At May Karff's death in
1998, several obituaries columns covered her place in the history of
chess. The Jan. 24, 1998 issue of the Economist wrote:
She played chess almost every day of
her life. A favourite haunt was the Marshall Chess Club in New York,
named after Frank Marshall, an American chess pioneer, and described
by an addict as a ``relaxed place, giving off a slightly stale smell,
a mixture of pipe tobacco and the sweat of unwashed men.'' Mrs. Karff
protected herself with lots of perfume. Her friends recalled that one
of her regular partners at the club was Edward Lasker (1886-1981), a
grandmaster who had himself played with Jose Capablanca, world
champion in 1921-27, and one of the greatest of all masters. Mrs.
Karff believed that her feeling for chess owed much to tradition. ``I
was born with chess in my blood,'' she told a friend.
It was a well-known secret that
May Karff and Edward Lasker, a confirmed bachelor, were life-long
lovers. Miss Karff, however, made an effort to always seem mysterious.
Even Edith Weart, a fellow chess-player and editor of the women's chess section of the Chess
Review, complained that Miss Karff wasn't very generous with
personal information. Before moving to the United States, Karff had
played for Palestine in the 1937 competition for the title of Woman Chess Champion of
the World in Stockholm, Sweden where she had
finished 6th, just a half point behind Mary Bain. After
moving to Boston Mona May Ratner married her cousin Abe Karff, whom she
almost as quickly divorced. In 1938 she won the U. S. Women's Chess
Championship in her first try. This allowed her to enter the Women's
World Championship in Buenos Aires in 1939 where she placed 5th.
She played in that tournament once again in 1949. All told, she won the
U. S. Women's Championship seven times: 1938, 1941, 1943, 1946, 1948,
1953 and 1974. She also won the Woman's U. S. Open tournament in
1938, 1939, 1948 and 1950 (which, due to the war years, were
The New York Times
obituary gave the following depiction:
A refined, elegant woman
who loved opera, collected art, spoke eight languages fluently, traveled
the world with confident ease and made millions in the stock market, she
was an intensely private person of such shadowy origins that the United
States Chess Federation lists her birthplace simply as Europe, and until
recently her best friend had no idea she had once been married.
In fact, according to relatives in Israel, Miss Karff, whose maiden
name was Ratner, was born in the Russian province of Bessarabia, moved
to Palestine when she was a teen-ager and came to the United States in
the 1930's, settling first in Boston, where she had a brief marriage to
a cousin, Abe Karff, a lawyer who died several years ago.
. . .
. . . the woman who had
styled herself ''N. May Karff,'' typically without explaining
what the ''N'' stood for, had moved to New York and emerged as Mona
May Karff, a name she used when she made a tour of Europe in 1948 for
the One World movement.
In New York, she became a fixture at the Marshall Chess Club on
West 10th Street and began a long romance with Dr. Edward Lasker, a
five-time winner of the United States Chess Open. Dr. Lasker was 25
years older than she, but friends recall them as a perfectly matched
After Dr. Lasker died in 1981 at 95, Miss Karff continued to play
regularly at the Marshall, where she was cherished both for her own
achievements and as a bridge to American chess history through her
association with Dr. Lasker, who won his first open in 1916 and later
played a famous match with Frank J. Marshall, a longtime champion who
founded the club.