Chess power Susan Polgar could easily talk, or outright brag, about her legacy as the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world. She could brag, or outright boast, about her record as a four-time World Champion and five-time Olympic Champion. She could boast, or shout from the mountaintop, that she’s the first woman ever to earn the title of Grandmaster.
Maybe in her guarded moments Polgar takes pride in all those achievements. But, as anyone who’s played the game knows, winners rarely broadcast future moves beforehand. All Polgar really wants to talk about right now is the glory of “the royal game.” But there’s really no ulterior strategy behind that. Where board games are concerned, chess is the only game in town. As an emerging ambassador for the game, she also has a message to parents: You won’t regret getting your kids in front of a chessboard early on.
“Chess teaches patience, planning ahead, considering your opponent’s plans and moves. It teaches you to be prepared and do your homework, along with time management and the ability to focus. The list goes on and on,” she said by phone from her home in New York City. “All the skills needed for chess are the same skills needed for managing a good life. One of the things I’m trying to improve and change is its image in this country as more of a hobby. Chess deserves no less respect than football, basketball and other sports. It’s even more challenging than those sports, I believe.”
Polgar'along with sisters Sofia and Judit'first learned the game as a child of 4 at her father’s table in Budapest. In Russia and most of Eastern Europe, chess was never the dorks’ domain it’s often taken for in the United States. Rather, it can be the serious launching pad of international careers. Some players keep the world spellbound, as when Russian Garry Kasparov took on IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997'and lost. Others'most famously American Bobby Fischer'recede into paranoid crankiness. Polgar managed to play Deep Blue to a tie game before it was dismantled and left to the Smithsonian Museum in 2003, but seems to take more pride in her ongoing chess advocacy. The year Kasparov battled Deep Blue, she oversaw the opening of her Polgar Chess Center in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y. where she lectures every Thursday. Her nonprofit Susan Polgar Foundation got off the ground two years ago, promoting the game among a younger crowd, and especially young women.
Before all this, of course, Polgar beat a furious path of busted pawns, racked rooks and iron-locked checkmates. Even with her talent, it wasn’t always easy. At the ripe age of 16 she qualified for the Men’s World Championship in 1986'the first female of any age to do so'but was barred from participation by the competition’s chauvinist wing. No matter. Five years later she earned her Grandmaster, a title traditionally reserved for men. She proved herself agile at a variety of game speeds, too, flailing the competition in five-minute “blitzes,” 25-minute “rapid championships” and six- to seven-hour “classic” form. After raising three children, she entered competition with gusto, this time as a U.S. citizen playing for her country in the Chess Olympiad.
She scoffs at the suggestion that it’s a game for the smart. It’s intelligence that grows out of playing the game, she contends, not the other way around. “It’s a common excuse, when people say they’re not smart enough,” she said. “Anyone can play the game, and it can only improve your critical, analytical and logical abilities once you start playing.”
Nineteenth-century British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was equally adamant in his admiration for the game: “The chess board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature.”
Grandmaster Susan Polgar will be at Salt Lake City’s Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School June 3-4 for a series of lectures, tournaments and chess simulations with up to 100 players. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.