May Karff, the “queen of American chess,” was a dominant force in American women’s chess for over forty years. She was born in Europe (exact place unknown) in 1914 and immigrated to America with her father sometime between 1927 and 1933. Her training in chess came both from her father and from experts in Palestine, with whom she played in her early years. Karff made her debut on the international chess scene at a tournament in Stockholm in 1937. Playing for Palestine, she placed an impressive sixth out of a field of twenty-six opponents.
Her first American appearance was even more striking. The United States Women’s Championship of 1938 was the site of two firsts for Karff. It was not only her first American tournament, it was the first tournament held under national auspices for the women’s title. The awarding of that title, “woman champion of the United States,” was heralded as an indicator of the great strides women were making in chess. Karff made the title hers by besting seven other players without a single loss. When the results of Karff’s dramatic victory were announced, it was to a prolonged burst of applause. The queen of American chess had arrived.
Demonstrating a champion’s mettle, Karff fought to a triple tie in her next tournament and won in the playoff. She lost her title to A. Rivero in 1939, but did not play her again until 1941 because the championship was changed to a biennial basis. The champion was forced to give up her title when Karff raced to a five-to-one lead in the best of eight series. Her monetary reward for this authoritative comeback, in which she won the second game in only twenty-five moves, was, at the time, a staggering $197. During the next United States Women’s Open Championship, May Karff demolished eight formidable opponents in a row, having a close call in only one of the matches.
The United States Women’s Open was unmistakably Karff’s personal domain. As late as 1974, she won the championship with a score of six wins and four losses. She played in the tournament eighteen times. She was first or tied for first seven times, was second four times, and was third or tied for third seven times.
At a contest held in Moscow in late 1949, Karff was one of two players representing the United States. She tied for fourteenth place out of sixteen. Although in 1939 she had placed fifth among twenty, Karff never achieved as well outside the United States as she did at home. Her prowess on the American scene and her solid play, if not yielding satisfying results, earned her the title of International Female Master in 1950 from the Federacion Internationale des Eches.
May Karff died on January 10, 1998, at her home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.
American Chess Bulletin 34 (July/August 1937): 66, and 35 (March/April 1938): 27, and 38 (September/October 1941): 104, and 38 (November/December 1941): 122, and 39 (March/April 1942): 26; UJE; Weygant, Heather. Communication with author, December 6, 1996; Thomas, Robert, Jr. “Mona May Karff, 86, Women’s Chess Champion.” New York Times, January 18, 1998.
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Oehlert, Mark. "N. May Karff." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 6, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/karff-n-mary>.