Gender trenders: How India's women chess pioneers fought a patriarchal system and won

IN THE NETFLIX MINI-SERIES 'The Queen's Gambit', teenaged chess prodigy Beth Harmon identifies the casual sexism when she's paired against the only other woman player in the 'open' section of the 1963 Kentucky State Championship, teeming with male players. It's almost as if they have to qualify to play the men. The table both the girls are seated at is also where the coffee flasks and cups are kept. Harmon goes on to beat her female opponent and the whole line-up of male players to win the tournament.

A little later in the narrative, when her adoptive mother, Alma, reads out passages from her magazine interview, halting occasionally to gloat, Harmon listens, glum and unsmiling. The article describes the colour of her hair, her eyes and her sartorial taste, but glaringly leaves out her strongest suit -- her chess. "It's mostly about me being a girl," she remarks, "It shouldn't be that important." Alma says that making the cover of a magazine still makes her a celebrity. "Yeah," Beth replies, "for being a girl."

Fast forward roughly a decade, and cross continents to Mumbai for a 1970s real-life version of the same story. The Khadilkar sisters -- Vasanti, Jayshree and Rohini -- were oddities in Indian chess. Among them, they won all the national women's championships in the first decade since it started in 1974. Rohini and Jayshree won the Asian women's titles. That's when their father Neelakant, a chess enthusiast who owned and edited two prominent Marathi dailies, realised that, since there were fewer women on the national chess scene, his daughters would improve quicker if they played alongside men.

That stirred up a hornet's nest. "I played quite a few national tournaments alongside men and on many occasions, I felt there were deliberate attempts to make me feel uncomfortable," Rohini told ESPN. "Sometimes opponents would light cigarettes and blow smoke my way (FIDE later banned smoking from all its events in 1990). I would be coughing and my eyes would sting. In another tournament, I remember feeling very drowsy every time I drank water or cola. I couldn't understand why and began losing miserably. I suspected my refreshments were being spiked, so I trained myself to go without water for up to eight hours at a stretch so I could last an entire game without drinking anything."

The youngest and most successful of the three sisters, Rohini -- then aged 14 -- played in the National 'B' tournament in 1977. Though it was officially a tournament open to both genders, no female player had participated in it before. Her entry wasn't initially opposed by the male players but trouble began once she won a couple of rounds. The All India Chess Federation (AICF) held its general body meeting on the tournament rest day; that's when officials and players expressed their opposition to a woman possibly qualifying for the National 'A' and even debated having her ejected midway through the competition. Their argument was that since women had Nationals of their own, there was no need for Rohini to play in a men's event.

"Nobody objects to a woman hanging around in men's events..the problem only arises when she wins." Koneru Humpy

"I wasn't playing that tournament myself but I knew others who were," says GM and contemporary Pravin Thipsay. "Nobody really objected to Rohini's participation initially because they didn't expect her to win any games. The problem started only after she began beating the men in the first couple of rounds. They couldn't stand losing to a girl. They even tried to have her thrown out midway through the tournament, though they didn't go through with it. I later confronted some of these players, who were also my friends, on why they opposed another player's participation purely on grounds of gender. They were embarrassed."

Rohini's father wrote to the world body and it prompted then FIDE president Max Euwe to rule that it was unfair to question a female player's participation in an 'open' event. It was a swift stroke knocking down a patriarchal barrier in the national chess scene.

It didn't lead to any overnight change, though. "Boys would go to chess clubs after school or college, spar through the evening and return late at night. But the girls didn't have that luxury," says Thipsay. "Among us boys, we could play training games anytime we wanted but there weren't too many girls who were strong enough to benefit from playing each other. Bhagyashree [Sathe, five-time national champion and later Thipsay's wife] had to pay male players if she wanted them to practise with her. That was how it was back then. Largely, girls from more economically well-off families ended up playing chess and since that was a known fact, others milked it."

While travelling for tournaments, too, male players had the option of living in dorms to cut corners with expenses, while parents of young female players bore greater costs since they chaperoned them for tournaments and rented hotel rooms.

MUCH LIKE HUNGARIAN LASZLO POLGAR, father to three daughters -- Susan, Sofia and Judit -- whom he homeschooled on a rigorous diet of chess, Neelakant Khadilkar spun a protective web around his daughters. "Of course there were no GM trainers then but our father hired the best possible Indian coaches he could manage, arranged for them to come over and took care of their accommodation expenses so we could train for a few months at a stretch," says Jayashree, the country's first Woman International Master.

"He also invited male players to come over to our house in the evenings so we would get practice. Though our mother didn't follow chess, she travelled with us everywhere for tournaments and sat through long matches. It must have been dreadfully boring for someone who didn't know the sport to sit for six hours in quiet halls. Viswanathan Anand was a young boy then and since his mother too accompanied him, our mothers sometimes found each other's company."

In the pre-computer and internet era, information on chess was rare and precious. "Other players didn't tell you what they were reading and weren't always willing to offer suggestions if you asked. Information was power," says Jayshree. "Our father used to sift through newspapers and journals to make a note of the books mentioned in articles and then try to get them for us."

Books were the primary gateway to knowledge then but they were also expensive and had to often be procured from overseas. One such publication, based in Belgrade, was 'Chess Informant'. It documented recent games, often annotated by players themselves, along with analysis. It was a goldmine for serious chess players, especially those outside the Soviet Union. "I remember several packages of it being delivered to our house when we were young. It was a huge help in tournament preparation. We later learnt they were from Hindi film director Hrishikesh Mukherjee," says Rohini.

Help often came from unexpected quarters. During one of her visits to London for a tournament, Rohini met Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister at the time. "I introduced myself and told Mrs. Gandhi that getting visas for international events on time was often difficult," Rohini recalls. "She wrote down a fax number on a piece of paper and promised me I'd never face trouble again. And true enough, I didn't."

That number belonged to Margaret Alva, then a rising star in the ruling Congress party and later Minister for Sport in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet. Alva was aware of what the Khadilkars and other women athletes faced in India; she had to go through similar experiences too. "One of the top federation people running Indian sport then would say, 'Arre what is a woman doing handling sport, you don't even understand it'. Over the years, though, he came around and became a good friend," Alva told ESPN. "The women athletes -- PT Usha, Shiny Abraham and quite a few others -- were our stars then and I made sure they could reach me directly for any problem."

"The Indian chess body then, as I recall, was a bit dictatorial in the way it ran its affairs and I told them to fall in line. In general, it was not easy being a female athlete in those days. There was a lot of favouritism on grounds of gender at play, some cases of sexual harassment and the condition of camps were not too conducive for women."

With technology making strides, Khadilkar needed his daughters to help him keep pace and run the family-owned press. By the late 80s, they dropped out of chess and joined their father in the newspaper business. Now the siblings manage both the dailies and have long cut all ties with chess, choosing not to follow the sport anymore and speaking sparingly of their career.


AROUND TWO DECADES AFTER THE KHADILKARS, Koneru Humpy burst onto the scene. In 2002, aged 15 years, 1 month and 27 days, she became the youngest woman ever to turn GM at 15 years, breaking Judit's record by three months. Currently the women's World No. 3, she is regarded as the strongest female player India has ever had. A crucial reason for her rapid rise was her father's decision to enter her into boys' tournaments from her pre-teens. She was the only girl in the 1999 Asian under-12 boys' tournament, which she won. She won the under-14 boys' tournament the following year.

Her rise wasn't well received, initially. In 2003, she earned an automatic qualification into the National 'A', and this upset some of her male peers.

"They argued I wasn't of GM standard and didn't deserve to play. To end the doubts over my strength as a player, I decided to participate in the National 'B' (the qualifier for National 'A') even though I wasn't required to. But when I reached Nagpur for the 'B' event, some of the male players again raised objections. Now their problem was that since I had already qualified for the 'A' event, I wouldn't be under any sort of stress unlike them," Humpy laughs. "It was funny because they couldn't decide which one they wanted more -- that I prove my strength as a player, or that I don't play against them."

Humpy was the only woman in the 300-odd player field and, after leading in the first couple of rounds, she eventually finished second.

"In general, there were male players who behaved poorly after they lost against me, refusing to sign score sheets or shake hands and storming out. I've heard from friends in the chess fraternity of how some men whom I defeated routinely celebrated when I later lost crucial games. But none of that really affected me. It wasn't that all male players were mean to me, either."

At the 2006 Corus Group B event in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, Humpy held Magnus Carlsen to a draw at the end of a protracted battle. Carlsen, now the World No. 1, was then rated 2625 and went on to win the tournament. "After our game, the next morning he told me, 'You did a great job'."

Humpy took a two-year break, during pregnancy and to nurse her young daughter. Soon after she returned to the tournament scene, she won the women's world rapid title in December 2019. "Throughout my career," Humpy says, "I learnt that nobody objects to a woman hanging around in men's events...the problem only arises when she wins."

Even today, the proportion of women playing the sport globally continues to be significantly lower than men. In India, that figure (of registered players) is around 16 percent. The answers to the participation gap between both genders are likely smelted in the systems, societies and stereotypes that women have to fight before they can get to the board.