pondering the course of the game. She soon became popular, not just because she was a woman in what was essentially a man's game, but on account of her shy and kind nature which was interested in other people. She had other hobbies like tennis and modelling in clay and some of her modelling came to be exhibited in the local School of Art.

Within a couple of months of joining the club, she had played in a match for Hastings ladies against a team of Hastings 'third class' players. On this occasion she was defeated by another promising young player, Arthur Winser. In June 1923 she represented Hastings and St Leonards in a Sexton Cup match against Brighton and Hove on the bottom board (board 28!) and drew her game. In September of that year she played in another large representative match, drawing on board 39 for East Sussex in a 60 board match against West Sussex. She entered the Sussex Ladies' Championship for the 1923-24 season, but, although she did not win the event, she played an important part in the club's winning a trophy in that same season. 'First class' players from Hastings and Brighton could not play in the McArthur Cup at that time and Vera was in the winning Hastings team. Her name is engraved on the McArthur Cup shield which gives the names of all the players in the winning teams from 1889 to 1939. It is hoped that this shield still survives to accompany the present cup.

In December 1923 she competed in her first Hastings Congress and obtained a draw against Edith Price, the current British ladies' champion. Her county debut was made a few months later when she won against Kent in September 1924 on board 20 of a 100 board match. One imagines that the Pier Pavilion at Hastings, the venue for this fixture, was full of chess players!

In 1925 she played two matches against Edith Price winning both of them (though not by a large margin), and she could reasonably now claim to be the strongest lady player in the country. She could not enter the national competition, however, as she was not of British nationality.

At the 1925 AGM of the Hastings CC it was announced that Vera had now been recorded as a 'first class' player of the Sussex Chess Association and in October of that year Olga made her county debut in a match against Kent. She was to prove herself to be a capable player, though not of the same standard as her elder sister. Meanwhile Vera tried her hand at the men's county championship where she reached the semi-final. In January 1926 she won the first Girls' Open Championship at the Imperial Club in London with Olga coming third. After her success Vera gave a 13 board simul to members of the club and she later appeared on BBC radio. In 1927 she retained this title and Olga came second. By the time of the 1928 competition Vera was too old to enter, and Olga again came second after losing a play-off for first place.

1927 was to be a very important year in Vera's life. An international ladies' tournament was held in London in the summer which Vera won with a score of 10.5/11. Subsequently the International Chess Federation decided to give the tournament the status of the women's world championship. Vera successfully defended her title at Hamburg in 1930, Prague in 1931, Folkestone in 1933, Warsaw in 1935, Stockholm in 1937 and Buenos Aires in 1939 (Olga also competed in the Warsaw and Stockholm events), losing only one game in all of those tournaments. She also played two matches against Sonja Graf, her main rival. The first was at Rotterdam in 1934 and the second at Semmering in 1937, but in both cases she was a convincing winner. There was no question that she was easily the strongest women player in the world and from 1928 onwards she began to be invited to some strong tournaments where all her opponents were men.

In the men's international tournaments Vera fought hard to prove her ability. Her best results were probably at Ramsgate in 1929, where she did not lose a single game against the strong British opposition and at Maribor in 1934 where she came third, occupying a higher position than Spielmann. In the tournaments at Carlsbad (1929), Moscow (1935) and Lodz (1938) she struggled, but some of the opponents that she faced were among the best in the world. Altogether she took part in eight Hastings Premier competitions from 1929 to 1937, only missing the 1935-36 event. In the 1929 Carlsbad Tournament there seems to have been some scepticism about Vera's ability amongst the assembled masters and Albert Becker, a Viennese master, suggested that anyone who lost to the female player should be granted membership of a 'Menchik club'. Soon afterwards he became the founder member of this club! Other well-known additions to the membership included Euwe, Reshevsky, Colle, Samisch and Opocensky. Some of the strongest British players also became members.

As Vera's popularity on the world stage increased, she retained an interest in chess within Sussex. In 1930 she won the Hastings CC Championship with an impressive score of 11.5/12. She was elected on to the club committee at the 1930 AGM and thus became the first woman in the club's history to occupy such a post. Her tenure of this position was, however, short, lasting only one year. Her new role in London in 1931 (see below) probably meant that she could not give sufficient time to the committee post.

In August 1928 Vera had given a talk on the French Defence at the Hastings CC and, as she became a stronger player, we find her taking an interest in teaching chess, writing articles and giving simultaneous displays. An ideal opportunity presented itself in 1931 for her to develop these activities. The Empire Social Club at Bayswater, London, acted like a London chess centre and Vera became a resident coach at the site. She also became Assistant Editor of the social club's magazine The Social Chess Quarterly. She probably annotated most or all of the games and at the end of 1934 she published a method of teaching chess using diagram cards which may have been new. In August 1935 the Empire Social Club came to an end, though the organisation established a residential branch at Llandudno. Vera visited the Welsh branch on at least two occasions and gave simuls there. The Social Chess Quarterly continued after the closure of the chess centre in Bayswater, but from July 1936 it came to be published as a quarterly supplement to B H Wood's Chess magazine. I do not know how long this supplement continued, but in 1941 Vera was appointed as the games' editor for Chess itself. It seems that chess coaching played a regular part of her life in the 1930s and Hugh Storr-Best, a Petersfield chess player, remembers the chess lessons that he obtained from Vera in London, when he was a teenager. He visited her at her Bayswater home in about the 1936-37 season and the lessons concentrated on the queen's side for White and French Defence as Black, while Vera attached enormous importance to the endgame. In the British Chess Magazine for September 1938 there was an advert for chess coaching from Vera at a charge of 3/6 per hour. She offered to visit clubs to give lessons on openings and there was also a mention of simultaneous displays. She was even willing to give bridge lessons

When Vera took up her post in London in 1931, she may have moved into lodgings, at least for the weekdays. One cannot imagine her commuting every day to London and she was soon playing for Lewisham in the London League. She continued to play for Hastings and Sussex in this period and she may have returned to the seaside town at weekends. In 1934 Mrs Illingworth, Vera's grandmother, died and the family moved to a house in Bayswater. Vera continued to play for Sussex until 1937, though I am not sure that she played any matches for Hastings after 1934.

In 1934 it was reported that a chess club in Czechoslavakia had been named after Vera. The Mencikova Chess Club was formed in Semil.

In October 1937 Vera married Rufus Stevenson. She preferred to keep her maiden name in chess circles. R H S Stevenson had won the Kent Championship in 1919, but he is probably better known as an administrator. For many years he was secretary of the Kent Chess Association and in 1938 he took up the same post for the British Chess Federation. He was extremely well thought of and I remember playing in the Stevenson Memorial Tournament at Bognor in the 1960s. Vera was his second wife. He had previously been married to Agnes (nee Lawson), who had been one of the strongest lady players in the country. Sadly she had died following a dreadful accident at an airport. On her marriage Vera moved into a house at Clapham and now started to play for Kent. Because her husband was of British nationality, she was now allowed to compete in the British Championship (she had previously often entered the open tournaments at the BCF congresses), and in 1938 she scored 5.5/11 in the men's event at Brighton (she was probably the first woman to play in the competition). Another honour came to her in 1938 when she was chosen to play for England against Holland. She drew two games against J W Muhring. In 1939 she was appointed manager of the new National Chess Centre in London. There were high hopes for this chess base, but sadly about a year later it was destroyed by bombing.

In 1942 a match was arranged between Vera and Jacques Mieses, an experienced master. Mieses was 77 years of age and he was defeated by four games to one with five draws. At about this time Vera was a member of the active West London CC, which had a number of women members.

Early in 1943 Vera's husband died. She remained in the Clapham home and was joined by her mother and Olga. I am not sure when Olga was married, but she met her husband at Esperanto lessons and took the surname of Rubery. On 26th June 1944 the house was destroyed by a German bomb and all three perished. Vera was 38 years old, Olga 36 and their mother (also Olga) 59. This horrendous deed undoubtedly caused outrage all over the world and the columnist in the Sussex Daily News wrote in the edition of 18.7.1944: 'In the annals of chess history this black blot will remain for ever marked against the German nation, and must fill chess players of the future with repulsion and disgust.'

13 years after Vera's death team olympiads commenced for lady players. Vera's memory was perpetuated by the naming of the trophy after her.

In 1960 an anonymous donor approached the Hastings CC wishing to remember Vera and Olga by creating a special award. He asked for the views of the club as to the best way that this might be achieved, though he suggested that he wanted juniors to benefit from the idea. The club decided to create a special memorial tournament for young players in the town who were under 15 and the donor agreed to have a special gold medal struck annually for the winner. The competition was still in operation in 1963, but I am not sure for how many years it continued.

One of the saddest memories of Vera came to light when Fred Robinson began to hold his exhibitions of memorabilia. The Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 30.12.1967 reported that the most significant exhibit at Fred's recent display was the gold medal won by Vera to record her triumphs in the world ladies' championships from 1927 to 1939. The medal, which had been salvaged from the ruins of her house, was displayed on at least one further occasion (during the 1969-70 Congress). It had been borrowed temporarily from Vera's brother-in-law (Olga's husband), into whose possession it had come.

In 1994 the International Chess Federation held a special Vera Menchik year as it recalled her death fifty years ago. The BCF voted a sum of £2,000 for events commemorating her memory. Included in these activites was a 9 round Swiss tournament at Maidstone where a number of women competed. I do not know who won the event, but it would have been particularly fitting if it had been a woman.

Below are some of Vera Menchik's games:

Menchik,Vera - Norman,GM Hastings CC, Albany Cup, 1924 Source: Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 28.6.1924. 1-0.

Baratz,A - Menchik,Vera Hastings Major 'A' 1927-28 02.01.1928 Sources: Cheltenham Chronicle of 28.1.1928, British Chess Magazine of February 1928, Illustrated London News of 19.5.1928, Borough of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 19.5.1928, British Chess Masters Past and Present - Reinfeld - Bell and Sons, Ltd., London (1947), and 'Hastings 1927/8 Cheltenham 1928 Scarborough 1928' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999). 0-1.

Smith,Dr SF - Menchik,Vera Cheltenham Congress, Major Open, 04.1928 Sources: Cheltenham Chronicle of 21.4.1928, and 'Hastings 1927/8 Cheltenham 1928 Scarborough 1928' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999). 0-1.

Menchik,Vera - Colle,E Paris Tournament (8), 06.1929 Sources: The Times Weekly Edition, Cheltenham Chronicle of 20.7.1929, and 'Paris 1929 Rogaska Slatina 1929' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999). 1-0.

Menchik,Vera - Samisch,F Carlsbad, 1929 Source: The Big Database 2003. 1-0.

Menchik,Vera - Becker,A Carlsbad Tournament, 1929 Sources: 'Chess Monthly' of November 1994, The Big Database 2003, and 'Chess' of August 2004. 1-0

Menchik,Vera - Yates,FD Hastings Premier 1929-30 (5), 31.12.1929 Sources: The Birmingham Post, The Field, 'Hastings 1929/30 Canterbury 1930 Hastings 1930/31' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999), and BritBase. 1-0.

Menchik,Vera - Norman,GM Hastings CC Championship, 1930 Source: Cheltenham Chronicle of 22.2.1930. 1-0.

Winter,W - Menchik,Vera Canterbury Congress (2), 04.1930 Sources: The Field, The Chess Amateur, Cheltenham Chronicle of 21.6.1930, Chess of August 1944, Borough of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 4.8.1944, Sussex Daily News of 22.8.1944, Chess Monthly of November 1994, and 'Hastings 1929/30 Canterbury 1930 Hastings 1930/31' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999). 0-1.

Euwe,M - Menchik,Vera Hastings Premier 1930-31 (2), 30.12.1930 Sources: Wr. Sz., 'Hastings 1929/30 Canterbury 1930 Hastings 1930/31' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999), and BritBase. 0-1.

Menchik,Vera - Euwe,M Hastings Premier 1931-32 (2), 29.12.1931 Sources: Algemeen handelsblad, Wr. Sz., 'Hastings 1931/2 Cambridge 1932 The Langford Club Match 1932' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999), BritBase, and Chess of August 2004. Not all of these versions suggest that more moves were played. 1-0.

Sultan Khan,M - Menchik,Vera Hastings Premier 1931-32 Hastings (6), 02.01.1932 Sources: Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 9.1.1932, The Field, Cheltenham Chronicle of 6.2.1932, British Chess Magazine of February 1932, Algemeen handelsblad, the Wiener Schachzeitung, Borough of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 5.3.1932, 'Hastings 1931/2 Cambridge 1932 The Langford Club Match 1932' - A J Gillam - The Chess Player (1999), BritBase, and Chess of August 2004. 0-1.

Menchik,Vera - Thomas,Sir George London International Tournament (4), 02.1932 Sources: West Sussex Gazette of 11.2.1932, tournament book, The 1,000 Best Short Games of Chess - Chernev - Hodder and Stoughton, London (1957), Queen's Side magazine, London (1994), BritBase, Chess of August 2004. 1-0.

Jackson,EM - Menchik,Vera Hastings Premier 1932-33 (8), 05.01.1933 Sources: BritBase, and The Big Database 2003. 0-1

Alexander,CHO'D - Menchik,Vera Hastings Premier 1933-34 (8), 04.01.1934 Source: BritBase. 0-1.

Reshevsky,S - Menchik,Vera BCF Major Open at Great Yarmouth (5), 12.07.1935 Sources: Borough of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 28.9.1935, and Samuel Reshevsky: a Compendium of 1768 Games - Stephen W Gordon - McFarland (1997). 0-1.

Opocensky,K - Menchik,Vera Podebrady, 1936 Source: The Big Database 2003. 0-1.

Menchik,Vera - Graf,Sonja Women's World Championship, Game 14, Semmering, 1937 Sources: Sussex Daily News of 26.8.1937 and 18.7.1944, Chess Treasury of the Air - T Tiller - Penguin Books Ltd (1966), Chess Monthly of November 1994, and Chess of August 2004. Played at Semmering. 1-0.

Mieses,J - Menchik/Stevenson,Vera Match in London, game 4, 29.5.1942 0-1 Sources: Chess of July-August 1942, and French: Classical Lines - Harding and Heidenfeld- Batsford (1979).

Menchik/Stevenson,Vera - Winter,W 1944 Source: Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 12.8.1944. The article tells us that the game was played 'recently'. Perhaps the occasion was the Kent v Middlesex match (board one) played in London on 1.4.1944. 1-0.

Rutland,GW - Menchik/Stevenson,Vera Southern Counties Chess Union Knockout, 1944. Sources: Borough of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 9.6.1944, and British Chess Magazine of August 1944. 0-1 This was probably one of the last games that Vera played. George Rutland died recently after being a member of the Brighton CC for nearly 30 years (he was an honorary member). There are probably few people still alive, who have played or met Vera.


and not forgetting Olga........

Menchik/Rubery,Olga - Klugman,L Invitation Knockout Tournament, 1942 Source: Chess of July-August 1942. The tournament was held at the house of Lady Janet Clark in Chelsea. 1/2-1/2.


Some links to other sites about Vera Menchik:
Wikipedia biography
Vera Menchik by Bill Wall
The Chess Games of Vera Menchik"