As a professional chess player, Susan Polgar has broken gender barriers, set records and even engaged in some post-Cold War bridge-building. Now she’s finding success mentoring the next generation.
Polgar, a Hungarian Jew now living in the US and the first woman to earn the men’s grandmaster title, coached the Webster (Missouri) University chess team to its fifth consecutive Division 1 national championship in March. It’s actually a string of seven straight for Polgar, having previously coached the Texas Tech team to back-to-back national titles.
“I’ve had seven different teams, and all seven years are different comparisons, but it’s really remarkable,” Polgar said. “I’m very proud of that achievement.”
She took time to speak with The Times of Israel and reflect on what has been, and continues to be, a remarkable career on and off the 64 squares of the chess board.
Born Zsuzsanna Polgar in Cold War-era Hungary, she learned chess early in life.
“I was a very active child,” she recalled. “I was searching for something new and interesting one day, and stumbled across some chess pieces. It piqued my curiosity.”
Her father, a psychologist, came home from work later and “introduced me to the wide world of chess,” she said. “I was almost four years old.”
She described her father as “an excellent teacher” who evoked fairy-tale qualities of the pieces — the king, queen, rooks and knights.
“It was very exciting,” she said. “He had a special emphasis on the beauty of the game. It’s very important in the beginning stages.”
At age four-and-a-half, she was a prodigy, winning the Budapest girls’ elementary school championship with a perfect 10-0 score.
“Obviously, it was my first big success,” she said. “It raised quite a few eyebrows.”
And her family felt it was “worthwhile pursuing,” she said. “I enjoyed it and got better and better. I put more and more time [into] it. From very, very early, I guess, it was clear that I wanted to pursue it more and more seriously. Fortunately for me, success came. There’s a direct correlation. The more effort you put into something, the more passionate you are, the better the results are likely to be.”
Polgar not only became better, she became one of the best.
In 1984, at age 15, she was ranked first in the world among female players. Just two years later, in 1986, she qualified for the men’s World Championship cycle, the first woman to do so. But there was opposition to female participation in chess.
‘They said it was a men’s World Championship and women were not allowed’
“I was not allowed to represent Hungary and play in the World Championship cycle,” she said. “They said it was a men’s World Championship and women were not allowed.”
She characterized this opposition as persistent in her early career.
“I was a pioneer woman in chess,” she said. “In the ’70s and early ’80s, there were very few women playing chess. Moreover, there was a perception that women could not play good chess.”
Even so, her success got worldwide attention. Her fellow Hungarian, chess grandmaster and composer Pal Benko, “published her first efforts in the US chess magazine when she was still a teenager,” recalled chess master Noam Elkies, the youngest-ever full professor at Harvard.
Growing up in Hungary, Polgar faced an additional obstacle: anti-Semitism.
“We definitely felt it in the ‘70s and even in the ‘80s,” she said. “There were certainly some people who disliked Jews, including me or my family. We always had the attitude, ‘let our actions speak for themselves.’ There’s not much we can do about people. People have prejudices. It’s very, very hard to change. I’m hoping one day those types of prejudices — discrimination of any kind, as a matter of fact — will disappear.”
‘There were no female grandmasters. I never understood that. It’s not racing, weightlifting or boxing. It’s the ultimate intellectual game’
“It was certainly not easy,” she said of her early career. “I had to fight on various fronts. Discrimination about being Jewish. Challenges being a girl, a woman in a male-dominated field.”
When Polgar started playing professionally, she said, “There were no female grandmasters. They could not become grandmasters. I never understood that. It’s not racing, weightlifting or boxing. There’s no physical strength, power or speed. It would not favor men to [play] chess. It’s the ultimate intellectual game. I don’t see the reason why women were not able to become grandmasters or potentially [be] as good as men. It was my lifelong mission at first.”
In January 1991, five years after being denied the chance to play in the World Championship cycle, Polgar became the first woman to earn the men’s grandmaster title.
“I made a considerable effort to prove the world wrong, all types of people wrong,” she said. “I believe that it was not necessarily against women or against me for any reason. Since then, there have been more examples of women playing good chess.”
Polgar’s two younger sisters, Judit and Sophia, are both accomplished players as well. Judit Polgar joined the grandmaster ranks later in 1991.
From 1996 to 1999, Susan Polgar was the reigning classical women’s world champion, and she is the only world champion, women’s or men’s, to win the chess triple crown (World Blitz, rapid and classical world championships).
“Susan Polgar is unusual in continuing the old tradition of world-class chess players who also compose endgame studies that are both artistic and instructive,” Elkies said.
Polgar calls breaking the gender barrier among grandmasters her proudest achievement.
“I’m optimistic that eventually a woman will win the ultimate world championship one day,” she said.
Tackling a daunting obstacle is nothing new for Polgar. She set a world record for most opponents with 326 in a simulated exhibition in 2004, lasting over 17 hours.
She has played fellow greats such as Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov — and world champion Viswanathan Anand of India, “one of my toughest [opponents],” she said.
‘I’m optimistic that eventually a woman will win the ultimate world championship one day’
So perhaps it was no surprise that Polgar has used chess to bring once-unfriendly camps together.
She participated in the Chess for Peace initiative, which held events with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in both the US and Russia from 2004 to 2006.
By that time, she had moved to New York after marrying her then-husband in 1994, with whom she has two sons, both of whom play chess, although not professionally.
And she joined 20 different UN ambassadors for matches against young chess players — boys and girls — from different schools.
“Those types of social activities, cultural activities, can potentially bring countries closer, have a better understanding,” Polgar said. “I always say, ‘Fight on the chessboard, not off it.’”
This year, Polgar marks a decade since founding the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) — originally at Texas Tech.
The program started “completely from scratch” in its early years, Polgar said, but it rapidly achieved success as Texas Tech won back-to-back Division 1 national titles. Polgar and SPICE transitioned to Webster, and the Missouri university has dominated the college chess ranks since then.
Polgar would like to see more female participation in chess, and more youth participation in general. She also described chess players as an untapped audience for coverage: 700-plus million people play chess around the world, and 45 million in the US.
“It can teach so many important skills to young people,” she said. “Think ahead before making a decision. Think before you move, about the other opponent, [the other] side. Take their plans, moves into account. Time management, creativity, dealing with winning and losing. On and on.”