Nona Gaprindashvili. Fighting for Equality

Nona Gaprindashvili. Fighting for Equality


A chapter from Nona Gaprindashvili's 1977 book I Prefer Risk. Many of her thoughts on women's chess still seem to be relevant even now, 40 years later.

I've included some chess games to divide the wall of text somewhat.

Fighting for Equality

Have you ever heard phrases such as "women's chess", "plays like a woman"? I have, many times. Sometimes I heard them from my male opponents, in quite a condescending tone. It never occurred to the people who said them that it was simply impolite. For them, these terms seemed absolutely normal, objectively reflecting the natural (from their point of view) phenomenon - that women chess players are obviously weaker than men.

Yes, women are weaker (at least currently). There are both objective and subjective reasons for that, which are, sadly, mostly ignored.

There's women's track and field, women's volleyball, women's cycling, but there's nothing derogatory or ironic in these terms. Even though discs and shot-putting shots for women are lighter, the volleyball net hangs way lower, and in women's cycling, some very interesting forms of competitions are absent, such as multi-day races.

Therefore, there are some objective physiological peculiarities that make it impossible for the "weaker sex" to compete with men on equal terms in most athletic disciplines.

Well, in chess, these physiological peculiarities of the beautiful half of humanity are just ignored. Like men, women play long tournaments that sometimes last for a full month - with sleepless nights for analysis, with special preparation for each opponent, anxiety attacks, etc. Like men, we get 2.5 hours for 40 moves - so, like men, women get into time trouble and experience the same stresses as the men.

Does that mean that I think that we should introduce some concessions for the female players, such as setting time control after 35 moves rather than 40? No! The most obvious reason is that the decrease in control moves will only lead to more adjourned games.

Female players don't need any concessions. Women, due to their physiological and psychological traits, possess less fighting qualities than the men, but they do have some other qualities to compensate.

Yes, as yet, women can't play chess as strong as men. But if we consider the creative side of things, which is probably the most important in evaluating the chess mastery, playing quality (not playing strength!), the gap between women and men isn't as big. In other words, the gap in playing quality between male and female players is smaller than the gap in playing strength. Some strategical ideas, combinations and tactics of female players are very deep and brilliant.

So, when I say that women obviously can't play chess as strong as men, I mean that this can be explained by the advantages that the men have in other aspects of chess struggle, chess sport, not the intellectual aspect. If one understands that, they would treat women's chess with greater respect - perhaps even with the respect it deserves.

The uninformed people usually think that chess puts only nervous, psychological strain on the players (it's usually considered that women can handle that strain as well as men), not physical. Actually, women are usually more emotional, so they feel more vulnerable under the strain, and for long tournaments with many players, you also simply need physical endurance.

In the book Three Matches of Anatoly Karpov, Botvinnik writes, "Chess is an intellectual, but very intensive work, a chess player must be able to withstand tough strain." Then Botvinnik tells us how much time and strength he spent to analyze the 20th game of his return match against Tal (the game was adjourned twice). He continues, "Can a man withstand such a pressure, if he's not a true chess player? Highly unlikely." And how do the true female chess players feel? Is it somehow easier for them?

No wonder that chess is called an amalgamation of science, art form and sport; in the 1970s, chess became much more of a sport, which somewhat suppressed the artistic, creative side of things.

The tough, even cruel qualification system that works on every level of the chess hierarchy, of course, gives order to the system of chess competitions, and it's very valuable and useful because of that. But the play-off qualification style, where the loser gets knocked out of the competition, makes many players ignore the purely creative goals, become more practical and sometimes risk-averse.

In the atmosphere of such a pressure, where every tournament is a "qualification" for something, where each mistake can be ruthlessly punished, it's very hard, if not outright impossible, for women to compete with men on equal footing. Because there seems to be something in men's biology, in their character that developed in the course of millennia of human history and allows them to withstand this pressure easier, to remain in top condition until the very last move of the very last round, to never relax unnecessarily.

Thankfully, women don't have to qualify through men's tournaments, the two qualification systems are separate. However, in the last years, we've seen quite a few mixed tournaments, even championships (for instance, the U.S. Championship) where men and women play together.

I have noticed that when I played in men's tournaments, I would often make disappointing errors in the last playing hour, particularly last 15 to 20 minutes. I make these errors most often when I get a big advantage. If I didn't blunder away wins so often, my results at men's tournaments would have been much higher!

So, am I just unprepared for the fifth hour? No, up until now, I've been in a good physical shape, and I didn't make more mistakes during the fifth hours than during any of the other hours.

But I have noticed that even in the most hopeless positions, men defend persistently and fiercely, until the last drop of blood - such is the man's character. Women, on the other hand, tend to quickly stop fighting in lost positions. I have lost many a half-point before I finally understood this trait of men's character, but even after that, I would still sometimes let them go easy. And this can be most probably explained by the fact that it's much more difficult for a woman with a softer character to remain fully concentrated and ruthless until the very last move.

In short, chess sport is as demanding for women as it is for men - and women don't get any concessions even in the mixed tournaments. Nevertheless, female players are fully capable of creative and sporting successes - even against men. But the traditional view of women's playing as imperfect and weak has taken such roots that most men can't even believe that a woman can develop and implement a spectacular idea, to play a brilliant game.

I want to remember an incident that happened during one of the Soviet Union - Yugoslavia matches. While Kira Zvorykina thought about a move for a long time, some grandmasters from our team became angry. There was apparently a simple, but pretty combination, and the men fumed: why can't Zvorykina see it?

Zvorykina continued to think and ultimately made a much more prosaic move that still led to a win. When the grandmasters smugly showed Zvorykina that combination in post-mortem, she, without even bothering to hide the irony, played out a refutation. Zvorykina understood the position deeper than her rash critics!

In this game, Kira Zvorykina, 48 at the time, managed to hold the women's champion Gaprindashvili to a draw.

I hope that my readers won't think that I'm immodest, but I can also show you an example from my own practice. In 1974, I played in a tournament in Dortmund. In the third round, I played against the German master Servaty. In this game, I played a beautiful combination with a double rook sacrifice. Servaty had to resign at the 17th move due to impending mate.

This win gave me immense creative pleasure. The game was featured in all the world's chess media. Later, Mikhail Tal, the world's best combination expert, valued this game very high. Another famous grandmaster in the Ogonyok magazine gave a lot of compliments, even calling the game "immortal" and saying that "it should feature in any collection of the greatest chess masterpieces.

Of course, this Ogonyok article was very flattering, but still, I felt some resentment behind it. Like, look, a woman can also play beautiful! If a man played such combination, I think he would be commended for that, but without such an admiration.

By the way, there was also a curious (but very typical!) detail. Before my match against Nana Alexandria, one journalist wrote an article about me, mentioning this game and saying that "Gaprindashvili launched a vicious attack on Servaty and quickly forced her to resign". It seemingly didn't occur to him that I could defeat a man in such a spectacular style!

I must admit that this is not the only and, of course, not the most serious example of inadvertent discrimination of female chess players. There are much worse things: for decades, FIDE treated women's chess with open disrespect. FIDE's motto is "We're all a family". A family they might be, but they retained the Domostroy values for quite a long time.

It's enough to say that women's chess Olympiads have started 30 years later than men's, and in the first year, they were held quite irregularly, with big intervals. Only after 1976 (at least thanks for that!) the number of players in teams increased from two to three, with one reserve. (By the way, in the 1974 Soviet book about the history of chess Olympiads, there's not a single word about women's Olympiads, as though they never existed!)

Only in 1975 a Women's Grandmaster title was introduced, even though some female players defeated the strongest grandmasters in some of their games.

There's still no youth world championship for women, while there's even a European youth championship for men.

Let me show you another example of how women's chess treated as second-class, not deserving any serious respect. The famous Soviet master Ilya Kan wrote an article for 64 magazine in 1975, remembering the Moscow international tournament of forty years ago. Remembering Lasker, Kan wrote, "Despite being the oldest participant of the tournament, the veteran in private talks expressed his desire to challenge for the World Championship again. However, he said that he would only agree to play a match if he would have to play for no more than three days a week. Now, this wish might seem strange, because that's the standard current schedule for the Candidates' matches (even for women's)."

Oh, how cute this even sounds! That's so great: even the women got the right to play every other day and have one additional rest day per week! Just remember the 1975 Candidates' final between Alexandria and Levitina. The score was level after 12 games, so they had to play until the first win, and they had to play five more games under such a colossal strain! I can surely say that no men's Candidates' final ever was so dramatic and intense.

They played 17 games! Let that sink in. And then remember that, for instance, Botvinnik said that 20 games is the optimal number for men's matches. Still, the women withstood this heavy pressure, fighting until last breath.

The 17th game of the match.

Still, even this schedule, which seems too forgiving for women to the renowned master, had both opponents to push the limits of their physical and psychological strength. Small wonder: before that, they played in an Interzonal where they shared 2nd-5th places, then played a double round-robin to eliminate one of those four, and then played semi-finals!

It's not hard to see that the match between Alexandria and Levitina was difficult both for the players and their coaches. At any rate, Nana Alexandria's coach, GM Bukhuti Gurgenidze, was quite pale and haggard when he returned. In an interview given after this drawn-out fight, Gurgenidze said that in his opinion, the challenger for Women's Chess Championship should be determined in a tournament with six or four participants, and grueling series of matches should only remain in men's championship cycles.

If even a grandmaster came to conclusion that women had to play in more difficult conditions than the men, then it must be true. I don't want to discuss either Gurgenidze's suggestion or the championship cycle in general here. But it's a fact that the FIDE executives made a mistake when they copied men's competition system for women (which was, of course, the simplest thing to do).

It's obvious that the multi-tiered qualification system poses too difficult problems before female players. In comparison, let me remind you that I got the right to challenge Bykova after competing in just two tournaments: the Soviet championship (which doubled as a zonal) and the Candidates' tournament.

I don't doubt that this FIDE's mistake will be rectified, but still, it can be explained by the fact that the FIDE bosses can't or don't want to understand that female chess players shouldn't be playing in the same (or even harder) conditions as the male players. I'm not asking for any preferences: I only want the competition organizers to take physical and psychological traits of women's organisms into account. Who needs excessive strain, after all?

I think that someone might think that I'm being too vehement here. Perhaps I am. But I see my duty as a world champion to champion the rights and dignity of all female players.

But still, let's return to the reasons that still don't allow women to reach the same heights in chess as men. One of those reasons is that women have only recently - and only in the socialistic countries - achieved equal rights with men. For centuries, only select few high-class women took some interest (just interest!) in chess. So, women's chess have next to no tradition, next to no history, and that's very important.

Former world champion Bykova did a colossal job by unearthing extensive material about some talented female players of old. But still, those were only individual players. Women's chess movement formed only after the World War I. Some nations, however, encouraged women to play chess, it was seen as a sign of gentility, education, and delicate taste. In Georgia, for instance, there's a tradition to include a chess set in the bride's dowry. Still, this obviously can't be compared with the popularity of chess amongst men.

Women's chess traditions are essentially only formed right now. So it's no wonder that in some countries, women's chess have only recently been introduced or even still not introduced at all.

But even when women - in a country such as ours - have the same social rights as men, the conditions are still far from equal. Men usually don't burden themselves with doing home chores, they delegate them all, including raising children, to their wives. And this allows them to fully concentrate on chess, both during their preparation and during tournaments.

Female players lack this privilege. Even when it's all right at home, if there's someone to care for their children, they're still think back to their home and family - sometimes even during games! Should I even explain how this affects playing strength? Remember: "Chess require full, complete dedication..."

I know many great players, such as GMs Bronstein and Geller, who work 5-6 hours a day on chess; GM Portisch from Hungary works on chess for 8 hours a day - a whole work day! (By the way, Portisch's wife accompanies him to many important tournaments.) There's not a single female player in the world who can afford such a luxury! So, it's no wonder that in theoretic preparation and positional understanding, in endgame playing, in general playing technique, men are stronger than women.

For many talented female players, familial obligations and anxieties became the ultimate obstacle to further successes. I am personally very lucky in this regard, but even I, when I leave my home for extended periods of time and go to a tournament, still worry how does my family feel, how are my husband Anzor and little son Datiko. And in two men's (and many women's) tournaments, I've had to play without much preparation due to home work and university exams.

There are even more specific reasons that can seem ridiculous and laughable, but they do actually interfere with women's ability to fully concentrate on the game. A male player probably wouldn't notice which suit and tie did his opponent wear to the game, while the women - we can't do anything about that, the nature created us so - are interested in pretty much everything: dresses or suits of other players, their brooches, or rings, or whatever. You can laugh, but for female chess masters, however strong and dedicated to the game they are, these details aren't insignificant, and they do provide some distraction.

And still... The readers have probably noticed that I've said that women are now playing weaker than men. Yes, despite all specific difficulties and obstacles, the class of female players constantly grows, and the gap between women and men decreases. This isn't an isolated process or an achievement of singular gifted individuals, but a logical consequence of great societal changes in the world that allow women to equal and even surpass men in many aspects of cultural and spiritual life.

The participation of women in correspondence tournaments is also important. Not so long ago, 15 or 20 Soviet female players were taking part in men's correspondence tournaments, there were no women's tournaments of that type. But now, there are both individual and team Soviet correspondence chess championships, with five or six semi-finals, and there's even a world women's correspondence chess championship.

I'm also delighted that women's chess aren't just becoming stronger - they're also becoming younger.

I remember when I and Nana Alexandria played in the Soviet championships at the age of 15, this became a sensation. But now, Maya Chiburdanidze became an International Master at 13 and played in the Soviet Championship, and a year later, the 13 years-old Nino Gurieli also played in the Soviet Championship with her, then Nana Ioseliani, who's even younger, won a medal at the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions championship, but all that was regarded as normal.

Because of that, the style of women's chess is changing before our eyes. The girls play with reckless bravery, not fearing anyone, without any piety before big names, and some of their attacks can be shown as examples to men. This may sound strange, but some young girl players are more bold, audacious and sharp in their games than the boys of the same age.

In 1973, during the USSR - Yugoslavia match, then 12 years-old Maya Chiburdanidze astonished everyone. Many people saw that she could play a combination against Kalchbrenner after some preparational moves, but Maya played this spectacular combination immediately, without any preparation!

Note: I don't know whether it's this game Gaprindashvili referred to, but it's still very pretty.

Natasha Ruchyeva, Nana Ioseliani, the aforementioned Gurieli and many other talented girl players are also very brave. "Women's chess" have become much younger, turned into, should I say, "girls' chess", and this affected their character - it became much more firm.

I should also say that by saying now, I also based it on my own practice and the practice of some other strongest female players. Nana Alexandria and I quite often play in men's tournament in Georgia, and sometimes (alas, quite rarely) in international men's tournaments too. I'm absolutely sure that if I played at least in three men's tournaments a year, I would get enough practice in the "men's style" to achieve men's grandmaster norms (Gaprindashvili became a "men's" grandmaster in 1978). Even though I'm rarely playing in men's international tournaments, I've managed to get rid of most women's chess "complexes" and, as I hope, earned some respect as a player.

It was quite a task to earn that respect from men, even though I've successfully competed with them many times. For instance, I've played with Geller in Gothenburg and finished third. In Hastings, I won the masters' tournament and earned the right to play in the main tournament, where I finished 5th next year (let's remember that Botvinnik shared 5th-6th in his first Hastings tournament). In Dortmund 1974 tournament, I shared 3rd-4th, and in Sandomir 1976, I finished second, just half a point behind Bronstein.

These are my best results in men's tournaments. But you should bear in mind that my conditions weren't equal to all other players. Not only because men, as I already said, have more stamina, both physical and psychological. Not only because men are always fighting until the last breath, clinging to all chances they get - this rarely occurs in women's tournaments. There are other reasons as well.

For instance, men seem to feel ashamed to lost to a woman, even to women's world champion. They're playing against me with all their strength, even risking to lose their next game due to exhaustion. That's why, for example, the players who come last in tournaments and lose to grandmasters without much fighting are always playing against me with such inspiration as though the fate of the first prize depends on this game. Much time had passed until I understood why was I losing so many half-points and even full points against the relatively weak players.

But it wasn't only the fear of losing to a woman that guided my opponents in men's tournaments. They obviously didn't believed in my skills. Do you think that the grandmasters show any chivalry when they play against women? Not at all! When playing with me, they even tend to forget the good chess manners, doing things they would never do if playing against another man.

I'll never forget one grandmaster, a gentleman with immaculate manners. In a completely equal position, he'd played me for hours, until the bare kings.

In Gothenburg, Spassky adjourned a game against me with some microscopic winning chances. After the first play-off, his chances became purely symbolical, and I'm sure that Spassky would have agreed to a draw with any other player. During the second play-off, I just had to be accurate. For two hours, I held very well, but then, either because of tiredness or resentment, blundered horribly and lost.

This game, along with Alekhine - Menchik and Carlsen - Hou Yifan, was one of the very few where reigning men's and women's chess world champions played against each other.

Perhaps my most principled rival was Victor Ciocâltea. He won an equal game against me at the Tbilisi international tournament. At a luncheon after the tournament, I publicly promised to him that I'll avenge my loss, and he replied, half-jokingly, half-seriously, that he'll never lose to a woman in his entire life. Later, we met at a tournament again.

He usually begins the game with the move of a King's pawn, but this time, he suddenly played 1. f4. I looked at him with a perplexed smile, and Ciocâltea said quite rudely, "Over the board, you have to think, not play out some prepared variants." His words offended me, and I've never forgotten them; Ciocâltea later said, however, that he was afraid of Scandinavian defence after 1. e4. Still, I lost the second game too, and the desire for revenge became even stronger.

And so, when at Vrnjacka Banja tournament Ciocâltea again played a different opening against me, beginning with 1. Nf3. I asked him, "So, you want to "think over the board" again?" I accepted the challenge; after the 15th move, White's position was so difficult that Ciocâltea... offered a draw. I, of course, refused that kind offer and won the game, finally keeping my word.

The ambitious Ciocâltea avoided me for three days after that, he didn't even greet me, and this became a subject of many jokes from other players. Then we finally mended fences, and Ciocâltea started to treat me seriously as an opponent after that.

One of the only two Ciocâltea - Gaprindashvili games found at Doesn't match any of the descriptions

There was another obstacle that adversely affected my performance in men's international tournaments. Most participants, at the very least, knew my women's world championship games, so they knew at least something about my playing style. I, on the other hand, had to learn the playing style of most of my opponents during the games. I only finally got an opportunity to prepare specifically for every opponent after I started to play in men's tournaments together with my coach GM Aivars Gipslis, a deep theoretician. After getting access to his immense database, I've finally breathed with relief, stopped wandering blind and understood how much advantage I gave to my male opponents.

Talking about women playing in men's tournaments and women's chess evolution, I should also mention the first women's world champion and the first female player to successfully play in men's tournaments. Vera Menchik, who was women's world champion from 1927 to 1944, was way ahead of her time and played an invaluable role in popularizing chess among women.

Menchik, the daughter of a Czech man and an English woman, was born in Moscow in 1906 and lived there until autumn 1921, before departing to England with her parents. She knew Russian language very well. Interestingly, at the first women's chess tournament in 1927, Menchik, since she came from Soviet Russia and spoke Russian, was written down in the table as representing Russia.

Vera Menchik retained her love for our country until the end of her life, and commanded immense respect here. When she played in the 1935 Moscow International tournament, the spectators loudly supported the women's world champion. And when Menchik drew against GM Flohr, who fought for the first place, she received a lot of telegrams with congratulations from many of our cities.

Menchik won seven Women's World Championships, four of them - with perfect score. It's little wonder that, finding no equal in women's tournaments, she turned her attention to men's competitions. According to Elizaveta Bykova's count, Menchik had played nine games against Capablanca, eight against Alekhine, five against Euwe, twice against Botvinnik; she also had games against Flohr, Keres, Fine, Reshevsky, Tartakower, Vidmar, Maroczy, Lilienthal, Najdorf and other grandmasters and masters. She played in total 50 men's tournaments (I'm saying that with envy!) and played 487 games - 147 wins, 147 draws, 193 losses.

People sometimes ask me how would I perform in a match against Vera Menchik. Some flatterers went as far as to proclaim that Gaprindashvili was undoubtedly stronger than Menchik. Even the late master Vasily Panov couldn't resist the temptation and wrote an article "Menchik vs. Gaprindashvili: The Match", even though he criticized us both quite severely.

I think that all those comparisons and discussions are ridiculous. Vera Menchik and I played in very different periods of chess history, and you cannot compare our playing level, because we have never even played against the same opponents (actually, both Menchik and Gaprindashvili played Paul Keres, but Gaprindashvili referred specifically to female opponents - Sp.), let alone against each other. I think that there's a place in chess history for us both, and we don't have to compete for it.

Perhaps the future chess historians will find some objective criteria to directly compare the playing strength and quality of female players of different eras. But Vera Menchik still has one achievement that no-one will ever replicate. She was the first woman to prove that even in such a sporting and intellectual sphere as chess, women can achieve the same successes as men.

Speaking without any false modesty, I think that I, with my playing style, attacking tendencies and some wins against strong male opponents, also played some part in making the female chess masters' chess thinking richer, their playing styles - braver, and making them feel less anxious and inferior when facing men.

In the earlier times, female players were doing everything to protect their king - safety first. They instinctively avoided the double-edged positions where everything is unclear, where even the smallest carelessness (or extreme carfeulness!) could lead to immediate catastrophe. Now, such players as Nana Alexandria or her Candidates' final opponent Irina Levitina play in a style that's a lot sharper than some male masters use.

Tatiana Zatulovskaya is an example of creative approach to chess. Her deep positional understanding is organically coupled with combinational talent. If Zatulovskaya wasn't as womanly emotional and didn't waste as much nervous energy after losing, she would surely play a World Championship match.

Unlike Zatulovskaya, who lacks the necessary sporting qualities, Levitina is a true sportswoman. Her understanding of chess is very mature, and in the same time, her playing style is bold, confident and sharp, with emphasis on the middlegame. Levitina is very talented, but, as it sometimes happens with gifted people, she's not diligent enough. If she manages to overcome this serious flaw and dedicates herself to determined chess work, Levitina would also surely challenge for the world championship.

Other female players that adopted "men's style" include Elena Fatalibekova (Olga Rubtsova's daughter), who was among the leaders in the Central Chess Club men's championship and ultimately shared the fifth place, the Hungarians Zsuzsa VerÅ‘ci and Maria Ivanka, and many others.

So, the time of so-called "women's chess" is gone! And I'm proud of helping to promote women's creative emancipation in chess, helping them to overcome  psychological barriers that separated them from "men's" chess...