Revolutionary Chess Champ
Polgar, an attractive, stylish young woman, defies the stereotype
of the chess grandmaster as a bearded, revolutionary old man.
Relaxing in the lobby of Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital, where she
is the event director and organizer of the first International
Mayor’s Cup Grandmaster Chess Tournament, she says about being
a revolutionary, “Well, I didn’t really mean to become one, but
I guess, you could say things did turn out that way.”
In 1979, the ten-year old Susan won her first Hungarian women’s
national chess title. Then, through her father, who is also her
coach, she announced that she would only play against men. Discrimination?
Sure—but not on the Polgars’ part. Throughout history, in Hungary
as well as everywhere else, girls have been discouraged from playing
chess, even though the sport of kings is pure brainwork—giving
no reason why they couldn’t compete as equals.
Thus, Polgar’s announcement created major waves. “The authorities
did not take kindly to me or my father, to say the least,” she
explains. “We had all kinds of obstacles put into our way to make
us fall in line, including taking away our passports so we often
couldn’t play tournaments in the West.” One night, the police
showed up, dragged the home-schooled Polgar away for not attending
school and threatened her father with a lengthy jail term.
Things were exacerbated by the fact that Polgar’s younger sisters,
Sofia and Judit, both followed in her footsteps, also becoming
exceptional chess prodigies at an early age. During the late 1980s,
all three sisters were ranked in the world’s top six women chess
players, in spite of all the obstacles.
The Polgar sisters eventually compromised with the authorities
by agreeing to play against women
during the 1988 and 1992 Chess Olympics, comprising three-fourths
of the Hungarian team and astounding the world. That changed everything.
“We became celebrities,” she says. “Suddenly, everyone was our
friend. We could do whatever we wanted to do.”
Polgar was regularly beating leading men players like ex-World
champions Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoy, and she won the
1996 World’s women’s chess championship title in a head-to-head
matchup against China’s Xien Jun. Two years later, when Polgar
got pregnant, the FIDE (The International Chess Federation) failed
to compromise on an appropriate delay for the return match. She
sued, but while she won the case, she still lost her title because
FIDE had already matched Xien against another player. (Polgar
is set to face Xien next year for another try at the world title.)
Today, women’s chess has become widely accepted—indeed, outrageously
popular—in the US and all over the world. Polgar has no regrets
about her tumultuous life. “Yes, I lost out on some little girl
stuff, some teenage things, practicing 5-6 hours a day,” she says.
“But, on the other hand, I’ve gained so much more. Travelling
around the world, meeting wonderful people everywhere. And, most
of all, becoming a champion at this great game.”
Polgar now runs her own chess center, the Polgar Chess Authority,
in Rego Park, Queens, sharing her insights into the game. She
also has a successful chess day camp, where she directly teaches
or supervises every session.
I tell every little girl and every young woman is: Don’t be intimidated,”
she says. “Go for it! You can do anything a man can do. And that
includes playing chess at a world class level.” #
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