Before Laszlo Polgár conceived his children, before he even met his wife, he knew he was going to raise geniuses. He’d started to write a book about it. He saw it moves ahead.
By their first meeting, a dinner and walk around Budapest in 1965, Laszlo told Klara, his future bride, how his kids’ education would go. He had studied the lives of geniuses and divined a pattern: an adult singularly focused on the child’s success. He’d raise the kids outside school, with intense devotion to a subject, though he wasn’t sure what. “Every healthy child,” as he liked to say, “is a potential genius.” Genetics and talent would be no obstacle. And he’d do it with great love.
Fifty years later in a leafy suburb of St. Louis, I met one of Laszlo’s daughters, Susan Polgár, the first woman ever to earn the title of chess grandmaster. For several years, Susan had led the chess team of Webster University — a small residential college with a large international and online footprint — to consecutive national titles. Their spring break had just begun, and for the next few days, in a brick-and-glass former religious library turned chess hall, the team would drill for a four-team tournament in New York City to defend the title.
The students, sporting blue-and-yellow windbreakers and polos, huddled around a checked board of white and black, a queen, rook, and pawn stacked in a row. They had started with the King’s Indian Defense, a well-mapped terrain. Now they were in the midgame. Polgár sat to the side, behind a laptop synced to the game, algorithms whirring. What should be the next move? she asked. “Be active and concrete.”
Jocular debate broke out, accents betraying origins: Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, Vietnam, Hungary. “This is not human,” one student said. “It looks magical,” said another. Computers have long since outclassed humans in chess; they’re vital in training, but their recommended moves can seem quixotic. “No, it’s very human,” Polgár assured them. The students, most of them grandmasters, grew quiet, searching the more than 100,000 positional situations they had ingrained over their lifetimes, exploring possible moves and the future problems they implied — moving down the decision tree. It’s the knot at the heart of chess: Each turn, you must move; when you move, a world of potential vanishes.
“Bishop g4,” Polgár confirmed.
“That’s not a human move!”
“It’s a human move,” she said. “It’s actually very pretty.” The arrangement is close to a strategy she used before, against her sister. “I beat Judit on that.”
The students murmured. This demanded respect.