Female chess used to be regarded as something of a curiosity. A good Trivial Pursuits quiz is, ‘We know the first World Junior Chess Championship was held in Birmingham in 1951. When was the first World Girls Championship held?’ The answer is in 1927 and, of course, in England .
Vera Menchik won it the same year as she went on to win the First Women’s World Championship. Presumably there was considerable interest in female chess in this era because Vera came to live in England . In truth, nearly all the entrants were British. The event died with the advent of the Second World War and was only revived in the 1970s. We had to wait for Harriet Hunt to win the World Girls Under 20 Championship 50 year after Rowena Drew (later Bruce). Elaine Saunders (now Pritchard) is one of the girls who gained the title before the Second World War and she is still very much alive, though not now playing chess competitively.
In 1973, Susan Caldwell and Sheila Jackson asked for permission to play in the British Boys Championship in the same age group. They felt there was not enough competition among their peers. It was refused, after all, how can a girl play in a boy’s championship? By the following year the regulations had been changed and it became the British Under 18 Championship. Yet, when I played in the British Boys (Under-18) in 1956 and 1957, I found nothing strange in there being a separate girl’s event. Since 1974 there has been only one tournament, with the girl champion being the highest placed player in the open age group event. In 1994 Tania Sachdev of India (who played in Gibraltar in 2007, who is playing in 2008 and is current Asian and Indian Women’s Champion) collected five trophies. British Under 9, British Under 9 Girls, British Under 10, British Under 10 Girls and British Under 11 Girls. As a seven year old, her hands could not grasp all five trophies simultaneously. A girl winning the overall event has become sufficiently commonplace that, where necessary, an overall winner trophy is presented, and also the highest placed boy and highest placed girl.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Judit Polgar was to win the World Boys Under 14 Championship! Since she has had two children, perhaps FIDE need to be taught elementary gender education. I have fought against their calling the Chess Olympiad, the Men’s Olympiad. Women have played since its inception. I have won that battle theoretically, but the term is still frequently used. What the views are of Zhu Chen, Pia Cramling and Antoaneta Stefanova (all playing in Gibraltar in 2008) on this misuse of the English language, I don’t know. Resigned indifference is my guess. This is not just a grumpy old man’s complaint. Maia Chiburdinadze became Women’s World Chess Champion when she was 17; at that time she was one of the leading players of her age of either sex. She only again started to improve when Pia Cramling came along to offer adequate competition. Who knows how strong Maia might have become, if she had not been content with the women’s title?
When Professor Elo first started his International Rating System in the 1970s, there was a great problem with the separate women’s list. There were so few females who played competitive chess against men, that it was difficult to relate the two lists. Leonard Barden and I started the Lloyds Bank Masters in 1977. He suggested we spend part of the money available for conditions on inviting strong female players. Now this is commonplace world-wide or at least in Europe . I used to offer female players reduced entry fees to events which I organised. This became impossible with the advent of the Sex Discrimination Laws in Britain – it would have been discriminating against males.
This year we had the magnificent MonRoi Women’s Grand Prix. This climaxed in Montreal and Pia Cramling was an extremely worthy winner.
I organise the Gibtelecom Chess Festival at the Caleta Hotel in Gibraltar each year. The 2008 edition will take place 22 to 31 January. Brian Callaghan, proprietor of the Caleta Hotel where the event takes place, and Franco Ostuni, the General Manager are of the same mind as me. There is absolutely no doubt this is the strongest female event in the world where players of both sexes compete together in the same tournament. Some might complain that spending such a high proportion of the budget on female prizes and hospitality is sexist. We believe it makes good business sense. More men are likely to play if there are a substantial number of women competitors. The total prize fund is £80,000 and a player rated under 2250 could pick up £6000, while a woman could win £17,000. Further details: www.gibraltarchesscongress.com
Stewart Reuben- Chairman, FIDE Chess Tournament Organizer Committe