Sonja Graf... the early years

Sonja Graf... the early years

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This photo was the start for the journey I took into the 1930s archives! It's from a Sonja Graf' s game against Meijlink, played in Utrecht [NED] on 03 Oct 1936. Not so great game, but the photo is beautiful!! I knew Sonja Graf as the only woman chess player who could challenge the great Menchik. An undisputed no 2 among women. "... and was the only notable woman, besides Vera, to play in “men’s” tournaments as well as to make a living of sorts out of chess." [Robert Tanner in Vera Menchik, A Biography, p. 15]. But her life and personality seem to be interesting and fascinating too... something that I think is mirrored in her games.

Susanna (Sonja) Graf [and since 1947 Stevenson] was born on Dec 12th, 1908, in Munich [GER], in a big and not so wealthy family. Michael Negele [in the english version of "Life story of female prodigy Sonja Graf-Stevenson", p. 412-413 ~ pdf link in Chess History & Literature Society ~ check also this about Graf], taking in account a Graf' s autobiographical novel under the title "Yo soy Susann" (Buenos Aires, 1946), writes:

"In Munich, the Bohemian father, who cared very little about the mundane tasks of every-day life, did not always earn enough money to support his large family - first he made a living as a painter, later as a nullhypnotist and magnetizer. Reportedly, Sonja's mother gave birth to 14 children but only eight of them survived early childhood.

Sonja learned to play chess in her family when she was only five or six years old; her father had a reputation of being a keen chess player. However, years later, when she wanted to visit the Munich chess club together with her older brothers, her father was categorically against it:

A young girl who wants to play, chess against men - impossible!

Sonja, however, regarded chess as a unique chance to rebel against the social conventions imposed on a young woman and, at the same time, an opportunity to escape the rather unfortunate family circumstances."

Photo Sonja Graf [ca 1941] found in Winter's CN 7622, saying it's from her book.

The beginnings

Sonja's official chess debut was on 27th May 1931 against some Johanna Müller. The match was to be concluded in 10 games but after a 0-3, Müller retreated for unspecified reasons. During 1931 Sonja met her first chess mentor, Dr Siegbert Tarrasch.

On 13/2/1932 & 12/4/1932 she participated in 2 simultaneous exhibitions that Spielmann gave in Munich, and won in both games.

#1 Here's one of the games.


In June 1932 she participated in the International Ladies Tournament in Vienna and won with the great 6½/8 [check (Neue) Wiener Schachzeitung 1932, p. 219 ~ hereafter WSZ].


From left to right: Reischer, Graf, Samide, Gerger & Harum, in WSZ 1932, p. 220

Here' re two games of this tournament...

#2 Against Gerger. Can you find the cleanest and maybe quicker way to win. Sonja did...


#3 Against Gisela Harum...


On tour

In the summer of 1933 Sonja traveled on northern Germany and Netherlands. In Netherlands she gave 7 simultaneous exhibitions with the total score +84 -42 =37 [in WSZ 1933, p. 299-300 ~ here are also described 2 chess successes of hers and 3 simultaneous exhibitions in Hamburg with the score +42 -14 =12].

I've found 4 games of these exhibitions in the Dutch press. And as it was expected, not any of her wins. As a counteraction I'll only link them.

  1. Sonja Graf vs E. Mulder, 08/06/1933 ½-½. Here is described that she tied the game by agreement cause she had to catch the last train. "Hier werd de partij als remise afgebroken, omdat Fraulein Graf, die den laatsten trein moest halen, geen tijd had haar verder te spelen."
  2. E. Rinsma vs Sonja Graf, 09/06/1933 1-0.
  3. D. P. Bergema vs Sonja Graf, 09/06/1933 1-0.
  4. Sonja Graf vs M. Davidson jr, 17/06/1933 0-1.

After these exhibitions this mate in 2 by Kniest was published in De tribune of 24-06-1933 dedicated to her.


Back in Germany

#4 In Nov 1933 she participated in the Anderssen Tournament in Munich and finished 2nd with 6½/9 [in WSZ 1934 p. 34-35]. Here's a game against Pesserl...


#5 In Munich Chess Championship 1933/34 she scored 6/15. Here's a game against Kohler [in Prager Tagblatt of 30/12/1934 ~ her first invitation for Hastings 1934/35 is also mentioned there].


Against Vera Menchik

In De Graafschap-bode of 05-03-1934 is announced that soon a match between Menchik and Graf nullwould take place at Euwe' s home in Amsterdam. This came on March 21st. Just right after a radio transmitted game that Menchik lost by Euwe... [check in this forum topic #comment 9].

[Left: Menchik, Graf & Euwe in Twentsch dagblad of 20-03-1934].
"Although prior to this short match, Vera and Sonja Graf had never played one another, Sonja had been building a reputation within Germany and Austria as a strong player in the local clubs and taverns. A product of a dysfunctional family, she was very much the bohemian and was a pupil of Siegbert Tarrasch’s at the end of his life. Stylistically she was the antithesis of Vera - she took chances and was known as a tactician as opposed to Menchik’s positional emphasis and striving for a good endgame." [Robert Tanner in Vera Menchik, A Biography, p. 127].

Sonja won the first game but lost the next three. Negele mentions some "feverish cold" that was troubling her...

#6 first win against Menchik


After this match both Menchik and Graf participated in VAS Easter Tournament of 1934 in Amsterdam. In Soerabaijasch handelsblad of 21-04-1934 the results are given. 2 groups of 4. In first group Menchik scored 1½/3 [3rd] while Graf in the other group came 2nd with 2/3. Some disappointment is expressed about higher expectation of their performance.!! Here's Petrus Franciscus van Hoorn vs Sonja Graf, Amsterdam 2/4/1934 ½-½, of this tournament, in De Telegraaf of 03-04-1934.

After this tournament Sonja faced a big disappointment. Returning to Germany she arranged a match against Paul Heuacker, a chess artist. She lost with 0/6. Negele inform us that "his relaxed attitude towards life together with his physical fitness made him resistant against any sort of psychological pressure resulting from this "mixed-gender fight". This way he was able to rely on his greater experience and combined playing and mental strength." [?]

Maybe this fits with what he writes some paragraphs below, p. 421: "Sonja was not only a sociable and open minded young lady, who was open to flirts and amours, but she was also well aware of her charisma". Anyway...

Sonja travelling and playing in Europe

She was invited in Hastings 1934/35 premier reserves, where she had no great performance. Just 3½/9 [check WSZ 1935 p. 3-4 & De Telegraaf of 07-01-1935.] Negele writes: "At the end of 1934 Sonja went to London where, judging from the tournament reports and her own accounts, she must have led a very nomadic life, moving from hotel to hotel, with her suitcases half-unpacked, for the next four years. Sonja loved travelling and she was practically always on tour, like an actress from a travelling theater."


Sonja playing chess in Hastings 1934/35 found in Twentsch dagblad of 04-01-1935. I couldn't recognize the other chess player.

In May 1935 participated in the chess tournament of Margate [premier reserves], where she scored 2½/5 [in WSZ 1935, p. 145].

#7 against Koltanowski in Margate 1935 [found in De Noord-Ooster of 06-05-1935]. An interesting game showing some of her personality.


#8 A brilliancy by Graf against Lean within Margate 1935, found in Algemeen Handelsblad of 29-06-1935. Lean has just played 17. Nxc3...


In July she played within Yarmouth 1935, in the section - group of foreign players She scored 5/11!! [in WSZ 1935, p. 195 & in De Telegraaf of 22-07-1935] and she also faced Reshevsky unsuccessfully. She managed to win L. Prins, a game that became headline in the Dutch press [De Telegraaf of 17-07-1935], I couldn't find the game!! All I can tell is that he took revenge some months later, within Hastings 1935/36. In this case the game was published in De Telegraaf of 30-12-1935. In Hastings 1935/36 her performance was poor, only 2½/9. A great photo is published in Robert Tanner's Vera Menchik, A Biography, p. 158, but perhaps is copyrighted!!

#9 In March 1936 she faced Dr. Th. Gruber within Siegfried Reginald Wolf anniversary tournament in Vienna, in a beautiful game [found in WSZ 1937, p. 84].

[EDIT 23.08.2018: maybe this game shouldn't be in this post, as I was keeping a time sequence. I've found that this tournament was probably organized in March 1937 //check WSZ 1937 p. 97-99//. The given date in p. 84 confused me, writing: "Gespielt am 24. März 1936 im Siegfried Reginald Wolf-Jubiläumsturnier in Wien" giving me the impression that it was annual tournament ~ I apologizehappy.png]


nullIn April 1936 we can find her again in Margate, where she managed to score 4/9 within the premier reserves. There she faced Klein. She'll meet him again a couple of months later in Nottingham, Aug 1936 [WSZ 1936, p. 148].

Photo in Utrechtsch Nieuwsblad of 18-04-1936.

Continuing her journeys across Europe, Sonja visited Netherlands again. In 24th of June she gave a "small" simultaneous exhibition in Zandvoort [NED].

Max Euwe and Rudolf Spielmann were present at the event. Euwe, world champion then, opened the games, and Sonja continued the games, managing to score +6-2=2. [De Telegraaf of 25-06-1936].

In July 1936 Sonja Graf participated in International Ladies Tournament in Semmering [AUT], scoring the great 10½/11 [in WSZ 1936, p. 216]. Menchik didn't make it. They'll meet again next year.


Playing against Michell [ENG] within Semmering 1936, in Das interessante Blatt 16/07/1936

#10 Against Clarice Benini in a great pawn ending. Black has just played 47... a6. Only two correct answers for Graf....


#11 Sonja participated in Nottingham during August 1936 [major reserves], scoring 5/10 [WSZ 1936, p. 313]. Here's a really interesting game against Klein.


And at last we reached close to the main photo....

In October 1936 Sonja was invited to participate in a mini tournament in Utrecht Chess Club. null[announcement in Utrechtsch Nieuwsblad of 02-10-1936], that she actually won with 2/3 [De Telegraaf of 05-10-1936]. The games weren't so great, but the photo was so beautiful that I really wanted to represent them.

There she faced among others, the veteran jhr Arnold van Foreest a living legend of Utrecht chess. Born in 1863, brother of Dirk van Foreest, was a Dutch champion of the end of 1800s. At the time he was 73 years old and still playing. 

[photo, jhr Arnold van Foreest in older age, found in a great site about him]

Sonja had a not so exciting game against him [game described in De Telegraaf of 02-10-1936], that she drew, but maybe she could have won.

#12 Against van Foreest


#13 On last round she finally faced Meijlink.... [game in Utrechtsch Nieuwsblad of 05-10-1936]



I think she's just playing 4. Nd2...

Wasn't she a great tactician!?!

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