‘I never wanted men’s pity’: Chess child prodigy Judit Polgar on the game’s inherent sexism
Saturday 24 November 2012
Judit Polgar beat Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming a chess Grandmaster at 15. Her spectacular talent – and her frustration at the game – still endures, as Dominic Lawson finds when he meets her, 24 years after their first encounter.
Almost a quarter of a century ago I met a 12-year-old girl in Budapest, who told me: “When I am rich I want a castle. And five servants. Minimum.” It was an extraordinary aspiration for a child living in what was still a Communist country. But then this was no ordinary girl.
Earlier this month this chess addict went back to Hungary to see Judit, now a married 36-year-old with two children. She was a little late for our meeting at her home, an entirely new-built two-floor apartment in one of Budapest’s smartest residential areas. So her husband of 12 years, a strikingly handsome veterinary surgeon called Gusztav Font, showed me around their home while one of two domestic helpers prepared a pot of tea. Judit’s office, which Gusztav opened with reverence, was wall-to-wall with chess books and cupboards full of trophies, of course. But I was more taken with the main feature in the marble-floored drawing room – an immense picture window with a stunning view across the Danube to the old imperial palace of Emperor Franz Joseph.
So I couldn’t quite resist saying, when Judit arrived home: “Well, you didn’t get a castle with five servants – but even a view of a palace like that, and two domestic helpers, isn’t bad.”
“Yes, not bad at all,” laughed Judit, who made it clear she had not forgotten our conversation of 23 years ago – she forgets nothing, in fact. In those days she had lived in a much less glamorous, smaller and viewless flat with her two elder sisters and parents. Her mother and father, Laszlo and Klara Polgar, had devoted their lives to their children in an extraordinary way: refusing to send them to school and educating them at home with chess as the main subject and Esperanto as a base for linguistic ability – Judit is nowadays fluent in Russian, English and Spanish as well as her native Magyar.
Laszlo, an educational psychologist by profession, had wanted to demonstrate that what we call ‘genius’ is not a naturally occurring or genetically created phenomenon, but could be achieved by any child, given intensive early tuition on a one-to-one basis. Chess was a natural way of trying to prove his theory to the world, partly because the game is viewed as a touchstone of the intellect, but also because results are easily compared and measured by a universal grading system. Thus, as Judit put it in her recently published autobiography, How I Beat Fischer’s Record: “From the moment of my birth on 23 July 1976, I became involved f in an educational research project. Even before I came into the world, my parents had already decided: I would be a chess champion.”
Laszlo Polgar proceeded to demonstrate his theory: his eldest daughter, Zsuzsa, became a Grandmaster and woman’s world champion; and the middle daughter, Zsofia, achieved the title of International Chess Master (one rung below Grandmaster status) before abandoning the game as “not enough for me”. But it was the Polgars’ youngest child, Judit, who challenged all conventional thinking about the innate superiority of the male mind at chess.
Unlike all other girls – or women – she refused to take part in the closed ghetto of female events and would play only in male competitions: in these, having started playing competitively at the age of six, she would chew up and spit out Grandmasters and their egos in a style combining breathtakingly direct aggression with lethal tactical trickery.
Between 1 and 10 December at the London Chess Classic in Kensington’s Olympia, Judit will be taking on her biggest challenge yet to the male elite of the chess world. Among her opponents will be the reigning World Champion, Viswanathan Anand of India, and the world’s two highest-ranked chess players – Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Levon Aronian of Armenia. Oh, and she’ll also be up against the former World Champion, Russia’s Vladmir Kramnik, the man who took the title from Garry Kasparov in the same city 12 years ago.
Because of her commitments as a mother, Judit does not play chess nearly as much as she did, and has less time to dedicate to study and preparation – she used to put in 10 hours a day of practice, study and training; so I asked her if she was apprehensive about taking on these monsters of the full-time professional game. “I was hesitating about playing. I don’t play as much as a full professional should play. But I like a challenge. I just hope it’s not too much of a challenge!”
Judit gave up the game entirely for two years, around the time of the births of her and Gusztav’s two children, Oliver in 2004 and Hanna in 2006. Lying with her shoeless feet tucked underneath her on a vast red leather chaise longue, Judit explained: “Actually we wanted to have kids earlier. But in 2002 I had a miscarriage, at 13 weeks. And funnily enough after that I had my best-ever tournament result, in January 2003. That was when my international rating reached its peak [she achieved the ranking of world number 8]. So it was a terrible time personally but a great time professionally. It was then that I decided to stop playing… I thought, perhaps if I stop playing then I will be able to get pregnant again.”
Read more: http://www.independent.co.uk