The general public may not always appreciate it, but the history of women’s chess began long before the custodian Mr. Shaibel taught young Beth Harmon the moves at that girls’ orphanage in “The Queen’s Gambit.”
But with Women’s History Month in full swing, we get another excuse to plumb the rich legacy of pre-Beth women’s chess, including one of the 19th century’s most famed female problem composers and a game from the very first U.S. women’s championship match, a clash which took place nearly 130 years ago in New York City.
To be fair, chess even today remains a male-predominant pastime, with semi-active Chinese GM Hou Yifan, the world’s highest rated woman, coming in at No. 126 on the latest FIDE world rankings. But anyone who attended the massive — and massively successful — National K-12 Grade Championships at Maryland’s National Harbor in December can see that a vast pipeline of young female talent is poised to make its mark.
Those young girls will be standing on the shoulders of some great women of the past, including some you may not have heard of before.
Edith (Winter-Wood) Baird (1859-1924) was a British problem composer and player who was so prolific and successful that she was sometimes called the “Queen of Chess.” She reportedly composed some 2,000 problems during her lifetime, none more charming or elegant than the prize-winning “Mate in Three” from today’s diagram.
Baird creates some striking geometric beauties from just six pieces, running the Black king to ground despite his multiple escape routes.
(Cover the next few paragraphs if you want to give it a try yourself.)
The stacked knights, resembling a football backfield before the ball is hiked, neatly cover the side exits after the key move 1. Qg7!, which cuts off the seventh rank and forces the Black king to choose his fate. It all works in the main line on 1…Kc6 (Kb6 2. Nb5 Ka5 [on 2…Kc6 or 2…Kc5, Qc7 is mate] 3. Qa7 mate; or 1…Kd6 2. Nb5+ Kc5 [Ke6 3. Ncd4 mate] 3. Qc7 mate; and, finally, 1…Kxc4 2. Qd4+ Kb3 3. Qb4 also mates the king) 2. c5! Kxc5 3. Qc7 mate.
Baird published the study in 1893, just a year before what historians consider the first U.S. women’s title match. The contestants: Harriet Worrall, the widow of a strong British amateur player who moved to the U.S. in the 1860s, and her much younger rival Nellie Showalter, the 22-year-old wife of four-time U.S. champion Jackson Showalter, the “Kentucky Lion,” and a strong amateur player in her own right. Sadly, Showalter had to abandon the planned 12-game title match because of illness after bolting out to a 3-1 lead in the first four games.
The match was never resumed, which is a shame because the early games offered a promise of a spirited contest. Showalter gets up off the mat in the very first game, saving a dead lost position and eventually claiming the point in a seesaw rook vs. bishop ending.
Fittingly, it’s a Queen’s Gambit (Declined), and Black spoils a perfectly good position with an aggressive but premature kingside demonstration: 12. 0-0 f6?! (normal moves like 12…b6 preserve the positional balance) 13. a3 g5 14. h3 Bd7 15. Qd2 Be8 16. Nh2! and Black’s kingside is more of a target than an asset.
After 18. Bf3 Bd6? (more aggression that backfires; safer was 18…Bxf3 19. Nxf3 gxf4 20. Qxf4 Rae8) 19. Bxe4 Qxe4 20. fxg5 f5 (fxg5 21. Qxg5+ Qg6 22. Qxg6+ hxg6 23. Ng4, with a material and positional edge) 21. Rae1 (even better was 21. g6! hxg6 22. Qh6 Ne7 23. Rae1, dominating) Qd5 22. Re2 f4 23. Nf3 Rae8 24. Rfe1, and Worrall is up a pawn with a far superior position. Things grow dire for Black on 26. Re4 h6?! 27. Rxe6!? (not bad, but 27. gxh6+ Kxh6 28. g4! Rff8 29. Qe2 Rg8 30. g5+ Kg7 31. Rxe6 would have ended the contest far more quickly) hxg5 (Qxe6?? 29. d5+) 29. hxg5 Nd8 30. Rxd6! Qxd6 31. d5+ Kg8, when 32. Qe2! looks to be a killer in lines such as 32…Nf7 33. Qe8+ Qf8 (Kh7 34. Nh4) 34. Qe6 Qc5+ 35. Bd4 Qxd5 36. Qe8+ Kh7 37. Qf8 Rxg5 38. Qxf7+! Qxf7 39. Nxg5+ Kg8 40. Nxf7 Kxf7 41. Be5 and wins.
Instead, the tempting 32. Qd4?? throws it all away after the pin 32…Qb6! (Qg6?? 33. Nh4 Qxg5 34. Nxf5 wins) 33. Qxb6 axb6 34. d6, and suddenly White is struggling to hold a draw in a position where Black’s rook is more valuable than the White bishop and two pawns. The quality of the play lags a bit as both players appear uncertain of the path forward. Clearly counterproductive was 44. g5+ Rxg5 45. d7? (Bc3+! Kg6 46. Ke4 Rg4+ 47. Kd5 Kf7 48. Kc5 is at least equal for White), effectively throwing away White’s main asset, the advanced d-pawn.
Worrall may have thought the bishop could hold off the rook with all the pawns on the queenside, but both players are understandably unversed in the deep theory of rook-vs.-bishop endings we have seen with the advent of computer engines. Showalter throws away one win on 58. Kh8 Ke4? (Kc5 59. Be5 Rf3+ 60. Bc3 61. Kb2 Kc4 allows a decisive penetration), but with the last pawn removed from the board, Worrall gives it back in the finale: 63. Ka2?? (Be5 Rb7 64. Bf6 Rb3+ 65. Ka2 Rf3 66. Be5 Rf2+ 67. Ka3 and Black can make no progress) Kb4 64. Ba3+ Kc3 65. Bb2+?? (truly tragic, as 65. Bd6 Rf2+ 66. Ka3 Rf1 [Rf6? 67. Be5+ 67. Bb4+ Kc4 68. Bd2 and a well-earned draw is in sight) Kc2 66. Bd4 Rf4!, and White resigned as 67. Bb2 Ra4+ 68. Ba3 Ra6! — a deadly waiting move — 69. Ka1 Rxa3 is mate.
Speaking of the women’s game, FIDE announced last week that the women’s candidates final and the women’s world championship matches will both be hosted again by China starting later this month, a fitting decision because the champ and her two challengers hail from the Middle Kingdom.
GMs Lei Tingjie and Tan Zhongyi will play a six-game match in Chongqing starting March 27 for the right to challenge reigning women’s world champ GM Ju Wenjun. The 12-game final will be split between Chongqing and Shanghai — Ju’s hometown — starting July 5.
And for our DMV readers, there’s a new tournament option on tap later this week with the 1st Annual Murray Newcomb Memorial Tournament, a five-round Swiss to be played March 10-12 at the Double Tree by Hilton McLean Tysons in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The tournament honors the well-known and well-liked local player who was long a fixture in the Arlington Chess Club and the D.C. Chess League. Newcomb, who passed away last spring at the age of 66, was also a USCF postal master and a onetime first board on the U.S. NATO team.
Check out the tournament website here.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Worrall-Showalter, U.S. Women’s Championship Match, New York, November 1894
1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. e3 e6 4. c4 c5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Nc3 cxd4 7. exd4 Qa5 8. Bd2 Nc6 9. Nxd5 Qxd5 10. Bc3 Be7 11. Be2 O-O 12. O-O f6 13. a3 g5 14. h3 Bd7 15. Qd2 Be8 16. Nh2 Bg6 17. f4 Be4 18. Bf3 Bd6 19. Bxe4 Qxe4 20. fxg5 f5 21. Rae1 Qd5 22. Re2 f4 23. Nf3 Rae8 24. Rfe1 Rf5 25. h4 Kg7 26. Re4 h6 27. Rxe6 Rxe6 28. Rxe6 hxg5 29. hxg5 Nd8 30. Rxd6 Qxd6 31. d5+ Kg8 32. Qd4 Qb6 33. Qxb6 axb6 34. d6 Nf7 35. Bb4 Nxg5 36. Nxg5 Rxg5 37. Kf2 Rd5 38. Kf3 Rd4 39. Kg4 Kf7 40. Kf5 Rd5+ 41. Kxf4 Ke6 42. g4 Kf6 43. b3 b5 44. g5+ Rxg5 45. d7 Rd5 46. Ke4 Rxd7 47. Bf8 Rd1 48. Bc5 Ke6 49. Bf8 Kd7 50. Bc5 Kc6 51. Bf8 b4 52. Bxb4 Rb1 53. Kd4 Rxb3 54. Kc4 Rf3 55. Bc3 b5+ 56. Kb4 Rf1 57. Kb3 Kd5 58. Bh8 Ke4 59. Bb2 Kd3 60. a4 bxa4+ 61. Kxa4 Kc4 62. Ka3 Rf7 63. Ka2 Kb4 64. Ba3+ Kc3 65. Bb2+ Kc2 66. Bd4 Rf4 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]
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