The Queen’s Gambit: Susan Polgar, the First Woman to Break the Chess Gender Barrier, Brings SPICE to Webster University
By Jeannette Cooperman
July 30, 2012
It hardly seemed fair. Hungarian-born Susan Polgár—who brought home the U.S.’s first Chess Olympiad medal and ranked among the top three women players in the world for 25 years—was hired by Texas Tech University in 2007 to create a chess program. She set to work, establishing the Susan Polgár Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) and assembling a team. Four years later, Texas Tech won the 2011 Final Four—the World Series of collegiate chess—defeating long-established powerhouses.
Then, less than a year later, in February 2012, Polgár announced that she and her entire team would move to St. Louis. In April, the team won its second—and last—national championship for Texas Tech. Now Webster University, at least on paper, has the top-ranked team in the nation.
You see, Webster’s provost, Julian Z. Schuster, was born in Yugoslavia and loves chess the way Polgár does. He had heard whispers that funds from Texas Tech’s anonymous donor were running out and Polgár was getting nervous about her students’ scholarships. A mutual friend introduced Schuster and Polgár, and in the course of their conversation, she realized that not only was St. Louis a new hotbed of chess, but Webster University had global reach (100-plus campuses worldwide) and was prepared to give her team full and ample support.
The offer felt, she says, “like a lock finding its key.”
Polgar’s move was unprecedented, but by the laws of college athletics, entirely fair.
It’s her life until now that has so often felt unfair.
Zsuzsa Polgár (who now goes by Susan Polgár) was born, in a phrase that today seems almost overdramatic, “behind the Iron Curtain.” In the 1970s, that barrier was all too real, even in cultured Budapest. Travel, talk, and commerce were treated like controlled substances—dangerous and potentially addictive. Zsuzsa’s parents—László, a psychologist, and Klara, a teacher—were nearly thrown in jail for deciding to home-school her. But even before he married, László had decided how he wanted to rear his future children. “Genius is made, not born,” he insisted, reminding Klara of Mozart and other prodigies who were taught at an early age.
He watched their firstborn carefully, and when, at age 4, she picked up chess pieces like she was finding treasure, he seized his moment. He wasn’t much of a player himself, but he found books on chess and taught little Zsuzsa with pawn wars and checkmate puzzles. Six months later, sitting on pillows and phone books to reach the competition chessboards, she won the Girls’ Budapest Championship with a perfect 10–0 score.
László hired a coach.
Aunts and uncles watched the intense training and clicked their tongues against their teeth; this was no life for a healthy little girl. But Zsuzsa loved being able to play a game with somebody five times her size and age and see them as engaged as she was. “When I started defeating some of the older men I played, it was a big self-confidence boost,” she says now.
“I think I recognized pretty early on that I was different,” she continues thoughtfully. “I understand that in some ways it may be a trade-off, not having a ‘normal’ childhood. But it was fascinating to me to communicate with people 10, 20, 30 years older than me. I learned about the world. I was part of a lot of conversations about politics, about art, about entertainment. I was, I think, a girl that wanted to grow up very quickly.”
By the time she was 11, she was able to travel to other cities for tournaments. Walking into stores in Western Europe and seeing all those shoes, all the clothes, all the cheese…experiences like that were her equivalent of other girls’ sleepovers and pep rallies. But between 1982 and 1985, her travel slowed: “The Hungarian Chess Federation restricted me from traveling to the West, because I believed girls should be able to play in open tournaments with men. The federation leaders were all men, and they were hoping I would compete with the girls, where I would be a favorite to win, and they would get some nice trips for themselves, representing Hungary.”
Zsuzsa wouldn’t play their game. She was young, female, Jewish, and living in a communist country, but she was determined to become a chess grandmaster. Girls cannot do that, the men around her insisted. “They came up with all sorts of theories,” she scoffs. “‘Women cannot keep quiet.’ ‘Women have a smaller brain.’”
In 1981, she won her first world title, the World Youth Chess Championship for girls under 16. She was 12. Three years later, she was the top-rated woman chess player in the world. In 1986, at age 17, she became the first woman in history to qualify for what was then called the Men’s World Chess Championship.
“I was thrilled,” she says. “I was so, so happy. I thought, ‘The world is ahead of me, and everything is going to go smoothly.’”
Several months after qualifying, she received a call from the Hungarian Chess Federation, explaining that she could not compete for the 1987 championship because she was not a man.
FIDE (the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or World Chess Federation) changed its regulations to allow her to compete in the next championship cycle, in 1990. “Three years is a long time,” she says quietly. “It was a big setback, motivationwise.”
Then, she says, just after she was told she couldn’t compete against men, “something unbelievable happened. The international federation decided, based on a request from the Soviets—who didn’t like the fact that a non-Soviet was leading in women’s chess—all other women should get 100 points” for the women’s world championship. The rationale was that Zsuzsa had earned her top rating by playing primarily against men, so the other women chess players had deflated ratings from playing in women-only tournaments.
She competed without the 100 extra points and got knocked out of the No. 1 spot. She still wound up ranked third in the world.
In 1988, Zsuzsa and her two younger sisters, Judit and Zsófia (then ages 12 and 14), played on the four-woman team that represented Hungary at the Chess Olympiad, held that year in Thessaloniki, Greece. The Soviet women’s coach, Eduard Gufeld, was growing weary of all the fuss over their brilliance: The Soviets, after all, had won the gold in every Olympiad they participated in. Gufeld predicted that the Polgárs would suffer a comeuppance: “I believe that these girls are going to lose a good part of their quickly acquired image,” he said briskly. “Afterward we are going to know if the Hungarian sisters are geniuses or just women!”
They won Hungary the gold medal.
“That kind of opened all the doors,” says Susan. In 1991, she became the first woman to win the title of grandmaster by performing at grandmaster level three times in succession. “In a way, it was a big relief,” she recalls. “It’s like finishing a life goal. At the same time, it gives you a feeling of, ‘Now what is my next goal?’”
She answered herself immediately: moving closer to the world championship. In 1992, she won the women’s blitz and rapid chess world championships. In 1993, she tried for the classical world championship, and she led through the entire semifinal match. Then, after trailing behind for two weeks, her opponent equalized and tied the score. “The rule at the time was, if it keeps being a tie, you just simply decide by a draw of luck,” Susan explains. “Literally, we had two boxes to pick from, to get either a gold or a silver.” Asked what kind of box, she winces: “I have tried not to remember the details.” Her opponent chose the box containing the gold.
In 1996, Susan finally won the Women’s World Championship. She was now the only player in history, man or woman, to win the triple crown of chess: world championships in the classical, blitz, and rapid styles.
The championship tournament was held every two years, so she would defend her title in 1998. She was supposed to find out her opponent and the location six months ahead of time. But she’d still heard nothing in February 1998, when the match should have been played. She was now married to her first husband, and he was eager to start a family. FIDE said it was having trouble finding a sponsor for her title defense match. Finally, in the summer of 1998, she went ahead and got pregnant. That fall, FIDE announced the match was set for early April 1999. Her child was due in mid-March.
Susan asked for a six-month extension. She was told an extension could not be granted.
Furthermore, the match was to be held not on neutral ground, but in China—the home country of her challenger, Xie Jun. And the prize fund was to be half of its previously stipulated minimum of 300,000 Swiss francs.
“I said, ‘What about helping me with two out of three?’” she recalls wryly. “At that point, I was still training, flying in my coaches from Israel and Russia, and I wanted enough money to pay a full-time nanny.”
FIDE said no. The match wound up being delayed until July anyway, so Jun could play a different contender. Susan sued in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, and was awarded monetary damages. But what mattered most—the title—could not be restored, as it now belonged to someone else.
She retired from competitive chess.
“I was, obviously, discouraged,” she says. “And I wanted to be with the baby, and my priorities started changing. I figured I’d won enough prizes; maybe it was time to refocus and use my fame to open doors for others.”
Susan’s sisters continued to compete, and Judit is currently regarded as the world’s top woman player. “She is a lot more aggressive and takes more chances than I do,” Susan says. “Generally, I like to have a solid development before I will start an attack. I like to have a solid strategic place, create weaknesses in the opponent’s position, play longer endgames.”
After Susan had her second child, she started dreaming the way her father had, thinking about how chess affects young minds by developing the ability to plan ahead, understand cause and effect, and learn from mistakes. “You need to be creative, to calculate and readjust,” she says. “In a single chess game, you typically have to make 30 to 50 decisions. It helps organize your thinking process, because you constantly have that process of evaluating and deciding.”
She especially wanted to see children learn chess between kindergarten and second grade, when their thinking processes were being shaped. She also wanted to see societies learn chess’s lessons, so they could resolve disputes thoughtfully, logically, and peacefully. But to reach that point, chess had to become more than a game. It had to be respected—and supported—the way it is in Europe.
(“I also believed chess champions should be rewarded a lot more,” she adds with a twinkle in her eye. “Maybe not quite as much as football players—but close.”)
In 2003, the U.S. Chess Federation’s executive director begged Susan to come out of retirement. She decided that if she competed for the U.S. and hopefully won some medals, it could help her larger goals. So she agreed to compete in the 2004 Chess Olympiad in Majorca—on the U.S. women’s team.
“I was ready to play every match except the one against my native country,” she says. “That’s what alternates are for. But as fate gave it to us, our countries were paired against each other at the very end of the competition, when a lot relied on the match. So I had a sleepless night.”
As if her internal battle weren’t fierce enough, she received messages from compatriots threatening to kill her if she played against Hungary. “I did. I won. And I hope I won’t ever have to do that again,” she says quietly.
The team brought home a silver medal, the first Women’s Chess Olympiad medal in U.S. history. Polgár also won two gold medals for performance. (She’s never lost an Olympiad game.)
In 2005, she broke four international records in a single match in Palm Beach, Fla.: the largest number of simultaneous games played (326), the most consecutive games played (1,131), the highest number of games won (309), and the highest percentage of wins (96.93 percent).
Hold on: 326 simultaneous games? “It’s I guess visually impressive to a non–chess player,” she says with a shrug, “but the reality is that when you look at a position, you see a lot of things immediately. A piece is hanging on to be captured, or a checkmate’s coming up…
You simply recognize what’s going on.”
In 2006, Susan won the U.S. its first Women’s World Chess Cup.
Polgár remains eligible to compete. And now she’s in St. Louis to coach future wins for Webster University.
Isn’t coaching a little…tame, after all of her life’s drama? “Competing has its beauty—the tension, the challenge, and obviously, winning,” she concedes. “It’s a fulfilling feeling when you outsmart your opponents. In coaching, you have less pressure, and less of the direct impact of winning or losing. But it’s more nerve-racking, because you are not in control.” That part’s slowly getting easier, she says. “I think with age, you don’t take things so much to the heart anymore. You do whatever you can and let fate decide the rest.”
As glassed-off as each chess match can feel, she’s glad her students have a team. “The fact that they don’t just play for themselves, but also for their SPICE family, I think is quite important,” she says. “Russia has been ranked No. 1 so many times, yet lost because of the lack of chemistry in the team.” She watches over her players, making sure there’s camaraderie, discipline, and balance—not too much cockiness or timidity, the distractions of dating and wine kept in check, and physical fitness as well as emotional stamina maintained.
“What happens is, because you put in so much effort and a tournament is the culmination of years of preparation, it’s very tense,” she says. “At least in some sports, it’s over soon—you have two minutes to swim the relay and then you’re done. Here you need to maintain that tension and discipline for two weeks. When I was preparing for world championships, I was doing physical exercise to develop not only endurance and fitness but self-confidence. Trust me, after two-thirds of that time on the treadmill, I was saying, ‘When is it over already?’ But to still accomplish that goal, day after day, even when I didn’t feel like going—overcoming that sensation of giving up was very important for me.”
On the chessboard, there’s at least the consolation that you’re not going to be tackled or hurled to the ice. “There’s no physical contact,” she concedes, “but that mental competition can be even more painful or draining. It’s actually horrible when you lose.” She still winces at the thought of her loss to a German grandmaster 15 years ago: “I missed getting checkmate in three moves, and it was a checkmate I’d been teaching my students three weeks earlier!”
Susan Polgar has made chess her life’s obsessive focus. She grew up in a hothouse of genius theory. Yet overall, she seems pretty sane. She and her sisters are as brilliant as their parents intended. “We are all competitive,” she says, “but not with each other.” She is once divorced (chess’s cool logic doesn’t always help with relationships, she concedes) but happily remarried, and Truong now manages her team. Their four children play chess to varying degrees, she says, and lead as balanced a life as she knows how to give them.
For fun, she plays table tennis and swims. “I love music, mostly pop. Not”—she hesitates, then pronounces the term distinctly—“hip-hop. Michael Bublé or Italian music or ’80s disco music. When I lived in New York, I saw all the Broadway shows. For a long time, my favorite movie was Coming to America. The latest is The Vow.”
Chess can be as entertaining as a good movie, she insists—if it’s carefully edited: “You cannot show six-hour games live. You highlight the critical moments, when one player or the other makes a mistake and how he felt. It’s the ambience you want, the drama and the emotions.”
Above all, she says, “You need to introduce the personalities. Some are very outgoing and good-looking; others are funny or sexy. That’s what chess is lacking: that marketing to put it out in the mainstream. Poker or golf or tennis, those activities weren’t always in the mainstream as they are today. And I think chess has no less to offer.”
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