The Women’s World Championship match that begins Tuesday in Lviv, Ukraine, builds on a legacy of growth and achievement over many decades.

Starting Tuesday (March 1), the 23-year-old Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk of the Ukraine will defend her title against Hou Yifan of China, one of the strongest women players in history. Hou, who just turned 22, has already won the World Championship twice.

The contest is the best-of-ten classical games, with tie-break games if needed. Although the match is being played in Lviv, Ukraine, giving the reigning champion home advantage, Hou’s 100 point rating advantage and her lifetime score of 2.5-0.5 against Muzychuk in their previous meetings indicate that the Chinese woman is a favorite to regain the title.

Both women are far better than most of their predecessors, reflecting the evolution of the game in general, and the growth of women’s chess in particular.

The first women’s international chess tournament was played in London in 1897, but the standard was low. Mary Rudge from Bristol won nearly all her games. Starting in 1927, the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, began to organize Women’s World Championship tournaments, the first being played in London. The winner was Vera Menchik (1906-44) who was born in Moscow to Czech and British parents, but lived most of her life in England. Menchik, who became a chess professional, was the only woman before the 1950s who frequently played with men in international tournaments, enjoying limited success but defeating some grandmasters in individual games.

The Chess Olympiad in Hamburg, Germany, in 1930, also had a women’s championship tournament. From that point onwards, women’s championship tournaments were run concurrently with the Olympiads. Menchik won in Hamburg and also at Prague in 1931; Folkestone, England in 1933; Warsaw in 1935; Stockholm in 1937; and Buenos Aires in 1939. In those seven tournaments, Menchik lost only one game out of 83 and conceded just four draws. In addition, Menchik won a short title match against Sonja Graf-Stevenson of Germany at Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1934, and a longer one against the same opponent at Semmering, Austria, in 1937. The outbreak of war prevented Menchik fulfilling her potential and her life was tragically cut short by aerial bombing during World War II.

The women’s title remained vacant for over five years until the first post-war championship tournament was held in Moscow, in December 1949 and January 1950. There were 16 players, but the Soviet women dominated. The winner was Lyudmila Rudenko (1904-86) who scored 11.5 points. The runner-up with 10.5 was Olga Rubtsova (1909-94), who in 1927 had won the first USSR Women’s Championship as a teenager, but did not play in the pre-war championships. Equal third on 10 points were Elizaveta Bykova (1913-89) and Valentina Belova, who later married the eminent Soviet master Georgy Borisenko.

FIDE held a women’s Candidates tournament in 1952, which was won by Bykova, who then defeated Rudenko in a 1953 match to become the third Women’s World Champion. Bykova won 8-6, but the match was close as it was only effectively decided in the second session of the final game as Rudenko had stood better at the adjournment.

After Rubtsova won the next 1955 Candidates tournament, FIDE decided to hold a triangular match-tournament in 1956 instead of a head-to-head match. Rubtsova defeated both Bykova and Rudenko. (More than a decade later, in 1968, she would become a champion in a slightly different discipline by winning the first Women’s Correspondence Chess World Championship.)

In 1958, Bykova regained the FIDE title from Rubtsova by winning a match 8.5-5.5. Two years later, she successfully defended the crown against Kira Zvorykina by 8.5-4.5.

In 1962, what might be called the modern era of women’s chess was ushered in with the emergence of a major new talent: Nona Gaprindashvili from the Soviet Republic of Georgia. She was 21 years old when she won the title in Moscow, defeating Bykova 9-2 without losing a game. Subsequently, Gaprindashvili, who is still an active player, often competed against men and helped to raise the standard of women’s competition generally. In particular, she inspired a new generation of female players worldwide, but especially in her own country.

Gaprindashvili successfully defended the women’s world championship in 1965, 1969, and 1972 against Alla Kushnir, who subsequently emigrated to Israel. In 1975, Gaprindashvili defeated a compatriot, Nana Alexandriya, by 8.5-3.5. But in 1978, she met her match in yet another Georgian, 17-year-old Maia Chiburdanidze, who won their match 4-2, with nine draws.

Chiburdanidze now assumed the mantle as the dominant figure in women’s chess. Like her predecessor, she played in several international tournaments against men and was also awarded the grandmaster title. Her first title defence in 1981 was not altogether convincing, probably because she had been busy studying to become a medical doctor. Alexandriya (who had won the Candidates tournament ahead of Gaprindashvili) managed to tie their match 8-8 but Chiburdanidze was already assured of retaining the title after winning the 15th game.

Then in 1984 Chiburdanidze defeated Irina Levitina of Russia 8.5-3.5 despite being behind after eight games. Chiburdanidze successfully defended the title against Elena Akhmilovskaya (later Elena Donaldson-Akhmilovskaya) of Russia in 1986 (8.5-5.5), and in 1988 against the fourth Georgian to fight for the title, Nana Ioseliani, winning 8.5-7.5.

A new era began in 1991 when 21-year-old Xie Jun of China defeated Chiburdanidze in their match at Manila by 4-2, with nine draws. Xie had been a strong player of Chinese chess (xiangqi) in early childhood and was selected by her government to switch to international, or western-style, chess. Ever since, players from China have had a large presence in top women’s competitions and that country has since produced three other female world champions.

While China was on the rise, there was another seismic shift in the women’s game happening in a small European country half a world away. The 1980s witnessed the emergence of the three Polgar sisters from Hungary, who were the product of an unprecedented psychological and training regimen by their parents. They quickly reshaped the power balance in the women’s game, while also becoming role models for a generation of girls

The eldest daughter, Zsuzsa (now Susan), was born in 1969 and was the top-rated female player by 1984 although (or because) she mostly played against men. In 1988, the sisters, along with Ildiko Madl (playing on Board 3) were Hungary’s national team in the Women’s Olympiad and won gold. Susan played Board 1 with Judit, the youngest, and the World Under-12 Champion that year (in the open, not the girls category) was Board 2, while the middle sister, 14-year-old Zsofia (now Sofia), was reserve.

In 1990, Hungary won the gold again, but with Sofia on Board 3. It was the last time Judit participated in a women-only event. She would go on to be the strongest woman player in history, to rise No. 8 in the world rankings (in 2005) and to play in a tournament for the World Championship (also in 2005, in San Luis, Argentina).

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of the three Polgar sisters from Hungary.

With Judit out of the women’s game, it fell to Susan to try for the women’s world title. First she earned the “men’s” grandmaster title in 1991, something no other woman had done (Judit would earn it a few months later). While Gaprindashvili, Chiburdanidze and Xie were also grandmasters, they had been awarded their titles based on other criteria, not by earning the title the way men did. Susan was the first woman to do so.

At her first attempt at the women’s crown, Polgar shared first in the 1992 Women’s Candidates tournament with Ioseliani, but then they had to play a match, which ended in a tie. A drawing of lots gave Ioseliani the right to challenge Xie. Unsurprisingly, Xie posted an easy victory in their 1993 match.

Polgar was more successful in her second attempt. In 1994, she tied for first with Chiburdanidze in the 9-player double-round robin Candidates tournament at Tilburg, the Netherlands. Polgar then easily won the playoff a year later to qualify for the championship. Her title match against Xie Jun was held early in 1996 at Jaén, Spain and Polgar again won easily, 6-2 with five draws.

Alisa Galliamova of Russia won the 1997 Candidates tournament, with Xie as runner-up. They were supposed to play a match in China to decide who could challenge Polgar but after Galliamova failed to make the trip to the site, FIDE awarded the right to Xie.

In the meantime, Polgar had emigrated to America, gotten married and started a family. Long-drawn-out negotiations led to a dispute, and she eventually relinquished the crown. That turned out to be fortuitous for Galliamova as FIDE decided she and Xie should play for the vacant title. Their match was held partly in Russia and partly in Shenyang, China. Unfortunately for Galliamova, a second chance was not enough. Xie regained the title by winning the match by a score of 5-3, with seven draws.

The following year, FIDE changed the format of the championship entirely, switching to a knockout tournament. Showing her versatility, not to mention stamina, Xie triumphed again. But the following year, when yet another knockout championship tournament was held, in Moscow, Xie elected not to participate.

The title stayed in Chinese hands, however, as the tournament was won by Zhu Chen (born 1976), who defeated Chiburdanidze in the semi-final and Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia in the final. Zhu held the title for three years, but did not defend it in the next World Championship tournament in 2004. In the interim, she had married grandmaster Mohammad Al-Modiahki of Qatar and moved there, where she still lives.

The 2004 knockout tournament was in Elista, capital of the autonomous region of Kalmykia in Russia (and home to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of FIDE). This time, Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria won becoming the 10th Women’s World Champion.

At 16 years old, Hou became the youngest player to win an adult world championship title.

Ekaterinburg in Russia was the location of the 2006 knock-out championship and the title reverted to China as the winner was Xu Yuhua (born 1976), who beat Galliamova in the final.

Russia again hosted the 2008 championship, this time, in Nalchik in the Caucasus. Some of the players expected to play boycotted the tournament to protest the war that was then going on in nearby Georgia. Hou, then only 14 years old, reached the final but was defeated by Kosteniuk, 1-0 with three draws, who thereby became champion.

Two years later, at Antakya in Turkey, Hou finally won the title, beating Humpy Koneru of India in the semi-final and then Ruan Lufei of China in the final. In the process, at 16 years old, she broke Chiburdanidze’s record as the youngest player to win an adult world championship title.

In the meantime, FIDE once again decided to change the process for selecting a champion. While it kept the knockout format, it also reinstituted matches, alternating between the two each year.

So in 2011, Hou had defend her title against Koneru in a match held in Tirana, Albania. The match was a best-of-ten games. Hou won easily, 3-0, with five draws.

Hou’s reign was short-lived, however, as a year later, in a knockout tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, in Siberia, she lost in the second round. The surprise winner was Anna Ushenina of Ukraine, who beat the former champion Stefanova in the final.

Hou’s victory in the 2011/12 FIDE Women’s Grand Prix series qualified her as Ushenina’s challenger in the next championship match. It was held in China in 2013, and Hou easily regained the title.

The 2015 Women’s World Championship tournament was held in Sochi, Russia. From the outset, it was clear that there would be a new World Champion as Hou did not compete. The tournament was organized rather late and she had a prior commitment to play in Hawaii. Muzychuk won, beating Stefanova and Koneru on the way to the final, where she defeated Natalia Pogonina of Russia.  

Hou has yet another chance to recapture the title because she once again won the Women’s Grand Prix series, this time for 2013/14.

It would be a remarkable accomplishment if Hou becomes champion for the third time, just as it is remarkable that she has been one of the two participants in the last three World Championship matches – once as the defending champion and now twice as the challenger.  


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.