Lisa Lane is anardent and optimistic girl who won the U.S. women's chess championship soonafter she learned how to play chess and now expects whatever she is involved into work out as well. If Lisa hears of a tournament that may possibly be held atsome time in the future she takes it for granted that she will play in it, shenaturally believes that she will win, and from that it is only a logical stepfor her to buy a new dress in anticipation of her victory.
What adds anelement of practical common sense to her great expectations, however, is thatshe is generally right: she wins. Or at least she has won the decisive games inher career thus far, enough to keep her sanguine about the future and to addsome items to her wardrobe. Now, however, Lisa has entered a competitive realmwhere it is a question whether the old equations will continue to work. Thisfall she plays on the U.S. team in the women's chess Olympics in TheNetherlands, and then goes to the mountain resort of Vrnjacka Banja inYugoslavia to play in an international tournament with the best women chessplayers from all countries. The winner of this critical event is entitled tochallenge for the championship of the world. That means one of the contenderswill go to Moscow for a month-long struggle with Elizaveta Bykova, a40-year-old Soviet economist, the women's world champion.
In contrast toLisa's late entry into the top ranks of women chess stars, Bykova learned toplay chess when she was about 4 years old and played in an internationaltournament when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Lisa has been playing alittle over four years, about 1,600 days, as nearly as she can figure it, andhad played in only eight tournaments (most of them small local affairs aroundPhiladelphia) when she won the U.S. women's championship. She first saw a setof chessmen during her freshman year at Temple University. Lisa had a part-timejob in the bacteriological laboratory at Temple while going to college, spenther lunch hour in the student lounge and learned the moves by watching thegames that were played there. She began to play chess naturally, withoutcalculation, the way a gifted musician might learn to play the piano by ear.Since she was a pretty girl, she came to be regarded with amused interestbecause of her intense absorption with chess, but nobody took her seriously—shewas known as a good-looking girl who played chess, rather than as a fine chessplayer who happened to be a good-looking girl.
There was,however, a special circumstance about Lisa's appearance while playing. When sheis absorbed in her game her expression becomes hauntingly beautiful in hercomplete self-forgetful-ness and her quiet concentration on her moves. Sheleans forward slightly over the chess board, with her chin on the knuckles ofher left hand, a tranquil expression on her pale and delicate features. Shemoves the pieces slowly and carefully, lifting them above the board between herthumb and two fingers, and places them gently on their new squares as if theywere fragile works of art that she feared might be broken. Each move seems tobe weighted with some cosmic significance to her, not in the sense of anxietyabout the outcome but because of its place in the profound seriousness of hergame. At such moments she seems a very serious young woman, but beautifullyserious, or seriously beautiful, a side of feminine loveliness that Hollywoodhas rather neglected. When Lisa meets the world's best women chess players inVrnjacka Banja she will be facing a stronger competition than she has everknown, and she may appear to be the youngest and most timid newcomer in thetournament, but she will also seem to be the most serious player there, the oneto whom chess means most.
August 6, 1961
When she won thewomen's championship in the winter of 1959 almost nothing was known about LisaLane in Philadelphia chess circles. "She's small, and 22, and pretty,"said The Bulletin vaguely, summing up about everything that could be agreed on.Neil Hickey, a columnist for the Hearst papers, quoted one of the defeatedopponents, who said in agitation, "She's a killer! She plays chess likePancho Gonzales plays tennis: always stalking, always aggressive. No doubtabout it—if she continues to study she can be the best woman player in theworld."
"And thebest-looking," added Hickey. Unfortunately, however, she was also acquiringa reputation as the rudest. After a magazine article appeared, saying that shehad grown up in an orphanage, Lisa outlawed all discussion of her life beforeshe learned to play chess When an interviewer tried to draw her out about hertaste in the arts, she said flatly, "I hate music." She was once askedabout swimming and dancing. "I never learned to dance," she said,growing pale, "and I can't swim."
She startled aNew York Times reporter by saying, "I'm not interested in what's happeningin the world." As for her background, said the Times, "She is reluctantto say more than that she was born in Philadelphia and never knew herfather." She said she was born when she first saw chess being played.
At any persistentquestioning about her childhood, Lisa was likely to examine the heavens, as ifsearching for some wandering astronaut, and say, "I don't care to discussit."
On the subject ofchess, however, Lisa was almost alarmingly candid. And like most good chessplayers, she can remember every move in every important game. Sitting in herapartment on a rainy afternoon, she fell into an animated discussion of the19th move in her game with Mona May Karff, who had won the U.S. women'schampionship six times in the past.
She worked out anelaborate combination. That is, she visualized her next move, figured out allthe possible moves of her opponent, then visualized her next move beyond that,then mentally played through all possible moves that Miss Karff could beexpected to make in reply, and so on through five moves in the future. Theability to work out combinations in this fashion is usually considered a signof true greatness in chess players. Legends abound of masters who could see adozen or more moves ahead, but in actual play how far ahead a player can seedepends on the situation as well as on his ability. Chess players usually workby a mixture of logic and intuition, seeing an objective they want to reach andthen patiently analyzing each move necessary to reach it and every move anopponent may conceivably make to prevent its being reached. If there are fewpieces on the board, it may be a relatively simple matter to foresee a dozenmoves. Early in a game terrific concentration may be required to see threemoves ahead.
In any event, afive-move combination is not commonplace for anyone, and it is remarkable for aplayer as inexperienced as Lisa was in 1959. In this one she played tosacrifice a knight, in order to gain a positional advantage that she believedwould be decisive. But to her astonishment Miss Karff did not take the knight.Lisa consequently had to revise her plans, and at the end of six moves she hadlost two pawns and had a decidedly inferior position. She eventually won thegame—which virtually assured her of the title—but it took another 47 moves,rather than the five she had visualized.
As Lisa wasplaying over the game, describing what had happened, she was asked if MissKarff couldn't have broken up the attack in another way, by playing a certainpawn earlier than she did. Lisa ran through the game again. She leaned over theboard, motionless, a withdrawn look of intent detachment on her features."It wouldn't have made any difference," she said at last, and beganmoving the chessmen to prove that the suggested move of the pawn would not haveupset her basic plan. When she finished her explanation she said unexpectedly,"I've decided to tell you the story of my life." She looked the way shelooked when she played chess. It was possible to imagine a five-movecombination at work in her mind.
"I was bornin Philadelphia," she began, "and I never knew my father. It isn't truethat I grew up in an orphanage. My mother worked, and my sister and I boardedwith different families while we went to school. We lived with my grandmotherin Wyndmoor. It was like in the country, and Mother had an old horse there,named Bucky; he was blind. Later on she got horses whenever she could, and onetime we had five of them...." Lisa's father was a leather glazer, a skilledworkman who was also a dedicated race-track follower. When Lisa was a year anda half old her father continued following the horses until he passed entirelyout of the picture.
Mrs. Lane, aplacid, attractive blonde woman, worked as a secretary in the office of ameat-packing company, and at night held down a second job in a Philadelphiaradio station in order to give the children the sort of education she thoughtthey should have. She had been married before, and her son by her first husbandwas only a few years older than Lisa and her sister. Lisa was named MarianneElizabeth—Mrs. Lane still calls her Marianne—but was called Lisa or Lisabeth byschool friends.
Lisa was along-legged, thin-faced, dark-haired girl with dark, green-flecked eyes. Sheread a good deal, was good in mathematics, got superlative grades withouttrying and was usually a favorite with the teachers. The only poem she likedwas Poe's The Raven. She read it through a few times and murmured such hauntinglines as "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December," or" "Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door,' "until she suddenly discovered she had memorized it. Since The Raven runs to 108lines, that was some indication of her memory. She can still recite it.
The Lane familybackground was a mixture of English and Pennsylvania Dutch. When the girls werein the middle grades they attended a small Catholic school, which closed down,and the students were transferred to a boarding school, Gonzaga, in Germantown.There they were confirmed as Catholics, lived in the school, wore uniforms andperhaps technically qualified for a brief period as orphans in an orphanage.Next attending Carson Valley School, Lisa lived in the school but later went tohigh school at Springfield near by.
An arrangementwas made by which Lisa lived with a family in a prosperous suburb, acting as ababy-sitter to two small children, while she went to school. Her duties werelimited to baby-sitting so domestic work wouldn't interfere with her education.But, said Lisa, the man of the house added duties. "He was like verymethodical," Lisa said, "and when I heard his footstep on the top ofthe stairs in the morning I was supposed to pour his coffee, so it would beready when he got to the table. So I asked to be placed with anotherfamily."
All these movesfrom school to school and from household to household didn't add to Lisa'shappiness. The elementary fact in the background of her scholastic difficultieswas that she had become a stunningly attractive girl, but a girl without thenormal safeguards and emotional bulwarks which parents and a stable home lifeprovide in the trying years of adolescence. As she moved from place to placethere were some disenchanting encounters with men older and more experiencedthan she. She was at first shocked, then embittered, and she took out herdisenchantment on her teachers. She was living at home and attending RoxboroughHigh School when "the student guidance person came to see me," saidLisa's mother. "She told me that Marianne was the strangest and mostdifficult case she had ever seen. She was deliberately putting down the wronganswers when she knew the right ones." She mystified the schoolauthorities, who regarded her the way the police might regard a man who brokeinto banks to leave money in them. She had some confused notion she would bepopular if she appeared to be dumb.
After she quitschool she jumped from job to job with phenomenal speed. Her half brother,William Dennis, was in the Navy, serving on the Midway; her sister Evelyn hadmarried a young engineer and was living in North Carolina; but Lisa's life wasalmost absurdly disordered and, emotionally, the tables had now turned on her."I had 13 jobs in less than two years," Lisa said, her cheeksreddening. "I was always getting a crush on the boss." She rummaged ina drawer where she kept her chess scores and brought out a sheaf of W-2 formsfor income tax returns. There were only 10 there, from 10 old and eminentPhiladelphia drug, metallurgical and research laboratories—which displeasedher, because she remembered there had been 13, and for a chess player memory isas important as a good arm for a pitcher.
Lisa said thatthis period in her life, before she turned 20, was dominated by a love affair.The man was older, and through him she was associated with people who had agood deal of money and education, and she felt that she was at a disadvantage.She decided that she ought to have a college education. But she still hadnearly two years of high school to complete, and she was now older than mosthigh school students. She became a special student at Temple, but spent much ofher time working at her high school classes. The love affair moved into a stateof suspension; the man went abroad, they corresponded, but she no longer sawhim. She was resentful and bitter, self-conscious about her age among studentsyounger than herself and sarcastic during the long interviews with the studentadviser.
While she wasstill a student at Temple there was a catastrophe: she was driving her mother'scar, and as she drew up to a stop light an elderly woman stepped from the curband the car struck her. The woman was 78 years old, and died five days later.Lisa was not at fault—she was released after questioning—but her state of mindwas nightmarish. It was at this crisis in her life that she discovered chess,and while it would be wrong to imply that the game was her salvation, it iscertainly true that it took her out of herself and matured and disciplined her.With its terrific demand for concentration and its competitive zest, chessproved to be a creative activity for an intellect that had never before foundan outlet adequate to its emerging powers. And her first victories gavesubstance to vague and almost childlike dreams and ambitions that had been lostbefore in loneliness, isolation and despair.
Such was Lisa'sbackground before she became a champion. In an ill-advised moment she hadinvested the last of her savings, which didn't amount to much, in a bookstore,becoming the partner of a lawyer and a poet in The Trident, on 20th Street nearWalnut in Philadelphia. As it was largely stocked with poetry, there were fewcustomers. Lisa began to play chess at the Philadelphia coffee houses—theGilded Cage, The Proscenium, Humoresque and the Artist's Hut, just around thecorner from the quiet elegance of Rittenhouse Square and only a few steps fromher bookstore.
"I began towin all the time," she said, "and I was starting to think I was prettygood. But of course I didn't know anything about chess. I'd never seen a bookabout it. One night a man came into the Artist's Hut who knew the openings, andhe beat me in a few moves." For the first time Lisa discovered that therewas a literature of chess. Lisa's informant was Arnold Chertkof, a big,round-faced boy who played on the chess team of Temple High School.
"I mether," said Arnold, heaving a sigh. "I played with her. She was veryinterested. She wanted to improve."
Arnold was amember of the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club, then housed in a handsome oldhome on Locust Street, in an area of churches, luxury hotels, studios, realestate offices, and imbued with a faded, centuries-old charm. "I took Lisato the club," Arnold rumbled on, "and she became a member. I gotAttilio Di Camillo to watch her play. I sort of had to persuade Di Camillo todo it."
"Sheimpressed me at first as just another college girl with an interest inchess," said Di Camillo, a slight, dark, intensely serious chess master whostudied music until arthritis ended that possible career. But under DiCamillo's teaching Lisa improved so fast that chess wits said he had hypnotizedher, that they were Svengali and Trilby. In fact, however, Lisa was studyingchess with an interest she had never felt for school work. "I'd stay upuntil 3 or 4 in the morning," she said, "as long as anyone would playwith me. I worked 8 or 12 hours a day on chess. I'd work with Di Cam allmorning and then play chess at the club all afternoon and evening. Then thenext morning Di Cam and I would go over the games, and he would point out whatI did wrong." Lisa played at the Franklin-Mercantile Club, and herappearances created quite a stir, mostly because her volatile temper andextraordinary competitive drive seemed to project her into crisis after crisis.One in particular bothered older club members, though they tend to be extremelyreticent when the subject is broached. "I don't want to go into the rightsand wrongs of it," said a member. "Both sides were at fault. There wasa good deal of feeling stirred up and—well, it seemed best that Miss Lane andthe other member be suspended."
"I never hitthat guy with an ash tray," Lisa exclaimed indignantly, when asked what hadhappened. "I didn't even throw it at him. It hit the table and broke, and apiece must have bounced up and hit him!"
Apparently afriend of Lisa's had won a game of chess on which some money had been bet. Hewas at the point of leaving with Lisa when he was asked to play another game,which Lisa did not want him to begin. She was the only girl present, and sheheard some remark or other that angered her, and the altercation followed. Animportant match was approaching with the powerful Ukrainian Club chess team,and Di Camillo, who did not know that Lisa had been suspended, included Lisaamong the players. They were ready to leave for the Ukrainian Club—"I neverdid find out where it was," Lisa said—when Di Camillo was told that Lisacould not play. He threatened to resign and, as he was the best player in theclub, the difficulty was worked out. Lisa was restored to full membership.
Lisa, however, nolonger cared to play at the Franklin-Mercantile, and she spent more and moretime by herself. But one bleak December night when she was alone in TheTrident, Arnold Chertkof and Attilio Di Camillo appeared: Di Camillo had beeninvited to play in the tournament for the U.S. championship in New York. Lisalocked up The Trident for the last time and went to New York with them.
The tournamentwas a famous one. It was the occasion when 14-year-old Bobby Fischer won thetitle and proved decisively that he was the best chess player in the country.Returning on the train to Philadelphia, Lisa remarked afterward how impressedshe was by Fischer's victory, and Di Camillo told her, "If you're willingto work you can be the women's champion in two years."
He was uncannilyright. It was precisely two years later, minus a few days, that Lisa won theU.S. women's title. She won the women's championship of Philadelphia in March1958, three months after Di Camillo's prophecy. She entered the U.S. Open inRochester, Minn, in the summer of 1958 and won six of her 12 games, by no meansa bad debut. After that she settled down to systematic work in preparation forthe U.S. women's championship. She now had a responsible job in the purchasingdepartment of the Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, but she concentratedon her game in all possible moments away from her work. In the spring of 1959she finished first among the women entrants at the U.S. Amateur Championshiptournament in Asbury Park, N.J.
Thus, in December1959, when she met the eight ranking U.S. women players to compete for the U.S.women's championship, she had been tested in only two major events—the U.S.Open and the Amateur. After she won her first game (from Mrs. Lena Grumette ofHollywood, Calif., who had contended for the championship in 1948), Lisa lostmost of her nervousness. She won another game, drew one and then captured fourin a row, an unprecedented record for a beginner. She had cinched the titlewhen she met Mrs. Gisela Gresser, a former champion, in the last round. Theydrew their game.
Mrs. Gresser willalso be playing in Vrnjacka Banja this fall. A pleasant woman of easy charm andcultivation, Mrs. Gresser's background contrasts remarkably with that of Lisa.She lives in a Park Avenue penthouse, is a patron of art, an amateur musician,a minor poet of considerable interest. She is married to a lawyer, has twosons, travels a good deal. She enjoys the exotic atmosphere of internationalchess tournaments, and she is a superbly poised representative of the U.S.whether she wins or loses. But she has often represented the U.S. before andlacks the intensity of Lisa Lane, who considers the tournament in VrnjackaBanja to be the most important of all world events.
In fact, Mrs.Gresser is exceptional even among international women chess stars, where infantprodigies, scholars and glamorous personalities abound. She could read andspeak Greek and Latin at 8, graduated from Radcliffe with honors and worked asan archeologist in Greece. She learned to play chess on an Atlantic crossing in1938, took lessons, studied the game and in 1940 finished third in her firsttournament for the national title. She was third again in 1942, and won thetitle in 1944. In 1948 she was co-champion with Mona May Karff.
Vera MenchikStevenson, the greatest of women chess players, was killed by a buzz-bomb inLondon, and when the international tournament to name a new women's worldchampion was held in Moscow in 1950 there was no question but that one of theRussians, most likely Ludmilla Rudenko, would win it. In the first round Mrs.Gresser met Mrs. Rudenko in the Hall of the Soviet Army and decisively defeatedher. It was not merely a victory, but a debacle, an overwhelming triumph for anunknown American woman over one of the strongest women players in history.
But it was almostthe last such U.S. victory. Despite her first-round loss to Mrs. Gresser,Ludmilla Rudenko won the world championship, and Russians wound up in the firstfour places. They have monopolized the field ever since.
When Lisa drewher last game at the U.S. women's championship tournament with Mrs. Gresser andso became the U.S. champion, Mrs. Gresser smiled and congratulated her. InVrnjacka Banja when she and Lisa meet the Russian women, they are not likely tomeet such good-natured opponents. The most powerful they will face is ValentinaBorisenko, who has won the Russian championship three times. If Lisa and Mrs.Gresser get past her they will still have to defeat Kira Zvorykina, who won thelast challengers' tournament in 1959. Zvorykina is a 41-year-old engineer.
If Lisa and Mrs.Gresser should hold their own with Borisenko and Zvorykina, they will still beup against Larissa Volpert, three times women's champion of the Soviet Union,an expert in French literature at the University of Leningrad. And if they getpast her, they must face two promising and attractive newcomers: 19-year-oldNona Gaprindashvili, a language student who has been playing chess since shewas 5, and 23-year-old Tatiana Zatulovskaya, both decorative girls with darkOriental freshness. And these are only the Russian contenders; there will alsobe two from West Germany, two from Yugoslavia, two from Rumania and one eachfrom Hungary, South America and the Far East.
Beyond all ofthem is Elizaveta Bykova, the world champion, who will not be playing inVrnjacka Banja but who will be waiting in Moscow prepared to meet the winner.What chance will Lisa have against such opponents? "I think Lisa can go toYugoslavia and win the candidates' tournament," said Bobby Fischer, afteranalyzing Lisa's games, "and then go on to Moscow and win the women'schampionship of the world."
Lisa herself doesnot say so. What she said was that if she could spend another year like herfirst year in chess she would have a good chance. She developed startlinglythat year, so she is unquestionably right, but what may not be understood isthat such years are rare in any sport. Soon after she won the U.S. women'schampionship, Lisa married Walter Rich, a Philadelphia advertising man andcommercial artist. She played relatively little chess for a year or more afterher marriage (she is now divorced), and as Di Camillo was no longer teachingher, she felt herself to be losing her competitive edge. So she enteredtournaments in Boston and Washington and last summer played in the U.S. Open inSt. Louis. She made the best showing any woman has ever made in the Open, butshe was dissatisfied with her record, and she concentrated on refining her gamerather than developing creatively as she had done previously.
Last February,Lisa was given a $1,000 grant by the People-to-People Sports Committee toenable her to prepare for the international tournament. She moved to New York,sublet an apartment in Greenwich Village and enrolled in the Russian classes atthe New School so she could read the massive accumulation of chess literaturethat is now available only in Russian. She hired a chess teacher to work withher daily and suddenly discovered that her money was running out. She began togive exhibitions of simultaneous chess matches in schools and clubs, gettingfrom $75 to $100 for these. She also became something of a television star,appearing on half a dozen programs, from the Ernie Kovacs Show to a newsbroadcast. Her schedule became extremely crowded. During one week not long agoLisa played in a minor New York tournament, where she was the only woman among48 contenders; appeared on a television show between her games; took part in aradio show on chess the next morning; played on the New School chess teamagainst Columbia University (she won her game against Robin Ault, the U.S.junior champion); and was interviewed and photographed by the Associated Press,a news magazine and The New York Times. She enjoyed the sudden blaze ofrecognition, but at one o'clock one morning during a week of triumph sherealized that the feeling of weary helplessness that was overcoming her mightbe related to the fact that she had had nothing to eat all day.
During this timeLisa began to form a notion of what a champion should be and how she shouldlive. And she decided to become the first really successful professional womanchess player. It did no good for her friends to tell her that her ambition wasimpractical. She wasn't undertaking the work just because it might befinancially rewarding, but she thought it ought to be done. She believes thatchess is bound to become more and more popular, that there should be peopleworking at it all the time. "It sounds foolish to say it," she said,"because even the best men players don't seem to be able to make theirliving by chess, and no woman ever has. But I think that I may be able to doso, and at least some one should try."
Lisa usuallybreakfasts on a roll and coffee, plays over new games or works over the oldgames in new chess books. On days when she doesn't have a Russian class shelikes to lunch leisurely at the Fifth Avenue Hotel or at Charles'. In theevening, unless there is a party (there generally is), she may stop in atRossolimo's Chess Studio on Sullivan Street or at the Marshall Chess Club onWest 10th, a quiet and relaxed private club that made her an honorarymember.
Her problem isstill the old one of keeping up to her top competitive form despite the limitednumber of chess tournaments, opponents of wildly uneven ability andconsiderable emotional turmoil on her part. And she is still more commonlyregarded in chess circles as a good-looking girl who plays chess than as achess champion who needs consistent training. Almost desperate for competitivetests as the date of the world tournament in Yugoslavia approached, Lisawangled a trip to play in the Western Open. She financed it by two days ofsimultaneous exhibitions in Gimbels department store in Milwaukee, across thestreet from Plankinton House, where the tournament was held.
At the tournamentitself, where she was one of six women among the 162 entries, there wasordinarily a crowd of 20 to 50 spectators around her table, compared to half adozen around the superb games of Robert Byrne, the grand master who finished infirst place. Lisa herself easily finished first among the women, but shedropped two games to men players who were ranked far below her and was in suchdespair that she momentarily planned to leave the tournament, give up listeningto comments about her good looks and her bad moves and give up chess. But thenshe won the next two games brilliantly and immediately began looking forward tomore victories, more tournaments—and a new dress.
She was scheduledto play in the U.S. Open in San Francisco later this month, but found she couldnot afford the trip across the U.S. as well as the one to Europe. The women'schess Olympics, in which she and Mrs. Gresser will play as a team, are to beheld in Emmen, The Netherlands in September. This tournament will give Lisa themost sustained period of high-level chess she has known since she began to playand may well condition her enough to give her a chance against the solidRussian phalanx she is soon to meet. Win or lose, she has already created alasting impression on the game she loves. Where, in the history of this ancientsport (or in what other activity, for that matter), have brains and beauty andpersonality been so intriguingly combined?