My U.S. Chess Hall of Fame Induction Speech (Video Included)
Here is the video of my Hall of Fame Induction Speech:
By Susan Polgar
March 18, 2019
Thank you! Good evening everyone!
First of all, I would like to thank Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield for hosting this wonderful celebration, and for everything they have done to transform American chess over the past decade. It is truly amazing! Thank you!
Thank you Joy, Tony, Shannon, Emily, Brian and everyone else who made this night possible.
I am humbled to be standing in front of all of you this evening, and I greatly appreciate this honor.
After I retired from competitive chess, over a decade ago, I was told by some people that it would be harder for me to be inducted to the Hall of Fame than to go to Mars. OK, so after tonight, Mars is a piece of cake, right?
All kidding aside, thank you! I have to tell you that I am a very lucky person! I get to do something I love and so passionate about, for over 4 decades and counting. I love chess, and chess gave me plenty of love back. In addition to the professional success as a player and coach, thanks to chess, I got to see the world, made countless friends and even met my husband Paul.
Tonight I would like to share with you some things that I have never shared with anyone, the many ups and downs, and my true motivation for chess excellence throughout my career. “It's unimportant how many times you get knocked down, what matters is how many times you get back up and checkmate again!”
I was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, during the Communist regime. Maybe you picked that up from my perfect Hungarian accent.
I am Jewish, the granddaughter of grandparents who were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. Around six million Jews died, including more than 300 members of my extended family.
My grandparents generally did not want to talk much about those horrible times. It was too painful for them. But still I heard some stories from them first hand. My parents also shared with me more. And this family history has impacted me my entire life.
There are 3 main motivations for me to work as hard as I could to succeed, as a player and coach.
I wanted to honor members of my family who perished during the Holocaust.
My success is the only way I knew how to repay my parents who sacrificed so much for me.
I wanted to shatter the glass ceiling to open doors for other women.
I grew up in a poor family. But my parents had a special vision and tremendous love for me.
It started when I accidentally discovered chess when I was 4 years old. I was a super curious child, and the only child in my family at that time. One day, I discovered some chess pieces and fell in love with the interesting shapes.
My father, being an educator, was very patient in introducing me to chess. Both of my parents were very relieved that I developed a strong interest right away. But their motives were different. My Father was happy because chess bonded us more closely. As for my Mother, chess gave her some needed space since it kept me occupied for hours every day.
Soon after, my Dad decided to enter me in the Budapest Girls’ Under 11 championship. Here was a 4-year-old girl who could hardly reach the table. So I had to sit on phone books and pillows just to be able to reach across the board. But somehow I won this championship against girls nearly 3 times my age, with the perfect score of 10-0. Bam! Right there, my chess career was born.
Then reality started to set in. We quickly discovered that there were so few female chess players, and no woman was a grandmaster yet at that time. When we asked around the chess community, we were told by most that it was just impossible for girls to excel at chess. Some of my “favorite” answers included:
Women are not as smart;
Women cannot keep quiet long enough for a chess game;
And so on…
All of these negative perceptions helped fuel my chess passion, and I made it my mission to show that a girl can be just as good. So I became absolutely determined to break through the artificial glass ceiling!
But breaking the glass ceiling wasn’t going to be easy!
After some early successes, I wanted to focus more on playing against stronger competition to get better. Back then, it meant playing against men. This, as it turned out, was a big political mistake.
Both my National Chess Federation and the World Chess Federation did not like the idea. They felt that it was unnatural and crazy for a girl to compete against men. So the Hungarian authorities punished me by taking away my passport so I could not travel to compete - even though at 15 I was already the #1 ranked woman player in the world.
The World Chess Federation penalized me by giving almost all female players 100 extra rating points, but not me, thereby stripping me of my world #1 ranking.
When I became the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship cycle, I was not allowed to compete because it used to be called the Men’s World Chess Championship.
Thankfully because of this scandal, FIDE changed the rule for the following cycle. They removed the word “Men’s.” Today, all women can officially compete in the “Open” World Chess Championship. I am proud to have knocked down this barrier for all women after me, including my sisters.
I faced so many additional emotional and mental challenges, discrimination, and unfairness throughout my career. But every time the thought of quitting, or giving up, or walking away from chess crossed my mind, I quickly erased it.
Failure was NOT an option! So I told myself to wipe off the tears and fight harder. “There is no crying in chess”.
There were also many great moments like winning Gold with my sisters at the 1988 and 1990 Chess Olympiads, ending the Soviet dominance in Women’s Chess, becoming the first woman in history to earn the Grandmaster title in January 1991 by completing all FIDE requirements, as well as being the only one to win all 6 prestigious chess crowns, which included the Women’s World Blitz, Rapid, Classical Championships, Team and Individual Olympiad Gold, and the World #1 ranking.
I reconnected in 2001 with an old friend, Paul, who later became my husband. When I was approached by the former USCF Executive Director Frank Niro to come out of retirement and play for the U.S., he convinced me to say yes, which resulted in the first ever medals for a US Women’s Olympiad Team. Thank you both!
All of my former teammates are here tonight. Thank you Irina, Anna, and Jennifer for fighting alongside with me for the historic results. And I am also so proud of what all of you have achieved since! Congratulations!
In 2002, the Susan Polgar Foundation was born. The first official project was to create the annual SPF Girl’s Invitational, the first ever USCF approved All-Girls National Championship. Today, it is the richest all-girls event with over $250,000 in scholarship and prizes each year. Until that time, there was no National All-Girls tournament. The second project was to convince the EB to approve the All-Girls National sponsored by the KCF. I am happy to see so many young girls today in chess, a big improvement from 15-20 years ago, and I am so proud to be able to get things started.
With the generosity of our supporters, partner universities, and donors, we have awarded nearly 6 million dollars in scholarships, cash, and prizes to young people, and more than half of it to girls. Big thanks to all our board members for supporting my vision!
In 2007, SPICE (Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence) was formed. It started in Texas and has truly blossomed in the past 7 years in St Louis at Webster University. “If you build it, they will come”. So many came and more will continue to come!
I am very thankful for the support of President Beth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster, who are here tonight, as well as many other supporters at Webster. I also would like to thank and recognize our current as well as past students who contributed to the success of SPICE. I could not do it without all of you!
Again, big thanks to my parents for everything they did for me! My Mother is truly an angel. She used to accompany me to many tournaments and she was always there when I needed her. I would also like to thank my sisters whom I love dearly. We have so many good memories together and even though we are all busy with our lives, we still try to see each other as much as we can.
Thank you to my coaches and training partners, members of my chess club back in Budapest, organizers who invited me to tournaments, sponsors, fans, the media, especially in St Louis, who have been so supportive, all my wonderful friends, both in Hungary and the ones I met during my 25 years in the U.S., which is basically half of my life. You know who you are, and I really appreciate your love, friendship, and support.
Thank you to many chess legends like Kasparov, Karpov, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Korchnoi, Spassky, and my dear friend, the late Bobby Fischer, and others for sharing with me their wisdom over the years. I was the one who convinced Bobby to move to Hungary where he stayed for a long time. When he arrived, he was already very much into Fischer Random. But he struggled to finalize all the specific rules. So we spent so many hours discussing, testing, and playing out countless games. The Fischer Random rules which everyone uses today, including castling, were co-created by Bobby and me.
Last, but not least, special thanks to my children, Tom and Leeam, for supporting me. They are really great kids, or should I say, young men. They are both attending Webster University right now and I am very proud of them.
So in ending, this is my advice to all the young people out there. I am sure you will face some bumps in life no matter what you choose to pursue. But do not give up. Fight for what you are passionate about. I really hope that my success will help open doors for women not only in chess but in other sports and professions as well.
When people tell me that something is impossible to accomplish, it makes me want to succeed even more. As my good friend Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan told me, I have to do what makes me happy, and ignore all the naysayers. Thank you Yasser! You have been a true friend.
I do not like to dwell in the past. So I see this ceremony as an opportunity to have a fresh positive reboot. I am looking forward to a bright chess future in the US, thanks to generous supporters like Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, and to continuing to share my knowledge and experience to help many more in the game I love and have devoted my life to.
So how would I want to be remembered? As "someone who persevered and overcame all odds to break the gender barriers, to right the wrongs, and to make her sport better and more inclusive".
And always remember to “Win with grace, lose with dignity!” Thank you!
Cover photo provided by the HOF