Mention the name "Polgar" to any chess player, and you're bound to see a gleam of recognition, and perhaps envy, in their eye. Susan Polgar is the oldest of three Hungarian sisters (Judit and Sofia are both highly ranked players) who have revolutionized the world of chess, blazing a path for women as career players and upholding a level of talent and professionalism as the world looks to them as the female faces of the game. Susan, who holds the highly-esteemed title of Grandmaster, the first woman ever to do so, has taken her chess-playing prowess and notoriety and used it to promote and teach New Yorkers about the game with the Polgar Chess Center in Queens.
The 4-time Women's World Chess Champion got an early start, winning tournaments as early as age 4, and by age 15 was the highest ranking female chess player in the world (a title she still maintains). Her victories are quite staggering in stature and scope, ranging from Olympic wins to awards for Best Chess Column and Chess Educator of the Year. Whether you know what the Ruy Lopez is or not, her Center will have you, providing a welcoming, encouraging atmosphere for newcomers as well as more seasoned players, and by spreading the word about this centuries-old game, Polgar is helping infuse new life into it.
Why did you decide to open the Polgar Chess Center? What types of people attend and who else do you hope to attract to the Center?
Owning a chess center was a childhood dream of mine. I love chess and from my 30 plus years of experience, I discovered that chess can help children of all ages do better in school as well as develop many important life skills. Research around the world has supported my belief. That is why my chess center serves as a training ground for countless children since 1997. It is like a community service.
The club has members from the age of 4 to over 70. Most of these members are from New York but some even come from out of state and many players from around the world have visited my club. It is amazing that people from all ethnic groups, social backgrounds, genders, ages, and religions, etc. come to my club to play and learn. That is what I hope to do: unite people through chess.
You began playing chess at a very early age, and won the world under 11 girls championship at the age of 4. What age would you recommend for kids to start learning chess? Have you taught your own sons to play?
I think it depends on the child. Some can start at 4 years old while others are better off starting at 5 years old but anywhere between 4-6 is fine. Both my sons started around 4 years old.
When I was playing chess competitively, I saw a lot of kids whose parents were almost more invested in their chess careers than they were, and it seemed to me they placed undue emphasis and pressure on their kids. What should the role of a chess parent be in their child's life?
This is a very interesting question. As a professional chess player and a mother of 2 young boys, I think the parents’ role is to support their children. If a child is good at chess and wants to excel, help them. Namely by taking them for classes, providing them with opportunities to practice or compete, buying them books and/or software. If they just want to play for personal enjoyment, that is okay too. Chess can be good for many different aspects. Putting pressure on their children to become a professional chess player may not be the best idea.
How much of chess-playing is about innate ability and how much of it can be learned? Do you think that anyone can play chess?
It is hard to really break down but I believe most can be achieved through learning and practicing. Yes, everyone can play chess, enjoy chess and benefit from chess.
You started the Susan Polgar Foundation to encourage children, especially girls, to play chess. How and why do you think the game encourages academic smarts? Is there a place in the chess world for kids who want to learn about the game but not devote massive amounts of time to studying it?
This is a very good question! Countless studies have shown that chess can help develop critical thinking that can be used in other areas of a child's life, academics and social situations.
According to research: "Test scores improved by 17.3% for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.6% for children participating in other forms of enriched activities".
In over 40 nations across the globe, including Brazil, China, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia and Greece, etc., chess is incorporated into the country's scholastic curriculum.
The following are just some of the benefits of chess:
* Chess develops decision making, critical thinking, logical thinking, evaluating, planning, problem solving, and perseverance skills.
* Chess improves concentration, memory, intuition and self-control
* Chess promotes independence, imagination and creativity
* Chess inspires self-motivation, self-esteem and self-confidence
At my club, some children will take the game very seriously. However, most play because they enjoy it. It is also a place that they can come, make friends and have a good time. We have classes for all levels at different times and days to accommodate everyone.
You, along with your sisters Judit and Sofia, are credited with breaking many of the gender barriers in chess, but there is still a large disparity between the top female and male players in chess. What do you think can be done to ameliorate this situation? Are there inherent differences in chess-playing skill by gender, or is it simply that fewer females enter and stay in the game competitively?
There is no reason why women cannot compete against men on an equal footing in a given game. However, a woman’s career is a lot shorter due to the fact that she may decide to have a family. There are also some other issues that can affect a woman during a two week long tournament. Many things have to change in order for this to happen. The first thing would be to change in terms of social acceptance. Many girls are still very intimidated playing chess against boys. Their approach to the game is different. Most girls like to play for to have fun while boys are a lot more competitive.
From 1st – 3rd grade, the number of boys and girls playing chess are similar. However, at around 4th grade and up, the number starts to drop off dramatically. That is why I want to change that through the work of my foundation.
You hold the Susan Polgar National Invitation for Girls under 19 years of age. What is the purpose of this tournament and how do you go about choosing who to invite? What do the players get out of such a tournament?
The purpose of this tournament is to give a chance for young female players to compete against each other. This is sorely needed in this country. In most of the scholastic events, only a small handful of girls compete compare to mostly boys. Here not only the girls get a chance to compete in the tournament, countless girls compete in regional qualifying events for a chance to earn a spot.
Each year, each state is entitled to nominate one player to participate. Even though the states are encouraged to run a girl’s qualifying event to bring more girls into chess, each state can decide to hold a girl’s qualifying event or nominate the highest rated girl that meets the age criteria based on what their budgets allow. But the main idea is for us is to reach out to young female players in all 50 states.
The qualified winner of the final would then be awarded a full scholarship (tuition and fees) to the University (Webster University). In addition, many regional qualifiers also offer various scholarships. This is a tremendous break through for young female players across America. This is the first time that young female chess players in this country are given a chance.
After the incredible success of the 2004 inaugural event, I decided not to slow down the excitement and growth of this event. I wanted to give girls more opportunities. I wanted to create more excitement and motivate even more the girls to play chess than ever before. In addition, I also want all of them to stay in chess. Therefore, I decided to add some additional exciting events to spice things up for all participants and alumni. That means that the girls can come back year after year. The three new additions are:
* Susan Polgar National Invitational Blitz Championship for Girls
* Susan Polgar National Invitational Puzzle Solving Contest for Girls
* Susan Polgar National Invitational Chess Training Program for Girls (to help girls improve their chess and life skills)
I expect to see around 3,000 girls competing in all stages in 2005 and I hope this number will increase every year.
As one of the most prominent women in the world of chess, have you experienced sexism, and if so, how have you combated it?
Yes, and I am not the only one. When a man wins, people say: "Do you see how great he played? That was a great game!" When a woman wins, many times people will say: "Wow, doesn’t she look hot!" and they go on with more sexist remarks or comments. Many men still do not take women playing chess seriously. I just ignore it and prove myself on the board. I don’t think sexism will ever change. Therefore, I decided that the best thing to do is show that one can be beautiful, graceful and smart as well.
There are two photos of you playing chess with Bobby Fischer on your site, and he's arguably the most famous chess player in the world. What do you think about the account of his arrest and anti-Semitism?
Bobby was an incredible player in his time. He arguably is one of the most influential chess players in history or at least in the modern era. I knew him from the time he visited and stayed with my family and me in Hungary. Under normal circumstances, he was a very nice and kind person. However, when it comes to some of the specific issues as you mentioned, he just can’t help himself. I am very sad to see some of his comments. I totally do not agree with them. I tried to change his views but I was not successful. At no time has he said anything derogatory toward me even though I am Jewish. The funny thing is many of his friends are Jewish and he claimed that there are many exceptions.
I am sad to see him in jail. Other World Champions and I feel that he is very wrong for what he said. However, the reason for him being in jail is he played chess in a war torn economic sanctioned country and not for what he said. I wish more differences could be settled through chess to save countless lives. There should be no politics involved in chess and he should not be in jail for playing chess in 1992. He has been in jail for more than 6 months. I think it is long enough. Let him go. Let him go to Iceland (the country where he made history in 1972) and live out his old age.
Chess has been around for thousands of years, yet there continue to be innovations, even though the non-chess playing world probably doesn't realize that. Why do you think chess has remained so vibrant and ever-changing? Will we ever completely "master" the game until there are no more surprises or nuances?
I don’t think anyone can master the game completely, at least not in my lifetime. It is impossible to memorize and absorb all that information. Even powerful computers can only solve every possible combination with 5 pieces or less on the board. They are working on 6 pieces or less now. It will be a while even for computers to "master" it. The reason why chess has remained so vibrant is because the challenge will never go away. The possibilities are just endless. It is like art. Every game is unique.
How have computers and technology affected the world of chess - have they been a positive or negative thing?
Computers affected chess greatly. Some say it is good and some say it takes away from the game. I personally think it helps the game if we utilize them the right way. I welcome the new technology. In fact, back in the 90’s after Deep Blue played against Garry Kasparov, I officially challenged Deep Blue but they declined. I hope one day soon I can participate in a match against one of the top computers for promotion.
It seems like in the dozen or so years since I played chess competitively, things have gotten much more competitive and political, both within the United States Chess Federation, and internationally. Do you think this infighting harms the world of chess overall?
The political bickering and fighting is simply silly and it harms chess a great deal. Instead of working together to bring chess to the same level of popularity as in other major sports, all the fighting held the game back. Sometimes because of politics, people forget the beauty and importance of the game and how it can help so many children. That is why I formed my own foundation to help chess. I dislike chess politics and I want to stay as far away from it as possible.
I think it is the same in the real world. How much money do politicians raise and spend on bashing each other every year? Imagine what we can do with education, homelessness, and other national issues.
What do you think can be done to make playing chess "cool," as opposed to the nerdy tag it seems to have retained?
Chess is cool now thanks to the support of many celebrities such as Will Smith, Priest Holmes (star running back for the KC Chiefs), Lennox Lewis, Madonna, etc. Chess has come a long way since 10-15 years ago. Even when you watch movies today, chances are you will see a chess scene in it somewhere. Chess is becoming "hip."
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring chess players or those who've yet to pick up their first pawn?
Chess can be the coolest game and it can give you lots of fun! Just learn one step at the time and soon you will master the entire board!
Chess has its own language, and I'm curious if the diversity of the people of New York lends to the vibrancy of the Chess Center. Is chess playing universal, or do people from different countries approach it differently?
For the most part, Europeans look at chess differently. Chess is much more popular in Europe than here in the U.S. Grandmasters are very well respected in Europe while they are not in the U.S. Asia is becoming like Europe. The Chinese already dominated the Women’s Olympiad and soon their men will do just as well.
What do you do when you're not playing chess?
When I am not playing, I teach and write chess books, columns, and articles. I also spend a lot of time promoting the game as the Ambassador of chess. But my full time job is taking care of my 2 young sons. When I have time, I try to hit the gym to work out. I love to cook and do things just like anyone else.