Give yourself a quick memory search: when thinking of chess grandmasters, what names come to mind? Kasparov, certainly. Magnus Carlsen and Bobby Fischer must also spring forth. Mikhail Tal and Alexander Motylev too, no doubt.

Even this writer, who is only casually interested in chess knows those names. Do you notice anything particular about that roster, though?

Where are the women?

Admittedly, chess is a game of strategy and combat, two pursuits that are not generally associated with the female of our species. But it's not like chess players don armour and head into actual battle - as Hua Mulan, the legendary female warrior is said to have done.

More than strategy and combat, chess is a game of intellect. Naturally, it is as appealing to women as it is to men. And, believe it or not, there are more than a handful of female chess grandmasters. They're just not as well known.

Allow your Superprof to introduce some of them.

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Nona Gaprindashvili

Nona was the fifth Women's World Chess champion and is the first female chess player to be awarded the title of grandmaster.

She started playing chess at a young age and, by the time she was 20, she already had several competitions under her belt. They prepared her well for the Candidates' Tournament that year, which she won handily. That win paved the way for a title match against Soviet chess player Elsaveta Bykova; it was almost no contest.

Nona is the first-ever female to be accorded the title of chess grandmaster.

How does Nona stack up against other grandmasters of chess?

Maia continues to play chess competitively or just for fun
Maia Chiburdanidze enjoys a good game whether in competition or just for fun. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Karpidis

Maia Chiburdanidze

Like Nona, Maia hails from Georgia. She is the sixth Women's World Chess champion; a title she held for 13 years. She was also the youngest female player to be accorded that title until 2010, when the Chinese chess prodigy Hou Yifan qualified for the title at 14 years and six months old.

Maia started playing chess when she was about eight years old. By the time she was 14, she was already racking up wins: the Brasov and Tbilisi tournaments, the Girls' Champion for the USSR and, soon after, she won her first women's title.

FIDE accorded Maia the Woman Grandmaster title in 1977, when she was just 16 years old.

The Polgar Sisters

Georgian sisters Susan and Judit are each remarkable in their own right.

Susan is the first female chess player to earn the title of grandmaster in the traditional way - namely, the requisite amount of points and matches that male chess players must have to earn that title.

She was accorded the title in 1991 but that is by no means her only feat. She also held the title of World Women's Champion for six years, from 1996 to 1999.

For all of Susan's chess achievements, it is her sister who is more renowned. Indeed, Judit is thought to be the strongest female chess player of all time. Her accomplishments include:

  • being the youngest player to break into the FIDE top-100 player list (at 12 years old)
  • being the only female player considered a serious candidate for the World Chess Championship (she participated in 2005)
  • being the only female player to have exceeded 2700 Elo
  • being the only female player to rank in the top 10 chess players of all time
  • being rated the Number 1 female chess player in the world
  • (at the time) being the youngest chess player ever to earn the title of grandmaster, breaking Bobby Fischer's record

Unfortunately, she is perhaps best-known for the incident that took place when she played against Garry Kasparov, in Linares, when she was just 17 years old.

Kasparov had moved a knight and already released the piece when he realised that the move could cost him. He then moved the knight to a different square. Judit, well-aware she was playing the current world champion - and that she was playing in an invitation-only tournament, didn't quite dare to call her opponent's move into question.

The incident was caught on video and, furthermore, a nearby arbiter witnessed the act. Carlos Falcon, the arbiter in question, did not say anything and, upon seeing the video, also refused to act.

Judit later confronted Kasparov, who got angry, claiming she was accusing him of cheating. His lingering resentment lasted for three years - during which time he refused to speak with her but, in the end, they both recovered. Judit went on the play for 20 years more, retiring from competitive chess in 2014.

If Judit is retired, who are the current grandmasters of chess?

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Pia Cramling

Closely rivalling Judit for the designation of the strongest female chess player is Pia, the Swedish chess grandmaster. She is the fifth female player to earn that title.

Pia is the only female player besides Judit to have earned her title before the year 2000 - but that's hardly a fair comparison, seeing as Judit did not play in any women's chess events, while Pia did.

Keep in mind that women may earn their grandmaster title either along the traditional path - enough matches and points or by winning the Women's Chess Championship.

In 1984, Pia was the #1 ranked female player. She continues to play competitively, winning team gold no fewer than six times in the European Club Cup for Women.

Xie Jun on a Yugoslavian postage stamp
Xie Jun's double reign as World Champion female chess player was commemorated on a Yougoslavian postage stamp. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Yugoslavian Post

Xie Jun

Xie Jun has enjoyed two separate reigns as Women's World Chess Champion, making her one of three female chess players to claim the title at least twice.

She started to play xiangqi - Chinese chess when she was six years old; she was crowned that game's champion four years later. Having attracted substantial attention - which led to sponsorship and support, she was urged to switch to chess so she could compete in World events.

It did not take long for her to start sweeping international chess tournaments; at 20, she qualified for competition in the Women's World Chess title, which she handily won from Maia Chiburndanidze.

Like Maia, Xie Jun does not care for Women's chess; she prefers playing against men.

Humpy Kuneru

Ms Kuneru is the current Women's World Rapid Chess champion. She broke Judit Polgar's record as youngest grandmaster, earning her title at 15 years and one month. She is second only to Judit as a female player to exceed the 2600 Elo rating.

Her chess career began long before that. Before she was 10 years old, she won three gold medals in World Youth Chess Championship events; once in the under-10 division, two years later in the under-12 and again two years after that. When she was 14, she won the World's Junior Girls' championship... and she hasn't stopped winning yet.

Her parents originally named her Hampi - taken straight from the word 'champion' but they later changed it to Humpy, ostensibly to make her name sound more Russian.

Not a bad thought, as Russia is renowned for their chess grandmasters, male and female. Ms Kuneru's home country, India, is well-represented too.

Hou Yifan

A bona fide chess prodigy, Hou Yifan is the youngest female player ever to qualify as a chess grandmaster and the youngest to win the claim a win at the Women's World Chess Championship. Not yet 30 years old, Miss Hou, representing China, keeps racking up the 'youngest-ever' accolades.

Besides those attributed to her youth, she is the third female chess player to rank among the top 100 - after Judit Polgar and Maia Chiburdanidze and, since July 2020, she is the Number One-ranked female chess player in the world.

Ms Polgar has certainly earned her place in the annals of chess history as the best female player ever but Ms Hou has added a dimension to that distinction for herself. She is widely considered the best currently active female chess player.

Those two chess greats may have to share a crown.

Hou Yifan is a chess prodigy from China
Despite her young age, Hou Yifan is a redoubtable player. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Andreas Kontokanis

What's Strange About Women's Chess

Wikipedia lists only 37 female chess grandmasters amidst all of the males with like titles. We've only highlighted a few particularly remarkable players.

That small number of female players could be because women's chess doesn't have nearly as long a history. Also, there's a good chance that women's chess is nowhere near as well-reported. Indeed, one web page we visited to find information about women in chess echoed a conclusion we quickly came to: that there were no good sites to glean statistics on women's chess.

One particularly irritating page we ran across commented on female players' physical appearance. As if that has anything to do with playing chess!

Another remarkable discovery regarding female chess players: except for Russia and, of course, Pia Cramling (from Sweden), no other developed country lists any female chess grandmasters. We were astounded upon noticing that lack; you too?

If you have an opinion of why that is, please let us know in the comments section.

Five of the grandmasters featured in this article all won their titles in gender-blind competition, meaning that they were earned their titles the same way that male players do. For context: in 1978, FIDE began according grandmaster titles to Women's World Championship winners, giving female chess players another route to becoming a grandmaster.

The five female players in question are grandmasters, not Women's Chess grandmasters, also known as WGMs. As you can imagine, that's a critical distinction.

All of this poses a major question: why are there so few female grandmasters? Or an even bigger question: why aren't there more women in chess?

To understand the relevance and urgency of that question, you have to know how many current chess grandmasters there are...

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.