My first game against Susan Polgar


Grandmaster Susan Polgar played me in my first-ever game of chess. Here's how badly I lost.

Polgar, who coaches at Webster University and was recently inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, was the first woman to break the gender barrier in the sport.

APRIL 1, 2019 4:31 PM

When I learn that Webster University’s Susan Polgar, the head coach for the school’s chess team, is being inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame—the youngest female inductee ever—an idea begins to form. I’m familiar with Polgar, whose credits are more than impressive. A grandmaster. A five-time Olympic champion. A four-time Women’s World Champion. Polgar runs the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Webster and has also led the team to five national titles.

But I’m familiar with Polgar not because I know anything about chess—in fact, I’ve never even played a game—but because she broke gender barriers in the sport. She was the first woman to win a men’s grandmaster title, and the only player—man or woman—to have won a Triple Crown (in chess, that’s a Rapid, Blitz, and Classical World Championships). She started her Susan Polgar Foundation encourage children in chess, and it hosts various games like the SPF Girl’s Invitational, SPF National Open for Boys & Girls, and SPF World Open for Boys & Girls. In 2012, the year Polgar moved here, St. Louis Magazine’s Jeannette Cooperman wrote about how, in the 1980s, Polgar, who was born in Hungary, was prevented from traveling to Western countries to compete by the Hungarian Chess Federation. They didn’t want her to compete against men but rather other girls. “Girls cannot do that, the men around her insisted,” Cooperman wrote. “‘They came up with all sorts of theories,’ she scoffs. ‘Women cannot keep quiet.’ ‘Women have a smaller brain.’”

Polgar won the World Youth Chess Championship for girls under 16 at age 12. When she was 17, she qualified for what was then the Men’s World Chess Championship, the first woman to do so.

So the idea: Instead of simply interviewing Polgar about her recent induction, it might be more fun to experience a first of my own. Which would be to play my first-ever game of chess. Against a grandmaster. Scratch that, against a grandmaster who is widely considered one of the strongest players in the world. The World Chess Federation ranks her the number one female player—the organization still sorts by gender—in the United States. And did I mention Polgar’s first championship win? The Girls' Budapest Championship under 11, with a perfect score.

She was 4 years old.

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