|Graf in 1941|
Born in Munich, she was the daughter of Josef Graf and Susanna Zimmermann, both Volga Germans from the Samara region, who had moved to Munich in September 1906. Her father was originally a priest in Russia, but moved to Munich to pursue life as a painter. She later wrote that despite the suffering she endured at the hands of her father, she was grateful that he taught her the game of chess when she was still a child
According to research by Alfred Schattmann of Munich many of the riddles of Graf’s youth seem to be solved.
The family of Josef Graf (born 1869) lived originally in Liebenthal, a small village in the Volga region near the large city Samara (known as Kuybishev in the Soviet Union. His parents were farmers.
Josef's "wife" was Susanna Zimmermann. The couple lived in Munich from September 1906 on and their first child, Maria, was born in Munich in 1900.
At some point it appears the family moved back to Russia to the seaport of Taganrog sited at the Asow Sea which is a part of the Black Sea. There two children were born: Valeria and Oskar. A fourth child, Alex, was born in Germany in 1907), in Dachau. He emigrated to Australia in 1956. Susanna (Sonja) Graf was born in 1908 and there followed Helene (1910) and Artur Wolfgang (1912).
In January 1915, the family moved to Elisabethstr. Her father's profession was listed as an artist (painter) and Roman Catholic priest. In 1919 the family was repatronized as German citizens and the Grafs were finally married in 1920. Sonja's father died in Munich in 1935 in Munich. Nothing further is known of her mother.
Sonja Graf’s register card gave her profession as "Kindermadchen" (a nanny) and "Kunstgewerblerin" ( a craftswoman). Later it was given as "Schachmeisterin" (female chessmaster). From 1926 to 1927 she stayed in a Fürsorgeheim which is a kind of "boarding-school,” not a Lyceum as she described in her book. In Germany a Luceum, or Gymnasium, was the most advanced of the three types of German secondary schools. From the end of 1927 to end of 1929 she left Munich to Kirchschonbach in the south of Germany where she appears to have attended a boarding school run by nuns. According to her registry card she had lost the civil right to give a sworn testimony in court, so she must have committed a crime of some sort. One researcher suggested it was perjury.
Chess became her means of escape, both mentally and physically, and she began spending all her time in Munich chess cafes. Her fame as a coffeehouse player grew and she was introduced to and became the protegee of Siegbert Tarrasch.
By age twenty-three she had beaten Rudolf Spielmann twice in simultaneous games and turned chess professional. She began traveling throughout Europe, following the chess circuit both for the experience and to distance herself from what she considered the ominous Nazi movement based, at the time, in Munich.
During the early-1900s female chess players were a rarity and Graf basked in the popularity and attention her fame brought her and she enjoyed her itinerant lifestyle. In 1934, she played Vera Menchik in an unofficial Amsterdam match and, subsequently, in an official 1937 world championship match in Semmering, Austria. She lost both matches, but was invited, along with Menchik, to participate in what would normally have been an exclusive male tournament held that year in Prague.
She drew with first place winner Paul Keres and defeated Frantisek Prokop (10th place) and Josef Dobias (12th, and last, place). Graf herself finished in 11th place.
In the Spring of 1939 she was in Berlin and wanted to participate in the 1st Women's Championship of Greater Germany, but according to the rules the tournament was open only to players who were members of the Greater Germany Federation no later than November 1, 1938. Graf had fallen out of favor with the Federation and no longer wanted to represent Greater Germany. In her desperate situation, she remembered her Dutch friends and left for The Netherlands. In February 1939 in Amsterdam, she won a match 4-0 against Fenny Heemskerk (1919-2007), the Dutch Ladies Champion.
Then one day she received news from her friend Dr. Rueb, then President of FIDE. He was one of the men she had worked with to help promote chess in Europe. He informed her that the Argentine Chess Federation, thanks to his intervention, had invited her to play the Women's World Championship that was going to take place in Buenos Aires at the same time as the "Nations Tournament."
She set sail on the Highland Patriot in early August 1939. Later, on October 1, 1940 the Highland Patriot was sunk off Ireland while crossing the Atlantic. Three sailors were lost but the captain, 135 crew members and 33 passengers were picked up by another ship.
Graf was not allowed to represent Germany as a result of her outspoken defiance of Hitler's government and played under the "Libre" flag. In September, with the tournament still in progress, Germany invaded Poland starting World War II. Graf won 16 games and lost 3. In her game against Menchik, Graf lost after achieving a winning position. In 1964 she told the New Yorker magazine, “Against Menchik, when she was world champion, I had a won game, but I found the three stupidest moves you could think of and lost.”
Graf decided to remain in the safety of Argentina, learned Spanish, assimilated herself in the culture and wrote two books. This Is How a Woman Plays described her experiences as a chess player, and I Am Susann told of the physical and psychological abuse she suffered during her childhood. She also met merchant mariner Vernon Stevenson, whom she married in 1947.
The Stevensons soon moved to Hollywood in Southern California and she began playing under the name Sonja Graf-Stevenson. She retired from chess to give birth and raise her son Alexander, but subsequently returned to tie with Gisela Kahn Gresser in the 1957 US Women's Chess Championship. She and her family then moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, where she gave chess lessons at Lisa Lane's Queen's Pawn Chess Emporium. In 1964 she won the US Women's Championship, but was already suffering from the liver ailment which would take her life the following year two-and-a-half months after her 56th birthday.