László Polgár is an educational psychologist who believes a child can excel at anything if pushed.
He home schooled his three daughters as an experiment to prove this, pushing them to play chess intensely from an early age. They would practice for hours on end with each other as they chased perfection on the board.
The experiment quickly delivered results. Judit was the youngest of his children and at the age of five she beat her father, who was also a chess teacher. By her twelfth birthday, Polgár was the world’s top-ranked female.
The Hungarian chess star achieved the title of grandmaster — the highest title a player can attain — by the age of 15, becoming the youngest person at the time to do so.
No wonder Polgár is regarded as the real Beth Harmon. The protagonist of the hit Netflix series “Queen’s Gambit” is also a female chess prodigy in a male-dominated sphere, and fans have been quick to point out the similarities.
“I even got some phone calls congratulating me on that [the series]. So that was kind of funny” Polgár tells Connect the World while playing a quick game with a CNN producer at the World Chess Championship in Dubai.
She marvels at how authentic the “Queen’s Gambit” is, in particular how the games were structured. Those scenes were designed by Garry Kasparov, the No. 1 ranked chess player from 1984 until his retirement in 2005.
“It was a real treat for the chess players, the games in the series. And also the body language, the way she was playing … it was extremely well done,” Polgár says, checkmating CNN’s producer in the next move and breaking into a broad grin.
Battle of the Sexes
Retired since 2014, Polgár believes her battles against sexism in the sport were even more challenging than what Harmon faces fictionally.
“My life I can say was much more interesting, much more challenging as a girl in the male dominated sport,” Polgár reflects.
In a November 1989 interview with Playboy Magazine, Kasparov said that “there is real chess and women’s chess.” Polgár would go on to defeat the Russian in 2002, at the age of 24.
A gender imbalance at the top level still exists today — there are currently no women ranked in the top 100 chess players in the world, and Polgár remains the only woman to have ever made it into the top 10. Nigel Short, the vice-president of FIDE, the world chess federation, said in 2015 that “men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently.”
Judit’s father took a very different attitude. His message to his daughters was that chess was a purely mental competition and that performance on the board is independent from gender.
“My father believed from the very beginning that every healthy child is a potential genius. He wanted to prove it, he wanted to create the environment as if we were boys and then he believed that we can reach the maximum, at least, the same way as if we would be boys,” says Polgár.
Not that László’s approach didn’t encounter opposition.
“Of course, me and my family were attacked and criticized many times because my parents were choosing for me … that I’m becoming a chess player, a chess professional.”
Despite this, László persevered with spectacular results. Susan is also a Grandmaster, while Sofia is an International Master.
Changing the game today
Polgár doesn’t think she would have reached the heights she did, had it not been for the home environment her parents created.
“What can be done in the future is that simply the mindset of the parents [can change], that they do have the same goals and objectives for a girl [as a boy], says Polgár.
“So I think the mindset has to change, the society has to approach completely differently to girls. And it’s a long run until it’s going to be getting better and more balanced.”
The world’s greatest men’s player, Magnus Carlsen, agrees.
Before beginning the defense of his crown in Dubai, Carlsen told CNN that it is a mistake to tell girls they can’t excel in the sport of chess, and boys are just being encouraged to play more than girls.
Even in retirement, Polgár’s presence in the game remains strong.
She started the Judit Polgar Chess Foundation, and become a UN women planet 50-50 Champion. By publishing multiple books about chess, she’s hoping to encourage young girls to take up the game and follow in her footsteps.
Polgár speaks English, Hungarian, Russian and Spanish, but says “chess is like my native language.”
And if she wasn’t made to play chess by her father, what would she have done?
“I visualize myself doing something with creativity, whether it’s computer science or photography or something like that. But definitely it’s very much my personality to be creative and to create and innovate something.”
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