Life story of female prodigy Sonja Graf-Stevenson

Sonja Graf
Picture 1: Sonja Graf

By Michael Negele (a version from 10th February 2007; an abridged version appeared in Karl 3/2004, pp. 28-34.)

While leafing through some old issues of Schach-Echo I came across a photo (Picture 1) of a young woman whose enigmatic smile instantly aroused my curiosity. Who was this “Miss Sonja Graf” and why does Dr. Eduard Dyckhoff (Picture 2) refer to her as “the German champion” (Text A..) in Magyar Sakkvilag (April 1934, pp. 83-85) when there is hardly any mention of her in German chess magazines of that time?

This was the beginning of my extensive research which revealed some interesting facts about the eventful life of this mysterious figure.

According to some sources, Sonja Graf was born on 15th May 1912 in Munich. This date is also mentioned by Alfred Diel in “The Bavarian Chess Federation – Beginning of the Third Millennium” (2000). However, after consulting the „Chess Personalia A Biobibliography” (1987) things became more complicated. Jeremy Gaige, who has a reputation for being extremely careful, gives 16th December 1914 as Sonja’s birth date, referring to the information in her death certificate. And finally, the third birth date that I came across was 18th December 1912 – this was mentioned explicitly in a laudatory article on Sonja Graf in the short-lived Czech weekly Šachový týden (Chess Week) published on 8th April 1937 before the commencement of the Prague tournament (Text B).

Eduard Dyckhoff
Picture 2: Eduard Dyckhoff

However, there were also indications that Sonja Graf might have been born even before 1912. In the July edition of the Deutsche Schachzeitung 1965 (p. 237), Rudolf Teschner gave Sonja’s age as 56 years in his short obituary. This was probably based on the information mentioned in the letter to the editor written by a contemporary witness that appeared in the April edition (p.270). And in the above-mentioned Magyar Sakkvilag she was referred to as a 24-year old by Dyckhoff, which corresponds with her appearance in later years.

These inconsistencies provided a stimulus for an extensive research in the Munich archives that was carried out with a great persistency by Alfred Schattman. Finally, on 26th February 2005, he was able to quote the following sentence from a letter he received from the Munich City Archives (Text C):

“The mystery of the origin of the chess player Sonja Graf has been solved…”

The further efforts to cast light on the intricate life story of Susanna Graf (who, later in her life, adopted the name Sonja) were supported by Willibald Müller (also from Munich). It would, however, go well beyond the original intention of this biographical text to mention all the findings concerning Graf’s unbelievable family saga made by Schattmann and Müller.

The family of the father, Josef Graf (*23rd July 1869; +9th October 1935 in Munich of consequences of a road accident), came from Liebental, a small village in the Volga region, near the town of Samara (1935-1900: Kujbyschew). His parents Johannes Graf and Barbara, née Paul, were farmers. His wife Susanna Zimmermann (*8th Mai 1876; + 14th February 1953 in Munich) was born in Rownoje (Seelmann), also near Samara. Her father Friedrich Zimmermann was a merchant and he was married to Anna, née Kolsing. (Texts D.)

From September 1906 the young couple lived in Munich, where, according to the register of birth, the oldest daughter Marie (called Emilie; later married Michael Birkenbihl) was born as early as 29th November 1900 (reportedly upon arrival at the Munich main station). The family probably went back to Russia later and lived in the seaport Taganrog at the Sea of Azov (part of the Black Sea). Another two children were born before the family moved to Bavaria: Valeria (*26th May 1904) and Oskar Melchior (*19th January 1906, + 6th February 1945 in jail in Halle, executed for desertion.) The next child, a son called Alex, was already born in Bavaria (*7th September 1907, +1983) – in Dachau near Munich.

The Munich documents prove without dispute that Susanna (Sonja) Graf was born as Grafs’s fifth child on 12th December 1908. At that time the family lived at 22 Ainmiller St. Another three children were later born in Munich: the daughter Helene (*28th February 1910 in Munich, +29th January 1930) – referred to as ‘Hella’ in Yo Soy Susann on p. 19 – and the sons Cyril (*8th June 1911) and Artur Wolfgang (* 7th October 1912). In January 1915 the big family moved into 45 Elisabeth St. (3rd floor). Officially, the father is referred to as an artist (painter) and catholic priest, later on as magnetopath. On 14th June he and his family, as so called Volga remigrants, were granted the German (Bavarian) citizenship and the parents got married on 19th April 1920 – with eight children (the oldest daughter Maria was already twenty years old!).

Text E:

Highly interesting is Susanna’s entry in the registration file (Text E): In the section ‘occupation’ it says ‘nanny’ and ‘art entrepreneur’; later she was listed as ‘chess master’.

The motives that brought Sonja Graf to chess are described by her in a great depth in two books that were published in Argentina in 1940’s but remained largely unnoticed in Europe. In the first of the two books “Asi juega una mujer …” (Buenos Aires, 1941) (Titel F) the author comes across as more or less objective narrator. This book is a cross between a chess handbook, an autobiography and a game collection – it contains 50 commented games by Sonja Graf played between 1932 and 1940. On the other hand, when reading her second book – an autobiographical novel “Yo soy Susann” (Buenos Aires, 1946) (Titel G) written in the 3rd person - I often found it difficult, and I believe not only because my Spanish is not perfect, to differentiate between fiction and reality.

Asi juega una mujer … (Buenos Aires 1941)
Titel F: Asi juega una mujer … (Buenos Aires 1941)
Yo soy Susann von 1946
Titel G: Yo soy Susann von 1946

In this book, Sonja explains that her father was a Russian orthodox priest when he fell in love with her mother, who came from a Belarusian family, and therefore he decided to abdicate his office. As the family of the mother was against this relationship, the young couple left Russia and emigrated to Germany. In Munich, the Bohemian father, who cared very little about the mundane tasks of every-day life, did not always earn enough money to support his large family – first he made a living as a painter, later as a hypnotist and magnetizer. Reportedly, Sonja’s mother gave birth to 14 children but only eight of them survived early childhood.

Sonja learned to play chess in her family when she was only five or six years old; her father had a reputation of being a keen chess player. However, years later, when she wanted to visit the Munich chess club together with her older brothers, her father was categorically against it: (Picture 3)

Café Stefanie
Picture 3: Café Stefanie

“A young girl who wants to play chess against men – impossible!”

Sonja, however, regarded chess as a unique chance to rebel against the social conventions imposed on a young woman and, at the same time, an opportunity to escape the rather unfortunate family circumstances. An article by Beth Cassidy published in the British Chess Magazine 1964, p. 206 gives very colourful details of this (Text H).

The story of her escape from her family home when she was 16 (?) and the background of a possible trial against the father of one of her girlfriends (on incest charges), which is mentioned in „Yo soy Susann“, has not been clarified yet. Apparently, the young Susanna, who was often seen in the bohemian and amusement suburb Schwabing, was charged with perjury or possibly another criminal act that she might have committed as a minor. There is a written proof of Susanna’s placement in a catholic relief centre München-Thalkirchen (Maria-Einsiedelstrasse 12) on 26th November 1926, which means when she was almost 18 years old (Text I).

In September 1927 Susana Graf was placed in the approved school of “Zeller Sisters”, an affiliated order of Oberzeller Grey Friars, which was located in the baroque castle Kirschönbach (by Kitzingen) from 1923. The time spent by the nuns is described in great detail in „Yo soy Susann“ – even the names of the “good” and “bad” sisters, Gunthildis (Leykauf, 1897-1976) and Chrysologa – in the book referred to as Grisologa (Schönfelder, 1894-1973) proved to be authentic. Susanna was officially released from the Kirchschönbach school on 14th January 1930, which was shortly before the death of her sister Helene. But even before her release Susanna was registered at her parent’s address again (from 1st November to March 1931).

It is not known when exactly Sonja took a serious interest in chess. It is not surprising that the male world became soon aware of the attractive young lady. On 27th May 1931 Sonja played the first game of what was supposed to be a ten-game match against another Munich amazon Johanna Müller. The match, however, ended prematurely with retreat of Sonja’s opponent who was losing 0-3. Sonja thought it was because she felt mentally exhausted but the official version that was published in the Bayerische Schachzeitung (in Bayerischer Staatsanzeiger of 21st /22nd June 1931) says:

“We have received the following press release from the Munich Women’s Chess Club: The retreat of Miss Müller from the Müller – Graf match was the result of the initiative of the women’s chess club who still holds the opinion that a Munich women’s champion match should not be organized by private individuals…” (contributed by W. Müller)

Siegbert Tarrasch
Picture 4: Siegbert Tarrasch

During the year of 1931 Sonja was also introduced to the “teacher of the chess world”, Dr Siegbert Tarrasch (Picture 4). At that time Tarrasch could be found almost every afternoon in Café Rats that was located in the hotel Peterhof in Marienplat (from 1923 on called “Tarrasch-Club”). Very soon, Sonja became a member of the renowned circle of chess youths, who had the privilege, along with the professor Hermann Geist and Dr Eduard Dyckhoff to join the chess table of the seventy-year old grandmaster for group analyses. This is also reported in the Chronicle of the Munich Chess Club from 1961.

In his last years (+ 17.02.1934) Tarrasch acted as one of the mentors (the main being Dr Dyckhoff) of this exceptionally talented young lady. Apparently, he was so impressed by Sonja’s combinative talent that he repeatedly published examples of nice tactics from her games in Tarraschs Schachzeitung. In the first year (1933) puzzles no 75, 121, and 137, and in the second (and last) year puzzles no 3, 15, and 27.

At an early stage of her chess career, on 26th July 1931, Sonja Graf was given the opportunity to read Dyckhoff’s essay on “women’s chess” on Bavarian Radio. The text was also published in the Deutsche Schachzeitung (DSZ) 1932, pp 33-37. Around the same time she got involved in the project “Spiritual Aid, Department of Chess” whose aim was to fight the spiritual poverty of unemployment (DSBl. 1931, p. 331-2); in his report “Social Chess” (Tarraschs SZ  no.5, 1932, p.67 ) Dyckhoff says:

“… What patience and devotion does Miss Graf demonstrate at the Cenovis Works (a food factory – W. Müller) every Wednesday, explaining chess theory and showing beautiful games on the display board for full three hours!”

There is also a proof (found by W. Müller) that Sonja Graf took part in the open division III of the Munich championship as a representative of the Munich Chess Club in autumn 1931.

Rudolf Spielmann
Picture 5: Rudolf Spielmann

Another public appearance of Sonja’s turned into a great spectacle for Munich chess players: on 13th February 1932 the Austrian grandmaster Rudolf Speilmann (Picture 5) gave a simultaneous display on 31 boards (+14, -5, = 12); Sonja, who played with White, defeated him convincingly. This made such a profound impression on Spielmann that when he, shortly afterwards, wrote a laudatory article on the occasion of Tarrasch’s 70th birthday (published in Tijdschrift van den Koninklijken Nederlandschen Schaakbond, March 1932), he also gave credit to Tarrasch for the growing strength of amateur players, highlighting his own defeat by the female chess star, which was anything but a demonstration of his gallantry.

After this, Sonja Graf did not take long to prove her exceptional talent when compared to her female competitors. On 12th April 1932 Spielmann gave another simultaneous display in Munich (this time in Café Gasteig – W. Müller) and although he obviously wanted to get revenge for his defeat earlier that year, he ended up losing the second game as well. What followed was an invitation for the young Munich chess player – initiated by Sonja’s mentor Tarrasch – to the Paula Wolf-Kalmar Memorial tournament in Vienna.

Sonja won this women’s tournament in an impressive way with 6.5 points out of 8 ahead of the Austrian Gisela Harum (Picture 6). The Wiener Schachzeitung (p. 219) reported enthusiastically:

Paula Wolf-Kalmar Gedenkturnier 1932
Picture 6: Paula Wolf-Kalmar Gedenkturnier 1932

“The most remarkable phenomenon of the women’s tournament held in the chess club Hietzing was the character of the winner, Miss Sonja Graf. From Russia by origin, Sonja Graf lives in Munich now where she has, under the guidance of her tutors Dr. Tarrasch and Dr. Dyckhoff, developed into a respected player. In Vienna, she showed beyond doubt that the fame which preceded her was well-deserved. True, she does not compare with the women’s world champion Vera Menchik yet, but the chess development of Miss Graf is by no means completed and given her good dispositions, it is quite possible that in the foreseeable future she will achieve the high level of the present women’s world champion. …”

Sonja’s first appearance in Vienna is also captured with a lot of details in Hans Kmoch’s “brief retrospection” on women’s chess (Text J) in the Deutsche Schachzeitung 1973 (issue 2, pp 56-59), which came out almost on the same day as the Vienna master died in New York (+ 13th February1973).

Excerpt from Hans Kmoch: Damenschach - Ein kleiner Rückblick
Text J: Excerpt from Hans Kmoch: Damenschach - Ein kleiner Rückblick

Later on, we will get back to the predictions made by the Wiener Schachzeitung concerning Sonja’s future chess career. Shortly after winning the Vienna tournament, she failed to live up to the high expectations and only came second in the women’s tournament that was held on the occasion of the 13th Congress of the Bavarian Chess Federation in her home town from 16th to 23rd July 1932. Sonja scored 6.5 point out of 8, a half a point less than the winner Mrs Maja Maintzer (1899-1960, née Sappel, later Schlemmer, German women’s vice champion in 1943 – W. Müller), which must have been quite disappointing for her. The first two players were followed by the “field of defeated” who scored 4.5 points, lead by Friedl Benyinger (after her marriage Rinder), who later became one of the German top players (DSBl. 1932, p. 248).
This setback could no longer change Sonja’s decision to become the first women’s professional chess player in Germany. Soon afterwards, she dabbled with success as a simultaneous player although for obvious reasons, her market value never reached the one of a grandmaster. This is well illustrated by the following note found in the chronicle of the Starnberg Chess Club: “The simultaneous display of Miss Sonja Graf who offered to play against 10 amateur players for 15-20 reichsmarks, scheduled for 23rd October 1932, has been called off by the club.” 

Simultan Leeuwarden 1933
Picture 7: Simultan Leeuwarden 1933

In the summer of 1933 she was given the opportunity to go on a tour of northern Germany and Holland (Vienna Chess Journal 1933, p. 300). In Holland, which had a lot of chess fans even before Euwe won the world champion’s title, Sonja played an exhibition match against Dr. Adolf Olland (1-1) and she gave 7 simultaneous displays. In total, Sonja won 84 games, lost 42, and drew 37, scoring almost 63%. But it wasn’t just the remarkable results, achieved against purely male opponents, that impressed the public (Picture 7). In Hamburg she played another 3 simultaneous displays (+42, -14, =12; which is nearly 73%) and at the end of the year she convincingly defeated the Hamburg women’s top player Mrs Ehlers-Giesecke 5.5–0.5, after the first match ended with a draw 2-2 (Schach-Echo, December 1933, p.15).

After this match Sonja Graf came to be regarded as Germany’s strongest women’s player – an official women’s championship was not held at that time. But she also liked to demonstrate her skills in games against the “stronger sex” – in „Asi juega una mujer …“ she devoted a whole chapter to the intellectual dispute of genders on the board. Quite a few of her winning games from Munich tournaments can be found in German-language chess journals, such as her game against Pesserl (Wiener SZ 1934, p. 34) played in the Candidate Master tournament at the chess club Andersson-Bavaria where Sonja Graf, the only women in the tournament, finished second with 6.5 points out of 9. Dr. Dyckhoff commented on her performance with the following words: “Her style is brave and masculine, at times still too aggressive, but it is getting more solid and sound.”

In the Munich City Championship 1933/34 Sonja achieved 10th/11th place, scoring 6 out of 15. First came Zeuner with 11.5 points (DSBl. 1934, p. 77). This result may look rather modest but one should not forget that apart from Vera Menchik, no other women’s chess player of that time was strong enough to be regarded as a decent opponent for the Bavarian chess elite who participated in the tournament. Sonja’s brilliant winning game against Kohler, commented by Dyckoff, was published in Schach-Echo 1934 (p. 201), as well as in above-mentioned Magyar Sakkvilag.

Alfred Brinckmann devoted a lot of attention to the achievements of the young woman in the chess journal Deutsche Schachblätter 1933 (p. 327) where he also attempted to characterise her playing style:

“ … she has made a rapid progress and nowadays can be regarded as Germany’s undisputed top female player. …

She has a solid yet active style and can rely on good knowledge of the opening theory. The games we have seen so far show strength and an adventurous spirit that could be envied by many representatives of the stronger sex.”

After this Brinckmann made an attempt to provide a general evaluation of women’s chess, which might also be interesting for the reader:

“…it has been sufficiently proved that if women are given enough time to develop their skills and if they are motivated, they can achieve a lot. And the fact that they have not reached and will not reach the same level as their male colleagues should not be regarded as some kind of defect but rather as a logical consequence of their mild and tender nature, which was given to them by God as a beautiful present.”

What followed was a detailed analysis of a winning game against Rother that Sonja played in a team event in Hamburg.

From late 1933 Sonja spent a lot of time in this Hansa city, apparently feeling more attracted to the liberal and cosmopolitan life style of the north after Munich had become the so called “capital of the Nazi Movement”. She also got acquainted with the Hamburg chess patron Frierich Ladendorf who became her sponsor and manager, providing her with a place to stay and helping her with the organisation of matches and simultaneous displays. In Hamburg she also found a lover called Wilhelm (referred to as Guillermo in „Yo soy Susann“). 

Sonja Graf and Max Euwe
Picture 8: Sonja Graf and Max Euwe

In the zonal qualification tournament of Northern Bavaria (from 15th to 28th February 1934) Sonja finished last with only half a point from 11 games, which was definitely one of the reasons why she disappeared abroad for some time.

In March 1934, rather unexpectedly and to a great degree thanks to Dr Max Euwe (Picture 8), Sonja was given a chance to play a 4-game unofficial match against the then women’s world champion Vera Menchik.  Menchik had received a thorough chess education from the Hungarian grand master Geza Marocz and was well respected even among her male opponents (Picture 9).

On 21st March 1934 Sonja sensationally won the first game with Black in a convincing manner; it is quite likely that the world champion had completely underestimated her opponent. Max Euwe annotated the first two games of this match in Tidschrift van den Koninklijken Nederlandschen Schaakbond, April 1934:

Vera Menchik with Géza Maróczy, London 1932
Picture 9: Vera Menchik with Géza Maróczy, London 1932

However, the success Sonja achieved in the first game turned out to be very short-lived. In the second game, a very sharp and messy position arose, with opposite side castling, in which Sonja playing with White failed to generate any serious threats, finding herself in a hopeless position. In desperate time trouble Vera Menchik, who was obviously shocked, chose to play safe and offered an exchange of queens instead of launching a decisive attack. In the heat of the battle, Sonja missed a drawing chance shortly afterwards and, weakened by a feverish cold, was forced to acknowledge her opponent’s clear advantage.

In the third game Sonja got into time trouble and in a fully equal position oversaw an exchange, and in the fourth game she lost without any resistance. Despite this, the short match was a clear message to the chess world that the Czech-English women’s world champion had found a serious rival in Sonja. Shortly thereafter plans for an official match in London began to be formed. After recovering from her illness, Sonja proved in the next tournament that these plans were justified – in an Easter chess event organized by V.A.S. (Vereenigd Amsterdamsch Schaakgenootschap) she played in the main tournament where she encountered the top Dutch players but remained undefeated (2/3), finishing second after N. Cortlever (2.5/3). Vera Menchik scored only 50%, after missing a mate in two in a won position.

Full of impressions and plans, Sonja returned to Hamburg, but very soon experienced bitter disillusionment: the match that she had organized herself against Paul Heuaecker, a “chess artist” travelling around Germany in 1930’s, ended in a disaster for her. Sonja’s crushing defeat 0-6 appeared in all the German chess journals – a result that made any comments superfluous (e.g. DSZ 1934 p. 262).

This greatly decreased Sonja’s marketing value in Germany, even more so because Heuaecker was by no means regarded as one of the Germany’s top chess players. However, his relaxed attitude towards life together with his physical fitness made him resistant against any sort of psychological pressure resulting from this “mixed-gender fight”. This way he was able to rely on his greater experience and combined playing and mental strength.

At that time it was becoming increasingly more difficult for Sonja to lead a decent life in Germany. The Nazi bosses had taken control over the organization of chess events, and due to her Slavic origin – Sonja often referred to herself as a gipsy – and her emancipated lifestyle she did not fit with the image of an ideal woman which was advocated by the members of the National Socialist party and therefore could not expect any official support in her chess career. Besides, her own cosmopolitan views were inconsistent with the political movement that prevailed in Germany at the time; with great anxiety, she watched the ostracism against once highly respected Jewish chess players and officials in chess clubs which was felt from 1933 onwards.

Sonja Graf
Picture 10: Sonja Graf

At the end of 1934 Sonja went to London where, judging from the tournament reports and her own accounts, she must have led a very nomadic life, moving from hotel to hotel, with her suitcases half-unpacked, for the next four years. Sonja loved travelling and she was practically always on tour, like an actress from a travelling theatre.

She made her London debut at the New Year’s tournament in Hastings 1934/35 where she caused quite a sensation just because she was there – wearing her typical outfit Sonja’s photo was published on the same page of the venerable British Chess Magazine as the one of Michail Botvinnik (Picture 10).

Her result in the Major A-tournament was not exactly spectacular (3.5/9, rank 8-9; the first place was taken by Dr Adolf Seitz who scored 7 points) but she did much better at the Easter Congress 1935 in the seaside resort of Margate where she qualified from the Primary B section of the Reserves tournament (she came equal second with F. van Seters after scoring 3/5) for section A. Here she gained a respectable fourth place with 2.5/5 behind A. Eva and G. Koltanowski (Picture 11, text K), scoring the same number of points as the young Latvian A. Koblenz. In my opinion, this was the best result Sonja Graf ever achieved in a men’s tournament – demonstrating a playing strength of a master.

Sonja Graf
Picture 12: Sonja Graf

Unlike Vera Menchik, whose results in England (she usually played in master’s tournaments) were very solid, Sonja’s form tended to fluctuate. In July 1935 they both played in the Major Open in Great Yarmouth – Vera Menchik won in the mutual encounter, and with 7/11 she finished third behind S. Reshevsky and A. Seitz. Sonja scored 5 points and came equal seventh with B.H. Wood. A curious incident that occurred in this tournament later appeared in several chess magazines (e.g.  DSZ 1935, p. 228-229) and earned Sonja a reputation for exceptional fairness. In her game against Sammi Fajarowicz from Leipzig (Picture 12, text L) the adjourned position had been noted incorrectly so when the game was resumed, White’s a-pawn landed on a2 instead of a3. Sonja, playing with Black, did not notice it, and after she also missed a hidden winning line, the game eventually ended in a draw. Later on, the spectators discovered the mistake; according to the valid rules, the game should have been replayed from the adjourned position. However, Sonja decided not to take up the second chance as she did not want to take an unfair advantage of the fact that her opponent had showed plenty of variations in the post-game analysis that he believed were winning for Black.

Game with Sammi Fajarowicz
Text L: Game with Sammi Fajarowicz

The New Year’s tournament in Hastings 1935/36 where Sonja played in group 2 of the Premier Reserves section turned out to be too strong for her – she scored 2.5 points from 9 and tied for last place; although one has to say that the playing field was very even, with the first five players (Prins, Senton, Mieses, Rilton Morry and Rey Ardid) all scoring 5.5 points.

At the beginning of 1936, after playing in a great number of tournaments in Great Britain and giving numerous simultaneous displays, Sonja’s ambition to finally compete for the world championship title was at its highest. She regretted that, for political reasons, the German Chess Federation decided not to take part in the Chess Olympiad in Warsaw 1935, meaning that Sonja lost a chance to once again encounter Vera Menchik in a women’s tournament. But at the same time she must have realised that she still needed more practice if she wanted to successfully compete with the world champion.

In the spring of 1936 Sonja went to Spain to have training sessions with the Belgian master George Koltanowski who lived there. In Mollet, she won a short match against the Catalan female chess pioneer Montserrat Puigcercos with 3-1 (Picture 13), and after that she went on a great simultaneous display tour around Spanish cities.

Sonja was not only a sociable and open minded young lady, who was open to flirts and amours, but she was also well aware of her charisma. In her own account of the Spanish journey she describes her experiences from Spain with bright colours.

As Koltanowski reveals in the April (1936) edition of CHESS (p. 301), while in Spain, Sonja had a navy uniform made at the tailor’s which she wore for a fancy ball. Sonja herself describes with humour how she, dressed up as a young man with a moustache, won several (female) admirers, but later caused quite a commotion when she started dancing with a gentleman.

When considering the numerous amusements in the company of Mr and Mrs Koltanowski, along with Sonja‘s fascination with Spanish night life, one has certain doubts as to whether chess really was the focus of her Spanish journey.

Competition with Montserat Puigcercos
Picture 13: Competition with Montserat Puigcercos

In April 1936, somewhat reluctantly, she returned to the old, conservative England and once again achieved a solid tournament result when scoring 4 points out of 9 in the B-group of the Master-Reserves. The first three places were taken by V. Buerger, E. Klein und A. Koblenz who all scored 7.5 points.

Sonja’s intensive, but at the same time exhausting, occupation with chess bore rich fruit in the international women’s tournament at Semmering (8th – 15th July 1936 in Panhans Hotel) where she was at the peak of her chess career and clearly demonstrated her superiority over  her female competitors. Sonja achieved 10.5/11, several points more than the second Italian C. Benini (7 points) who was followed by G. Harum from Austria and C. Roodzant from the Netherlands (boths 6.5). Only in one game, against the Pole Gerlecka, she had a lost position. It is a great shame that Vera Menchik had cancelled her participation in this event shortly before the tournament. (Picture 14, text M)

Nottingham 1936 Group with Graf and Menchik
Picture 15: Nottingham 1936 Group with Graf and Menchik

Following her great ambition and eagerness to compete, Sonja did not allow herself any time to relax – in August she participated in the Major Open Section A in Nottingham that was organized alongside the very strong Masters’ tournament. This time Sonja finished fifth with 5 points out of 10 games; among others she beat was the Vienna master Ernst Klein once again. First came S. Landau (7.5/10) followed by E. Klein (7). Vera Menchik played in section B and achieved merely 4.5 points out of 11 games, which meant eighth place. The winner of section B was J. Cukierman together with A. Reynolds (both 8.5/11). Although not playing in the same section, in an indirect encounter Menchik definitely suffered a minor defeat (Picture 15).

Gradually, it became clear that the two chess rivals, Menchik and Graf, could not be described as “good friends”. Besides, one gets the impression that at the end of 1936, Sonja Graf was no longer very popular with the English chess press. It was especially Baruch H. Wood who, in the June edition of CHESS 1937 (p.348), commented Sonja’s previous results and behaviour with open criticism. Below, you will find an extract from his extensive commentary:

“… she (Sonja Graf) is simply not able to play calmly. Even when she can transfer into an endgame with two extra pawns, she still feels an urge to complicate the position and she takes unnecessary risks, giving her opponent a chance to fight back.”

Also the direct comparison with the women’s world champion was rather unfavourable for the challenger:

Drawing by NOSS
Picture 16: Drawing by NOSS

“… When following Menchik’s games, one usually finds a closed position with material balance that requires patient strategic maneuvering. On the other hand, a look at Miss Graf’s board often reveals a position with a rather unusual material constellation, such as a queen and a rook vs. four minor pieces or something similarly bizarre. As far as their temperaments goes – the difference could hardly be more pronounced: Sonja Graf is the perfect embodiment of lust for life and agitation, whereas Miss Menchik is the embodiment of calm and domesticity. Sonja Graf is a chain smoker and in the rare breaks between two cigarettes, she keeps sucking on candies. When it is her opponent’s move, she flutters around the tournament hall, exchanging a few words with everybody; at the board she rumples her hair and her face looks worn-out and worried. (Picture 16) Her whole appearance gives the impression of a person who is in pain. She makes blunders – or plays beautiful games. Miss Menchik, on the other hand, can sit still at the board for hours, without moving a muscle, relaxed and healthy-looking, with her arms crossed in front of her. She has never been seen smoking and her play seldom deviates from her usual, solid, standard…”

Nevertheless, B. H. Wood did not regard Sonja Graf as a complete outsider in the forthcoming match – his prognosis was that the match would end with 3:2 for Menchik. However, the actual result was far less complimentary for Sonja.
But we should go back to what happened in 1937. Sonja’s result in the New Year’s tournament in Hastings 1936/37 in group A of the Premier Reserves was not outstanding - she scored 3.5/9 which meant a rank of 7th-9th. First came L. Prins (7 points) followed by another Dutch player, A. de Groot (6.5 points). Sonja achieved a lucky draw against Groot, and also a nerve-racking win against Belgian Sapira.

Meanwhile Sonja, who was never opposed to the pleasures of life, felt no longer attracted to what the cold English people had to offer her, and in Hastings she felt bored in the stifling atmosphere of the dusty hotels – no dancing and too early “last orders’ in bars… (Tijdschrift van den Koninklijken Nederlandschen Schaakbond January 1937, p. 11). Her decision to leave England for some time might have also been influenced by an unhappy relationship with a married (?) man.

Signing of the contract Menchik - Graf 1937
Picture 17: Signing of the contract Menchik - Graf 1937

In February 1937 Sonja easily won a short match against the Dutch chess player Catharina Roodzant in Rotterdam (3.5-0.5), and after that she went to Vienna to participate in the S.R. Wolf Memorial Tournament. She finished in the 7th place with 5 out of 11 which could hardly be regarded as great success. The clear winner of the tournament was Ezra Glass who scored 10.5 points; on the whole, the playing field was rather third-class (Wiener SZ 1937, p. 97-87). As only two games per week were played, Sonja used the remaining time to prepare for the world championship match against Vera Menchik that had been arranged for the summer 1937 (Picture 17).

As her mentor she had chosen Rudolf Spielmann, a loyal supporter of hers, but the question is whether this ailing Vienna grandmaster, who was in a very bad financial situation, was the right person to help Sonja to eliminate her deficiencies in both positional play and opening theory and prepare her for such a tough match.

At any rate, it would have done Sonja good, had she reduced her regular tournament load before this important match. Instead of that, she competed at the Easter Congress in Margate at the end of March (Master Reserves, group B – Sonja scored 3.5/9; the two winners, Sieger S. Landau and H. Golomber, scored both 7 points) and she also accepted an invitation to a strong tournament in Prague that started at the beginning of April (Picture 18). In this tournament she only achieved 2.5 points from 11 games and finished second to last. The winner of the tournament, Paul Keres, who displayed top form by scoring 10 points, allowed Sonja a draw in the last game. In Wiener SZ 1937, p. 133, he commented her result in an encouraging way: “This tournament was for Sonja Graf the first real test at an international level; she played very resourcefully, but sometimes a little carelessly.

Objectively speaking, she had a disastrous start after losing the first seven games. In the game again Karl Gilg she first threw away a full point and later on also a draw when she missed a perpetual check. Still, she managed to score some points in the last few rounds and for her splendid win against Prokop she was awarded a beauty prize. A contemporary caricature in Šachový týden 1937 (issue 9, 20th May) shows Sonja Graf surrounded by her eleven male opponents (Picture 19).

Report and picture Vera Menchik
Bild 20: Report and picture Vera Menchik

The story of the eagerly awaited women’s championship match (26th June – 16th July 1937) in Panhans Grand Hotel at Semmering near Vienna will not fill too much space (Picture 20) – unfortunately, it confirmed the predictions of those experts who expected a clear victory of Vera Menchik. Sonja Graf lost the match by a large margin +2 = 5 – 9 (i.e. 4½ to 11½). With White she scored 4:4 but her result with Black ½ to 7½ was an absolute debacle.

The most glaring example of Sonja’s playing deficiencies seems to me game 14 – Sonja’s inadequate attempts to make up for her mistakes in the opening phase with purely tactical maneuvers allowed her observant opponent a beautiful final blow:


It is not difficult to imagine how Sonja must have felt when she, straight after this crushing defeat, returned once again to her home town of Munich from where she left for the women’s tournament in the Swedish capital city of Stockholm.

The tournament system in Stockholm, approved by FIDE, was criticised by many: the difference in playing strength between the 26 players who competed in a 14-round Swiss tournament was far too great. It was organised along with the chess olympiade from 31st July to 14th August 1937. Vera Menchik, who won all 14 games, dominated the tournament from the very first round. The second place was taken, a little surprisingly, by an Italian Clarice Benini who scored 10 points.

Sonja, exhausted from so many tournaments, tied for the third place with the young Latvian player Milda Lauberte after scoring 9 points. According to contemporary reports in the Swedish press, Sonja looked nervous and unfocused – as if she wanted to make up for the poor result from Semmering as quickly as possible. In some games she tried to achieve a full point by brute force. Below you will find her complete results, starting with round 1:

  • Graf - Olga Menchik 1-0;
  • Graf - Bain 1-0;
  • Lauberte - Graf 0,5 (In this game, Sonja had an inferior position at adjournment, however, the young Latvian sealed a weak move that would instantly lose the game. Therefore Milda begged for a draw, with tears in her eyes and spurious arguments. Sonja accepted the offer without resuming the game, but in „Asi juega una mujer ...“ she describes this case of „unfair conduct“ with a great deal of detail.);
  • Graf - Vera Menchik 0-1 (In a good position, Sonja sacrificed a piece for no good reason, and the world champion had an easy job to refute this sacrifice.);
  • St. John - Graf 0-1;
  • Roodzant - Graf 1-0 (A key game, typical of Sonja’s overambitious play. In a slightly better endgame, she tried to force a win with unsound moves, but instead ended up losing against a clearly inferior opponent.);
  • Graf - Gilchrist 1-0;
  • I. Andersson - Graf 0-1;
  • Graf - Benini 0-1 (After throwing away a win against Vera Menchik, the surprisingly strong Italian was determined to fight for second place.);
  • Thomson - Graf 0,5;
  • Harum - Graf 0-1;
  • Graf - May Karff 0-1 (This defeat meant that Sonja no longer had a chance at the silver medal.);
  • Farago - Graf 0-1;
  • Graf - Flörow-Bulhak 1-0

(Tournament table: Picture 21).

Table women's tournament Stockholm 1937
Bild 21: Table women's tournament Stockholm 1937

While Clarice Benini demonstratively raised her arm in the fascist greeting at the final ceremony, Sonja Graf, as usual, avoided the Hitler greeting, which drew much friendlier applause from the audience than in the case of the Italian who finished ahead of her.

After these deep disappointments Sonja withdrew from the tournament life for several months – according to „Yo soy Susann“ she spent five months in Sweden and did not compete in any tournaments until her comeback in the Master-Reserves at the Margate Easter Congress in April 1938. Here she played in one of the weaker groups (group III) and with 5 points out of 9, she achieved quite a decent place in the middle of the field. This group was won by the Dutch players G. Meyer and G. van Doesburgh who both scored 6.5 points.

After this her life path becomes less transparent. Apparently, at the beginning of June she left England again to live in Warsaw. (Her stay in Warsaw is recorded in detailed in Tomasz Lissowski’s article in Quarterly for Chess History No. 8, p. 223-204, 2003.) (Text N....). In Warsaw Sonja took part in a tournament of the 1st and 2nd categories, however, 6 points out of 11 were not enough to get her a prize. Her original plan was to stay until the end of July, but she decided to delay her departure - it seems that she quite enjoyed the busy life in the capital, at least judging from her accounts in „Asi juega una mujer …“ where she explicitly mentions the enormous consumption of vodka, which was not so uncommon in those days.

David Przepiorka
Picture 22: David Przepiorka

Next she played a match against Hanryk Mylnek, a player of the 1st category who could hardly be ranked among the Polish elite. Nevertheless, Sonja lost comprehensively 2.5-7.5. The Polish press attributed this result primarily to the good self-control of her male opponent.

In the autumn of 1938 Sonja participated in a local competition (played at a very leisurely pace of 2 games per week) whose prestige was increased by the participation of the grand masters Najdorf and Przepiorka (Picture 22). After round 7, Sonja had 5 points (after achieving a draw against Przepiorka) and was doing well, but in November she was unexpectedly forced to leave Warsaw.

Due to the growing political tensions between Greater Germany and Poland (the direct stimulus was the so-called “Polenaktion”, an expulsion of about 17 000 Polish citizens of Jewish faith from the Nazi Germany in October 1938) Sonja’s residence permit was not renewed, despite converse statements by the president of the chess club. Sonja was bitterly disappointed for she regarded herself as an apolitical cosmopolitan rather than a citizen of Greater Germany. Completely penniless – she had to surrender her Polish valuta while crossing the border – she arrived via Posen in Berlin. She sent a cable to England asking for some money, but she also found some support among the Berlin chess players. She stayed in the glamorous metropolis for three months, enjoying the exuberant night life and chess games for money allowing contra and re-contra bets that often attracted more than sixty spectators.

She might have also tried to get an entry into the 1st Women’s Championship organised by the Chess Federation of Greater Germany. (This event took place over Pentecost of 1939 and was won by Friedl Rindrer). According to the official regulations, the tournament was only open to players who had been members of the Chess Federation of Greater Germany since 1st of November or longer. Sonja’s application was turned down – she had fallen in disgrace with the rulers and they did not want her to represent Greater Germany. Later in the USA, Sonja spread the version that it was Josef Goebbels himself who had pronounced against her nomination for the women’s tournament in Buenos Aires 1939.

In her desperate situation Sonja remembered her Dutch friends and turned her back on Germany for good. In February 1939 she played a match against the young female player Fenny Heemskerk in Amsterdam, which she won clearly 4-0. After that she participated at the same place in a six-match – this was won convincingly by Salo Landau (4.5 points) ahead of Fritz Saemisch (3 points). Sonja lost against Saemisch and drew the rest of her games. In March 1939 she played a second match against Catharina Roodzant, which she won again – this time 3:1. After this match she played one more time at the Margate Easter Congress – her last tournament in Western Europe – and achieved a very respectable result: in Master Reserves, section C, she scored 6 points from 11 games. The winner of her section was the old master Jacques Mieses who achieved 9.5 points.

Her return to England was connected with another case of personal misfortune – her London friend was no longer alive…

Highland Patriot
Picture 23: Highland Patriot

In this seemingly hopeless situation, Sonja was nominated – thanks to the intervention of the Dutch FIDE president Alexander Rueb – for the Women’s World Championship in Buenos Aires. Alone and with very mixed feelings, Sonja set out on a long crossing to the Southern America on the British Royal Mail line Highland Patriot (Picture 23). She got there in the middle of August and then eagerly awaited the arrival of the Olympic teams from Europe, including her rival Vera Menchik, who all travelled on the Belgian liner Piriapolis.

In CHESS, October 1939, p. 18, B.H. Wood describes the surprised reactions of the European chess players when they encountered the “indomitable” Sonja Graf in Buenos Aires. This encounter gave immediate rise to speculations about the outcome of the game between Menchik and Graf as it was clear that, given the relatively weak playing strength of the remaining 20 participants, this one game could determine the winner of the tournament.

Scan of the original notation Menchik-Graf, Buenos Aires 1939 Round 12
Picture 29: Scan of the original notation Menchik-Graf, Buenos Aires 1939 Round 12

What happened was the expected neck-and-neck race: both Sonja Graf (Picture 24), a “stateless” player playing under the flag of a fictional country “Libre”, and Vera Menchik (Picture 25) started with 4 out of 4; only the Chilean Berna Carrasco managed to keep pace with them. (Dora Trepat vs Graf: Picture 26; Portraits: Picture 27). In round 5 Menchik beat the Chilean whereas Graf lost to May Karff from the USA – and things seemed to have been decided. Then came September 1st 1939 and war broke out in Europe. After some thinking the tournament was continued, and with this also the duel between Menchik and Graf (Picture 28).

In round 11 the world champion dropped the first half point to the Latvian Lauberte, which meant that before the direct encounter of the two rivals, the standing was as follows: Menchik 10.5, Graf 10, followed by Carrasco and Rinder (both 9).

The decisive game could have hardly been more dramatic and (from Sonja’s point of view) tragic. Sonja (with Black) outplayed the world champion who was playing very passively, but later missed the best continuation. However, at the point of adjournment her position was still slightly better thanks to a passed pawn on the third rank. Sonja refused the draw offer and after the game was resumed, she consequently built up her advantage. Unfortunately, she then missed twice an easy win, and her third terrible mistake turned out to be losing.

Below you will find this fatal game of Sonja’s, as well as the second part of her score sheet (Picture 29), revealing the nervous tension she must have suffered from during the decisive phase of the game.

Vera Menchik with the cup (1939)
Picture 30: Vera Menchik with the cup (1939)

“Never in my chess career did I experience a greater pain” wrote Sonja in „Asi juega una mujer …“. This sentence provoked the chess player and psychologist Adrian de Groot to comment at length on Sonja’s emotionality and her chess ethics in his book „Thought and Choice in Chess“, 1965 (footnote p. 342-343). Is it possible for a player who views chess as a fight to comprehend her moral scruples concerning draw offers in a lost position or her despair after defeat verging on self-hatred?

But let us go back to the tournament. It is admirable that immediately after this game, Sonja found enough energy to beat the representative of Great Germany, Friedl Rinder, who was equal on points, and thus moved to the second place along with Carrasco. At that point Vera Menchik was the sole leader after giving away only a draw, however, the fight for the title of the vice-champion went on.

After round 17 Sonja got a half point ahead of the Chilean but in the following round she lost in the direct encounter. Yet, this time lady luck smiled at Sonja: Friedl Rinder defeated Berna Carrasco in the last round and Sonja Graf finished second after scoring 16 points, two points behind the extraordinary Vera Menchik (Picture 30). The German team (in the photo you can see Albert Becker, Erich Eliskases, Ludwig Engels and Paul Michel) came first in the team competition; all players remained in South America (Picture 31).

Olympic champion Germany - Albert Becker, Erich Eliskases, Ludwig Engels and Paul Michel
Picture 31: Olympic champion Germany - Albert Becker, Erich Eliskases, Ludwig Engels and Paul Michel

Sonja Graf took the plunge and stayed in Argentina to avoid the world war – after all, she had no reason to go back to Europe. In Buenos Aires she found sufficient support to be able to make her living as a chess player (Pictures 32, 33, 34 and 35). She was a regular participant of the frequent masters’ tournaments although she did not achieve any significant results - due to the great number of male Olympiade-participants who decided to stay, most of the tournaments fielded a very strong line-up.

Below you will find a possibly incomplete list of the Argentinean tournaments in which Sonja took part in the years 1939-1946.

Shortly after the olympiade she participated in the international tournament Circulo de Ajedrez (Buenos Aires, October 1939) where she scored 2.5 points and finished second to last. She had an excellent start but later threw away a very good position against Czerniak and against Stahlberg. Two players, M. Najdorf and P. Keres, tied for the first place after scoring 8.5 out of 11.

In 1940 she played in the main section of the tournament organised by the Argentinean Chess Federation, but the final results are not known. In the 4th International Tournament in Mar del Plata in March 1941, which showed a very strong line-up, Sonja came last out of 18 players after scoring 2.5/17. (1st Stahlberg 13; 2nd Najdorf 12.5, 3rd Eliskases 11.5.) (Picture 36)

Sonja Graf
Picture 37: Sonja Graf

Also the 5th International Tournament Mar del Plata in March 1942 turned out to be too strong for Sonja. This time she tied for the last place after scoring 3.5/17. In first place was Najdorf with 13.5 and equal second Pilnik and Stahlberg with 13 points.

In September 1942 Sonja participated in another tournament in Cordoba, but again with little success. Najdorf and Stahlberg (both 7.5) tied for the first place, Michel and Pilnik (both 6) for the third. Fifth place was Czerniak with 5.5 points ahead of some local players. Sonja had to make do with 9th place after scoring a modest 1.5 points.

After that Sonja probably did not play in any tournaments for over two years. The first event in which she took place after the long break seems to have been the strong 8th International Tournament in Mar del Plata 1945. First place went to Najdorf (13.5) who was closely followed by Stahlberg (13). All players who finished among the first twelve were either international or top national players. Sonja tied for 15-16th with 4.5 points (4 wins and 1 draw). In round 1 Stahlberg (Picture 38) lost a clearly won position against Sonja, which later cost him first place.

In the 40th anniversary tournament of the Argentino de Ajedrez Buenos Aires Chess Club in May 1945, Sonja finished 16th after scoring 6.5/19. First place went to H. Pilnik who achieved 15 points.

The last chess event in her interim homeland was the tournament Sonja played in Parana in January 1946. She scored 4.5/13 and tied for 9-10th place. First place was taken by G. Stahlberg with 12 points, ahead of H. Pilnik (11.5) and R. Letelier (10).

Although Sonja finished near the bottom of the tournament table in most of these tournaments, she still made a deep impression on the Argentinean chess world, with both her play and her charisma. Her draw against Roberto Grau (Picture 39) was even included in Guillermo Puiggros’s book „Brillantes Partidas Argentinas“ (1977).

Sonja Graf
Picture 40: Sonja Graf

Curiously enough, it was Max Euwe who gave a decisive turn to Sonja’s life, which was becoming increasingly difficult in the Peronist Argentina. The following incident (along with some others) is narrated in the book “Caissas Weltreich“(1956) by Max Euwe and Bob Spaak. We regard the former Dutch world champion as a reliable source:

On his South America tour in the spring of 1947 Euwe made a stopover in Buenos Aires where he, due to a misdirected phone call in the hotel, got into conversation with a steward of the U.S. Merchant Marine, Vernon Stevenson. It turned out that Stevenson was a great chess fan and insisted on making a personal acquaintance with Euwe. Since Euwe was always short of time, he offered his new friend to join him in his afternoon meeting with Sonja Graf. This gave rise to a stormy love affair. Both Sonja and her “sailor” soon came to the conclusion that this was the right thing and, in Sonja’s own words, “steered the boat directly to the safe harbour of marriage.”

Apparently, Vernon Stevenson had no doubts about their relationship and paid little attention to what some other chess players were saying. As an example Euwe mentions an incident that happened during a tournament in Buenos Aires where Stevenson was invited to a standing reception. He got into conversation with Hermann Pilnik and after some time the topic of women’s chess came up. According to Euwe, Pilnik said something along those lines:

Herman Pilnik
Picture 41: Herman Pilnik

“Chess is nothing for women. Let’s take Sonja Graf as an example. She’s standing over there. Can you see her? The famous Sonja Graf, a chess player. I mean, if you ask me: she’s neither man nor woman.” Reportedly, Vernon Stevenson replied dryly: “Thank you for the compliment; that lady is my fiancée.” Euwe doesn’t mention in his book how Pilnik got around this faux pas, but in any case, Sonja’s photo from 1946 (Picture 40) published next to this little anecdote shows that he (Picture 41) must have had a very unusual taste as far as female beauty goes.

From the summer of 1947 Sonja Graf lived in sunny South California (Los Angeles, later Palm Springs) as Mrs. Stevenson which might be called an irony of destiny. After the tragic death of Vera Menchik-Stevenson on 27th June 1944 during an air raid (Picture 42, text O) Sonja called herself a “women’s chess world champion”, however, for reasons that are unknown to me, did not participate in the World Championship Tournament in Moscow 1949. (A possible explanation might be that her son Alexander was born around this time.)

In his tournament book „Wereldkampioenschap Schaken Dames”(1950), Max Euwe expressed explicitly his regret at her non-participation in this event. Euwe also put forward a claim to FIDE to organize a match between Ludmila Rudenko and Sonja Graf-Stevenson who he regarded as the unofficial women’s world champion of the years 1944-1950.

Game with Isaac Kashdan
Picture 43: Game with Isaac Kashdan

The fact is that before 1952, Sonja had no ambition to return to the world of chess; besides, women’s chess didn’t enjoy very high prestige in post-war America. Sonja’s participation in the international tournament in Hollywood in April 1952 came therefore as a great surprise. This short chess event (with 10 participants which included S. Gligoric, A. Pomar, H. Steiner, I. Kashdan (Picture 43), A. Dake, as well as some local Californian masters) was held in Mama Weiss’ Czardas Restaurant in Beverly Hills. The man who initiated the whole thing was Herman Steiner, and Sonja obviously belonged to his chess circle. However, her come-back attempt turned into a bitter disappointment – she finished last by a wide margin after achieving a mere half-point against Arthur Dake. (1st Gligoric 7,5; 2nd Pomar 7; 3rd H. Steiner 6).

Group photo Hollywood 1952
Picture 44: Group photo Hollywood 1952

After the tournament Sonja’s invitation to the event received a harsh criticism in the Californian chess press although the tournament photos (Picture 44) clearly show that her male opponents did not mind her company at all. Still, Sonja must have realized that her playing strength was not sufficient to compete against such strong opponents and when she, after another two-year break, returned to tournament chess, she participated either in open tournaments or in women’s competitions. This she did with great success, as the following, possibly incomplete, list shows.

While Sonja’s clear victory (8-0) in the Californian women’s championship in 1954 was viewed as a mere formality, her participation in the US-Open in New Orleans in the same year was more of a challenge. The ladies competed in a round-robin tournament in which Sonja tied for second place with May Karff after scoring 8.5 points. First place was taken by Gisela Gresser who achieved 9 points. This result qualified Sonja to play in the Candidates Tournament in Moscow 1955. This was her last attempt to become women’s world champion.

Her chances looked good, especially after she achieved 6 points out of 11 (+5, = 2, -4) in the US-Open in 1955 (Long Beach, California) and became women’s US champion ahead of Kathryn Slater (Picture 45). That year both women and men competed together in one Swiss system tournament.

Sonja Graf-Stevenson
Picture 45: Sonja Graf-Stevenson

In Moscow, however, it turned out that her opponents, who were mostly younger than Sonja, were too strong for her. She started well, with two short wins against May Karff (USA) and Berna Carrasco (Chile) and a draw against Gisela Gresser (USA). But already her next game, against the Yugoslavian, Lazarevic, revealed that Sonja’s knowledge of opening theory was inferior to that of the young European women’s masters.

However, she quickly recovered from this unnecessary defeat and after 3 consecutive wins, her running score 5.5/8 gave Sonja a very good chance.

The Soviet organisers showed the former Vice-Champion a great respect (Picture 46) and in bulletin no. 3 her chess career was described in detail. In the interview that appeared in the same issue, Sonja sounds optimistic:

Analysis with Grigory Löwenfisch
Picture 46: Analysis with Grigory Löwenfisch

“… I admit that under the influence of my latest success in the US tournaments I started the Moscow championship too aggressively. However, the encounter with Lazarevic, which ended bitterly for me, sounded a note of caution. There are no weak opponents in this tournament. The first few rounds revealed the real playing strength of the Soviet and Yugoslav players. Also C. Chaudé de Silans, E. Keller-Hermann and F. Heemskerk have been well known in the chess world for quite a while. So far, I have been quite pleased with my results (at that point Sonja was on 3/5). I expect to do well in this tournament since every game I have played here seems like a preparation for the following one.”

Game with Fenny Heemskerk
Picture 47: Game with Fenny Heemskerk

However, Sonja’s expectations turned out to be too optimistic. Four losses against Ivanova, Keller-Hermann, Heemskerk (Picture 47), and Borisenko (all four games were adjourned and after resumption went on for a very long time), meant that Sonja no longer had a chance of becoming the champion.

The journalists reported on Sonja’s impressive “fashion shows” during this tournament: when expecting a win she turned up dressed up as a cowgirl or Caucasian, when she thought it might be a draw she would wear a French female suit and when fearing a defeat she put on an outfit of a Spanish torero.

Like an aging actress, Sonja enjoyed being in the limelight once again, although it was also the Russian vodka which she couldn’t get enough of, as Salo Flohr didn’t fail to mention.

Analysis with Olga Rubtsova
Picture 48: Analysis with Olga Rubtsova

Looked at objectively, Sonja could have been happy with her result; given the long break her final score reflected her actual playing strength. After all, she achieved 2.5 points against the strong Russian players: she defeated Gurfinkel and the USSR women’s champion Sworjikina, drew against Ignatjewa, and lost to Borisenko, Wolpert, and the tournament winner Olga Rubzowa (Picture 48). Her final score 9.5 points out of 19 secured her rank 10-13, along with Gresser, Ignatjewa and Chaudé de Silans. Interestingly enough, Sonja won all her games against players who scored less than 50% and lost all her games (with the exception of Sworjikina) against those who scored more than 50%.

After returning from Moscow, Sonja changed her mind about her participation in the US Women’s Championship, however, she continued competing in other tournaments in the USA. In 1956 she did very well in the US-Open in Oklahoma City where she finished first among women.  A year later she achieved the same success in the US-Open in Clevend, Ohio. Needless to say, that these mixed gender events suited her temperament down to the ground.

In the same year she took part in the Women’s California Championship organized by the Herman Steiner Chess Club in Los Angeles. Her score 6.5 out of 7 secured her the first place ahead of Lena Grumette and Jacqueline Piatigorski, but it can hardly be described as a great success. Much more notable are her results in the US Women’s Championship of 1957 in Los Angeles in which she tied for the first place with Gisela Gresser after scoring the impressive 9.5/11. She lost (once again) to May Karff and drew against Gresser. After this tournament both Sonja and Gisela Gresser were nominated for the 1st Women’s Team World Championship in Emmen, Netherlands, in September 1957. However, Sonja did not go back to the country in which her chess career started; in the end, the US team had J. Piatigorski playing on board two.

Sonja Graf-Stevenson
Picture 49: Sonja Graf-Stevenson

For almost two years, Sonja disappeared from tournament life. She didn’t compete in any events until the US-Open in Omaha in 1959 where she became the best woman again. This was, however, her last tournament for many years to come as she did not accept the nomination for the Women’s Candidates Tournament in Plovdiv, Bulagaria, in 1959.

In December 1959 she did not turn up at the Women’s US Championship in New York (organized by Log Cabin Club, West Orange) although she had sent a binding registration.

For years there was no mention of Sonja in the American chess press; as if she had been forgotten. Her successful comeback in May 1964, at the US Women’s championship in New York (where she moved with her family after her husband retired), caused therefore a great sensation. After an initial defeat to G. Gresser, she achieved 8.5 points out of 10 and finished first with a one point lead. Her glorious victory felt like the last glow of a dying light; by then her fondness for alcohol had noticeably undermined her health (Picture 49).

On 6th March 1965, at the age of only 56 years, Sonja-Graf Stevenson died of a liver disease (more details were given by Hans Kmoch). A once burning start was extinct forever. The further destinies of her family (especially the ones of her son Alexander Hadley Stevenson *04.01.1951) could not be clarified although contact was made with Sonja’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Joyce Graf from Hildenborough, Kent, in England (she was Alex Graf’s second wife).

Sonja’s life, dominated by her passionate enthusiasm for chess, may look fascinating at first sight; however, her biography reveals a great number of tragic moments that were full of loneliness. A joyless childhood, with her parents favouring their children according to the colour of their hair and complexion.

Her father was a very dominant figure with questionable morals who did not stop short of physically abusing his children. His son Alex described him as a “good-for-nothing genius” with a tendency towards brutality. The mother, who partially lost her hearing due to an illness, did not pay too much attention to these incidents.

As a young girl, Sonja fell down the stairs while playing with her wild brothers (it probably happened in their house in Elisabeth St.) and for weeks it was not clear whether she would ever recover from her injuries. She repeatedly experienced bitter disappointments, feeling lonely und and misunderstood. In her book “Yo soy Susann” she writes very openly about these experiences. For Sonja chess was a way of liberating herself from the pressure and violence of her parental home, and in mental contest she sought to boost her self-esteem. However, the price she paid for this was high as during all those years she always expected the best results from herself, ignoring her physical and mental condition. Very soon alcohol and cigarettes became her daily bread and her fondness of parties and socialising, most likely driven by fear of being lonely again, left her no time to rest.

Her deliberately masculine demeanor, the aggressiveness of her play, and her movie-star-charisma – that was all nice but she had to pay a high price for it. There were, without doubt, happy spells during her life in the USA, but her failure to achieve what she wanted the most – to gain the title of the women’s chess champion – caused her a lot of pain.


First and foremost I must mention Alfred Schattmann and Willibald Müller (both from Munich) who continue working on the clarification of the „destinies of the Graf family“. Without Mr Schattmann’s meticulous detective work in the spring of 2005 Sonja Graf’s youth would have remained a mystery. A few months later (in July 2005) Mr Müller, an excellent linguist, who had carried out his research on three different continents, helped me to correct several misinterpretations of important passages from the Spanish books written by Sonja Graf (particularly in „Yo soy Susann“). And I should also mention Mr Anton Löffelmeier, the director of the Munich Archive, who was extremely helpful when it came to searching documents.

Next, I would like to express my thanks to the members of the Ken Whyld Association: Josep Alió (Spain), Andy Ansel (USA), Bert Corneth (Netherlands), John Donaldson (San Francisco); Hans-Jürgen Fresen (Bochum), Tim Harding (Dublin), Peter Holmgren (Sweden), Tomasz Lissowski (Poland), Manfred Mädler (Dresden), and Alessandro Sanvito (Italy) who helped me a great deal with my research - whether with advice, translations or provision of important documents.  And I must not forget Jurgen Stigter (Amsterdam), a rich source of priceless documents and photos, and Juan Morgado (Buenos Aires) who helped me to obtain a copy of „Yo soy Susann“. The translations from the Russian Bulletin were provided by Thomas Lemanczyk (Solingen) and the translations from the Czech Šachový týden by Vlastimil Fiala (Olomouc).

I am also indebted to Wolfgang Unzicker (+), Wolfgang Kamm (Munich), Edward Winter (Satigny, CH), and Siegfried Schönle (Kassel) who assisted me in clarifying Sonja Graf’s biographical data. Georg Böller (Hirschau), another of my chess friends, called my attention to an article by Hans Kmoch, which I am very grateful for. And I am also obliged to Manuel Fruth (Unterhaching) who sent me a number of Sonja’s game records.

I was extremely pleased with the exchange of information with Jennifer Shahade (New York City) who wrote an article about Sonja Graf for the New in Chess Magazine No. 7/2004, as well as a longer article which appeared in her book Chess Bitch Women in the ultimate intellectual sport (Siles Press, Los Angeles 2005, ISBN 1-890085-09-X, S.28-39).

Last but not least, I would like to thank Ralf Binnewirtz who inserted links to pictures and various documents in the text, thus making this article Internet-friendly.

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