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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.
by Amanda Woytus 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.
Still, I’m delighted when I pitch my idea to the World Chess Hall of Fame and they agree that it’s a fun concept. Polgar will have to give me a short lesson first because I don't even know what the names of the pieces are, but she’s the ideal person to do it. And why not play outside the Hall of Fame, in the Central West End, on the large chessboard, next to the world’s largest chess piece? Perfect, I think, excited. We set a date.
For the next week, I don’t think much about my upcoming match, maybe because I know there’s, uh, no chance of me winning. I briefly consider watching a YouTube video on how to play the game, but I really want it see how fast Polgar can beat me, with no prior knowledge whatsoever.
The day of our lesson, however, as I walk down Euclid toward the Chess Club, my stomach turns. It’s a bright day, 60 degrees. If it had been drizzling or too cold, maybe I could have begged off and played the game inside on a normal-size chessboard. As it stands, we’re going outside for all of the CWE to see. That doesn’t plague me, so much, I realize. I don’t mind making a fool of myself, but the last thing I want to do is offend Polgar with this experiment.
When I meet her inside the Chess Club, however, my nerves settle. She’s warm, greets me with a smile, and even mentions my colleague and the story SLM published about her seven years ago. I immediately like her. There’s still no hope of me coming off the match looking smart, but at least she’s a friendly opponent.
First, we sit down to talk about the recent induction, which Polgar says is “just as much a recognition of everybody who helped me along the way...My parents who sacrificed so much. All my coaches and friends who were there for me over the years.”
We move on to talk about how the sport is different for women now, and Polgar remembers when she first started playing, every time she went to a chess club she was either the only, or one of a few, girls.
“Even later, when I started my foundation in 2002, to encourage more girls to play and give more opportunities for girls in chess, I believe the statistics of the U.S. Chess Federation showed that less than 1 percent of all the members of the U.S. Federation were women,” Polgar says. When they checked in a decade later, it was close to 15 percent. Her goal was two-fold: to get more girls playing, and to improve the skills of the ones who were.
I ask if, citing the recent U.S. national women’s soccer team news, there’s a gender pay disparity in chess. Polgar says that in the U.S. Chess Championships, the women’s prize is half of what the men make. “That's one of the things I've been championing all my life, to fight for better conditions and equal conditions," she says. "And we came a long way, because having 50 percent of the guys is a big improvement compared to what it used to be just a few years ago. But still a long way to go.”
Practically in love with her now, I ask what qualities I might need to be a good chess player. Polgar cites the ability to focus for a long time. Chess players often have to sit still in order not to break concentration. Detail-oriented people make fine chess players, as well as logical thinkers.
It’s here that I again worry that maybe I shouldn’t have suggested playing this game. And that's because I'm six months pregnant, and when I’m not thinking about how hungry I am, I’m thinking about how thirsty I am, or how swollen my legs are, or how bad my heartburn is, or how I really need to get up and walk around because, oh my God, my legs are so swollen and sitting down hurts my body. My mind, starved of caffeine and restful sleep is not the sharpest. (I forgot the word for “spaghetti” the other day.) Logical thinker? I cry—both out of joy and unsubstantiated sorrow—two times a day, like clockwork. I remember that when Polgar was training for the world championships, she did physical exercise to build her endurance and confidence. My physical fitness can be best summed up as this: I cannot lie flat on my back without all of my limbs going numb. Can pregnant women compete in sports and make business decisions and govern countries? Absolutely yes. But this one would feel more confident overseeing a small island nation than stepping out onto that chessboard.
I do not reveal any of this, and I ask instead if Polgar thinks playing chess has any advantage in particular to girls. She cites learning how to handle confrontation, because each match—not before or after, but rather the game itself—is a series of confrontations.
I smile. Confrontation? I’m a woman in my 30s living in a post-#MeToo world. Confrontation I can handle.
Polgar and I move outside to the chessboard, and on the way, people on the street greet her—it’s like being in the posse of a celebrity. Her husband, chess player Paul Truong, joins us outside and snaps photos with his tablet, asking us to pose while shaking hands in the middle of the board. Then Polgar sets to work, briefing me on how and where the pieces can move, picking up each as she explains. Her tone is light and bright, not the slightest hint of condescension, and I think how lucky I am to be taking a lesson with her as I scribble notes into my pad.
Pawns, those little guys in front who all look the same, can only move forward one space at a time, but on the very first move of the game, one can move forward two spaces. (It’s here that Polgar stops to explain that “there are a lot of buts” in chess.) Rooks, the castle-looking pieces, can move in a straight line. Bishops move in diagonals, and they can move any number of spaces as long as nothing is in their way. A queen is basically a rook plus a bishop. The king is the most important chess piece, and if he’s captured, that’s checkmate. But he can only move one square at a time, “like an old man,” Polgar says. Knights are the horse guys; they can jump players, but they have to move in an L shape.
Now, Polgar says, she’s going to show me the quickest way to a checkmate. I later learn this is called the Fool’s Mate. It goes like this: Player One moves the pawn that’s in front of her king on the diagonal forward. Player Two moves the pawn that’s in front of her king forward one space. Oblivious Player One (read: me) moves the pawn in front of her knight on that same side of the chessboard forward two spots, clearing a diagonal to the king. Player Two moves her queen out in two diagonal motions to checkmate Player One's king.
I nod. I do think I actually understand. But chess, it turns out, is semi-easy to understand in terms of how the pieces move. It’s harder to grasp how to move them strategically to attack your opponent.
I ask Polgar how we choose who goes first, and she conceals a normal-size black piece and white piece in each of her hands and asks me to pick. I select the hand holding the white piece. That means I move first.
I pick a random pawn and move it forward two places. Polgar moves as well. I walk to the other side of the board and move another pawn forward a space. Polgar moves. I move the horse-looking one in an L shape. At this point, Polgar compliments me, genuinely and warmly, for remembering how the pieces move. I’ve been staring at my notes, but so far, I haven’t messed up in terms of which pieces move where and how many places, and I do feel a little accomplished for not getting beaten after moving twice, like she demonstrated. But I only get a few more moves in before, in a flash: Fool’s Mate. I left the diagonal leading to my king empty, and Polgar has checkmated me. She congratulates me for lasting this long—and I feel great about this achievement.
I am the fool, and I could have lost a lot sooner.
Woytus is St. Louis Magazine's deputy editor.