American Woman - Part I

American Woman - Part I

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     An official U.S. Women's Chess Championship has existed for nearly 80 years.  The USCF lists 1937 as the first year.  There have been many strong and important women players over the early years but when Diane Savereide appeared and dominated the women's chess arena for almost a decade, women's chess stated taking monumental strides. 

     With this series of essays I hope to detail at the development of women's chess in the United States and memorialize the ladies who pioneered that initial progress between 1937 and 1975 when Savereide won her first championship.

|  Part II  Part III  |  Part IV  |  Part V  |  Part VI  Part VII |

     The 1937 tournament needs some background. 
     The USCF was formed in 1939 by merging the two competitive organizations: the National Chess Federation and the American Chess Federation. Starting in 1936 when Frank Marshall retired as U.S. chess champion, the chess championship of the United States fell under the auspices of the Marshall Club and the National Chess Federation.

     In 1934 Frank Marshall's wife Caroline had the idea to create informal tournaments among the ladies who visited the Marshall Club.  The strongest player at that time was Marjorie I. Seaman.

     This first informal ladies' tournament included some names we would see again and again.    
     The 12 participants included:
          Mrs. William I. Seaman, of Staten Island, Mrs. Adele Rivero of Manhattan, Mrs. B. W. McCready of Orange, N. J., Mrs. Harriet Broughton of Manhattan, Miss Adele S. Raettig of Hoboken, Miss Helen White of Manhattan, Miss Hilde Grau of Manhattan, Miss Edith Weart of Jackson Heights, Miss Vera Angus of Brooklyn, Miss Hazel Allen of Kew Gardens, Miss M. J. Smith and Mrs. Leeds.

     The results:
Mrs. Seaman ...........11-0
Mrs. Broughton .......9-2
Mrs. Rivero ...............9-2
Mrs. McCready ........6½-4½
Miss Angus ...............6-5
Miss Reattig .............6-5
Miss Weart ...............6-5
Miss White ...............5½-5½
Mrs. Leeds ...............4-7
Miss Grau ................2-9
Miss Smith ...............2-9
Miss Allen ............... 0-11 (withdrew)

     Marjorie Seaman breezed through with a perfect 11-0 score. But close on her heels were Mrs. Broughton and Mrs. Rivero both with 9-2 scores.  Mrs. B. W. McCready came in next with a 6½-4½ score. Miss Hazel Allen, who withdrew from the contest had donated the silver trophy, from that point on called the "Hazel Allen Trophy,"  the custody of which would remain the main prize for all the Marshall Chess Club women's  tournaments.
     Mrs. Seaman won the trophy. Broughton and Rivero each won a copy of "Chess Potpourri" with the compliments of the author, Alfred C. Klahre.  Mrs. McCready won magnetic chess board provided by Alvin C. Cass (a chess referee and one-time trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
     Mrs. Seaman, the wife of William Iucho Seaman whom she married in 1909, was born in 1881.  She frequented the Marshall Club - and in fact was it's first female member- and the Staten Island chess clubs but after this tournament, dropped off the chess radar.

     A second ladies' tournament, planned to be held in the fall of 1935, was finally took place in 1936.   This time 20 women participated and they were divided into two groups of 10 each:

Section A:   Mrs. McCready, Miss Fawns, Mrs. Rivero, Miss Grau, Mrs. Milton, Miss Rae, Mrs. Slater, Miss Pfister, Miss Harrison, Miss Allen.

Section B:    Mrs. Bain, Miss Tillinghast, Miss Weart, Mrs. Cobb, Miss White, Mrs. Clark, Miss Raettig, Mrs. Marshall, Mrs. Elsie Rogosin, Mrs. Stelert.

   The field, narrowed down to 6 contestants, was won by Adele Premereur Rivero:

Adele Rivero in 1935


     The 1937 tournament is generally viewed as the 1st U.S. Women's Championship although it was never specified as such at the time.   In fact, The New York "Sun" published an article by Edith Weart on April 16, 1937  expressly stating that the 1937 tournament, in progress,  was officially slated to be for the title of champion of the National Chess Federation and that the 1938 tournament would be the very first tournament for the title of U.S. Women's Champion:


Mrs. Adele Rivero......8½ - ½
Mrs. Mary Bain...........7-1
Mrs. R. McCready.......5-4
Mrs. Kathryn Slater....5-4
Miss Adele Raettig.....4½-4½
Miss Helen White.......4-5
Mrs. Wm. Davey*.......3-6
Mrs. EIsie Rogosin.......3-6
Miss Edith Weart........2-6
Miss Elizabeth Wray...2-7

*Withdrew on account of illness with score 3-3

     For winning first place Adele Rivero took custody of the Hazel Allen Trophy, and received a gold medal donated by Mr. H.M. Hartshorne.


Some of the players:

     Adele Premereur Rivero, 29 when she won this tournament, was born in Antwerp, Belgium and move to the United States after WWI.   She had been working in NYC as a stenographer for General Motors since 1929.  She was known to be an exceptionally strong player but subject to nervous agitation that sometimes affected her concentration.  In 1954 she was the overall Vermont champion.
     Below is an interview from the "Parade" section of August 29, 1936 issue of "Literary Digest" -

     "More American women would take up chess if there was anything in it for them,"
declared Mrs. Adele Rivero, twenty-eight, the undisputed, if unofficial, woman's chess champion of the United States. "The game needs a whale of a lot of publicity just as bridge had. At the present time there are very few American women who even play a passable game."
     With the current tournament at Nottingham in progress and plans being laid for the seventh International Chess Olympiad in Stockholm next year, several American clubs were reported trying to organize a women's team to represent this country.
     "But where are we to get the funds?" asked Mrs. Rivero. "A chess player, as such, has a hard time making a living. I'd go gladly if I knew I could get my job back later."
     Blond, with blue eyes, and an "A" rating for chess—even among men—Mrs. Rivero
is a stenographer. During the winter she plays one tournament a week and receives from ten to fourteen dollars for the four hours of play. Born in Antwerp, she has been in New York for eighteen years and has been playing chess for three seasons.
     She doesn't like bridge and her greatest ambition is some day to meet Miss Vera Menchikova, thirty-two-year-old Czechoslovakian chess champion. Since residing in
England she is known as Miss Menchik but is the most highly respected player of her sex.
      Among the thousand-odd American women chess players, others who rate highly are Mrs. Mary Bain, formerly of Los Angeles; Mrs. Raphael E. McCready, Mrs. W. I. Seaman, Mrs. L. Milton, Miss Celia Fawns and Mrs. William Slater — all of New York.

     Mary Weiser
was born in Hungary in 1904  She emigrated to the U.S. in 1921 unable to speak English. In 1926 she married a fellow Hungarian, Leslie Balogh Bain, a journalist. Géza Maróczy, another Hungarian, stayed at their apartment in1927 during his last year of a 7 year political exile.  Although she came in 2nd in the 1937 women's tournament,  since Adele Rivero couldn't get off work and didn't have the money for expenses, Bain replaced her as the 1st U.S. participant for the Women's world title tournament being held in Stockholm where, being the only player with no second or coach, she managed to outscore N. May Karff who was playing for Palestine.   She would remain a force in U.S. women's chess for the next 3 decades.

Mary Bain - 1937

     Adele Sophie Raettig
, born in 1889, graduated from the State Normal School  at Montclair, NJ (a teacher's college now known as Montclair State University) and taught taught in Hoboken. She later attended Columbia University.  While a perennial also-ran in the Women's Championships, she was actually a strong player who regularly and successfully played against local male players.  After losing to Adele Rivero in the 1940 Championship, Raettig "bought a beginning chess book. 'I thought I needed it,'" Miss Raettig said, apparently somewhat depressed by her poor showing" [Weart].   But this self-deprecating woman was also an inventor who owns patents on at least two engineering devices, a Magnetically Operated Switch - "a magnetically operated selective switch used for energizing or otherwise influencing any one of several circuits"   and a Angle Divider - "an instrument which may be used for dividing angles of various degrees into any number of predetermined parts."

Gisela Gresser playing Adele Raettig in 1944

     Kathryn Slater
who worked in a bank, was the wife of William Slater, also a strong player. She had won the Women's Open outright in 1958 and 1962, while sharing the title with Cecelia Rock in 1964 and with Mary Bain in 1965.  Slater, covered women's events for chess journals and served in many official capacities including acting as manager of the Marshall Chess Club.  Bill and Kathryn founded and operated the London Terrace C.C., named for the London Terrace apartment complex in the Chelsea area of Manhattan where they lived.  Both she and her husband contributed sporadically to "Chess Life."

Kathryn Slater  1962


     Elizabeth B. Wray worked as librarian for the U.S. Rubber Co. in New York.  Beyond having participated in every women's tournament from 1937-1948 (always ending up towards the bottom), she has a very unusual distinction, as noted by "Time" magazine in Feb. 1932:

First Camelot tournament in Manhattan, sponsored by expert Camelotist Anne Morgan, was played last week at the clubhouse of the American Women's Association, refereed by onetime Chess Champion Jose Capablanca, won by a Miss Elizabeth Wray.  Named, for no particular reason, after King Arthur's hometown, Camelot was invented three years ago by George Swinnerton Parker, head of Parker Bros. of Salem, Mass., who manufacture more games than anyone else in the U.S.  Camelot is played with pieces resembling pawn chessmen on an irregularly checkered board.  It comes in "editions" of which Parker Bros. say they have sold 2,000,000.

...and a less unusual one: Miss Elizabeth Wray is an amateur photogrpaher when she has time from playing chess.  Although she has never placed high in chess tourneys she had the distinction of being the first American woman to defeat Miss Karff in tournament play. This spectacular succeed was the highlight of the first round of the present tournament (1939)  [Edith Weart, "The New York Sun," July 25, 1939].

     Mrs. Raphael McCready was from Hackensack, N.J., as was Mrs. Elsie Rogosin, a wife of a member of the Marshall C.C.   McCready played in the 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1946 women's tournaments. She and her husband started a chess club in Hackensack.  Edith Weart wrote: Mrs. Raphael McCready, who is so thin a breath would blow her away, has been a faithful contender in all the women's chess tournaments held in the East during the past five years.  She usually manages to wn a prize.  A successful business woman before she decided to raise a family, she commutes to Hackensack each evening to play in this tournament (1939) ["The New York Sun,"  July 25, 1939].   Miss Helen White and Mrs. William Davey just faded into chess oblivion.

The New York "Sun" did this feature article on  Mrs. Raphael McCready in 1940:

Chess the Game for the Whole Family

Says Tournament Player

Women Contestant Asserts It Surpasses Bridge
and Doesn't Lead to Scrapping Between Partners.
by Marion Clyde McCarroll

     If you want a game that can be made into a hobby for the whole family, that will keep your illusions about your frineds, and that will give you some swell fun into the bagrgain, pass up bridge and choose chess
      That, in substance, is the recommendation of young and livley Mrs. Raphael McCready, who is playing chess for dear life these days- or rather, these evenings - in the tournament being held at the Hotel Astor for the national championship under the auspices of the united Cess Federation.
    Eight other women, of whom seven are residing in or close to New York city, and one from Boston, are also competing for the two trophies the winner will carry off when the women's part of the tournament clses about the middle of the week.
     Like many another of the women who have taken up chess in recent years - and their number is growing rapidly - Mrs. McCready did it because she was tired of being shut out from one of her husband;s absorbing interests.  "She didn't like being a chess widow," chuckles big Ben McCready, who has been a chess fan for some fourteen years and is having a grand time kibitzing his wife's tournament play, and "I wanted to know what Ben was talking about," she says herself, "so I thought I'd better learn to speak his language!"
     That was one reason.  Another she confesses, with a grin that twinkles her blue eyes and wrinkles her impertinent little nose, was because she was "appalled at what bridge did to my nicest friends."  Now, not only do Mr. and Mrs. Ben spend many an evening together over the chess board, but the McCready youngsters, Robert, 11, and Ann, 9, are well on the way to giving their parents some stiff competition.
     "I enjoy a game of bridge as much as anybody, said Mrs. McCready the other night, getting up from the chess board, as the players frequently do  while waiting for their opponents to figure out their next moves, "but I can;t stand what it seems to make of people when they play it a lot.  Why, before I took up chess, I'd go to spend an afternoon at what I thought was going to be a friendly, social game, and the first thing I knew, I'd hear women I'd always known as perfectly polite people scrapping at each other and fighting like horrid children.  In chess, there's nothing to fight about, because it's every man for himself in that game.  If you win you can take all the credit, and if you lose there's no partner to blame.
     The children got interested, the McCreadys explained, through watching the grown-ups.  They'd stand by fascinated while the curiously carved pieces were moved here and there over the red and black squares.  Presently, when Ann was about four and her brother two years older, they began to amuse themselves setting the pieces up and moving them around., trying to imitate their elders.  And before long they were demanding to be shown just how to do it the proper way.
     Of the none women taking part in the current tournament, practically every one of them was led into the game by some man, either a husband or an enthusiastic friend.  But it remained for Mrs. Frank Marshall, wife of the expert who held the United States championship for twenty-seven years, to round up the scattered individual women players a few years ago and make the well-known Marshall Chess Club, of which George Emlen Roosevelt is president, a center for women;s activities also.  Mt. Roosevelt, incidentally, is presenting one of the two trophies for which the women are competing.  The other, known as the Hazel Allen Trophy, is the one which has been awarded to the women champion at each of the three preceding tournaments in which women have played.
     Mrs. Adele Rivero of 24 West Seventy-fifth street is already assured of the championship in the present tournament.


   The next year, 1938, we see some new faces, the most important of which was N. May Karff, later to be known as Mona May Karff.  She had played for Palestine in the Women's World Championship that took place concurrent with the Olympiads in Stockholm the previous year and just moved to the U.S. (The championship was won by Vera Menchik. Karff fell behind Mary Bain of the U.S. and Sonja Graf of Germany, both of whom would also be U.S. Women's Chess Champions). Karff won both the 1938 U.S. Women's Championship and the 1938 U.S. Open held in the east that year. Incidentally, Karff caused Adele Rivero suffered her first loss to a  woman in 2 years.


In the February 1938 issue of Chess Review, Edith L. Weart wrote:

Feminine chess takes a step forward with the announcement by the National Chess Federation that a tournament will be held in connection with the regular U. S. Championship tournament to determine the U. S. Woman Chess Champion.

   The 1938 tournament was held in the RCA Building in NYC  from April 2 to April 24.
   Caroline Marshall was again the TD.

N. May Karff............9½-½
Mary Bain................8½-1½
Adele Rivero............7½-2-5
Edith Weart..............7-3
Mrs.  McCready.......5-5
Mathilda Harmath..4-6
Edna Harrison.........3½-6½
Helen Kashdan........3-7
Mrs. W. F. Jackson...2-8
Elizabeth Wray........1-9

     Helen Cohen Kashdan was the wife if Isaac Kashdan an important promoter and one of the strongest U.S. players of that era.  Helen herself was a stronger promoter of women's chess than she was a player. She organized a learning group of 7 men and 8 women who met twice a month to improve their skills.  According to Ms. Weart, "Mrs. Kashdan is a sweet person. When she captured the Queen of one of her opponent's and gave check with the knight at the same time, she actually apologized." Helen was born in Russian and emigrated to the United States with her mother Eva and younger sister Anne.  Born in 1910 on the fourth of July, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1935 and passed away on Dec. 31, 1990.

     Mrs. W. E. Jackson is an unknown, but she was 5-0 in the Marshall C.C. tournament that year. She's not mentioned again.  Neither is Mrs. Edna Harrison, who made a habit of being late.  Like Mrs. Jackson, Harrison did well int e Marshall C.C. tournament, 6½. -½.  Mathilda Harmath also participated in the 1940 and 1942 U.S. Women's Championships.

      N. May Karff took possession of the Hazel Allen Trophy and won a silver bowl donated by the committee. Mrs. Bain also received a silver bowl. Mrs. Rivero and Miss Weart received a copy of "Chessman" donated by Gustavus A. Phiffer. The prizes were presented by George Emlen Roosevelt, a yachtsman, cousin of Theodore Roosevelt and president of the Marshall Chess Club who additionally recited a poem he had written, dedicated to the "Also Rans."

       L. Walter Stephens, Director of Play; Frank Marshall; Silas w. Howland, Chairman
       of US Chess Champ. Committee; Sammy Reshevsky George Emlen Roosevelt,
       Committee member/patron; N. Mona Karff; Louis J. Wolff, publicist.

      Following the tournament there was a serious accident involving several of the ladies returning from the U.S. Open in Boston.
     Aug. 1938  "Chess Review":

An unfortunate aftermath of the tourney was the accident which occurred to Mary Bain, Mrs. McCready and Miss Weart. They were returning from Boston during the rainy spell, and their car skidded o a slippery pavement, going into a telegraph pole. The car overturned, pinning Miss Weart, who luckily escaped with a fractured shoulder. Mrs. Bain suffered a fractured vertebra, necessitating the wearing of a cast for several months. We do not know the extent of Mrs. McCready's injuries, but we extend to all three ladies our best wishes for their complete and early recovery.

The Marshall Chess Club 1938


     The 1939 tournament had an odd twist.  It ended in a three-way tie for first place. Mrs. Bain, Miss Karff, Dr. Helen Weissenstein were to have a play-off to determine a winner after the Women's World Championship ended, but it's unclear if a play-off ever took place.  Once again, Caroline Marshall was the Tournament Director and organizer.

     We see for the first time the names of Dr. Helen Weissenstein and Nancy Roos. 

     About Helen Weissenstein there is little personal information to be found other than she was a refugee from Vienna, having fled to Switzerland in March 1938 arriving in New York in the Autumn of that year and that  her doctorate was in psychology.  She published a couple books and several articles.  ""We Four Together," published in 1947 was a children's book about the relationship among quadruplets and their other sister;  "John and the Chessmen," 1952, is an introduction-to-chess book for children with the unusual approach of introducing chess through historical figures (the 'Chessmen');   "Patzer: An Etymological Study" was publish in "Chess Review" in 1961;  "Chess and Handwriting" was published by the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts;  "A Graphological Dream" was published 1959 by "American Imago," Freud's academic journal.

   Nancy Roos had immigrated from Belgium, where, according to Weart, she had been the Belgian Women's Chess Champion in 1939 at the start of the war.  Roos was a photographer by trade and in 1944 moved with her husband Martin to Los Angeles where she opened a portrait studio in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. Roos was the official photographer for several California chess magazines and became a fixture at the Los Feliz Chess Club.  She was an expert at Go and an a speed chess champion.  Roos dies prematurely of cancer in 1957.

Nancy Roos in 1945

     This tournament also included Maude Marie Stephens, wife of Llewellyn Walter Stephens (pictured above). In his entertaining book, "The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories," Arnold Denker gives an unfavorable depiction of L. Walter Stephens as an dour man who sucked the enjoyment out of everything, and Maude as an efficient "tall pencil-thin lady with a weakness for flowered hats as lush and wild as any tropical forest."  She served as secretary of the Manhattan Chess Club from 1942-1954 (L. Walter had that position from 1924-1941).  Denker claims they lorded over the club "as if it were the family plantation.






      1940 was Adele Rivero's chance to really shine.  Played at the Hotel Astor in March/April with Carrie Marshall as the TD, it was considered the strongest U.S. Women's Championship to date. While Gisela Gresser who was favored by the men of the Marshall Club to win, Rivero lost only one game compared to Gresser's three losses.

Adele Rivero.............7-1
N. May Karff.............5½-2½
Gisela Gresser..........5-3
Dr. Weissenstein......5-3
Mary Bain..................4½-3½
Mrs. McCready.........4½-3½
Mathilda Harmath...4½-3½
Adele Raettig............1-7
Elizabeth Wray.........1-7

     Adele Rivero, besides gaining possession the trophy, won a silver tray, compliments of George Emlen Roosevelt;  N. May Karff received the book "Chessman;" Gisela Gresser and Helen Weissenstein won, "elaborate kits of beauty preparations;"  Mary Bain and Mrs. McCready won  smaller beauty kit;  Mathilda Harmath, Adele Raettig and Elizabeth Wray each received a chess pin and a consolation prize.


Miss Wray hands Mrs. Gresser a defeat in the first round.

  This is the year we first see the most successful U.S. Women's Champion of all, Gisela Gresser.   
     Gisela Kahn
Gresser was a highly intelligent, highly accomplished and highly successful women for whom chess was just one of her many interests. Even in the early years of organized women's chess, few of the best players were native-born Americans. Mrs. Gresser was born in Detroit in 1906. While attending Radcliffe College where she majored in classical languages, she won a fellowship to research in Athens. Back in New York, she met and married William Gresser, an attorney and musicologist. She had just turned 21.
     She was introduced to chess while on a cruise in 1938 when she was 32, and played in her first U. S. Women's Championship just 2 years later, winning it just 4 years after that. (she would win that title again in 1948 (with May Karff), 1954, 1955 (with Nancy Roos), 1957 (with Sonja Graf), 1962, 1965, 1966 (with Lisa Lane), 1967, and 1969 (at age 63).  In 1954 she also won the U.S. Women’s Chess Open.
     Gisela Gresser lived to be 94.


     In 1941 the USCF attempted to change from a tournament to a match format. 
     N. May Karff, who had won in 1938 and had tied for first in 1939 and having won the 1940 tournament was the reigning Queen of Chess,  was challenged by Adele Rivero who had won the Marshall Tournament in 1937.

    The match, played between Nov. 16 and  Dec. 7, was held at a variety of places: the Marshall C.C., the Manhattan C.C.,  the home of L. Walter Stephens, the referee, on 279 E. 34th st. Brooklyn and the Queens C.C.  on 40-05 59th st. Woodside, L.I..  Al Horowitz, the match treasurer, hoped to raise a $500 but that goal was never met. In fact only $197 was raised and the two ladies split the prize equally.
     Besides it's new format, the championship had other unexpected aspects.  "The day before the match began the lady champion married Donald Belcher of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research and teacher of mathematics and physics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville."  Adele (Rivero) Belcher, in a highly unanticipated fashion,  lost 5 of the 6 match games. 
     The match also introduced the "Chess Review Trophy:

     "The new trophy, in the form of a large engraved silver cup, will be he emblem of the Women's Chess Championship of the United States and will become the permanent possession of any lady player who wins it three times.  The victor in the present match will be awarded custody of the cup."

All 6 match games:


  Adele Belcher on left playing N. May Karff in the first game of the match

Al Horowitz, Adele Belcher  L. Walter Stephens, Herman Helms,
N. May Karff, Frank Marshall and the new Chess Review Trophy


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