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January 18, 1998

Mona May Karff, 86, Women's Chess Champion


NEW YORK -- Mona May Karff, who won the U.S. women's chess championship seven times, died Jan. 10 at her home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. She was 86 and had been among the first four Americans to attain the rank of international woman master.

Mona May Karff

Credit: Courtesy of the United States Chess Federation, New Windsor, NY 12553

The cause was heart failure, friends said.

From the time she won her first national title at the second women's championship in 1938 until she clinched her seventh national championship in 1974, Miss Karff was in the forefront of women's chess in the United States. She and a handful of other players, among them the late Sonja Graf Stevenson, the late Mary Bain and 92-year-old Gisela Kahn Gresser, a nine-time titleholder, dominated tournament competition.

For all her victories and the wide recognition she won in American chess circles, Miss Karff, who also won four straight U.S. Open titles, was something of a mystery.

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 U.S. 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 1930s, settling first in Boston, where she had a brief marriage to a cousin, Abe Karff, a lawyer who died several years ago.

"I knew she had a cousin in Boston," her friend, Bea Lacativa, said, recalling that it was not until she called the cousin's telephone number when Miss Karff was hospitalized last year that she learned that the cousin had also been her husband.

By her own account, Miss Karff was 9 when she learned chess from her father, Aviv Ratner, a Zionist who acquired a vast amount of property in Tel Aviv and later became one of the richest men in Israel.

Although she was soon defeating her father and others with ease, Miss Karff was at first so diffident about her skills that friends had to coax her to enter her first tournament. When she won handily, the diffidence was replaced by something akin to a full-blown obsession.

For all her success in the United States, Miss Karff, who was forever sailing off to Europe or South America for tournaments, fared less well in top international competition. Representing Palestine in the 1937 women's world championships in Stockholm, she placed sixth. Playing for the United States at the 1939 World Championships in Buenos Aires, she came in fifth.

The winner both times was Vera Menchik, who held the women's world title from 1927 until her death in 1944 and was one of only two women, along with Judit Polgar, a current international grandmaster, to hold their own against men in the highest levels of the game.

Like almost every other woman in chess, Miss Karff limited herself to women's tournaments, qualifying as an international woman master when the International Chess Federation created the title in 1950 to encourage women's competition.

After women's world championship competition resumed in 1950, Miss Karff represented the United States in several tournaments, always finishing well back in the field.

By then, 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 U.S. Chess Open. Lasker was 25 years older than she, but friends recall them as a perfectly matched couple.

After 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.

She is survived by a niece, Miriam Reik, and two grandnephews, Dani and Aviv Reik, all of Tel Aviv.

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