Sports Illustrated: Equality Still Eludes Women in Chess

From 1991 to 2000, four women became grandmasters, including Susan and her sister Judit

When Polgar first said that she wanted to be a grandmaster, she was told that it was impossible. “They literally told me that my family was crazy.

The World Chess Championship is not, formally, a men’s championship. It used to be—until 1986, when a top female player, Susan Polgar, fought to qualify and had “men’s” removed from the official title. Now, it’s known as the open championship, but the name marked only a small step toward including women.

By Emma Baccellieri
December 17, 2018

In 1972, Bobby Fischer made his third appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. He was at the peak of his fame; the show was taped shortly before he was crowned world chess champion and aired just after. The audience seemed just as wild for him as for the episode’s other guest, Mick Jagger. (“You brought a fan club with you,” Cavett quipped.) American chess was more popular than ever—before or since—and it was hard to tell who was more of a rock star.

In Cavett’s monologue, he wondered about women’s chess: specifically, why there wasn’t more of it. “There’s only one woman’s player whose name I know,” said the late night host. “That’s Lisa Lane, and the only thing I recall about her is that she’s dead.” The subject came up in Cavett’s conversation with Fischer. Asked if he thought that chess was sexist, Fischer replied, “I don’t think it is at all. I’d welcome some girls in chess.” Did he know any girls who’d tried? “Well, there was Lisa Lane. By the way, I think you said she was dead? She’s around.”

Cavett apologized. Fischer was right: Lisa Lane was around. Yet Cavett’s flub was, in a sense, understandable. Lane had spent several years as the women’s national champion, but, more than that, she’d been one of the most compelling chess stars of the ‘60s. She became the first chess player on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Fischer followed, a decade later, as the second and the last.) National media wrote about how she played “like a man” and trash-talked opponents to match; they luxuriated in details about her personal life, particularly her love life. And then, suddenly, while reigning as women’s national champion, she quit. She left New York City, where she’d been part of the country’s most vibrant chess scene, and stopped playing in competition. By 1972, she’d been gone from public life for five years.

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