It was about five years ago that a woman in Virginia, on a whim, wrote to Susan Polgar, the chess grandmaster who recently moved her collegiate team from Texas to Webster University.
Lisa Suhay was looking for help putting together a chess program for at-risk high school students. She knew very little about the game and its top players and only chose Polgar because Suhay’s husband, with shared Hungarian roots, was a fan.
Surprisingly — to Suhay, at least — Polgar answered with a shipment of books, chess sets and timers for matches. She followed up with years of encouragement, even traveling east in March to help Suhay with a youth tournament at Norfolk State University.
“It’s impossible not to like her once you’ve met her,” Suhay said. “She’s just a barnstormer. She comes in and blows the doors off.”
She quickly learned, however, that not everyone holds such a high opinion of the woman who once reigned as the world’s top female player, before becoming embroiled in a controversy that rattled the U.S. Chess Federation with lawsuits and claims of identity theft and computer hacking.
Suhay recalls being blindsided after mentioning Polgar in a blog, triggering angry phone calls and assorted flavors of Internet bashing.
“I got some of the most detestable emails,” Suhay said. “They attack anyone and everyone around her.”
Anyone with passing familiarity about chess knows it has seen its share of conflict and intrigue — think U.S. great Bobby Fischer and his high-profile games and disputes. It pits strong-willed people against one another. And they don’t always walk away as friends.
Polgar’s controversy was one of those instances — on a grand scale.
It’s not as if Polgar has a long history of getting into fights with her chess brothers and sisters. In fact, there’s really just been this one incident, said David Pruess, content manager for Chess.com.
“But that’s kind of like saying a country has only been in one war, but it was World War II,” Pruess said.
Still, as Polgar prepares to launch her new team at Webster, the school and her players say they are not fazed by her past and fully support her.
Polgar’s battle started in 2007, after she and her husband, Paul Truong, were elected to seats on the board of the 80,000-member U.S. Chess Federation.
One of their unsuccessful opponents lashed out with a lawsuit bearing a bizarre claim. Sam Sloan accused the couple of undermining his election efforts by posting defamatory and obscene messages on Internet forums, pretending to be him.
That lawsuit was followed by nearly four years of legal wrangling and more accusations of wrongdoing, including claims by the federation that the couple stole email messages sent between the board and an attorney hired to investigate Sloan’s claims. Each side filed lawsuits against the other.
By the time it was over in 2010, Polgar and Truong had been kicked out of the federation, agreeing to never seek reinstatement. They were, however, granted the right to play in tournaments.
It was a costly fight for the organization, with legal fees forcing layoffs and salary reductions.
“It took us a couple years of serious belt-tightening to recover,” said Bill Hall, executive director of the 75-year-old federation.
Polgar and Truong were never charged with any wrongdoing, though an associate did plead guilty in federal court in San Francisco to one misdemeanor count of unauthorized access to stored communications.
The affair was not something either of them wanted to discuss during a recent interview at Webster, where they are busy setting up the school’s new chess program.
“The bottom line is it’s all about politics,” said Polgar, who lays much of the blame at the feet of American males unwilling to accept change. “Generally people are nice in America. But there are always some rotten apples.”
It’s the sort of thing Polgar says she has dealt with throughout a career that started in Budapest in the early 1970s.
Zsuzsanna Polgar is the oldest of the famed Polgar sisters — along with Judit and Sofia — raised by a psychologist father who believed genius could be trained. As the oldest, she was the first to venture into the world of tournaments. And she quickly ran into obstacles at a time when men and women competed separately.
By the age of 15, Polgar was the top-rated female player in the world. But she wanted to play against men. And in 1986, it finally seemed possible when she qualified for the Men’s World Chess Championship, only to be rejected because of her gender.
“At the time, it was very painful,” Polgar said. “But I’m glad it opened the door for others.”
That same year, she lost her No. 1 female ranking when the World Chess Federation awarded bonus points to all active female players — not including Polgar — giving two of them enough points to pass her in the standings.
Her husband blames the move on the World Federation’s manipulation by the Soviet Union, which wanted to protect its own players: “They couldn’t stand the idea of a Hungarian girl being No. 1,” Truong said.
Polgar’s reign as one of the world’s top chess players continued for another decade, culminating with her 1996 Women’s World Championship. She was stripped of that title — illegally, she contends — three years later after she refused to defend it under match conditions she considered unacceptable.
From there, Polgar moved into quasi-retirement to spend more time with her two sons, and then moved into collegiate coaching.
ON TO WEBSTER
In 2007, shortly after giving a commencement speech at Texas Tech University, she was named the coach of the school’s chess team and director of the new Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence. She recruited all-star talent. Her teams won two national championships.
And then she grew restless, she said, because of wavering support on the part of the school. So she started casting about for a new home.
“It seemed like Texas Tech could not afford the scholarships we were made to believe we would have,” Polgar said.
Texas Tech spokesman Chris Cook denied the program was losing any financial support but said budget constraints kept the school from adding new money to the team: “We were not in a position to match what Webster was able to do for that program.”
And so it is that Webster, which isn’t offering financial details, finds itself catapulted to the top of a conversation it’s never even been a part of.
Along with Polgar and Truong, as assistant coach and marketing director, came the core of the Texas Tech team. With several top recruits already committed to the school, Webster is likely to be a national championship favorite this year. This for a school that didn’t even have a chess team last year.
Polgar’s arrival also further enhances St. Louis’ growing reputation as the center of U.S. chess, said Ben Finegold, grandmaster in residence at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
Read more: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/embattled-chess-champ-finds-favor-in-coaching/article_68b5ab75-c612-5303-bec5-d8ce61ad965c.html#ixzz1yq0jg6FE