Webster University’s Susan Polgar is committed to inspiring more girls in chess
By Will Jarvis
Special to espnW.com
Chess is a game long dominated by men. The world champions have always been men. The Grandmaster title — the highest title in the game — is carried by more than 1,500 men and just 33 women. Two years ago, Chess.com created an imaginary tournament that pitted the 16 greatest chess players of all time against one another. All 16 were men.
Susan Polgar is not a man. But at 15, she catapulted to the top ranking in female chess and held a position in the top three for 23 years. She broke gender barriers — first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle, first to earn the Grandmaster title and first to win the U.S. Open Men’s Blitz Championship — and now, after retiring from competitive play, she hopes to bring chess to the masses of young girls who, for centuries, have been neglected by the male-dominated game.
In late October, Polgar sat before a blue-and-white chessboard in the Clayton Plaza Hotel, outside St. Louis, where she was holding her annual Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) Cup. She’s now a coach for Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, but Polgar’s focus remains on young women. She hopes to make chess more accessible for young girls by organizing and traveling to all-female tournaments around the world: Geneva, Switzerland; Baku, Azerbaijan; Santa Clara, California.
Sitting in a room filled with long tables and chessboards, Polgar began explaining the game that shaped her life and made a young girl from Budapest the face of a female movement.
“Imagine a real-life war,” Polgar said in a soft Hungarian accent.
She’s talking about openings: the first few moves a player makes in any game.
“You have your soldiers and your tanks, your missiles — whatever tools you have to fight with, you get them ready to fight,” she said.
The game is built on initial equality: two players, two sides, 32 pieces, 64 squares, infinite moves, no flirtation with chance. But two sides are hardly ever equal. In the United States, roughly 12,000 of the 91,555 chess players rated by the United States Chess Federation (USCF) are women. It’s a numbers game — a war, if you will — and it’s one Polgar is hoping to equalize.
She began talking about her upbringing in a home that preached equality. Polgar grew up in Budapest, the oldest daughter of Laszlo Polgar, a teacher and child psychiatrist, who believed genius could be taught. Susan discovered the family chess set tucked away in a cupboard just before her fourth birthday. She loved chess, and her father patiently taught her — describing the game like a fairy tale, filled with kings and queens, horses and knights in shining armor. He believed he could help his children become prodigies.
Within months of learning the game, Polgar won the city championship for students twice her age. She began competing in tougher tournaments, with older and more experienced opponents, and she took trips to the local chess club with her father. Before she turned 10, Polgar got her first glimpse of inequality within the chess world. Men told her to go play with dolls, that women were dumber than men, that a woman’s place was in the home — not the chess club.
“Very few women play chess, and no wonder,” Polgar said. “When a woman goes into a chess club, she’s the only one. It’s an unnatural and unhealthy social environment when you are a minority in a certain group.”
The easiest way to combat the discrimination was winning. And she did plenty of that. But even in the 1980s, when Polgar competed for the Hungarian national team, a male teammate couldn’t fathom a woman earning the Grandmaster title.
“I like you. I have nothing against you,” she remembers him telling her, “but don’t make insane statements that you want to be a Grandmaster yourself. That’s impossible”
Less than a decade later, she earned the game’s highest title — the first woman to do so through conventional norms. Chess has always been a game of war for Polgar, both on and off the board, and she credits her success to a mindset she and her sisters developed early.
“It was an ‘us against the world’ mentality,” she said.
Frank Niro needed a role model.
It was 2001, and he had recently taken over as executive director of the USCF. He wanted to increase participation among women and girls in the federation. According to Mike Nolan of the USCF, between 9 and 10 percent of registered USCF members were female at that time.
Soccer had Mia Hamm. Tennis had Serena Williams. If chess wanted to cater to young women in the United States, Niro believed it needed star power.
His plan was to find the top female chess talents and train them for the United States’ Olympiad team, which plays in a worldwide chess competition every two years. The women’s team had never won a medal at the international tournament. Retired from competitive play at the time, Polgar was coaching chess in New York City.
“Susan was still a Hungarian citizen, so I approached her and asked if she would change her federation and come out of retirement to play for the United States, then train the best young female players to play for the U.S,” Niro said. “After some discussion, she agreed.”
In 2004, the team traveled to Calvià, Spain, for the 36th Chess Olympiad and placed silver. Polgar, the only Grandmaster of the group, won an individual gold medal.
She partnered with the federation to create the first all-girls national championship in 2003.
“Her idea,” Niro said.
The goal was to give young girls a comfortable space to play chess. Now called the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls’ Invitational, the tournament draws players from all 50 states and awards more than $200,000 in scholarships.
The USCF now has more than 13.2 percent registered female members, but it’s impossible to know exactly how many female chess players there are, thanks to the advent of internet chess. Not all chess players are registered with the USCF, so thousands more play recreationally online. Among young women, however, the numbers look more promising. More than 20 percent of USCF members under 13 are female.
“There’s still a huge discrepancy,” Polgar said. “We’re working on it. These type of social changes take time.”
The progress has been drastic in Polgar’s lifetime. She entered the game when it was commonly agreed that women were inherently inferior. Now she’s the country’s most successful college chess coach. Her team at Webster has won four consecutive President’s Cup trophies, the final four of college chess, and her squad boasts eight Grandmasters — a nation’s worth on a campus of 3,000 students.
Still, it’s about more than molding future national and world champions. Chess helps children with discipline, improves decision-making skills and teaches the brain how to solve problems.
These benefits, Polgar argues, should be available to everyone. Her first student in the U.S., Elina Kats, began taking lessons from Polgar in 1997 in Queens. Polgar assigned chess homework — puzzles, scenarios, reading — citing the benefits of analytical thinking and decision-making skills.
Nine years later, Kats won the 2006 New York State High School Championship, topping every male and female chess player in the state. Kats quit the game after high school and graduated from Harvard Law School in 2014.
Polgar has spread the message around the country, and in October, she helped organize the first North American All-Girls Championship in Santa Clara, California. It was another step for women in the game.
“We’re hopeful that this will be the largest all-girls tournament, one day, in the world,” Polgar said during the tournament’s closing ceremony. “So let’s make it happen. It’s all up to you, girls.”
Hours earlier, she crossed her arms and paced around the silent playing hall, walking by long tables with bronzed chairs. Just two girls remained from dozens, playing one final, championship game with a $48,000 Webster scholarship on the line, waging 32 plastic pieces on 64 squares in a miniature, high-stakes war.