SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
August 07, 1961
Once tolerated as a good-looking girl who played chess, Lisa Lane is now a champion who wants the world title
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August 07, 1961

Queen Of Knights And Pawns

Once tolerated as a good-looking girl who played chess, Lisa Lane is now a champion who wants the world title

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Lisa Lane is an ardent and optimistic girl who won the U.S. women's chess championship soon after she learned how to play chess and now expects whatever she is involved in to work out as well. If Lisa hears of a tournament that may possibly be held at some time in the future she takes it for granted that she will play in it, she naturally believes that she will win, and from that it is only a logical step for her to buy a new dress in anticipation of her victory.

What adds an element of practical common sense to her great expectations, however, is that she is generally right: she wins. Or at least she has won the decisive games in her career thus far, enough to keep her sanguine about the future and to add some items to her wardrobe. Now, however, Lisa has entered a competitive realm where it is a question whether the old equations will continue to work. This fall she plays on the U.S. team in the women's chess Olympics in The Netherlands, and then goes to the mountain resort of Vrnjacka Banja in Yugoslavia to play in an international tournament with the best women chess players from all countries. The winner of this critical event is entitled to challenge for the championship of the world. That means one of the contenders will go to Moscow for a month-long struggle with Elizaveta Bykova, a 40-year-old Soviet economist, the women's world champion.

In contrast to Lisa's late entry into the top ranks of women chess stars, Bykova learned to play chess when she was about 4 years old and played in an international tournament when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Lisa has been playing a little over four years, about 1,600 days, as nearly as she can figure it, and had played in only eight tournaments (most of them small local affairs around Philadelphia) when she won the U.S. women's championship. She first saw a set of chessmen during her freshman year at Temple University. Lisa had a part-time job in the bacteriological laboratory at Temple while going to college, spent her lunch hour in the student lounge and learned the moves by watching the games that were played there. She began to play chess naturally, without calculation, the way a gifted musician might learn to play the piano by ear. Since she was a pretty girl, she came to be regarded with amused interest because of her intense absorption with chess, but nobody took her seriously—she was known as a good-looking girl who played chess, rather than as a fine chess player who happened to be a good-looking girl.

There was, however, a special circumstance about Lisa's appearance while playing. When she is absorbed in her game her expression becomes hauntingly beautiful in her complete self-forgetful-ness and her quiet concentration on her moves. She leans forward slightly over the chess board, with her chin on the knuckles of her left hand, a tranquil expression on her pale and delicate features. She moves the pieces slowly and carefully, lifting them above the board between her thumb and two fingers, and places them gently on their new squares as if they were fragile works of art that she feared might be broken. Each move seems to be weighted with some cosmic significance to her, not in the sense of anxiety about the outcome but because of its place in the profound seriousness of her game. At such moments she seems a very serious young woman, but beautifully serious, or seriously beautiful, a side of feminine loveliness that Hollywood has rather neglected. When Lisa meets the world's best women chess players in Vrnjacka Banja she will be facing a stronger competition than she has ever known, and she may appear to be the youngest and most timid newcomer in the tournament, but she will also seem to be the most serious player there, the one to whom chess means most.

When she won the women's championship in the winter of 1959 almost nothing was known about Lisa Lane in Philadelphia chess circles. "She's small, and 22, and pretty," said The Bulletin vaguely, summing up about everything that could be agreed on. Neil Hickey, a columnist for the Hearst papers, quoted one of the defeated opponents, who said in agitation, "She's a killer! She plays chess like Pancho Gonzales plays tennis: always stalking, always aggressive. No doubt about it—if she continues to study she can be the best woman player in the world."

"And the best-looking," added Hickey. Unfortunately, however, she was also acquiring a reputation as the rudest. After a magazine article appeared, saying that she had grown up in an orphanage, Lisa outlawed all discussion of her life before she learned to play chess When an interviewer tried to draw her out about her taste in the arts, she said flatly, "I hate music." She was once asked about swimming and dancing. "I never learned to dance," she said, growing pale, "and I can't swim."

She startled a New York Times reporter by saying, "I'm not interested in what's happening in the world." As for her background, said the Times, "She is reluctant to say more than that she was born in Philadelphia and never knew her father." She said she was born when she first saw chess being played.

At any persistent questioning about her childhood, Lisa was likely to examine the heavens, as if searching for some wandering astronaut, and say, "I don't care to discuss it."

On the subject of chess, however, Lisa was almost alarmingly candid. And like most good chess players, she can remember every move in every important game. Sitting in her apartment on a rainy afternoon, she fell into an animated discussion of the 19th move in her game with Mona May Karff, who had won the U.S. women's championship six times in the past.

She worked out an elaborate combination. That is, she visualized her next move, figured out all the possible moves of her opponent, then visualized her next move beyond that, then mentally played through all possible moves that Miss Karff could be expected to make in reply, and so on through five moves in the future. The ability to work out combinations in this fashion is usually considered a sign of true greatness in chess players. Legends abound of masters who could see a dozen or more moves ahead, but in actual play how far ahead a player can see depends on the situation as well as on his ability. Chess players usually work by a mixture of logic and intuition, seeing an objective they want to reach and then patiently analyzing each move necessary to reach it and every move an opponent may conceivably make to prevent its being reached. If there are few pieces on the board, it may be a relatively simple matter to foresee a dozen moves. Early in a game terrific concentration may be required to see three moves ahead.

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