In Depth Interview with Susan Polgar
by RYAN KOHLS
Susan Polgar: “People truly believed it was impossible for women to play good chess or become a grandmaster. They really were convinced that because no other woman had done it before me it was impossible. But I learned chess quickly and it became part of my mission.”
If you love a good tale about women who are socially constructed geniuses, smash gender barriers and humiliate sexist men in sports, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.
Her name is Susan Polgar. She’s Hungarian. She’s a genius. And, she was the first woman to ever achieve grandmaster status and compete with men in chess world championships.
Polgar’s gender-defying ride is now the stuff of legend. Her father, László Polgar, was a psychologist and chess enthusiast who believed strongly that “geniuses were made, not born.” The key was to focus a child’s energy on one thing from an early age. Susan, at the age of 4, showed interest in the chessboard. László noticed and began to hone her skills. Together, Susan and her father began playing and practicing chess for thousands and thousands of hours. It was an experiment he had always wanted to try, so he did…and it worked.
By the age of 15, Susan Polgar was the best female player in the world. From there the barriers began tumbling down as she defeated men, won countless tournaments and became one of chess’ greatest players. During her career she also had the opportunity to play some of the greats: Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky, to name a few.
Susan isn’t the only Polgar to excel at chess, however. She has two younger sisters, Judit and Sofia. Both followed in her footsteps, received the same treatment from their father and became chess champions. The Polgar Sisters are mainstays on the chess circuit and a popular trio of inspirational women in sports.
Following an extensive career at the top of the chess world, Susan Polgar retired from professional play in 2005. Since then, she’s focused her energy on coaching university chess teams, first for Texas Tech and now at Webster University in St. Louis. She’s also started her own foundation: The Susan Polgar Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to promote chess, and its educational benefits throughout the U.S., especially for girls.
Polgar has also used her extensive experience to author numerous books on chess strategy and her rise to grandmaster status.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of chess’ greatest players.
I caught up with Susan Polgar over the phone from her home in St. Louis.
From the strategies of chess, to her confrontations with Bobby Fischer, to breaking gender barriers and defeating male grandmasters, we cover it all.
Your story begins with you stumbling upon a chessboard in your home. Can you describe what made you fall in love with chess at such a young age?
First of all, the shape of the pieces. I thought it was very cute. Later, my father introduced me to the essence of the game and I thought it was very fascinating, with the combinations and possibilities. I think also the fairness of the game. I liked the fact that it’s contained, 8 x 8, lot’s of symmetrical elements. Also, I was a small girl and it was something I could do. It didn’t matter what age, size or color you were. Unlike physical sports, where an adult will have a big advantage over a child in terms of knowledge of physical ability and build, in chess all of that disappears.
You mentioned your father. When you research your family’s story, there’s a very special connection with the experiment he conducted on you and your sisters. It’s obviously made you successful, but have you ever held any resentment that he focused your energy on one thing?
No, not really because although the focus was chess it was never the only thing. I was learning languages or involved with other sports as well. I travelled a lot . It was not just the chessboard, even though it was a main part of my life.
Your father seems like a very fascinating man. How would you describe his character?
I guess he’s a visionary. He’s very goal oriented. He sets high goals and he’s very ambitious. At the same time I think he’s a very fair person. He always takes into considering the interests of his community and the general good of society at the time.
You’re the eldest of three chess grandmasters. What role did you play in developing the talents of your sisters?
Well, obviously, by the pure fact that I was the oldest one, and a master level player when they started playing, I helped them a lot; hundreds and thousands of hours in practicing together. At first it was purely teaching and then it became practice partners. It was pretty important for their growth in chess.
How do you practice chess for thousands of hours? What kind of strategy is involved in that?
At an initial level you would practice different checkmate patterns on different setups and themes that may involve destroying the defence in front of a king. Then you try to solve examples from other people’s games or made up practice positions. That’s one aspect; to build the pattern recognition. That’s true for all levels, from beginner to grandmaster. That’s something you never stop because the sharpness in calculating and recognizing patters, efficiently and quickly, is really a big chunk of what chess is about. You find them for yourselves to gain an advantage and also to prevent your opponent from such ideas. It’s more difficult in a way because we all tend to look for ways to win and are less eager to prevent our opponent from winning. But in order to not fall for their traps it’s important to look for opportunities on both sides.
We practice from different situations that were already played by former grandmasters or champions and learn from what they did in certain situations. Chess is like an ocean with endless possibilities, but at the same time ideas and patterns repeat themselves even though circumstances are different. It’s like life. You’re from Kenya and Canada, so you travel a lot. When you travel in airports it doesn’t matter which airport you’re at, you know you go to the check-in counter, you check your luggage, go through security, find your seat, and so on. For someone who hasn’t travelled in their life it’s scary. How am I going to find things? But once you have the experience it doesn’t matter if you’re in Nairobi or Toronto or New York. The gate may look different, but yet the patterns are the same. So in a chess game it’s the same way. According to some research it has been determined that an average Grandmaster is familiar with 20,000 different patterns.
How many patterns are there in chess? Is it infinite?
It’s probably not infinite. I don’t know the exact number. I guess it’s 20,000 that’s important. I wouldn’t say that there are that many more. People discover news one, but with 20,000 you’ll be one of the best players in the world, you’ll be in the top 1000 for sure.
Did you know 20,000 patterns?
I would think so, yeah. But you know, knowing them is one thing, another thing is to be able to apply them at all times and not make mistakes. When grandmasters lose games it’s not because they don’t know them but because of the time constraints. Even though you’re familiar you don’t have the time to calculate it all out or compare the different options and evaluate which is better.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert in chess history. But growing up in Eastern Europe and being in the Soviet Union numerous times, I can certainly say it has been part of the culture for a couple hundred years by now. It’s partly because of the weather, in Russia for example a lot of the year it’s cold and the activities you can do outdoors are restricted. It’s inexpensive, anyone can afford it. You can play chess in your own home, in a club, on the beach, on a car, a bus. You can play with your child, your grandparents. It doesn’t matter what your build is, or gender, or religion, it crosses through all boundaries. I think that is the secret behind it. If you want to play basketball, being 6 feet tall has an advantage over someone who is 5’4. And someone who is an adult has an advantage over an eight year old child. It’s probably the simplicity and availability to anyone, anywhere.
You talked about the lack of barriers in chess. But a huge part of your story is how you broke down the gender barrier in the 70s and 80s. Back in those early days, what was the meanest thing anyone ever said or did to you?
(laughs) Well, there were quite a few. The meanest thing was probably when I qualified to represent Hungary at the World Championship in 1986. I wasn’t allowed to compete in the Men’s World Championship. The title of the event included the word men. Therefore, I wasn’t allowed to play. I had many nasty comments about how women aren’t allowed to play chess and they made up all kinds of arguments why not, like women’s brains are smaller and can’t keep quiet for that amount of time. That has been a major part of my young years, that fighting and discrimination. I have to say, in many cases, people truly believed it was impossible for women to play good chess or become a grandmaster. They really were convinced as a fact of life because no other woman had done it before me it was impossible. But I learned it quickly and it became part of my mission.
When you started beating these male grandmasters, was it hard to keep the smile off your face?
Obviously it was very satisfying and felt good. I have to say that doesn’t happen over night. At first I was beating club players and experts. It was actually harder for those guys who lost to me in the initial years because even though they were only club players their egos were bruised. They were not used to it. It did not happen in any sport that women would beat men. They were teased a lot and reminded of it for a long time. However, when I started regularly beating masters, they slowly got used to it and it wore off the novelty element of it. It wasn’t such a sensation. Though, I am very proud that I paved the road. Now there are about two dozen women who achieved the grandmaster title, the highest ranking in chess.
I was arguing the other day that baseball is the most strategic sport in the world. Do you think chess is the most strategic?
Probably by definition it is. That said, I don’t underestimate the importance of strategy and psychology in other sports. People would think that because other sports are physical it’s all about what you do physically. I know in tennis or football, strategy is extremely important. But the ratio is perhaps different between the strategy and the physical effort extended in chess versus other sports. It does exist in both though the ratio may be different.
That’s a very diplomatic answer.
I think it’s very true. People underestimate the physical effort that people make in chess. People doubt or question whether it’s a sport at all. You can ask anybody who competes in chess and has to fight for 10 to 11 grueling hours and see how much it takes out of them physically and mentally.
I read a quote from Garry Kasparov where he described chess as “mental torture.” Do you agree with that?
(laughs) Sometimes, but it’s certainly not the norm. If it’s a match you’re playing for two months, like (Kasparov) did against Anatoly Karpov in the 80s. Or for 50-60 days in a row you’re under pressure and every single move you make has a great weight on your shoulder and things are not going your way on top of it. Moments like that, when you feel you’re putting in all the sleepless nights and the result is not there, it can be very painful. If he wants to use the word torturous that’s his choice of words, but it’s certainly very, very tough.
Back in the day, how hard was it to turn your mind off of the game? Were you constantly dreaming about chess?
I would say that in every world champion’s life there is a concentration of a few years, before they become world champion, where they prioritize chess as the most important thing in their lives. They pretty much underline everything towards that goal of becoming a world champion. That will include physical exercises to enhance endurance and energy during the competition. It may include a special diet , a special sleeping schedule that will accustom towards one at a big championship. They sacrifice entertainment and social aspects. So, I would say when you live those years, obviously you have times that you even sleep with some specific chess positions or patterns. In fact, I know numerous people who come up with great ideas in dreams. It happened to me as well. You’d be surprised, I heard it even from athletes in physical sports. They dream about tennis and then implement what they practiced in their dreams.
There’s a lot of mind games in chess. There’s this video on YouTube of Kasparov playing Magnus Carlsen. He walked up to the table, didn’t shake his hand, played and then walked away. What were some of your strategies for getting the upper hand mentally?
Well, I never used any of those tactics. Garry is famous for intimidating his opponents. I don’t like those type of tactics. In some cases, it’s part of the game. I was just on the other end. I got prophylactic by those things. The majority of the players don’t try anything special. They may try to ignore their colleagues before a big match or minimize communication. That’s understandable. I wouldn’t go an extra mile to intimidate them.
What do you remember about playing Bobby Fischer?
It was a great honor and it was something magical in a way. All chess players of my generation were fascinated by Bobby Fischer’s games. He was a hero to most of us. He defeated the world by himself. It was a very inspiring story. When I actually met him and became friends and he stayed at our house while he lived in Hungary for a number of years, it was a great pleasure to spend time with him and play chess. I’m quite happy with the scores I had against him. He was still a strong player at that time. But, he of course had a problem of keeping consistency. He was in his early fifties. He wasn’t competing much at that time.
There’s a fascinating story online about you confronting him about his anti-semitic views. You’re Jewish and you said you “tried to change his views but was unsuccessful.” What were those encounters like?
At first it was shocking to me that he really believes those things. When I confronted him about those things he was defensive. The bottom line is that in his younger years he had some very negative experiences with people who happened to be Jewish. Some people who influenced him the wrong way and took advantage of him. Instead of evaluating that those particular people did that to me so I hate them, he was generalizing that this group of people is this way. But when I confronted him he was giving me examples like, “Look what this guy did to me.” So, at the time when he was still in Hungary he was clearly less extreme than he became later in some of his interviews. We’re talking about 1993-1994, when I used to spent time with him.
You blogged about the centre dedicated to him in Iceland. Do you think that overall his impact on chess remains more positive than negative?
Absolutely. I honestly despise the fact that there’s so much focus on a negative side. He was a sick person and became mentally ill. He deteriorated over the later years of his life. Imagine today you and I all of the sudden grow a mental illness and become crazy. What does it matter what we say?
Because it’s not really you anymore?
Exactly. It’s not in his control. He’s sick. Let’s say someone gets in an accident and loses his legs and can’t run. Even though he was an Olympic champion runner, why should that take away from what he did before? His common sense and his mental state wasn’t the same when he made those crazy statements about 9/11 and so on. In my mind, it doesn’t take a thing away from his amazing skills on the chessboard or how he revolutionized chess. I would say he single handedly created professional chess that thousands of people benefit from. And yes, it’s very sad the things he said and how crazy he became. It’s just unfortunate he didn’t have anyone near him to control the damage to his image from those crazy statements.
Do you remember where you were when you heard he died?
I believe I was in Texas at an event my foundation was doing.
Kasparov famously played IBM’s Deep Blue computer. I heard you were declined a chance to play. Do you think you could have defeated Deep Blue?
We’ll never know. I actually had an opportunity for a friendly encounter at the IBM headquarters. I played there against Deep Blue. It was a draw.
Polgar’s friendly match with Deep Blue.
You’re still young enough to play professionally. What made you decide to step away from the game?
I pretty much achieved all the titles I could – world championships, Olympic medals. I think I can inspire the next generation and motivate a lot of people and help our game grow through my stature in the world of chess.
You have a chess foundation now and focus on bringing women into chess. Has focusing your energy on those endeavours been satisfying?
Yes, very much so. It’s nice to see the number of women’s participation growing and the level of self-confidence in women growing. Even the women who never become professionals, it gives them confidence in their lives and careers. So for thousands of girls who I affected through my foundation, I get so much feedback that it’s life changing for so many young people.