Computers, women and things like that.

August 17, 2009 at 8:07 pm 5 comments

I must apologise to anybody reading this who HAS to have bridge. I’ve been looking through old files and coming across the odd thing about chess that takes my fancy. I wrote a potted history of Australian chess some years ago and all sorts of interesting bits and pieces didn’t make the cut. This was one of them…

Computers, Women and Things Like That

The machine-age has not conquered, and cannot conquer, chess.

Cecil Purdy 1952

Books like this one always afford a little space to the peripherals of the chess world. Historically both computers and women have been like zoological specimens to the essentially male community. The notion that either might be able to produce a challenger for male supremacy in chess has been treated with reactions ranging between humour and shock.

It was only thirty odd years ago that Basta could indicate just how erratic Hamilton was by pointing out that he was the only Australian champion to lose to a woman. To record the name of the woman who had achieved this unlikely fluke was not warranted. And it was only 45 years ago that Purdy spoke the general mind when he said chess playing machines could not happen.

Since those days computers have come a long way. Purdy’s attitude was not only that of the negative layperson. Programmers also saw believed that however possible it might be to create a strong computer, the resources would never be available for such a frivolous project. So the matter of chess playing computers might have rested there, but for the decision to make chess the great exercise into artificial intelligence. Many millions of dollars and decades later, if the 1997 Kasparov-Deep Blue match is to be the judge, computers are better than human beings. There are all sorts of events that might, if this had been written at a different time, have been historic in a book referring to Australian chess – such as Johansen’s matches against the precursor of Deep Blue where he upheld the honour of human players – but that one match in 1997 has made all such other developments in computer chess irrelevant.

Women have not come quite as far as computers. The world has yet to produce a female player that could challenge to be called the best player in the world. In Judit Polgar, though, it has come close, and Australia’s best player, Rogers, would be feeling very pleased anytime he took a point off this player who has been ranked in the world’s top ten. This might be considered as much of a miracle as the advance of computers over the past twenty years, and without the clout, both financial and intellectual, that was invested in chess computers.

Australia has produced no miracles in women’s chess. Very few women play – one is more likely to find a female in a tournament than a computer, but the odds are not good – and there are no Polgars on the horizon. Nonetheless, some significant advances have recently taken place. The East European migration that has taken place since the break up of the old East Europe political structure, as well as migration from Asian countries like Vietnam, has been an enormous fillip for open chess, but its effect has been even more dramatic for the progress of female players.

It is not so much that suddenly all Australia’s top female players were recent migrants. Of far greater significance is the strength of those players. With one or two possible exceptions whose period was around the turn of the century, for the first time ever Australia has females who can compete with the top players. There is no one who could win the Australian championship without great improvement, but players like Berezina-Feldman and Nutu-Gajic, an Olympiad medal winner before moving to Australia, could hold their own in it. They are classes better than anything Australia has ever produced. If the strongest 1997 lineup – which would contain only those who had moved to Australia since the late 1980s – was matched against its counterpart of twenty years ago, 1977 would not get as much as a draw. Nor would 1987 or 1967.

This does not mean that nothing has happened in women’s chess in Australia during the twentieth century. It does mean that what would be a mole hill in ‘men’s’ chess is a mountain in ‘women’s’. The mountains have been created by two people without whom nothing might exist. When Garry Koshnitsky talked Hordens into opening a chess club around the Depression, it meant that a club now existed which was a magnet to females. Its host, Hordens, was a department store, its facilities were about as fine as could be found in the world, it kept shopping hours. Koshnitsky grabbed the chance he saw and has been a staunch supporter of women’s chess ever since. The immediate consequence in Sydney was a group of capable players, but none that was anywhere near the city’s best.

Koshnitsky’s patrons were grown women, of course, and to create a player of top class it was surely necessary to begin with much younger pupils. That is where the second creator of mountains enters. Evelyn Koshnitsky has made her life’s work the promotion of chess among the young and her special passion has been to get girls to play. First in Sydney and then in Adelaide from the early 1960s when the couple moved there she cajoled, begged and bullied support. Manpower, money, venues – she is an expert at getting what she wants from parents, schools, government, business – whoever might have something of use.

It is really very difficult to impart a sense of the impact of a Koshnitsky. Purdy’s writings live on forever, but a Koshnitsky’s work is not permanent in that sense. It might take the same effort to hold the world junior championships as to write a book, but there is never the same solid consequence to mark the achievement. Paradoxically in the end it is the book, and not the event, that lives. The Bicentennial 1988 World Junior Open and Girls and two Asian Girls championships, were all held in Adelaide at their initiative.

The 1993 Asian Girls’ Under 20 championship

It is impossible to appreciate, looking on at such a tournament, how much goes into it. On this occasion the Koshnitskys had to financially underwrite it themselves, while hoping to get sponsorship. Thirty-eight Asian Federations were invited to send a player. a couple of months went by with only one entry and no sponsorship. Luck turned with an ABC 7.30 report on the Koshes and their fears for the tournament. Donations poured in, and not ony from chess players. But entries were so slow that the proposed venue and accommodation had to be changed – they had been too ambitious. Eventually eight turned up – chaos when one was an unexpected Filipino and tragedy for the Australian who relinquished her place in the tournament for the arrival. Interminable trips to the airport, to motels, to billets, searches for interpreters, how to make things as comfortable as possible for players from such a diverse range of cultures. And then, after many months of this, the tournament begins.

Their sense of optimism and belief in their cause has always been infectious. They are the sort of people who inspire others to do things they might otherwise never have done. And, if it seemed to need something special to get girls to the chess board, they were that something. By the mid 1970s they had a thriving number of girls playing in Adelaide which soon produced a first – one of those mountains, or molehills – when Cathy Depasquale won the South Australian open junior championship. No State junior had ever been won by a female. This feat has since been repeated a few times over the last twenty years, and has often been repeated at State level in younger age divisions.

Probably I am not the only protege of Mrs K to feel guilty that I did not attempt to fulfill the potential others saw in me or make good their investment. But then, none yet has shown by the end of junior ranks anywhere near the potential to make something of chess. At national level no junior female has ever come close to challenging the top junior males. It is easy to see how a handful of newcomers to Australia is such a striking development.

Since her move to Adelaide, Nutu-Gajic has made history by winning the 1995 South Australian championship, the first State Open to be won by a female. The only other woman who has come close to this was also South Australian. Caroline Mayfield, nee Govett, was at her peak in the 1890s and early 1900s. At a time when Handicap tournaments carried a weight no longer so, she came third and then twice first in the Adelaide CC Handicap, at which point it became hers to keep. In 1909 she drew a match against JG Witton. [van Manen ‘An Unknown Queen of Chess’ AWCL Bulletin V2N3 Aug 79 pp37-8 Witton had been a past runnerup in the Victorian championship and had acquitted himself well in his telegraphic interstate appearances, including a win against Spencer Crackenthorp, so drawing with him was a fair result. A 1908 report stated that she was set to win the Adelaide Cup, but the final result is not known. After Houlding’s move from Australia she was recognised as Australia’s best female player. On the only known occasion that she competed in the SA championship, illness forced her withdrawal early in the tournament.

Curiously, two remarkable occurrences in women’s chess have taken place in Australia. Both happened last century. One was the period in the 1890s when women’s chess flourished in Perth. They had their own organisation and in 1893 held a 25 player round robin won by a Mrs Thomas. This was one of the largest all-female tournaments that had ever been played in the world. Even by the standards of the modern period, this was an exceptionally large entry.

The other was right over the other side of Australia in the same period.

——- AAHHHHHHHHHHHH. Back to the present: how intensely irritating. Here the story ends. It appears I never finished it. I’d love to know what comes next. If I come across it in my files I’ll fill it in!


Entry filed under: chess, Uncategorized.

Staying ahead in the game concluded. Chess and technology

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