Vera Menchik

The Kurt Richter book is not the only biography I’ve been reading. I also invested in a copy of Robert B Tanner’s biography of Vera Menchik (McFarland & Co 2016), a very different book about a very different player. (They played once, with Richter winning.)

As you’d expect from this source, it’s a beautifully produced hardback, which makes the large number of typos, incorrect names and other errors all the more surprising. The book really needed a competent proof reader: my rates are very reasonable.

Why should you want to read about Vera Menchik? Stylistically, she was the polar opposite of Richter in that her play tended to be solid and cautious, but, like many players of her era below the very top, she was prone to tactical oversights, sometimes, in her case, caused by time trouble. It’s suggested that, in today’s money, she’d be about 2100 strength. In the two strongest tournaments she played in, Carlsbad 1929 and Moscow 1935, she finished in last place. However, she was good enough to beat the likes of Euwe (twice), Reshevsky and Sultan Khan.

Her games are not especially interesting, but Vera’s importance was historical and social, as the first woman able to compete successfully against men in top level events. If you’re interested in chess history, or in women’s chess, you’ll want to read this book.

We have 354 games, which is fine, some with contemporary annotations, along with brief comments from the author (he’s about 2100 strength but using an engine). The biography, though, beyond descriptions of her games and tournaments, is disappointingly perfunctory. I’d have liked to have read much more about her life outside chess, much more about what was happening in women’s and girls’ chess at the time, much more about how both chess players and the general public reacted to a woman competing with some success against the world’s leading players.

A missed opportunity then: a valuable book, but one that could have been better with a bit more care and more interesting with more wide-ranging research.

I think there’s a gap in the market: we need a book about the social history of women’s chess, and, come to that, a book about the social history of children’s chess.

This is probably her best known game. At that point English masters such as Thomas and Yates were experimenting with what would become the King’s Indian Defence, but here the baronet treats the opening much too passively and allows our heroine a thematic sacrifice.

Here the future world champion plays carelessly and contrives to lose a favourable ending.

Finally, Vera outplays the Indian maestro in fine style.

Richard James

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Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk.