American Woman - Part III

American Woman - Part III

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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 I  |  Part II  Part IV  |  Part V  |  Part VI  Part VI |


      Returning to the tournament format, the championship was held in South Fallsburg, NY and went from  August 23 to August 31.
Caroline Marshall served as TD; Edith Weart served as assistant TD.

     N. May Karff, who had defeated Adele Belcher in 1946, was the reigning champion. She narrowly kept her title by tying with Gisela Gresser.  Lina Grumette of Brooklyn, a new-comer to the U.S. Women's Championship made a surprisingly good showing.

Gisela Gresser.....6½-½
N. May Karff........6½-½
Mary Bain.............4-3
Lena Grumette...3½-3½
Lucille Kellner.....2½-4½
Adele Raettig......2-5
Mary Selensky....1-6
Elizabeth Wray...1-6

     The two leading  American periodials gave sparce coverage to this event.  Above is the entire coverage by both "Chess Review"( on the left) and "Chess Life" (on the right).

    The only new face in this year was that of Lina Grumette, remembered now as a so-called mother figure for Bobby Fischer, started life on Aug. 16 1908 in the Kaliningrad, then part of East Prussia now an Oblast of Russia, as Lina Futterman.  She moved to Brooklyn when she was 9. She married Murray Grumette who incidentally wrote several books of math-based puzzles (such as "Geometricks," 1939 and "The Service Man's FUN KIT - a collection of puzzles," sometime during WWII) . As far as her chess goes, as a member of the Brooklyn Chess Club, she took lessons from Isaac Kashdan and was eventually strong enough to enter the women's championship. She and Murray operated an import/export business in Brooklyn.  In the early 1950s they moved to Hollywood. There she became acquainted with Herman Steiner and Jacqueline Piatigorsky whom she assisted in organizing the famed Piatigorsky Cup tournaments in the 1960s. After Murray died in 1970 sh opened a highly-regarded chess studio in her home called "the Chess Set."  She organized an huge annual Memorial Day tournament.  Fischer had stayed in her home for several months in 1967 and she traveled to Reykjavik purportedly to cajole him into playing the match.  Lina died of lung cancer on July 21, 1988.


     The tournament started on Oct. 20  and played at the Marshall C. C. (with a round on Oct. 28 at the Log Cabin C.C. in West Orange and a round on Oct. 31 at the London Terrace C.C. in NY).
Carrie Marshall  was the TD.

Mary Bain...........................8½-½
Gisela Gresser...................7½-1½
N. May Karff......................6-3
Kathryn Slater...................4½-4½
Lina Grumette..................3½-5½
Nancy Roos.......................3½-5-5
Willa White Owens.........3-6
Jacqueline Piatigorsky....3-6
Adele Raettig....................2-7

     Mary Bain won  $150 prize money and possession of the new sterling silver "Edith Luce Weart Trophy."

     Helen Faith Keane hosted "For Your Information" for exactly one year when she decided to end her broadcasting career (which she entered by accident) and return to teaching at NYU. "Happy" Keane lived to be 109.  Her show was devoted topics women would ask about and in its brief life received both praise and awards. While the Women's Chess Championship wasn't aired, Keane did mention it on her program.

It's worth noting that the tournament took place in NYC but many of the ladies had to travel great distances at a time when travel wasn't as easy or convenient as it is today. Mary Bain came from Miami; Lucille Kellner, from Detroit;  Willa White Owens, from Avon Lake, Ohio;  N. May Karff, from Boston; Jacqueline Piatigorsky and Nancy Roos, from Los Angeles.

From H.R. Bigelow's Column in the NY "Post," Nov 9, 1951.

Mrs. Piatigorsky has made a handsome donation to Tournament Director Mrs. Carrie Marshall, the proceeds to be used for expenses incurred in conducting the tourney."
. . .
"Author, lectured and Grandmaster Dr. Edward Lasker, president of the Marshalls, has agreed to to act as judge in the awarding of the two prizes offered by your chess editor for the most brilliant games in the Ladies' Championship.

Jacqueline Piatigorsky made here national chess debut in this tournament. 
     Born into the ultra-privileged Rothschild family, her childhood was remarkably restrictive and secluded.  She was dominated by uncaring nannies and overprotected, leaving her insecure and timid. Se learned chess at age six from a nurse while convalescing from peritonitis.  As an young adult, she became obsessed with the pianist Alfred Cortot, taking up piano herself and following his tour throughout Europe.  It was within this music sphere that she met Gregor Piatigorsky who would become the world's foremost cellist.  Gregor taught her to play the bassoon on which she became far more proficient than with the piano. They married in 1937 and fled to the United States as the area of France where they were living had fallen into the hands of the Nazis.
    She had an interesting circle of acquaintances and played chess with such people as Marcel Duchamp and Sergei Prokofiev.  Prokofiev was thought to have been a strong player and, indeed, beat Capablanca once in a simul. He partnered with Mrs. Piatigorsky in bridge and muttered many belittling remarks against his partner during their games. But in chess he and Jacqueline only played two games: the first was a draw and Piatigorsky won the second - after which Prokofiev refused to play her again.
     Jacqueline started playing correspondence chess but after she and her husband moved to California in 1949, she met Herman Steiner and joined his Hollywood Chess Group. With his help, her skills grew exponentially.  Overcoming her timidity, she entered tournaments and Steiner convinced her to enter the 1951 U.S. Women's Championship.
     As Jacqueline became very consumed by chess and she and Gregor formed the Piatigorsky Foundation. This foundation helped sponsor chess in public schools and chess for underprivileged and disabled children but its primarily purpose was to support the now-famous Piatigorsky Cup Tournaments.   Jacqueline Piatigorsky's contribution to chess can't be overemphasize.  She was 100 years old when she passed away in 2012.

Jacqueline and Gregor Piatigorsky 1963


an ad in "Chess Life" for the 1953 U.S. Women's Chess Championship

     The 1953 U.S. Women's Championship was played from Dec. 5 to Dec. 20 at both  the Manhattan and Marshal chess clubs.

Gisela Gresser.............6-0
N. May Karff................5½-½
Wally Henschel...........4½-1½
Rosalia de Serrano....4½-1½
Kate Henschel.............3½-3½
Henrietta Rogers.......1½-4½
Adele Raettig..............1½-5½
 Micaela Babakin........1-5
Margaret Story............0-6

     1953 was a rather weak tournament due to the absence of proven players such as Kathryn Slater, Mary Bain, Lina Grumette, Lucille Kellner, Willa White Owens, Mary Selensky and Jacqueline Patigorsky.  It's was suspected that the reason for their absences was seasonal obligations.
The tournament was alos poorly covered. Below is a photo from a 1954 article on the Caldron Chess Program and the Marshall Chess Club.  It shows three of the little known entrants.

Below is an image of Micela Babakin culled from a 1961-2 photo of Larry Evans receiving his U.S. Championship trophy:


     Micaela Babakin  had a Masters in Social Work (MSSW); Mrs. Rosalie de Serrana of East Orange, N.J. was the former woman champion of Costa Rica; Helen Rogers had played in some Marshall CC tournaments prior to this championship; Margaret Story remains a mystery (an untold Story?) other than she was a Marshall C.C. member.


     This tournament was played from Aug. 23  to Sept. 6, 1955 at both the Manhattan and Marshall chess clubs.  Hans Kmoch acted as TD at the Manhattan Club while Carrie Marshall acted as TD at the Marshall Club.  Max Pavey, Jeremiah Donovan and I.A. Horowitz were referees and Dr. Edward Lasker as the treasurer, raised more than adequate funding.

Gisela Gresser..............9-2
Nancy Roos...................9-2
N. May Karff..................8½-2½
Jacqueline Piatigorsky..8-3
Irene Vines....................7½-3½
Lucille Kellner...............6½-4½
Lina Grumette.............. 4-7
Willa White Owens........4-7
Mary Selensky...............4-7
Rosalie de Serrano.......2½-8½
Wally Henschel..............2-9
Kate Henschel................1-10

     Mary Bain, Sonja Graf Stevenson and Eva Aronson (who had won the 1953 U.S. Women's Chess Open in Milwaukee) were scheduled to play but withdrew. They were replaced by the Henschel twins and Rosalie de Serano.  The brilliancy prize, a cup donated by Mr. Jose Caldron, went to Mrs. Piatigorsky -nor for one particular game but for her overall play (see the Karff-Piatigorsky game below).  Kathryn Slater traveled to the U.S. Open and her schedule didn't permit time for this tournament.
     Edith Weart arranged for the players to appear on " Todd Russell's Music Corner"  television program in which those attending discussed the excitement of chess and demonstrated the use of a chess clock. David Lawson (author of "Paul Morphy: the Pride and Sorrow of Chess" 1976) entertained various groups of the women players on four occasions, on 2 evenings and 2 afternoons, at area fine restaurants while, along with Mr. anf Mrs. Gresser, entertained all the player and directors at the Harvard Club during which was held the general meeting.  

Jaqueline Piatigorsy and Lina Grumette, 1955

Nancy Roos and Gisela Gresser - co-champions.

Irene Vines, 1954
     Irene Vines of New Orleans first caught the national eye in 1953 when she tied for 1st place in the"C" section of the New Orleans Championship - ahead of her husband Kenneth who came in fourth. The next year, she came in 7th overall -Alfred Willis , shown above, won.  Her showing in the U.S. Women's Open (won by Gresser) won her a spot in the 1955 U.S. Women's Championship and in a surprising turn of events, she dominated the initial phase over the more experienced veterans:
     In 1956 Vines won the overall Louisiana Sate Championship.  The only other woman to have done so was Adele (Rivero) Belcher who won the overall Vermont State Championship in 1953.
     In her Feb. 1956 chess column in "Chess Life" Willa White Owens brings up a very incisive point.  Compared to the male sector, the women players are percentage-wise extremely more involved with the mechanics of the tournaments, organizing, operating, promoting, governing etc.  Most of the women on these pages, often to the detriment of their own play, spent a great amount of time in the non-play areas.  Irene Vines was one such women.
      The 1957 championship was held at the Herman Steiner Chess Club in Hollywood, California from November 3- Nov. 16. 
Isaac Kashdan, TD.

Gisela Gresser......................9½-1½
Sonja Graff Stevenson......9½-1½
Mona May Karff..................7-4
Eva Aronson.........................6½-4½
Kathryn Slater......................6½-4½
Lina Grumette......................6-5
Nancy McLeod.....................6-5
Lucille Kellner.......................5-6
Mary Selensky......................5-6
Olga Higgins.........................2½-8½
Mildred Morrell (Morris)..2-9
Lenore Simon.......................½-10½

Standing (l-r): Lucille Kellner, Sonja Graf Stevenson, Gisela Gresser, Olga Higgins, Mary Selensky, Mona May Karff, Eva Aronson, Kathryn Slater, Nancy McLeod, and Lenore Simon.
Sitting (l-r):: Lina Grumette, Jacqueline Piatigorsky, Mildred Morrell, and Isaac Kashdan.

     Noticeably absent were Mary Bain and Jacqueline Piatigorsky.  Piatigorsky and Gisela Gresser had returned from representing the US in the first Women's Olympiad in Emmen, Holland (Sept.) Failing to qualify for the finals, they tied for first, 8-2, with the Czech team in the Class A consolation tourney but had a winning margin of Sonneborn-Berger pts. Apparently Piatigorsky was available for the group photo if not in position to play. Besides determining the U.S. Women's Chess Champion, this tournament also was also a Zonal to decide who would proceed to the Interzonals on the path to the World Championship.

     The above photo from the December 1956 "California Chess Reporter" archived by Kerry Lawless on his incomparable ChessDryad site shows some of the California ladies who took part in the 1957 U.S. Women's Championship.  This was the first time the championship took place outside of NYC.  As might be expected, more players from the California area were able to participate. In the 1956 California State Women's Chess Championship Olga Higgins came in fourth behind Jacqueline Piatigorsky (3rd), Lina (Lena) Grumette (2nd) and Sonja (Susanna) Graf-Stevenson (1st).
     Although this was her one and only shot at the U.S. Women's Championship, Olga Higgins would be an enduring figure in the California chess scene.  In 1975 she became a founding member of the Santa Barbara Senior Chess Club.
     Mildred Morrell of Gary Ind. (and later of Avella, Pa.) on the other hand played in the 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967 championship tournaments even though she always finished at or near the bottom.
     Lenore Simon of Los Angeles just seems to have faded into the chess woodwork.
     Eva Aronson, winner of the 1953 Women's Chess Open, her first national tournament also won the Open in 1961, 1969 and 1973 (both Wikipedia and the World Chess Hall of Fame claim she won in 1972 but there doesn't seem to have been an Women's Open that year).  She participated in the U.S. Women's Championship in 1957, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1974, 1975.  Eva was born in 1908 in the city of Linköping in southern Sweden.  She married Ninus Aronson of Lysekil and the newlyweds left Sweden in 1926 for Chicago where they lived for 40 years before moving to Florida.  Aronson was 35 before she took up chess seriously.
     Nancy McLeod and her husband Dan took up chess in the early 1950s as an inexpensive recreation and learned the game playing against each other.  Living in San Francisco,  they both took part in the "C" section of a tournament organized by George Koltanowski and fared well.  Nancy mentioned a tournament format in a group also initiated by Koltanoski called "Chess Friends of Northern California," in which any area club could enter tournaments by supplying 2 each of class "A" "B" and "C" players.  This format gave equal points for wins regardless of the class level, making all wins equal, effectually spotlighting the "C" players.  This gave the lower classed players such as the McLeods more tournament experience.
     The couple organized the San Bruno Chess Club in their small apartment. It soon moved to a local school cafeteria and continued to grow until it reached 50 members.  The couple joined the Mechanics Institute where Nancy became the only regular woman member.  The U.S. Women's Championship was propitiously in California at a time when Nancy was able to qualify  -partially due to the lack of women available in the area, partially due to her rapid rise in USCF sponsored events.  They moved to Seattle Oregon would remain active in Seattle chess.


Sonja Graf-Stevenson, 1957

Gisela Gresser, 1957


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