Chess & History: Women in Chess

Chess & History: Women in Chess

The game of chess has a long history. Over the last 1,500 years, it has influenced culture and politics, challenged and nurtured the minds of people, and remains the most renowned board game worldwide. However, for a considerable time, it was predominantly reserved for men to play. But why was that so? Does chess, with its hierarchical structures and rules, perhaps offer an answer to the question? While chess has a long past, many cultural developments in the game are not historically documented and have only been sparsely recorded. It was only with the increasing popularity in Europe that writings addressing the game began to emerge. From that point on, women exerted a strong influence on the game and its interpretation.

In the following, I would like to explore the role of women in chess and take a closer look at the historical development of the last few centuries.


The Role of Women in the History of Chess

Between the 7th and 12th centuries, very little is known about the involvement of women in chess. This is mainly due to the limited availability of writings on chess during that time. The earliest mention of a woman in literature refers to the famous Icelandic woodcarver, Margaret the Adroit. She was considered one of the most skilled female artisans in Iceland and was so renowned for her carvings that she was personally commissioned by the then-bishop to create a church crosier made of walrus ivory. However, the most significant product she crafted during her career holds immeasurable historical value for chess history even today: The Lewis Chessmen. While the creation of these famous chess pieces is not directly related to playing the game itself, they do show that chess was accessible to women.

The next historical mentions of a woman in connection with chess followed in the 13th century, and this time it had a clear reference to her skill in the game. The Sicilian baroness Macalda di Scaletta was imprisoned in Mategriffon Castle following a series of political intrigues and suspicions of her involvement in a conspiracy. There, she met the also imprisoned Emir of the island of Djerba, Margam ibn Sebir. He had been captured by the Sicilian fleet while attempting to flee to Tunisia after an attack by the Aragonese on Djerba. To pass the time, the two played chess, revealing Macalda's talent as a skilled chess player. As chess became popular in Sicily only in the 16th century, Macalda was likely the first Sicilian woman to learn the game by the end of the 13th century, thanks to Emir Margam ibn Sebir.

Macalda di Scaletta by Gino De' Bini from 1889

Macalda di Scaletta by Gino De' Bini from 1889

In addition, many queens who were in power between the 12th and 15th centuries contributed to the growing influence of women in chess, especially with regard to the chess piece of the queen, which was then known as the "minister". The Persian and Arabic term for this piece evolved from "farzin" to "firz". In European pronunciation, "firz" sounded like "fers" and resembled the French word "vierge," meaning "virgin". Due to its proximity to the king, the chess piece was interpreted as the queen, possibly strengthened by its association with the Virgin Mary. Notable female rulers who may have also reinforced the interpretation of the queen include Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, and especially Isabella I of Castile.

Isabella I of Castile (detail from the altarpiece of the church Colegiata de Santa María of the city of Toro in Spain)

Isabella I of Castile
(detail from the altarpiece of the church Colegiata de Santa María of the city of Toro in Spain)

The greatest event for the influence of women was, therefore, the rule change of the queen. Initially, the queen could only move one square diagonally, but this changed towards the end of the 15th century. From then on, it combined the movement pattern of the Rook and the Bishop, allowing it to move any number of squares both horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. The Queen thus became the most powerful chess piece, and women firmly established their place in the chess world.


Challenges for Women in the Chess World

The success of women in competitive chess is a remarkable journey that extends from the 18th century to the present day. Historically, women faced significant hurdles in the male-dominated world of chess, based on prejudices and the hierarchical position of women.

Until the late 19th century, women's involvement in chess was limited to a few individuals, who were not well-known to the public and were only recognized among fellow chess players. This changed with the first chess tournament for women sponsored by the "Sussex Chess Association" in 1884. In 1897, the first international chess tournament for women followed, although recognition of female chess talent was still lacking due to prevailing social norms.

The early 20th century, on the other hand, brought significant progress in the appreciation of female achievements in chess. The Women's World Chess Championship organized by FIDE in 1927 was a major success for gender equality and took place simultaneously with the Men's Chess Olympiad. Vera Menchik became the first woman chess world champion, and her performance was highly respected. The acceptance of women in chess was further confirmed as Menchik was trained by the Hungarian Grandmaster Géza Maróczy, who became world champion with the Hungarian team in the same year.

In 1950, Lyudmila Rudenko was crowned the first female International Master, and FIDE introduced the title of "Woman International Master" in the same year to recognize and promote female chess players. A significant milestone occurred in 1957 with the first Women's Chess Olympiad, won by the Soviet team. This event marked a turning point in the history of chess and solidified the presence of women in this demanding sport.

In 1976, Indian player Rohini Khadilkar participated in the Indian Men's Chess Championship and sparked controversy. In the competition, she defeated three national champions and successfully appealed to the Supreme Court for her participation. In response, the then FIDE President, Max Euwe, ruled that women should not be excluded from national and international tournaments. In the same year, FIDE also introduced the title of Grandmaster for women, which was first achieved by Nona Gaprindashvili in 1978. The FIDE Master title for women was also introduced in that year, awarded to those with an Elo rating of 2100 or higher in FIDE tournaments.

Although women's achievements were now recognized worldwide, many discussions still revolved around comparing the performances of men and women. Although women have been excluded from the competitive game for centuries and are still oppressed today in many countries, men were still considered to have a considerable advantage. This view changed in the early 1990s when Judit Polgár emerged on the chess scene and dominated the decade as the strongest chess player and youngest Grandmaster.

Judit Polgár at the Hoogovens Chess Tournament in 1990 (Photo: Fotoburo de Boer)

Judit Polgár at the Hoogovens Chess Tournament in 1990
(Photo: Fotoburo de Boer)

In 2002, she defeated world champion Garry Kasparov, solidifying her position as the best female chess player in history. With an Elo rating of 2735 in 2005, she ranked 8th among the world's best chess players regardless of gender. No female chess player has surpassed her game quality to this day. The current best female chess player is Hou Yifan, and with an Elo rating of 2686 (highest rating in 2015), she is still around 50 points below Polgár. The second-place holder is Ju Wenjun, with an Elo rating of 2604 in 2017. The reason why only Polgár managed to achieve a high rating among men is not confirmed. However, as described earlier, women were excluded from competitive play for centuries and are still suppressed in many countries today. As a result, the proportion of women in chess is currently only about 15%.


The Future of Women in Chess

The increased popularity of chess due to the Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit" or during the quarantine of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge of interest in female chess streamers. Prominent personalities in the streaming scene include the Botez sisters, Anna Cramling, Anna Rudolf, and Qiyu Zhou. While media attention may not immediately impact the active number of female chess players, it is likely that more women than ever have been inspired to play chess. Additionally, FIDE declared 2022 as the "Year of Women in Chess" to acknowledge the achievements of women in chess and promote female participation in the game. After the subsiding of the COVID-19 pandemic, the influx of youth chess has increased slightly, and it is expected that the percentage of girls' participation has also seen a slight rise.



Chess has always mirrored societal conditions. The progress in gender equality is evident in chess, highlighting not only the Queen as a chess piece but also the societal status and playing quality of women. This has been impressively confirmed by renowned chess players like Judit Polgár. Moreover, the great passion for chess beyond competition has found expression in modern entertainment, creating a significant streaming scene around the famous game of kings, strongly influenced by female streamers. Whether this development will increase the percentage of women in chess remains to be seen, but it is undoubtedly desirable.


Thank you for your attention and interest in the topic. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me through my contact form. Besides playing chess on a computer, using a real chessboard remains popular. If you are interested in chess pieces or tournament-style chessboards, please have a look at my assortment.

I wish you much enjoyment in the game, success, and rapid progress in learning.


See you soon.


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