The Revolutionary Mind

By breaking the gender barrier, she proved that woman can play chess just as well as men or even better. Due to her efforts to achieve equality in chess, today, girls and women do not have to go through any hurdles –that she experienced

Polgar: The Revolutionary Mind, an interview by Renata Holcmann

I was interviewed by Renata Holcmann of Columbia University. With her permission, I would like to share what she wrote with you.

The very first time I heard the name Polgar was when I was at a local chess tournament in my hometown of Papa, Hungary. Both me and my sister won first place in our categories and some people were murmuring that “they might be the next Polgar sisters.” This idea of sibling chess prodigies very much appealed to my mother and she encouraged us to keep playing and hoped that we -as sisters- would go far with chess. Unfortunately, this dream of hers evaporated in a sudden moment when my sister decided to quit chess when she lost a game to me. So from then on, it was only me, who followed the news about the Polgar sisters and dreamed of meeting them one day. But out of the three sisters I really wanted to meet Susan – the oldest one –, who was the fore-runner in the Polgar family and became a true icon, for many of her accomplishments, in the chess world.

Susan (Zsuzsanna) Polgar was born in Budapest, on April 19th in 1969. Both her parents –Laszlo and Klara Polgar- were school teachers. When I asked Susan how she started to play chess, she quite surprised me with her answer: “Accidentally. I was searching for a new toy and found the chess set.” Then she went on explaining with quite an enthusiasm how she immediately fell in love with the shape of the pieces. She demanded her mother to play a game with her, but she told her that she has to wait until her father comes home and he would teach her then. Then the studying of this royal game began for Susan, just at the age of four! She very much enjoyed learning tactics and found the checkmate puzzles a lot of fun. Not long after her 4th birthday, she entered a chess tournament in Budapest. She competed in the 1st to 4th grade category (almost everyone was twice her age) and won all her ten games, becoming the Budapest Champion. After this event, her life changed forever. The media started following her every move and she was labeled as a “wunderkind.” Hungary’s reaction to her sudden success was divided: a small group of people responded positively to her great achievement, believing that she truly is a chess prodigy. While others started attacking her parents for not letting her play with dolls or at the playground, instead making her sit by the chessboard for hours. This was the bigger group, the pessimists and jealous crowd who also thought that her winning the Budapest Champion title was just an accident, a one-time lucky event and saw no future for her in chess. They could not be more wrong about her…

When Susan turned six years old, her parents made a decision to home-school her since she already knew how to read and write, was years ahead in Math and also spoke Russian fluently. Susan claims, “My Russian became almost as good as my native tongue” due to being enrolled in a nursery school in the previous years where they only spoke Russian. Also, not being in school all day, gave her the chance to spend more time with chess. Predictably, because of this, her parents were constantly attacked in the media. Susan emphasized how much her parents sacrificed for her and her sisters to make it possible for them to succeed. There were many hurdles over the years, but they gave a tremendous support for them at all times. At the time in Hungary, it was acceptable for a high-school aged athlete to be home-schooled in order to practice more and travel to competitions, but nobody had ever heard of keeping a child home -from the very beginning, grade one- to improve her chess skills! Then again, the world still had to wait and see how Susan’s hard work and determination would pave the road to her successful future.

Susan has two sisters, Sophia who is five and a half years younger and Judit, who is seven years younger than her. Being the oldest one, Susan often taught her sisters chess throughout the years, but she was also setting a good example for them about her work ethic. She worked extremely hard, some days practiced even six to eight hours! Usually, she played in ten to twelve tournaments per year. These were long competitions that lasted two or three weeks. Starting from age four, Susan studied from books and studied with different chess coaches. From our conversation I found out that her father was an excellent teacher, but she also had other influential coaches in her life. For instance, Eva Karakas gave Susan the love for the game, but she gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from Laszlo Hazai and Lev Psakhis as well. She studied chess in various ways:

* Solved puzzles to improve her tactical and calculation skills
* Studied many grandmasters’ games to understand different strategies
* Memorized master games and played blindfold chess to improve her visualization skills
* Studied many endgames
* Played a lot of practice games with family members and friends
* Regularly played in club tournaments

In 1979, at the age of ten, Susan became a National Woman Master after finishing in sixth place in the Hungarian Women’s Championship. In 1982, she earned her first FIDE Master norm after beating a much higher ranked player –Laszlo Liptay- with black pieces in the last round of the Balatonbereny, Hungary tournament. (FIDE is the World Chess Federation.) Soon after that she earned her other two norms and became a FIDE Master and automatically received her Hungarian National Master title as well, since the FIDE Master title is a higher. I asked Susan how she felt when she was just a child, competing against -very strong- adult players, all the time. She told me that she greatly enjoyed the challenge, and it made her feel big, she wanted to be looked at more than just a little girl, she wanted to be taken seriously.

In 1981 she played abroad for the first time, in the World Under-16 Girls’ Championship in Westergate, England. It was a tough tournament, but after defeating two main rivals of the tourney -the English Teresa Needham and the Polish Jolanta Rojek- she only needed a draw in the last round against the American Baracca Shabbaz to win 1st place. So even though she was up a pawn, she could agree to a draw and with that she captured the World Under-16 Girl Chess Champion title.

Susan, even though she was a top-class player- was left out of many chess tournaments due to being a female chess player. According to Susan, her the most painful experience was when she was denied the chance to compete in the Men’s World Chess Championship, -after qualifying for it from the overall Hungarian Championship- providing her an unreasonable explanation that it was only for men and she could not represent Hungary. The most shocking fact was that she was officially the #1 ranked female player on the July 1984 world rating list, but still FIDE would not allow her to play. I can only imagine the sadness she must have experienced at that time, but she turned her frustration to strength and from then on -because of this unfair treatment-, she tirelessly fought for equality in chess. In the 1986 FIDE Congress she finally achieved that they officially changed the name of this event, leaving the “Men’s” part out of it and making the title the World Chess Championship. So due to Susan’s incredible success in chess and her courage to stand up and fight for her beliefs, today girls and women can compete in chess tournaments among men.

Susan‘s prowess in chess rightfully earned her a place to be in the highest circles of the chess world and this gave her the opportunity to not only meet, but play chess with many of the most elite chess players and world champions of our times. Among them were Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov and Anand.

In 1984, after ten years of hard work and sacrifices, Susan became an International Master. In the summer of 1988, in Royan, France, Susan earned her very first GM (grandmaster) norm. A year later, she earned her second GM norm, in Leon, Spain. Also, in 1988, she was selected with her two sisters –Sophia and Judit- along with Ildiko Madl to represent Hungary in the Olympiad in Thesasaloniki, Greece. Susan played on the first board all the fourteen games -without a break- and scored 10.5 and did not lose a single game! Her sisters and Ildiko also performed well and the Hungarian teenage team won the Olympiads, beating the “unbeatable” Soviet team.

In 1990, the Hungarian team –with the same players- won the gold medal again in Novi Sad. But besides the team’s gold medal, the Polgar sisters also won individual gold medals on board one, two and three. (Ildiko Madl only played two games at this time.) This time, Susan scored 11 points, winning eight games and drawing six. This again, was truly an unbelievable achievement at such a high-class competition.

In January of 1991, Susan earned her final GM norm in Pamplona, Spain and with that she became the first woman ever to earn the highest chess title of International Grandmaster. When I asked her what it meant to her to achieve this great height in chess, she told me that: “It was very special to me. Even when I was a teenager, many professional players doubted me. They simply didn’t believe that it was possible for a woman to meet all the requirements to earn the Men’s Grandmaster title. I was very eager to get there and was working very hard for many years. So when I finally earned the title, it was justification as well as fulfillment of my long-awaited dream.”

In 1992, the Hungarian Chess Federation organized the Blitz (5 min.) and Rapid (30 min.) Women’s World Championship in Budapest. Susan scored 22.5 points out of 25 games and won 1st place. In the fifteen-round rapid tournament, she collected 12 points without losing a single game and again finished ahead of her sisters, at 1st place. Susan repeated these phenomenal performances in later years and in 1996 she won her fourth Women’s World Chess Championships. To add to that, she is the only World Champion, male or female, who ever won the triple crown (blitz, rapid and classical world championships). She is also a five-time Olympic Chess Champion who collected ten overall medals (five gold, four silver, and one bronze). When I asked her about her favorite game, she told me that it was from the 2004 Olympiad, in Calvia, against Maia Chiburdanidze, the former Women’s World Champion. I looked at the game. It was truly brilliant, full of tactical ideas and strategic maneuvering. In the endgame, Susan had two passed pawns -supported by her rook- that were unstoppable, so after the 39th move Chiburdanidze resigned.

Susan holds a record for 56 consecutive Olympiad game unbeaten streak and all on board one. In fact, she has never lost a single game. In 2005, Susan played 326 simultaneous games (won 309, drew 14 and lost only 3), and by doing so, she broke four previous world records. In 2006, she became the Woman’s Chess Cup Champion. She won the US Open Blitz Chess Championship three times, in 2003, in 2005 and in 2006, ahead of all the other male participants.

When I asked her how she could become such a strong chess player -in other words, what was her recipe for success- she told me “The love of the game was number one, then discipline, but also, perseverance and motivation were essential too.”

In describing herself as a chess player, I learned that first, she wants to achieve a solid base, so she plays the opening carefully. She always plans ahead, looks at the whole picture and reacts to the needs of the situation at all times. So in order to succeed, one must be a flexible, universal player.

In 2002, Susan founded the Susan Polgar Foundation, a non-profit organization to promote chess as an educational tool –especially among girls-, as well as a social and a competitive activity. She is also the director of SPICE, the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence where she has been coaching the Knight Raiders Chess Team. She expressed to me that she greatly enjoys sharing her knowledge with her students and loves to see them improve and perform well in tournaments.

Her chess team recently had a huge success at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, beating teams like Yale and Stanford. The Knight Raiders made the Final Four in its first try in Division I. They won the Final Four which is the National Division I Championship in the second try, in spite of being the lowest seed. Again, she made history.

In an article called, “Knight Raiders Win National Championship” Paul Truong said that: “Susan became the first female to coach a men’s Division I team to the National Championship. You cannot even imagine, let’s say, a female coaching a men’s basketball team or men’s football team to the national title, but in chess, she showed that it can happen.”

She dominated the coaching scene by coaching 3 different teams with 2 different universities, TTU and Webster University, to win seven straight Final Four Championships.

Susan also sponsors and organizes several prominent annual events, such as the Susan Polgar World Open and National Open for Boys and Girls, the Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls Championship and the prestigious SPICE Cup at TTU and Webster University.

Over the years, Susan won many impressive awards for her work. Here are some examples:

FIRST WOMAN EVER IN HISTORY TO:

– Break the gender barrier to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle (1986)
– Earn the “Men’s” Grandmaster title (1991) through traditional FIDE requirements
– Receive the Grandmaster of the Year Award (2003)
– Win the U.S. Open (Men) Blitz Championship (2003, 2005, and 2006)
– Coach a Collegiate Men’s Division I team to win the National Championship (2011)
– Coach a Collegiate Men’s Division I team to win 7 straight Final Four National Championships (2011-2017)
– Coach a Collegiate Men’s and Women’s Division I National Championships in the same year (2015)
– Coach a College Men’s Division I team to win the Final Four National Championships with 2 different universities (Texas Tech 2011-2012, Webster University 2013-2017)
– Be named National College Chess Coach of the Year (2013)
– Be named Chess Trainer of the Year (2014) by FIDE (World Chess Federation)

OTHER NOTABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS:

– Won the Girls’ Budapest Championship under 11 at the age of 4 with a perfect 10-0 score!
– #1 ranked woman chess player in the world at the age of 15 (remained in the top 3 in the world for 25 years)
– Still currently rated as the #1 female in the United States
– Award-winning and best-selling chess author in numerous languages
– Winner of the prestigious Cramer Award for “Best Chess Column of the Year”
– 3-time winner of the Chess Journalists of America Award
– First ever recipient of the “Chess Educator of the Year” award
– First ever recipient of the “US Scholastic Chess Ambassador” award

I asked Susan what her message is to today’s young chess players. This is what she responded: “I believe chess is a great opportunity. Whether you just play for fun or play competitively, you improve your thinking skills and learn many life skills. Also, you can use chess to open doors to a better future. In the United States there are more than thirty colleges that offer chess scholarships. In addition, chess can also help you get job interviews and potentially help you get hired. It truly has countless benefits.” I could not agree with her more.

Susan Polgar truly made a difference in the world. By breaking the gender barrier, she proved that woman can play chess just as well as men or even better. Due to her efforts to achieve equality in chess, today, girls and women do not have to go through any hurdles –that she experienced- but can freely play chess anywhere in the world. In my view, sports must have freedom, so that any athlete/player can reach their full potentials without facing unnecessary obstacles along the way. Susan is one of the purest examples of motivation and perseverance; she showed the world that everything is possible if you set your mind to it and work hard. She is my inspiration and I am certain that there are many others out there who feel the same way.

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