Lisa Lane, Chess Champion Whose Reign Was Meteoric, Dies at 86

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Lisa Lane, an early star of American chess who was a two-time United States women’s champion and the first chess player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, died on Feb. 28 at her home in Carmel, N.Y., in Putnam County. She was 90.

Her death was confirmed by the town clerk’s office in nearby Kent, N.Y., which registered her death.

Ms. Lane was a late bloomer in chess. She was in her first year at Temple University in Philadelphia when she saw students playing the game in a lounge; she immediately began playing as often as she could.

Within two years, she had won the United States women’s championship.

The win catapulted her into the limelight, partly because of her late start and meteoric rise in a game that usually takes years to master, and partly because of her youth and appearance. Wherever she went, people commented on her looks as much as on her chess ability, if not more so.

In May 1961, she appeared on the television game show “What’s My Line?” on which four panelists asked her questions, trying to guess her occupation. When they failed to discover that she was a professional chess player and the women’s national champion, one panelist, the writer and Broadway director Abe Burrows, commented, “Because she is so pretty, we ruled out anything intellectual.”

A Sports Illustrated cover profile in 1961 cemented her stature in the game, as did television appearances and articles about her in national publications.

For Ms. Lane, celebrity was a mixed bag. The publicity helped her raise funds for trips to tournaments through sponsorships and enabled her to hold exhibitions in which people would pay to play her.

But people often focused more on her image than on her ability. The Sports Illustrated article described her as “a very serious young woman, but beautifully serious, or seriously beautiful.” A profile in The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement, concluded, “She’ll beat you fair and square or rattle your composure with a flutter of eyelids.”

Ms. Lane was not happy that women in chess made considerably less money than men.

At the 1966 United States women’s championship, she tied with Gisela Kahn Gresser, making them co-champions. The total prize fund for the tournament was $600. Weeks earlier, the United States Championship, in which only men competed, had a prize fund of $6,000.

Ms. Lane tried to get the other female competitors to join her in a protest to seek more money, but none were interested. She rounded up some sympathetic male supporters, and they picketed the women’s championship with signs reading, “One Man Is Worth Ten Women?” and “What Good Is a King Without a Queen?”

The protest was mostly ignored, and coverage of the championship and her victory focused mostly on her love life.

Ms. Lane had had enough. She quit competitive chess.

Marianne Elizabeth Lane was born on April 25, 1933, in Philadelphia. She was called Lisa because it was short for Elizabeth.

In the Sports Illustrated profile, Ms. Lane said she had never known her father, a leather glazer who was addicted to horse racing. By the time she was a year and a half old, he had disappeared from her life.

Her mother worked two jobs to support Lisa and her older sister, Evelyn, but it was not easy, and the family was poor. Over the years, the girls boarded with many families and frequently changed schools.

Despite the disruptions, Lisa was initially a good student. But as she grew older, things changed. Sports Illustrated recounted that a guidance counselor had visited her mother while Lisa was attending Roxborough High School in Philadelphia because her teachers were mystified by her actions: She was deliberately putting down the wrong answers on tests — perhaps, the guidance counselor reasoned, because she thought she would be more popular if she appeared to be dumb.

Lisa dropped out of school and held a variety of jobs. She started dating an older man. But she felt out of place among his friends and decided to go back to school. She enrolled at Temple University, mostly taking remedial classes.

Not long after she learned chess, she accidentally struck and killed a woman who had stepped in front of her car. She was not found at fault, nor was she charged, but she soon left college and used what little money she had to open a poetry shop in central Philadelphia with a friend. The shop was not busy, so she spent most of her time in coffee shops where chess players congregated.

One of those players, Arnold Chertkof, took her to the Franklin Mercantile Chess Club, where she was introduced to Attilio Di Camillo, one of the country’s top players. He began tutoring her, and soon she was studying and playing chess for up to 12 hours a day.

One day in late 1957, Mr. Di Camillo and Mr. Chertkof invited Ms. Lane to New York City, where Mr. Di Camillo was going to play in the United States Championship. She closed up the poetry shop and never went back.

In New York, she saw Bobby Fischer, at 14, win his first United States Championship (beating Mr. Di Camillo along the way). Afterward, Mr. Di Camillo told her that if she worked hard, she could win the United States women’s championship in two years. He was right: She won the 1959 title.

Nine days later, she married Walter Rich, who worked in advertising. The marriage ended in divorce less than two years later.

Shortly after that, Ms. Lane moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village. She eventually opened her own chess shop, the Queen’s Pawn Chess Emporium, on Sheridan Square, and ran it for several years.

Ms. Lane became friends with Mr. Fischer, who would sometimes visit her apartment and play chess there. He was dismissive of women in chess, however — they were “all fish,” he said, a pejorative term for a bad player. But, he added, “Lisa, you might say, is the best of the American fish.” (He appeared on Sports Illustrated’s cover in 1972.)

As United States champion, Ms. Lane qualified for the 1961 candidates’ tournament in Yugoslavia to select a challenger for the women’s world championship. She finished tied for 13th. She also played in the 1964 tournament, finishing 12th.

After the 1961 tournament, Ms. Lane entered a tournament in Hastings, England, but had a terrible start and withdrew, confessing that she was homesick and, even more, that she was lovesick: She had fallen for Neil Hickey, the writer of the American Weekly profile about her.

The confession drew media attention; The New York Times published an article with the headline “Lisa Lane, Chess Player, Quits Tourney Because She’s in Love.”

The couple married in 1969 and settled in Carmel, where they opened a natural food store.

She and Mr. Hickey, who was a longtime reporter for TV Guide and who died last week, had no children. Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.

At the height of her fame, Ms. Lane made it clear that she thought she merited more financial reward. “I’m the most important American chess player,” she told The Times in 1961. “People will be attracted to the game by a young, pretty girl. That’s why chess should support me. I’m bringing it publicity, and ultimately, money.”


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