Judit Polgar is a phenomenon. She is not just the best woman chess player of all time; she is the best by a mile. Chess grandmasters (note master! – traditionally, chess barely recognised the existence of women) have official ratings. Polgar is the only woman in the world’s top 100; at her peak, and before she had two children, she was in the top 10.
In December she will pay a rare visit to the UK for the London Chess Classic and do what she has always done – play as the lone woman against eight top male players, including world champion Vishy Anand and world No 1 Magnus Carlsen. Aggressive at the board and now getting back to her best after a mid-career slump when her results were poor following the birth of her second child in 2006, she will give as good as she gets.
Does it feel odd to be playing against a field of men? “For me it is very natural,” she says. “I started when I was five, and grew up playing against adults and against men most of the time.” She never accepted the path many leading female players take, competing in separate women’s events and aiming at the women’s world title. She took on all-comers from an early age, became the then youngest ever grandmaster (male or female) at the age of 15, and didn’t bother competing for the women’s world championship because she could have won it in her sleep. She simply aimed to be the best in the world, regardless of gender.
Polgar, who was born in Budapest, is one of three chess-playing sisters. The eldest, Susan, was women’s world champion; the middle sister, Sofia, was an international master; but Judit, hard-working and with an immense will to win, proved the strongest of all. The three were part of a controversial experiment conducted by their teacher father Laszlo, whose contention was that “geniuses are not born, but made”. He taught his daughters at home – the curriculum included Esperanto – and drilled chess into them from an early age.
“I grew up in a very special atmosphere,” she says. “Everything was about chess. I learned from my sisters and won my first international competition at nine years old.” Did she resent being part of her father’s experiment? “In the beginning it was a game. My father and mother are exceptional pedagogues who can motivate and tell it from all different angles. Later, chess for me became a sport, an art, a science, everything together. I was very focused on chess, and happy with that world. I was not the rebelling and going out type. I was happy that at home we were a closed circle and then we went out playing chess and saw the world. It’s a very difficult life and you have to be very careful, especially the parents, who need to know the limits of what you can and can’t do with your child. My parents spent most of their time with us; they travelled with us [when we played abroad], and were in control of what was going on. With other prodigies it might be different. It is very fragile. But I’m happy that with me and my sisters it didn’t turn out in a bad way.”
Top chess players can be dysfunctional – think Bobby Fischer, who Polgar knew when he lived in Budapest in the 1990s – but Polgar is relaxed, approachable and alarmingly well balanced. After her 2006-09 slump, she says she worked out how to juggle a career in competitive chess with having two young children, running a chess foundation in Hungary, writing books and developing educational programmes based on chess. “My life is very complex and rich now,” she says.
Has she struck a blow for women by showing they can compete with the best men? “There are many guys who say: ‘OK, you are an exception, so you prove the rule. Show me the next.’ I say: ‘Yes, I am so far exceptional, but I don’t think I will be the only one in the upcoming decades.'” Women’s chess is getting stronger, more girls are playing at a very young age, and strong women players are emerging from China and India. Chess would benefit from an influx of women able to compete with the top men, because it would add spice to a pursuit that struggles for media attention. The first ever world title match between a male and female player would generate huge interest.
Polgar came close to the summit – she was eighth in the tournament to determine the world champion in 2005 – but, at 36, realises that the chance to compete for the world title won’t come again. Forty is a watershed for top players, and many start to ease away from serious competition, but she has no thoughts of retiring. “I don’t like ‘never, never, never’,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever say that I will never play again, because even if I felt I could never play in top-class tournaments again because I don’t have time for the preparation, after a while you might one day think: ‘maybe, maybe, maybe … why not?'”