The 5 best female chess players of all time

The queen may be the strongest piece in chess, but sometimes it feels like few women outside of the fictional Beth Harmon seem to play the game. In the United States, for example, only about A seventh of the members of the national chess federation are women. In February 2021, there were only 37 active players who had reached the highest title in chess, that of Grand Masteramong more than 1700 active players who have won the title.

That said, the best female players have always been of an unquestionably high caliber. Here are the top five in history. All played in open events comprised of men and/or women, and some decided at some point to only play in open events. When they played in women’s events, they often rotated the field. All of them have won international open field tournaments or beaten a world champion, and in most cases both. Their achievements make them legendary icons in the game.

Honorable Mentions

#5 Vera Menchik

Vera Menchik, the first women’s world champion, proved nearly 100 years ago that chess was not just a man’s game. In perhaps her finest tournament, playing in a team with Jose Capablanca among others at Ramsgate in 1929, Menchik went unbeaten in seven games. She won her matchups against George Alan Thomas, Reginald Pryce Michell and Hubert Ernest Price and drew. Those three unbeaten victories tied the performance of all-time great GM Akiba Rubinstein in the same tournament, and were half a point ahead of his former GM teacher Geza Maroczy.

Menchik had a lifetime tie against GM World Champion Max Euwe in five matches (+2=1-2) and US GM Champion Samuel Reshevsky in two fights (+1-1), but that’s the Austrian Albert Becker who is said to have created the “Vera Menchik Club” by losing against her at the Carlsbad tournament in 1929 after making fun of her participation in the tournament.

In the women’s events, Menchik was both an unstoppable force and an unchanging object. She played in seven women’s world championship tournaments and won an incredible 78 out of 83 matches, losing just one and drawing four, for a winning percentage of 98.8%. She also won two league matches against German (later American) Sonia Graf. Partly because of his dominance, Menchik is honored every two years at the Women’s Olympiad, where the winning nation receives the Vera Menchik Cup.

Menchik’s tragic death in a German rocket strike in 1944, six years before the GM title was created, denied him the chance to earn it. (FIDE did not award her the title posthumously.) The next player on our list, however, had that opportunity, and she took it.

#4 GM Nona Gaprindashvili

Nona Gaprindashvili, 1975
Photo: Dutch National Archives

GM Nona Gaprindashvili became the first female grandmaster in 1978 – not to be confused with the title of Woman Grandmaster (WGM) – after resounding success at the 1977 tournament in Lone Pine, California. There, with a score of 6.5 out of a possible nine, she tied for first place with grandmasters Yuri Balashov, Dragutin Sahovic and Oscar Panno.

Gaprindashvili’s legacy was already cemented even without his GM title. She was the women’s world champion for 16 years, taking that title from IM Elisaveta Bykova in 1962 and defending it four times. Gaprindashvili had twice won the Soviet Women’s Championship and would win it three more times as GM. She dominated the Women’s Olympiad, playing in 12 of them and scoring +94=26 -8 while winning team gold 11 times and individual gold eight times.

Gaprindashvili continued to play chess seriously well into his 70s, enjoying a career spanning over half a century, or almost six decades. In 1995, she became senior women’s world champion after having been world champion. Twenty-four years later, in 2019, at age 78, Gaprindashvili was the senior women’s 65-plus world champion for the fifth time.

Few can match Gaprindashvili’s combination of strength and longevity. Among those who can is one of her compatriots.

#3 GM Maia Chiburdanidze

Maia Shiburdanidze, 1984
Photo: Gerhard Hund/WikipediaCC BY 3.0

GM Maia Chiburdanidze beat fellow Georgian Gaprindashvili for the women’s world championship in 1978. She was 17 at the time, the youngest ever, and went on to hold the title for 13 years, winning four more defensive matches. Meanwhile, Chiburdanidze would win the GM title herself in 1984, at the age of 23. From there it becomes the first woman to reach the top 50 in the rankings since FIDE began tracking an official list in July 1971. In January 1988, with a ranking of 2560, Chiburdanidze reached No. 48 in the world. Only one other player has done so since (February 2021).

Chiburdanidze performed particularly well against GM Nigel Short, going unbeaten in her two career matches against the Englishman in 1983 and 1985. The latter came at Banja Luka, a tournament which Chiburdanidze won with a score of four wins and six draws. Less than a decade later, Short would play for the world championship.

Chiburdanidze played 15 Olympiads from 1978 to 2008, seven for the USSR then eight for Georgia. She was on first board all 15 times, even with Gaprindashvili competing for the position until 1994. In her last Olympiad, aged 47 in 2008, Chiburdanidze led Georgia to victory with a gold medal. gold +6 = 3 in his individual matches. , including a win over then-defending women’s world champion Kosteniuk.

Building on the success of Chiburdanidze and Gaprindashvili, women’s chess in Georgia is quite strong. Five GM women are from there and despite a current population of around four million. Georgia has more than 30 women rated above 2000 by FIDE. This is only four less than the United States, almost 100 times larger, and more than half of China, 250 times larger, neither of which are weak chess countries. ! China indeed has one of the two players ranked ahead of Chiburdanidze on this list, with…

#2 GM Hou Yifan

Hou Yifan, 2018
Photo: Maria Emelianova/

As the strongest woman (since we retired) during one of the strongest periods in chess history, GM Hou Yifan is near the top of this list. In 2010, 16-year-old Hou broke Chiburdanidze’s record for the youngest female world champion. Two years prior, she even surpassed Judit Polgar by becoming GM at 14, making her the youngest female GM ever (a record she still holds as of February 2021). Hou would win the championship twice more, in 2013 and 2016, before focusing on open events.

It was a reasonable course of action, as Hou quickly achieved great success in Biel in 2017. She won with 6.5 out of 9 with a performance rating of 2810. It was a field that included a world champion FIDE (GM Ruslan Ponomariov), a Classic World Championship runner-up (GM Peter Leko) and four other super GMs (players whose rating peaked above 2700). That same year, at the GRENKE Chess Classic, she defeated GM Fabiano Caruana, who would play for the world championship a year later.

At various points in Hou’s career, she took a break from professional chess to focus on her education and career outside of chess. She was a Rhodes Scholar in 2018 and in July 2020 she became a full-time professor at Shenzhen University at the age of 26. and chess plays a key role in his chair at Shenzhen University.

Hou peaked at No. 55 in the world on the May 2015 FIDE rating list, just short of Chiburdanidze’s best ranking, but Hou faced somewhat stiffer competition; Chiburdanidze has rarely, if ever, played in such strong squads as Biel or GRENKE 2017. Still, the No. 2 spot on our list was perhaps the toughest decision to make. Who to have #1, meanwhile, was the easiest.

#1 GM Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar
Photo: Peter Doggers/

GM Judit Polgar is the only player on this list who has never become women’s world champion, but for good reason: she never tried to obtain this title. She was simply too strong a player and was better suited to open events. She won matches against general managers Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, both when they were No. 1 in the world. Polgar even knocked down GM Bobby Fischer: When Polgar won the Grandmaster title in 1991, she was the youngest ever, breaking Fischer’s record. (Fischer would stay with the Polgars for a time in 1993.)

When Polgar was 21, New York Times chess columnist GM Robert Byrne said, “There is no arguing about the greatest female player of all time.” Her position was certainly indisputable by objective assessment: in January 1989, when Polgar was 12, she already ranked 55th in the world at 2555, just short of the peak of Chiburdanidze. In July 1993, Polgar reached a rating of 2635 and joined the world top 20, easily surpassing Chiburdanidze’s top ratings. On FIDE’s January 1996 ranking list, Polgar placed 10th, a previously unimaginable feat.

Byrne wrote her Polgar profile in 1997, and she didn’t add to her resume until after that. In January 2003, she joined the club of 2700 notes, still the only woman to have done so. The following January, Polgar reached number eight on the FIDE ratings list and she remained in the top ten until 2006. playing in an eight-player squad for FIDE. crown (won by GM Veselin Topalov).

When Polgar retired in 2014, she was still the highest rated woman in chess at 2675. Hou would surpass her the following year when she reached 2686. At that time, Polgar was the highest rated female player for a quarter of century. , 26 consecutive years since 1989. Considering all of her accomplishments, it’s almost impossible to say that anyone other than Judit Polgar is the greatest female chess player of all time.

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