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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Women in Chess:  N. May Karff
September  2007

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 consecutive).

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 couple.
   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.



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