"Why We Got Flogged?" Thoughts of a Woman Chess Player (1929)
Women's tournament, Moscow, 1926

"Why We Got Flogged?" Thoughts of a Woman Chess Player (1929)


This column from the Soviet magazine Shakhmatniy Listok looks quite modern, even though 90 years have passed since its publication. Not all woman players were satisfied with the work of chess authorities. The author rises a legitimate point echoed in Bykova's book - chess education in those early days was geared for winning competitions, not just for teaching chess to be able to play some casual games for fun.

Why We Got Flogged?

by Alexandra Klimenko, Shakhmatniy Listok #2, 1929

The woman, the same one that was once deemed much-suffering and was considered by [Nikolai] Nekrasov as needing guidance and defence, now can govern the state - and do it satisfactorily most of the time. She's fighting against mismanagement and bureaucracy, red tape and sloppiness, chubarovschina* and drunkenness. And she's also very, very bad... at chess. She's so bad at it that someone N.F. (Smena, 7th Dec. 1928) said that women's championship was "a dark blotch" of the recent trade union championship. "The participants, awash in big titles such as "city champion", "oblast champion" etc., have rested on their laurels, clearly showing the total lack of preparation and serious, thoughtful attitude towards chess creativity. The content of women's games is below all criticism... With big titles, comes big responsibility", etc., etc.

In other words, woman players are bad and awful. They aren't serious and thoughtful, but still dare play. The Izvestia (9th Dec. 1928) also haven't valued women's playing too high: "Both the small number of participants of women's tournament (just nine) and the low quality of the lineup shows the current troubles in this area..." They're flogging and flogging us. You see, we the women haven't justified the hopes that our magnanimous tutors, the male players, placed on us.

And here's the short history of those hopes. When the slogan "Chess for working masses" was first implemented, it encompassed the female members of trade unions too. The chess authorities named one of the areas of chess work "work with women", but, being somewhat conservative, wrote an obsolete motto on its banner: "Chicken is not a bird". That was the beginning. We were barred from "the chess", from "the tournaments", from "the competitions". Special women's games, tournaments and championships were organized for us. It was awfully touching, this exceptional courtesy. Nobody asked too much from us. After gathering 20 or 30 of us, they gave the champion's title to the best player. The woman champion's playing was quite mediocre, but what else could you ask from a woman? "It's not bad for a woman". And now, they're suddenly criticizing those mediocre female players for accumulating titles! They didn't accumulate them on their own - these titles were graciously awarded to them by their tutors.

"The content of women's games is below all criticism". Such a novel discovery! Aren't we, the female players, corraled into special women's chess corporations precisely for the reason that our games are still weak, and in "the tournaments", in "open tournaments" it's still hard for us to compete with men? When film critics talk about Esfir Shub's movies, they don't offer them high praise just because "it's not bad for a woman director", but because her movies are really high-quality, it has nothing to do with the fact that she's the first female film director in the Soviet Union. Lidia Seifullina earned her place among the leading modern writers not because literary critics used some simplified criteria to evaluate her work, but because she's a true literary master.

But chess organizers and propagandists, for some reason, first place woman players into a category of their own, "sub-par players", only good to play against each other and not mixing with the male chess-playing "tribe". And then, when by this very reason woman players play much worse and don't achieve much, they suddenly start panicking: oh, a dark blotch, obvious trouble!

Do we play bad? Are there too few of us? There are also few female radio operators or female photographers. But nobody organizes women-only radio courses or, say, women-only photo competition. Woman radio operators and photographers work together with men. It doesn't matter if they get any special achievements. Nobody asks for indulgences, nobody gives them laurels and titles as handouts. It should be the same in chess. No questions on that. There's few of us. But we do exist, we are noticed, and a woman player was even featured on the literary pages.

In Georg Hermann's novel Die Nacht des Dr. Herzfeld, Frau Kellner, an artist, plays chess - she was taught by Dr. Herzfeld. "She knew how to play chess. Not too well - it's not common among women, but still, she played exceptionally well for a woman." I'm purposely quoting the author's commentary on Frau Kellner's play. They aren't too flattering for us woman players, but they aren't foolish and are quite acceptable. She played "spontaneously, without long thoughts, she was fascinated with adventurous attacks. She would sacrifice pieces constantly... Subtle, rational playing repulsed her. But she loved the witty and elegant art of chess playing, which she treated the same as any other colourful, whimsical thing from her environment."

Hermann's Frau Kellner isn't the only woman who plays like that. We all are similar to her, and even the most inveterate playeress who loves chess fanatically still plays without necessary thoughtulness, somewhat shallowly and carelessly.

In chess, we aren't performing any sacred rites: we're just playing, having fun, and the last thing we wish for is categories, prizes and championships. But our chess authorities are trying to drag us into championships and convince us to treat chess as a sport, with competitions and ambitious dreams to score points and achieve first places. Our chess propagandists seem to think that competitions are the way to engage new woman players and finally make chess a truly widespread game among women.

Venerable supreme commanders! Respected agitators! Olympiads will attract and create another Tikhomirova, a dozen of new Ageevas or Rudenkos. But the desire to advance, to make a career and to be featured among the champions is the last thing on an amateur player's mind. Competitions attract women whose hands are shaking with excitement in the endgames, who are genuinely afraid of missing "the best move", who are only thinking about the whole point they should score in this round. They attract "woman chess players par excellence", "woman chess players first and foremost."

But we, the others, "woman chess players by the way", aren't attracted by competitions. We, players by the way, like chess, but aren't idolizing it. We divide our leisure time between a new Paul Wegener movie, Iosif Utkin's poems and basketball. And, between all that, we're finding some time to play a casual chess game in the recreation area of our facility. Just casual games, nothing more, nothing less. It's us, casual woman players, whom our chess authorities should pay most of their attention to when they "work with women". This, of course, begs a simple question: what stops the woman players from playing casually in their chess circles, without taking part in any competition? Who forces them to join women's championship? I'll tell you who or what: the system and the traditions. The system and the traditions are such that chess authorities periodically hold all those championships and olympiads. And new Ageevas, Girvidzs and Kuvaldinas, the best among us, rise to prominence. But they're the best only among us. So, you should only evaluate their playing in comparison with other woman players. Comparing their playing with that of high-class male players and saying that they play awfully is completely inappropriate.

To conclude: Down with the woman-only tournament corrals! If there are woman players able to compete in open tournaments, so be it. If there aren't - it's not bad too. We'll be playing, learning, improving ourselves, growing. And after we grow, we'll come to compete and compare our strength. And please, no more handouts to us.

* Possibly sensitive material. The text below is coloured white; select it with your cursor to read.

 Chubarov Sidestreet Case was a notorious criminal case in Leningrad. In 1926, a gang of young thugs kidnapped a 20 years-old female student and raped her for several hours. Seven of the rapists were executed, and all others were sent to the Solovki labour camp for 10 years. After that, gang rapes were referred to as chubarovschina ("Chubarovism") for a number of years.