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SUSAN POLGAR, THE FIRST WOMAN WHO BREAKS THE GENDER BARRIER IN CHESS

The Experiment

“Geniuses are made, not born”, this was the principle of Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist and father of Zsuzsanna “Susan” Polgar.

Approximately forty years ago, Laszlo laid out a different kind of courtship to a Ukrainian woman named Klara. She used to be a foreign language teacher who was impressed by her man’s belief that “innate talent is nothing and that success is 99 percent hardwork”. Typical courtship would have been consisted of letters with promise of never ending love. For Laszlo, he instead setout a plan with Klara in carrying out their future offspring. He was greatly influenced by his biographies readings for hundreds of great intellectuals, which he was able to identify a common theme – “early and intensive specialization in a particular subject.” The two were soon married and gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Susan.

Born on April 19, 1969 in Budapest, Hungary and the eldest of the three siblings, Judith and Sophia. Laszlo believed that the public school system could only produce mediocre minds. To turn a healthy child into a prodigy was something that he was very confident of producing. Hence, he battled Hungarian authorities for allowing him to homeschool his children. Together with Klara, they taught them German, English and high-level mathematics. All the three siblings are multi-lingual. Susan ended up speaking seven languages including Esperanto, fluently.

If Bobby Fischer had the first encounter of chess set from a candy store, Susan Polgar had hers while digging through a cabinet when she was barely four (4) years old. Klara, who know nothing about the game, was amazed after finding young Susan deeply engrossed into the chess pieces and asked Laszlo to teach Susan of the ancient game.

Then chess became the perfect and culminating activity for the young Polgars. One day, the young Judith and Sophia peeked through into a small window to a room where Laszlo was teaching Susan chess. He realised the curiosity of the two and told that they can only join them if they too learn to play the game. The three became engrossed which unknown to them was the start of something big for the family. While their world was largely occupied by pushing the pieces, other activities like swimming, playing ping-pong and joke-sharing sessions were part of the happy childhood moments of the Polgar sisters.

Laszlo did not mind at all that only less than 1% of chess players are women. What he firmly believed in is that if inborn talent has nothing to do in his theory, and so is the gender. Laszlo executed the great plans while Clara, always on his back, handled the other aspects of family life. In later years, she found herself coordinating the travel itineraries of the family to participate in the major tournaments. Clara once said, "I am always part of the realization. The thread follows the needle. I am the thread."

When Susan Polgar was barely 5 years old, she was tag along to a smoke-filled Budapest Chess Club crowded with aged men. She was paired with one of the regulars who laughed at her but later faced the ego-crushing loss to little Susan. Soon, the under age 11 of the city’s tournaments for girls was ruled by Susan without a loss.

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Breaking the Gender Barrier in Chess

Kasparov once described chess as the most violent of all sports. The only goal is to prove your superiority over the person sitting opposite the board and this was exactly what Susan did without regard to her opponents’ gender.

At the age of 12, Susan Polgar captured her first world title by winning the World Chess Championship for girls under 16. The Polar sisters had unpleasant relations with the Hungarian authorities which banned them from travelling abroad for fear of defection. 1988 was the year when the Hungarian Chess Federation allowed Susan, age 19, together with her two sisters, Sophia and Judith, of age 14 and 12, to participate in Greece for Women’s Olympiad. Playing together as a team, the three bought home the gold, which was the first win against the Soviets in the history of Hungarian chess. This won has made them national heroes and became stars in their country with sponsorships pouring in.

In 1986, Susan broke the gender barrier by becoming the first woman in history to qualify in the Men’s World’s Chess Championship. She was not allowed at first due to her gender but later FIDE had to change their policy.

Close to the end of that year, Susan Polgar was swiped away from the top ranked list released in January of next year. The story was that the Soviet Federation allegedly put pressure on FIDE so that there would be no non- Soviet player to be ranked #1. According to Susan, FIDE illegally grant 100 bonus ELO points to all active female players, which resulted to her being knocked off in the rating list. FIDE's rationale was Susan mainly obtained her ratings from playing with men resulting to the deflation of the ratings of women players who had only gotten theirs from matches with other women.

In 1991, when Susan was 21, she became the first woman to ever receive the designation grandmaster with a rating over 2500. Following that year, she won the Women's World Blitz and Women's World Rapid Chess Championship.

She moved to the United States in 1994 upon tying the knot with an American computer programmer and left her comfortable life in Hungary.

Susan Polgar achieved her 4th World Championship title in February 1996 when she won the classical Women's World Championship. She was regarded as the only World Champion, either in male or female, to receive a triple crown in chess namely World Blitz, Rapid and Classical.

Like Bobby Fischer, Susan was also stripped of her title in 1999 when she refused to play under the conditions which she objected to such as, needing to recuperate and prepare upon giving birth to her first child and holding the match entirely in China, the hometown of the challenger Xie Jun.

Susan filed a lawsuit against the Federation in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland for monetary damages and the restoration of her title. The decision came out in March 2001in favor of Susan. FIDE was ordered to pay the damages but could not return back her title since a new World champion has been crowned.

Short Retirement and Chess Ambassador

Susan Polgar retired from playing competitive chess to raise her two sons, Tommy and Leeam. She considered that a three-week long tournament would be too taxing for her. According to Susan, “ Children are part of life, because of that, there will always be fewer women playing chess than men. In many professions, it’s ok to be good, or very good; there is no need to be the best. But only the very best can make a living at chess. While it’s tough for any new mother to go back to work, it’s much tougher when you’re trying to be world class.”

She made a comeback in 2003 and awarded by the United States Chess Federation as the “Grandmaster of the Year”. This was the first time a woman was awarded of that prestigious accolade. In the same year, she won the US Open Blitz Championship which was participated by seven grandmasters. This has marked Susan as the first woman to succeed in this kind of tournament.

She continued playing professionally and went on to win ten Olympic medals (5 gold, 4 silver and 1 bronze) and four Women’s World Championships. She recorded 56 consecutive Olympiad game scoring streaks without a single loss. Susan has never lost a single game in any Olympiads.

In 2005, Susan Polgar attained her highest Elo rating of 2577 which made her the second top ranked woman in the world at that time after her sister, Judith. She played the largest numbers of simultaneous matches, 326 games. Out of these, 309 were wins, 14 drawn and 3 losses. In the same year, she again won her 2nd US Open Blitz Title held in Phoenix, Arizona.

In October 2005, Susan joined Russia’s Former President Mikhail Gorbachev and 7-time World Champion, Anatoly Karpov. They were out to promote the “Chess for Peace” which made headline news around the world. She had two matches with Anatoly Karpov dubbed as “Clash of the Titans – Battle of the Genders”. Both of these matches, the first one being held in September 2004, had resulted in a score of 3-3 tie.

In July 2006, Susan represented the US in the Women’s World Chess Cup in Dresden, Germany. She succeeded in this tournament by defeating the German International Master Elizabeth Pahtz in the deciding round with a score of 7 wins, 4 draws and no loss. She brought to US the first ever Women’s World Chess Cup.

In the following month, Susan Polgar was named by the United States Chess Federation Scholastic Chess Council as the “Scholastic Chess Ambassador”. She has not played in official competition after 2006.

She used to be the head coach of the Texas Tech #1 ranked National Championship team. She is currently the Director of SPICE (Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence) and Head Coach at Webster University.

She is now chess's ambassador at large, promoting the game in schools, especially for girls. "Chess teaches children concentration, logic and creativity. It also teaches them to be responsible for their actions," Susan Polgar says. "There are no take-backs just as in life. You must think before you move."

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