Sonja (Susanna) Graf was born on December 16, 1908 in Munich, Germany. She was a professional chess player who won the U.S. Women's Chess Championship twice. She also wrote two books: Asi Juega Una Mujer (This Is How A Woman Plays) that tells of her experiences as a chess player and Yo soy Susann (I am Susann) that recounts the physical and phychological abuse of her traumatic childhood. Despite the suffering she endured at the hands of her father, who was originally a priest in Russia, she was thankful that he taught her the game of chess when she was still young.
Graf started spending all of her time in the Munich chess cafs as a way to escape both mentally and physically. She was introduced to the great German player Siegbert Tarrasch when her fame as a coffeehouse player grew. She became his student and by age 17, she was the female champion of Munich and had beaten Rudolf Spielmann twice in simultaneous competition. She began to travel throughout Europe following the chess circuit for the experience and to escape what she considered the ominous Nazi rule that was based in Munich at the time.
Female chess players were a rarity during the early 20th century. Graf basked in the popularity and attention brought on by her sudden fame. In 1934, she played Vera Menchik in an unofficial match in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She played Menchik again in 1937 in an official World Champion match in Semmering, Austria. She lost to Menchik both times. In 1937 in Prague, both her and Menchik were invited to participate in what would normally have been an exclusive male tournament. Although she didn't score too highly in the tournament, she was able to draw with Paul Keres, an Estonian master.
In 1939, Graf went to Buenos Aires, Argentina to play on the German team for the 8th Chess Olympiad. She was taken off the list of German participants due to her outspoken defiance to the Nazi regime. Instead, she played under the international flag, "Liberty". Germany invaded Poland during the tournament which caused mass confusion. Some teams withdrew, and other teams refused to play teams from certain countries. Both Graf and Menchik played the entire tournament. Graf won 16 games and lost 3. In her game against Menchik, Graf lost after achieving a winning position.
After the tournament, Graf decided to stay in Argentina instead of going back to war-torn Europe. She quickly learned the language and assimilated herself in the culture. While there, she wrote her two books and met a merchant mariner named Vernon Stevenson, whom she later married in 1947. They moved to Hollywood, California and Graf started playing under the name Sonja Graf-Stevenson. She retired from chess for a while so that she could give birth to her son, Alexander. In 1957, she returned to co-win the U.S. Women's Chess Championship with Gisela Kahn Gresser. They later moved to Greenwich Village, New York where she began to give chess lessons at Lisa Lane's Queen's Pawn Chess Emporium. She won the U.S. Women's Chess Championship for a second time in 1964. By this time, she had developed a liver ailment. Sonja Graf died in New York on March 6, 1965.
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