By ELNARA NASIRLI
Our guest today is American Hungarian-born chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar, one of the greatest players of all time. She is an Olympic and World chess champion, a chess teacher, coach, writer and promoter and the head of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE). At the age of 15, she became the top-ranked female player in the world, and remained ranked in the top three for the next 25 years. She was also the first woman in history to break the gender barrier by qualifying for the 1986 “Men’s” World Championship. A mother of two boys, a beautiful woman and inspiring pioneer, meet one of the most influential people I have ever met.
– How did chess first appear in your life?
– It was a coincidence at first. When I was a little girl I accidentally opened a cabinet at home and some chess pieces fell out. I was curious and asked my mom if I can play, thinking they were a fun toy. She said that she did not know the rules, let us wait for Daddy to come home and he will show you how to play. So, that is how it all started. First, he showed me the names of the pieces then taught me the rules and within a couple of weeks I could play a whole game.
– When did you start getting your first achievements? Was it then that you understood that chess is your passion in life?
– Actually, pretty early on, within a couple of months I started loving the game. I participated in local chess competitions and regardless of the fact that I was the youngest participant I won everything. Then, I won the city championship of Budapest, where I was born and raised. I was four and a half and I kept winning, while other participants were up to ten, eleven years old. That championship I also won all my games, ten out of ten.
It was quite impressive at that time to see such a feat not only for a little girl, but for a woman playing chess. At the time it was fun for me, and when I started getting interview requests and media attention, I understood that it was not normal, it is something different.
– You have paved the way for many female chess players, a game that was previously exclusively ruled by men. What motivated you to become a trailblazer in such a male-dominated sport?
– The concept of fairness and equality was very much engraved in our family and society. Both my mother and father believed that girls just like boys can achieve whatever the desire regardless of gender. They empowered me and I believed I could prove that women can succeed in chess. I felt like it was my mission to prove it. When I was around ten years old I had a revelation. I could not understand why people were so surprised that I had goals to become a Grandmaster, just because I was a girl. I could not get my head around the concept. Chess is not a physical sport like weight lifting or boxing, where physical strengths are notably different between men and women. But, this was a mental activity so it was possible for a woman to succeed on the same arena with men.
– So, there was some disbelief and criticism?
– I received the argument – show us a woman who could do it. That was an eye-opener moment. I understood that women simply did not believe that it was possible. The public gave in to the social pressure: that chess is for men, and that they are better at chess. It is quite sad that when I started playing chess, in the mid-seventies and even late-seventies the top ten rated female chess players, for example 8 or 9 would be under 2300-rated. Even the top player at the time did not reach 2400. Because they did not believe it was possible, they did not have such goals.
The first step to any achievement is to set a goal. So, every day it is important to set short-term goals, then intermediate, and finally long term. For instance, for me that goal was becoming a grandmaster.
Thanks to my vision and my family upbringing I grew up knowing that there were no boundaries, no glass ceiling of my potential. That is what sparked the revolution in chess. We [Susan and her chess player sisters Judit and Sofia] broke that glass ceiling set by players before us.
– That must have been extremely difficult for your parents since it was not at the time socially acceptable. How did your parents motivate you?
– My parents received a fair bit of criticism, because I was home schooled and people said that my childhood was taken away. I believe, it is the parents’ responsibility to help find an interest for their child and develop it into a passion. My father succeeded in doing so through chess. He was a psychologist and teacher. His main theory is that the child needs to feel progress and positive feedback. Praise builds motivation, which makes the child want to succeed and builds his/her confidence. The more you work the better results you have, the more motivated you are, the more confident you become. It is a cycle. Of course, there are bumps along the way, but you learn from them and only become stronger.
– Can you pinpoint what exactly contributed most to your success? Skills, upbringing, talent?
– I was very fortunate to be born in a family of educators. My father had a vision how to raise a child more efficiently than average to make me successful. If I were to choose one factor it would definitely be my upbringing that contributed most.
– Are you passing on the same knowledge to your sons?
– Well, I had different family circumstances, when my sons were one and four years old, I got divorced. Therefore, it was difficult to reproduce the same practice of early specialization, like it was for my sisters and me. I introduced chess to my sons and they are good players. My eldest son, who is 15 now with a rating of 2100, has won some national championships of his age groups. Nonetheless, they are not likely to make a living as professional players later in life, because they did not have the same early intense training.
– What career choice would you support for your boys?
– I would support any career that they choose. My little one is interested in engineering and robotics, and my eldest is fascinated with computers. I hope they will eventually find the career of their life. Of course there is always chess if they decide, but there is a lot of work involved.
– What is the future of chess?
– Chess is growing and there are a lot more opportunities today than there used to be when I started playing. That applies not only to chess players but also chess coaches, chess writers and other chess-related careers. There are 700 million to one billion people regularly playing chess around the world and the number is still growing.
– Can you tell us about SPICE (Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence)?
– With pleasure, I founded SPICE seven years ago. It is a unique institution for chess talent. It started out at Texas Tech and was hosted for five years, and then I chose to move it to Webster University in St. Louis. The program gives the opportunity for young chess players to combine higher education and chess at the same time in a university setting. In Wesley So’s case for example, he did not have to choose between going to university and becoming a professional chess player. He did not only get a very good higher education, but also jumped from being barely top 100 in the world to top 5 after he completed the course.
Grandmasters live close to each other during the course, so they can train together without wasting time or money. Most young players do not have a chess federation that sponsors their training. Players who are motivated and disciplined get a lot of benefit from this. Interestingly our best chess players are our best students with top scores. The players do not have any special privileges and everyone is required to attend all classes, but if they have a tournament during exams, then they take them in advance. That way they are not behind on their studies and can still participate regularly in tournaments. We also organize events in the St Louis community, like the SPICE Cup. We are aiming to incorporate chess into the curriculum and have a degree in chess, like it exists in Russia.
– How can chess knowledge be used in life?
– Chess strategy is quite beneficial for business. We recently even had a business course, “Spicing up your business with chess”. Chess analogies are used in teaching strategic thinking in business and overall. My new book, “Rich As A King: How the Wisdom of Chess Can Make You a Grandmaster of Investing,” demonstrates using chess knowledge in investing.
– How do you manage your time between bringing up your boys and work?
– As a working mother it is a challenge, but in a modern society it is customary that a woman chooses or has to work. When my sons were still about three years old, it was extremely difficult and I stayed at home. However, gradually there was more flexibility as the kids grew. Initially, I devoted all my time to them, but with age they do not need that kind of constant presence – now they cannot wait till I leave (laughs).
– Now they are teenagers, another difficult period.
– Yes, well that is inevitable. I try to spend as much time with my kids as I can, but they themselves have busy schedules. The day starts at 6:30 in the morning, they go to school till 3 – 4 in the afternoon. My eldest plays tennis, so basically he is at home only after 6. They do homework by themselves without my help. During their free time they go to sport or see some friends. They definitely prefer spending more time with their friends than with me (laughs). At this point they have their own life. Obviously it was more challenging when they were much younger. I think independence is very important. So, as soon as I stopped nursing I tried to bring them up to be as independent as possible so they did not have any attachment issues.
– How did motherhood affect you?
– It is the most life-changing moment in a woman’s life. The priorities are changed completely. First of all, when the baby is born he is fully dependent on the mother and you devote all your time for his wellbeing. The only way to fully understand motherhood is to experience it yourself.
– What age of your kids did you enjoy the most?
– I love every stage of motherhood. After nine months of pregnancy, both the mother and the child feel physically dependent on each other. After a few years the nature of the relationship changes, but a strong bond still remains. Now, when my kids are 13 and 15 it is like having close friends you can trust. It is a special love between mother and child.
– My child is still young – 2 years old. In your opinion what is critical for a child’s development?
– I think physical development is really important – movement, sport. For mental development, I believe chess is the best, even from an early age. It gives a feeling of accomplishment, progress and success. Chess teaches to deal with every day challenges and builds confidence. Many children today are insecure and unconfident. I believe that they were simply not challenged enough, not enough attention was given to them, they were not taught that they can solve problems on their own. It is very important to give positive feedback for the child to feel progress, “I learned new skills today,” they should say everyday. Not everyone will become a chess Grandmaster, but chess develops very important survival skills necessary for life.
– A common misperception of professional women chess players is that intuition plays a key part of their game. How do women play chess differently from men?
– Interestingly, the general perception is that men play much more aggressively in style. In reality it is not so. Most top-rated women players are quite aggressive in chess. It is kind of an oxymoron. Even my sister Judit and Hou Yifan, are known to be very aggressive chess players. It is rare for women to be positional players. For example, I used to be more of a strategic player. That may be the reason for my success back in the day. It goes against the general perception of female chess players.
– What is your biggest achievement to date?
– Breaking the gender barrier in chess, by showing the world that women can play like men, they can become grandmasters, compete in men’s tournaments. In chess and beyond, I made it possible for women to believe that their goals are achievable.
– So many of your dreams have come true due to your dedication and discipline. Is there anything else left that you wish to come true in the future?
– Well, there are a lot of dreams I have. Mainly, I would love to see chess becoming as popular in the world as it is with popular televised sports. Also, I would love to see an equal respect and fair prizing for women’s tournaments, just like in tennis. Yes, male players are higher-rated than women but as it is in tennis there should be equality in the prizing for both. Statistically, women have more decisive games than men, because they play more aggressively and take more risks. So, they are much more interesting to follow for fans than a slow positional game that ends in a draw after 68 moves. Only a small number of people appreciate these types of games. The majority of chess fans prefer decisive games with risk taking. The usual argument, “But the guys play better”, is not valid in order not to appreciate women’s chess.
– Finally, what are the general rules of life you always abide by?
– Follow your beliefs and always do the right thing.
– That was beautiful, thank you very much!