Ballet Girls, Penguins
and Polar Bears

Many years ago I borrowed the tournament book of Carlsbad 1929 from a kind acquaintance and to my disgrace I delayed returning it for such a long time that on a dark day I received a friendly note from the rightful owner saying that he had decided to turn his loan into a gift.

Shame on me.

I was reminded of this episode when I read in the September issue of the German monthly Schach that Hans Kmoch had written in that book that he had promised in advance that in future he would act as a ballet girl if the women’s world champion Vera Menchik would get more than three points out of her 21 games. Obviously this was before the invention of political correctness.

Carlsbad 1929 was a very strong tournament, won by Nimzowitsch ahead of Capablanca and Spielmann. Other participants were Rubinstein, Euwe, Bogoljubow and Tartakower. Menchik scored exactly three points, so Kmoch did not have to follow up on his threat to become a ballet dancer.

The fine Austrian chesswriter Kmoch later became Max Euwe’s secretary and helped him with his publications. Euwe himself was much more diplomatic and always came up with a kind but rather evasive statistical explanation when asked why women were not as strong as men.

With a good-natured joke about distant peoples, the old guys had no problem either. Casto Abundo, comrade in arms of the late FIDE president Florencio Campomanes, has related that when a second zone for East Asia and Oceania was discussed at the FIDE congress in Lugano in 1968, the British delegate Harry Golombek OBE said that they could just as well have penguins and polar bears as chess players.

For those who knew Golombek, this anecdote rings true. As the child of Polish immigrants, Golombek wanted to be as English as could be, an aim which he achieved. He was a great admirer of Samuel Johnson and that OBE behind his name stands for Order of the British Empire.

Ballet girls, penguins and polar bears, hardly anyone in today’s chess world would dare to express himself in this way, at least not in writing.

In August, Hou Yifan won a very strong tournament in Biel. She is 23 years old and has been women’s world champion so often that she sees no sense any longer in participating in that championship.

Early this year at the Gibraltar Open she made her view on women’s chess clear when in the final round she resigned her game against the Indian grandmaster Babu Lalith (a man) after five ridiculous moves as a protest against having been paired with other women in seven of her ten games.

After her victory in Biel, Hou received congratulations all around. In fact, she was praised as if she were Wonder Woman herself. I may be wrong, but I felt that these effusions of praise were a bit condescending, as if the enthusiasts could hardly believe that it had been a woman who did it. Obviously Hou wants to be respected as a great chess player, not as a wonder woman.

After Gibraltar she played in many tournaments, but her first open was that on the Isle of Man. And there it happened again. In her first four rounds she was paired against four women. Statisticians enjoyed calculating the odds of such an amazing coincidence happening. Conspiracy theorists thought they knew better and denied that it could have been just coincidence.

When on September 27 Hou was not paired for the fifth round, I and many others thought that she had left the tournament in anger, but luckily that was not true; she had just taken a bye. The next day she was present again, beating the Indian Magesh Chandran Panchanathan, a man.


This is Hou Yifan-Elisabeth Pähtz from the second round of the Isle of Man Masters, after Black’s 30th move.

White played 31.Kh4, the start of a triumphant tour to f6. I wondered if she was inspired by the company of Nigel Short, another participant at the Isle of Man, who in the past played a famous game against Jan Timman with a similar king’s excursion. Like Hou’s game, it can be seen in the game viewer.

By the way, I read that in 2016 no baby born in Britain had been given the name Nigel. But luckily it was not our man who was blamed for bringing the good name Nigel into disrepute by dropping below 2700, it was the politician Nigel Farage, the father of Brexit.

Click here to view Hou Yifan-E.Pähtz and Short-Timman.