"I think she's a man!" The unbelievable story of Lyubov Scherbina

"I think she's a man!" The unbelievable story of Lyubov Scherbina


In the 1970s, a young talented girl named Lyubov Scherbina emerged in the Crimean region. She qualified to the 1972 Soviet women's championship, where performed poorly (7/19, 18th place out of 20), but soon her career was on the rise: in 1975, she won the Ukrainian SSR women's championship, qualified for the Soviet championship again and shared 2nd-3rd place with Tatjana Fomina, half-point behind Lyudmila Belavenets.

The famous Riga Sahs magazine featured Scherbina heavily in their championship report. She was much praised, even more so than Maia Chiburdanidze, who was already seen as the "next big thing" of Georgian and Soviet chess.

Elena Fatalibekova: "Candidate Master L. Scherbina played very interestingly and fully deserved her medal. She's an interesting player, with distinct playing manner."

Annotations by Elena Fatalibekova

Tatiana Zatulovskaya: "This championship was won by interesting, promising players. I especially liked Scherbina."

Alla Grinfeld: "In a way, the winners' names were a surprize. But it was deserved. They all played very calmly, and when someone tried to attack them directly, they struck back. I rather liked Scherbina - she's a distinctive, bold player."

Grinfeld defeated Scherbina in their game:

Annotations by Alla Grinfeld

Rimma Bilunova: "There will be several new Soviet players in the next cycle's Interzonal, the joint runners-up Tatjana Fomina (Tallinn) and Lyubov Scherbina (Sevastopol) among them. Their short sporting biographies actually have a lot in common: both of them have played and won prizes in the championships of their republics and sports societies - Jõud and Armed Forces, respectively - and both began the year as Candidate Masters and ended it as National Masters. The playing of both the newly-made masters also has a lot in common: good knowledge of the opening theory, good work rate at the board, both are great attackers."

Annotations by Rimma Bilunova

Vera Tikhomirova also praised Scherbina in her article for the Shakhmaty v SSSR magazine, giving some more biographical details:

"Another silver medalist is the undergraduate student [this indicates that she was about 21 or 22 years old at the tournament - Sp.] of the Sevastopol Instrument-Making Institute, L. Scherbina. Her chess way began with the family battles: the girl was taught to play by her father and two brothers. Lyuba quickly started defeating them all.

She got properly introduced to chess in the Pioneers' Palace. In 1968, Lyuba won the girls' Armed Forces championship. In 1972, she won the Soviet championship semi-final, but didn't perform too well in the final.

In the subsequent years, Lyuba dedicated much of her attention to studying and periodically played in men's tournament.

1975 was a very good year for her. She became the Ukrainian champion, shared 1st-4th in the Armed Forces championship, and now, she qualified for the Interzonal.

At the Soviet championship, L. Scherbina was one of the few players who didn't bring a coach. She managed to handle all the burdens of preparation and adjourned game analysis herself, and I must say that she did pretty well. She's playing very bold and energetic chess, ready for complications and sacrificial combinations.

The following game, sharp from the beginning to the very end, is characteristic for the Ukrainian player."

Annotations by Vera Tikhomirova

Soon after, however, Scherbina disappeared, like she never existed. Nobody mentioned her in any reports or references, and her place in the Interzonal ultimately went to Maia Chiburdanidze, who only shared 7th-11th place at the same championship. Then the little Maia qualified for the Candidates', reached Gaprindashvili, and the rest is history.

Only much later, the details became known. At the tournament, Scherbina's opponents quickly became suspicious of her. Lyudmila Belavenets reportedly said to her husband, "You know, I think I just played against a man. Yes, long hair, all that, but look at the face and posture!" Gossips quickly spread...

Lyubov Scherbina at the Soviet Women's Chess Championship, 1975

Incredibly, Belavenets (and others) was almost spot on. Scherbina indeed wasn't a woman: "she" was intersex, or, as the condition was usually known at the time, hermaphrodite. The male side was seemingly becoming more and more apparent in her teen years (I'm obviously not a qualified medic or biologist, but Scherbina's story is consistent with intersex condition known as 5α-Reductase deficiency, where children appear female at birth, but then, during puberty, they gradually start looking male due to testosterone); Scherbina even wanted to decline the invitation to the Soviet Championship, without going into details, but "her" bosses from the Armed Forces were having none of that.

Still, some time after March 1976 (when Sahs with the women's championship reports was published), Scherbina wrote a letter to the Chess Federation, asking to consider "her" a man henceforth, and relinquishing "her" place in the Interzonal. As Evgeny Gik later joked in one of his many books, "Maia Chiburdanidze was indeed very lucky. One of the players who was ahead of her in the candidates' list fell ill, and the other one... turned out to be a man!" The story was, understandably, swept under the rug - the questions of sex and gender weren't discussed openly in the Soviet Union.

Little is known about Scherbina after that - we don't even know if he's still alive. In 1976, he quietly underwent an operation that turned him a "fully-fledged" man (probably after graduating from the college, not wishing to cause too much ruckus, but I obviously can't be sure), later got married and played in Ukrainian men's tournaments for a time, without much success. Even Scherbina's new first name after the operation is unknown - people who remembered the events gave contradicting statements.


Sahs, #5 (389), March 1976

Shakhmaty v SSSR #1, January 1976

Lyubov from Sevastopol by Dmitry Kryakvin, http://ruchess.ru/blogs/dimakrya/141/