The Top 5 Best Female Chess Players of All Time

The Top 5 Best Female Chess Players of All Time‎

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81 | Chess Players

The queen may be the strongest piece in chess, but it sometimes feels like few women besides the fictional Beth Harmon seem to play the game. In the United States, for example, only about one-seventh of the members of the national chess federation are female. As of February 2021, there are only 37 active female players that have achieved the highest title in chess, that of grandmaster, out of the over 1700 active players who have earned the title.

That said, the very best female players have always been of unambiguously high caliber. Below are the top five in history. All of them played in open events consisting of men and/or women, and some decided at one point to only play in open events. When they did play in women's events, they often lapped the field. All of them have won international tournaments in open fields or defeated a world champion, and in most cases both. Their accomplishments make them legendary icons of the game.

Honorable Mentions

  • GM Pia Cramling (mother of WFM Anna Cramling) was the top-rated woman in the world for parts of 1983-84, and was the fifth woman to achieve the GM title.
  • Current women's world champion GM Ju Wenjun is the only multiple-time women’s champion in the 21st century, other than GM Hou Yifan.
  • GM Xie Jun dethroned Chiburdanidze as women's champion in 1991, was the sixth woman to achieve the GM title, and is the current President of the Chinese Chess Association. 
  • GM Alexandra Kosteniuk was the 14th women's world champion, a two-time Russian women's champion, and the 10th female GM in history.
  • GM Susan Polgar became the top-rated woman in the world at the age of 15 and was the women's world champion from 1996-99. She is the older sister of GM Judit Polgar and IM Sofia Polgar.

#5 Vera Menchik 

Vera Menchik, 1933Vera Menchik, the first women’s world champion, proved nearly 100 years ago that chess was not just a man’s game. In possibly her best tournament, playing on a team with Jose Capablanca among others at Ramsgate in 1929, Menchik went undefeated in seven games. She won her matchups against George Alan Thomas, Reginald Pryce Michell, and Hubert Ernest Price and drew the rest. Those three wins without a loss matched the performance of all-time great GM Akiba Rubinstein in the same tournament, and was a half-point ahead of her former teacher GM Geza Maroczy

Menchik had an even lifetime score against world champion GM Max Euwe in five games (+2 =1 -2) and U.S. champion GM Samuel Reshevsky in two bouts (+1 -1), but it was Austria’s Albert Becker who reportedly created the “Vera Menchik Club” by losing to her at the 1929 Carlsbad tournament after mocking her participation in the tournament. 

In women’s events, Menchik was both an unstoppable force and immovable object. She played in seven women’s world championship tournaments and won an unbelievable 78 games out of 83, against just a single loss and four draws, for a 98.8% winning percentage. She also won two championship matches against the German (later American) Sonia Graf. In part because of her dominance, Menchik is honored every two years at the Women’s Olympiad, where the winning nation is awarded the Vera Menchik Cup.

Menchik’s tragic death in a 1944 German rocket strike, six years before the GM title was created, denied her the chance at obtaining it. (FIDE did not award her the title posthumously.) The next player on our list, however, did have that opportunity, and she took it.

#4 GM Nona Gaprindashvili

Nona Gaprindashvili, 1975
Photo: Dutch National Archive

GM Nona Gaprindashvili became the first female grandmaster in 1978—not to be confused with the Woman Grandmaster (WGM) title—after a resounding success at the 1977 tournament in Lone Pine, California. There, with a 6.5 score out of nine possible, she tied for first place with grandmasters Yuri Balashov, Dragutin Sahovic, and Oscar Panno. 

Gaprindashvili’s legacy was already cemented even without her GM title. She was women’s world champion for 16 years, taking that title from IM Elisaveta Bykova in 1962, and defending it four times. Gaprindashvili had twice won the Soviet Women's Championship and would win it three more times as a GM. She dominated the women's Olympiad, playing in 12 of them and scoring +94 =26 -8 while winning team gold 11 times and individual gold eight times.

Gaprindashvili has continued to play serious chess well into her 70s, crafting a career spanning more than half a century, nearly six decades. In 1995, she became the women's senior world champion after having been world champion. Twenty-four years later, in 2019 at age 78, Gaprindashvili was the women's 65+ world senior champion for the fifth time.

Few can compete with Gaprindashvili's combination of strength and longevity. Among those who can is one of her fellow countrywomen.

#3 GM Maia Chiburdanidze

Maia Chiburdanidze, 1984
Photo: Gerhard Hund/Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

GM Maia Chiburdanidze defeated fellow Georgian Gaprindashvili for the women’s world championship in 1978. She was 17 years old at the time, the youngest ever, and went on to hold the title for 13 years, winning four further matches in defense. In the meantime, Chiburdanidze would earn the GM title herself in 1984, at the age of 23. From there, she became the first woman to crack the top 50 in rating since FIDE began tracking an official list in July 1971. In January 1988, with a 2560 rating, Chiburdanidze reached #48 in the world. Only one other female player has done so since (as of February 2021).

Chiburdanidze matched up particularly well against GM Nigel Short, going undefeated in her two career games against the Englishman in 1983 and '85. The latter came at Banja Luka, a tournament Chiburdanidze won with a score of four wins and six draws. Less than a decade later, Short would be playing for the world championship.

Chiburdanidze played in 15 Olympiads from 1978-2008, seven for the USSR and then eight for Georgia. She was on the first board all 15 times, even with Gaprindashvili competing for position until 1994. In her last Olympiad, at the age of 47 in 2008, Chiburdanidze led Georgia to victory with a gold-winning +6 =3 in her individual games, including a win over the then-reigning women's world champion, Kosteniuk. 

Building off the success of Chiburdanidze and Gaprindashvili, women's chess in Georgia is quite strong. Five female GMs hail from there and despite a current population of about four million. Georgia has over 30 women rated above 2000 by FIDE. That's only four fewer than the nearly 100-times-larger United States, and more than half as many as the 250-times larger China, neither of which are weak chess countries! China has, in fact, one of the two players ranked ahead of Chiburdanidze on this list, with...

#2 GM Hou Yifan

Hou Yifan, 2018
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

As the strongest woman (since our #1 retired) during one of the strongest periods of chess in history, GM Hou Yifan is near the top of this list. In 2010 Hou, 16, broke Chiburdanidze’s record for youngest women’s world champion. Two years before that, she had surpassed even Judit Polgar by becoming a GM at 14 years old, making her the youngest female GM ever (a record she still holds as of February 2021). Hou would win the championship twice more, in 2013 and 2016, before shifting her focus to open events.

It was a reasonable course of action, as Hou soon achieved great success at Biel in 2017. She won outright with 6.5 out of 9 with a performance rating of 2810. It was a field that included a FIDE world champion (GM Ruslan Ponomariov), a classical world championship finalist (GM Peter Leko), and four other super GMs (players whose rating peaked above 2700). That same year at the GRENKE Chess Classic she defeated GM Fabiano Caruana, who would be playing for the world championship a year later.

At various points in Hou's career, she has taken a break from professional chess to focus on her education and career outside of chess. She was a Rhodes Scholar in 2018 and in July 2020 she became a full-time professor at Shenzhen University at the age of 26. Hou has not entirely left chess, playing two international team competitions in 2020 including the Chess.com Online Nations Cup, and the game of chess plays a key role in her professorship at Shenzhen University.

Hou peaked at 55th in the world on the May 2015 FIDE rating list, just shy of Chiburdanidze's top ranking, but Hou has faced somewhat stronger competition; Chiburdanidze rarely if ever played in fields quite as strong as Biel or GRENKE 2017. Still, the #2 spot on our list was perhaps the toughest call to make. Who to have #1, meanwhile, was the easiest.

#1 GM Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar
Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com

GM Judit Polgar is the only player on this list who never became women’s world champion, but with good reason: she never tried to obtain that title. She was simply too strong of a player and was better-suited in open events. She has won games against GMs Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, both while they were #1 in the world. Polgar has even toppled GM Bobby Fischer: When Polgar earned the grandmaster title in 1991, she was the youngest ever, beating Fischer’s record. (Fischer would stay at the Polgar household for a time in 1993.)

By the time Polgar was 21 years old, New York Times chess columnist GM Robert Byrne declared, “there is no argument about the greatest female player ever." Her position was certainly inarguable by the objective rating: in January 1989, when Polgar was 12, she already ranked 55th in the world at 2555, just shy of Chiburdanidze's peak. By July 1993, Polgar reached a 2635 rating and joined the world top 20, easily surpassing Chiburdanidze’s top marks. On FIDE’s January 1996 rating list, Polgar ranked 10th, a previously unimaginable accomplishment. 

Byrne wrote his profile of Polgar in 1997, and she only added to her resume after that. In January 2003, she joined the 2700 rating club, still the only woman to have done so. The following January, Polgar reached eighth on the FIDE rating list, and she stayed in the top ten until 2006. In 2005, Polgar came the closest a woman ever has to becoming world chess champion, playing in an eight-player field for the FIDE crown (won by GM Veselin Topalov).

When Polgar retired in 2014, she was still the top-rated woman in chess at 2675. Hou would pass her the next year when she reached 2686. By that point, Polgar had been the top-rated female player for a quarter of a century, 26 years running all the way back to 1989. Given all of her accomplishments, it is nearly impossible to argue that anyone but Judit Polgar is the greatest female chess player of all time.

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