‘Are you here by mistake?’ Meet the 1st Israeli woman to captain a men’s chess team

Competing in the World Team Chess Championship in Jerusalem this week, Ilana David from Beersheba is Israel’s first-ever woman to lead an all-male team. And she is, understandably, exasperated by the label.

“I’m also the only woman in this open chess tournament – as always,” she exclaimed to The Times of Israel, speaking at the opening of the championship where 12 teams, including Israel, were vying for the world title in the week-long competition.

David holds the title of Woman International Master, won the Israeli Women’s Chess Championship in 1980 and was twice part of Israel’s Olympic chess team, among other accolades.

“For me, being a successful chess player is so normal, but to the world, I’m some kind of an exotic bird. When I first arrived in Israel and competed in chess tournaments, people looked at me as if to say: ‘What are you doing here? Are you here by mistake?’”

The problem persists today around the world.

“Even in women-only chess games, there are often few women captains,” said David, explaining that while captains do not play, they hold the function of organizing and leading the team, signing match protocols and advising the players on the offering or accepting of draws or resignation of games.

Chess players play a match as part of the World Teams Chess Championship on November 20, 2022 in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of FIDE/Mark Livshitz)

“There’s a general feeling that men are more suitable,” she adds. “Some people still believe women are not strong enough to lead a team.”

‘It’s not down to biology’

Women are sorely underrepresented in professional chess as a whole. While the majority of chess tournaments are open to anyone, they are almost always dominated by men.

Out of approximately 1,700 grandmasters, only 37 are women, and there are currently no women in the top 100 players worldwide according to FIDE, the International Chess Federation.

“It is not down to biology,” Judit Polgar, widely regarded as the greatest female chess player in history, has told The Guardian. “It’s just as possible for a woman to become the best as any guy. But there are so many difficulties and social boundaries for women generally in society. That is what blocks it.”

In 2021, Nona Gaprindashvili, a pioneering chess champion and the first woman in the world to be named a chess grandmaster in 1978, sued Netflix for defamation after its hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” falsely claimed that she had “never faced men.”

In reality, Gaprindashvili, from Tbilisi, Georgia, played and won against numerous male champions over the course of her career.

In her legal statement, she described the Netflix error as “manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling.”

Some male chess giants, such as world champions Bobby Fischer of the US and Garry Kasparov of Russia, were known to denigrate women’s chess, with the latter once saying female chess players should stick to having children. Kasparov was forced to eat his words after Judit Polgar beat him in a match in 2002; she described her victory as “one of the most remarkable moments of my career.”

Polgar’s career included being ranked as high as No. 8 in the world and qualifying for the Candidates Tournament, in which the winner out of eight players gets to face the world champion in a duel for the title.

In September 2022, an Israeli chess grandmaster and commentator was sacked from the International Chess Federation after saying that a female player wanted to be “like men.”

‘Completely grandiose’

David started learning to play chess at age 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, where, for the most part, chess was greatly respected and encouraged for both males and females.

She was taught by her father and was raised playing alongside Garry Kasparov.

“We grew up together, playing chess in the Olympic Palace in Baku,” David recalls. “We then would travel to chess tournaments all over together, he with his mother, I with mine.”

“Competing at chess at a high level was not just considered ‘professional’ but rather ‘super-professional,’” she adds, recalling how, as a 14-year-old prodigy, she would receive a stipend equivalent to the salary of a young engineer, alongside private coaching, free travel and many gifts.

“It was completely grandiose.”

Israeli chess team captain Ilana David standing next to two players at the World Team Chess Championship in Jerusalem, November 20, 2022. (FIDE/Mark Livshitz)

Today, such conditions are almost unheard of, particularly for female players, she says, adding that there is a vast difference in the prize money awarded at female-only chess championships compared to men’s, which also serves to discourage female players from pursuing the profession.

Though the percentage of women in chess remains very low, David notes that in recent years, “there is more support for chess in Israel, due to the work of the Israel Chess Federation,” citing a program that enables young children to study chess at school.

“Even if a child doesn’t become a chess champion, it will give them so many skills. It will serve them for their whole lives,” she says. “It’s a great contribution for the future.”

The Jerusalem World Chess Championship runs until November 26. The Israeli team did not make it to the knockout stages, finishing fifth out of six teams in its bracket.


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