Women check into a men's world

Some 200 years after a transvestite blighted their cause, they have now achieved equality in the world of the grandmaster, writes William Hartston

As the Hastings Chess Congress enters its centenary year, its premier tournament is demonstrating something unthinkable to earlier generations: sexual equality. With five women grandmasters keeping pace with male rivals, Hastings 1995 may come to be viewed as the time when women's chess recovered from a 200-year trauma.

The first great woman chess player was a man. Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothee d'Eon de Beaumont was also an officer in the French dragoons, swordsman, spy, lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, occasional nun and the only woman to defeat the great Philidor in his simultaneous chess displays.

Throughout his/her long period of residence in London, large amounts of money were wagered on whether he was male or female. The matter was legally resolved by the High Court in 1777, when the judge ruled that d'Eon was female. British and French officials insisted "Mademoiselle" d'Eon must wear petticoats rather than a captain's uniform. Only on her death in 1810 was it revealed that he was a "fully-formed" male.

For a century and a half after d'Eon's demise, only one woman ever competed with reasonable results against the best men. She was Vera Menchik, the first holder of the women's world championship.

The currrent Hastings tournament, held on the 50th anniversary of her death, is dedicated to her memory. Yet Menchik's wins against the best players were far outnumbered by her losses.

About 1960, Bobby Fischer said he could give any woman a knight start and still win. He was forced to retract the challenge, however, when a new generation of women players emerged in the old Soviet Union. From the mid-1960s onwards, the top women becameless content with winning their own world championship and began appearing in what had been exclusively men's events.

It was only in the 1980s, however, that a true unisex breed of woman broke through to the highest levels. By boycotting women's events entirely, players such as Pia Cramling of Sweden and the Polgar sisters from Hungary avoided being held back by an upbringing in sub-standard competition.

Now Judit Polgar, 18, is ranked 20th in the world. She leads a group of women who have shown they can compete among the world's top players: Xie Jun of China, the current women's world champion, her predecessor, Maya Chiburdanidze of Georgia, and Judit'ssister Zsuzsa have all shown their ability to win strong grandmaster tournaments. What this Hastings event demonstrates is that it is not just this elite group of women who can play like grandmasters.

Perhaps, to exorcise the ghost of d'Eon for ever, we now need a sexually non-discriminating term for that highest chess title.

Scores at Hastings after round four (female names marked with a politically incorrect asterisk) were: Luther 3.5; Maric* and Nunn 2.5; Madl*, McNab and Sher 2; Howell, Lalic* and Arakhamia* 1.5; Kachiani-Gersinska* 1.

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