TOP-RATED AT 15, GIRL CHALLENGES CHESS WORLD
By HAROLD C. SCHONBERG
Published: March 30, 1985
At the age of 4 she came across a chess book and asked her father what it was. He explained, set up a chessboard and showed her the moves. A few months later she played in the Under-11 Championship in Budapest and won every game.
She joined a chess club, studied chess with her father and some Hungarian grandmasters, and at 10 became a women’s master. At the age of 11 she won the world’s Under-16 chess championship. She soon started international tournament play, and at 12, as the only female entrant, she won a tournament in Bulgaria.
Now she is in New York to play in the International Tournament, which starts today at the Penta Hotel and will continue through April 7. More than 1,000 players have signed up.
She is Susan Polgar of Hungary, at 15 already the highest-rated female chess player in the world. And she has no illusions.
With a Little Bit of Luck
The New York International has a first prize of $18,000, a colossal sum by chess standards, and has thus attracted some of the best international and American players – Ljubomir Ljubojevic from Yugoslavia, Andras Adorjan of Hungary, Florin Gheorghiu from Rumania, Gennadi Sosonko of the Netherlands, and the Americans Yasser Seirawan, Larry Christiansen, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Lev Alburt and Walter Browne – all powerful grandmasters who may be more than Miss Polgar can handle.
”It is the strongest tournament I have ever played in,” Miss Polgar said. ”I will be happy to end up among the first 15. But maybe, with a little luck . . .”
Still, she may surprise the chess world. Up to now chess has produced four supreme prodigies – Paul Morphy, Jose Raul Capablanca, Samuel Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer. Miss Polgar has already joined that company.
She is also the enfant terrible of Hungarian chess. She has a mind of her own, she fights the bureaucracy and she has announced that, since she is strong enough to meet men on their own terms, she will play only in tournaments that challenge her.
That means male tournaments because only two other women in the world have International Chess Federation rankings over 2,355. One is the women’s world champion, Maya Chiburdanidze of the Soviet Union, at 2,400. The other is Pia Cramling of Sweden, also at 2,400. Miss Polgar’s rating is 2,430.
That should be more than enough to make her a grandmaster on the women’s rating scale, but she is currently rated below that, as an international master.
Basically, a grandmaster gets the title by beating other grandmasters. Chess has a point system, in which male players have to amass more points than women. Around 2,500 is the men’s grandmaster norm, and 2,250 the norm for women. The two strongest players in the world are Gary Kasparov, at 2,715, and Anatoly Karpov, at 2,705.
”I have achieved the grandmaster norm 11 times,” she said, ”but the Hungarian Chess Federation does not like me. Other players, if they achieve the norm only twice, are named grandmasters.”
For three years, she said, the Hungarian Chess Federation had refused to let her travel abroad. ”I could play only in Soviet-bloc countries,” she said.
”They are angry at me because I will not play in women’s tournaments, and because I entered some of the male tournaments without permission,” she said. ”So they have disciplined me.”
But, to her surprise, the federation allowed her to travel to New York. She came with her mother and her younger sister, Sophia, who will play in the amateur section of the New York International.
No Pushovers for Her
Miss Polgar, a sturdy young woman who speaks English quite well, said she had nothing against female players. But the fact is, she said, nearly all of them are too weak for her, and she sees no reason to waste her time in tournaments that offer her no challenge.
”I insist on playing in strong tournaments,” she said. ”This September I will play in Dortmund against male grandmasters, and there will also be three women in the tournament – Cramling and somebody else, I forget who.”
Women, Miss Polgar says, have not had the same opportunities as men to excel at chess. When they get married, at least in her country, they have children and have to run a household, which gives them no time to play, Miss Polgar says.
She takes issue with the men who say women cannot stand up physically to the rigors of tournament play.
”I have experienced no problems,” she said. ”I do not think women are any different from men in that respect. We can compete on even terms.”
Only One Mission in Life
She goes to school, but her only real interest is chess. In that, she follows the development of so many other prodigies. Everything is subordinated to the demands that an unusual gift imposes.
She is not going to be diverted, and she is not going to drop her life’s mission for marriage and children. Has she a boyfriend? She giggled. Would she like to marry and have children? ”Well, later,” she said, after thinking about it.
What makes a great chess player? ”Dedication. Concentration. Imagination. Meaning.”
”Concentration is the most important of all,” Miss Polgar said. ”Even more than memory. I remember the openings in my repertory, all the variations and the main lines and so on, but I don’t remember everything. Often I rely on my instinct. I feel that an opponent’s position may be weak, and I know that I will be able to break him down.”
Miss Polgar pointed to her 10-year- old sister. ”She does not yet have a rating, but I estimate Sophia’s strength at around 2,000,” she said. ”She is much stronger than I was at her age.”
Sophia played an offhand game with this reporter before the interview. He was crushed in about 20 moves. When Sophia returned to her sister, she was asked how strong her opponent was. Sophia, who does not speak English, answered rapidly, with only word understood by the reporter – patzer. On the chess rating scale, a patzer is to a strong player what a microbe is to an elephant.
So how does Sophia stack up against her big sister?
”She beats me – sometimes,” Miss Polgar said.