My Top 10 Most Memorable Moments in Chess (Part 2)

I have experienced hundreds if not thousands of exciting, wonderful and memorable moments during my chess career, a career that has spanned almost 40 years. It was not easy, but I have narrowed these moments down to the top 10.

6. Becoming the first woman ever to break the gender barrier, qualifying for the Men’s World Championship Zonal Tournament

This was a historic moment for me as well as for women’s chess. A woman chess player finally had been able to break through the gender barrier and qualify for the “Men’s World Championship” Zonal tournament. This is a moment I will always cherish. Unfortunately, this occasion brought me both wonderful memories as well as horrific ones.

Between April and May of 1986, I participated in the Hungarian National Championship in Budapest. Going into the tournament, all participants were told that the top 3 finishers would qualify to play in the “Men’s” World Championship Zonal Tournament. I had just turned 17 right before the tournament and until then, nobody would even think about a woman qualifying for the “Men’s” World Championship.

But I was brought up differently by my parents. I was taught that I could accomplish anything I want if I put in the hard work. I had put in a lot of hard work since I had been 4 or 5. Unfortunately, I was not told that as a woman and Jew, I would be black-listed. By the time my younger sisters had begun to play serious chess, my battles had cleared the way for them.

The unexpected happened. Knowing that I needed to finish in the top 3 to achieve the unthinkable, I paced myself to accomplish just that. I finished tied for 2nd with IM Laszlo Hazai, behind Grandmaster Ivan Farago. I was very happy of what I have accomplished. I had become the first woman ever to quality for the “Men’s World Championship” Zonal tournament.

But The happy moment quickly turned sour. Many people were not happy. The Hungarian Chess Federation announced that only the top two would represent Hungary and not the top three.

No problem, I said to myself. So we will have a play-off between IM Hazai and me and the winner will move on. Wrong! The decision was made. Susan Polgar is not going to the “Men’s World Championship” Zonal tournament. IM Hazai had a better tie-break and he will represent Hungary.

After I legitimately qualified and broke the gender barrier, I learned rules can be changed at any time (especially if you are a Jewish woman). To add more insult to injury, FIDE also refused to allow me to participate in the Men’s World Championship Zonal tournament. The reason? The word “Men’s Championship” speaks for itself.

Dr. Laszlo Lako of Hungary stated that he would not allow Polgar or any other Hungarian women to play in the Men’s World Championship Zonal tournament even if FIDE would have agreed to let me play. The Hungarian federation and FIDE succeeded in stopping me from participating even though I had earned my spot. However, they could not stop women forever. They had to change the name to the World Chess Championship in the following cycle and the word ‘Men’ was removed.

Fortunately, my loss was a gain for women in chess. Now, all women can compete in the overall World Chess Championship. Someday, hopefully another woman can break through the next barrier and win it all. But in the meantime, I am very proud to be able to chisel through the wall of gender discrimination in chess for future generations. I am happy to see so many good women players besides my sisters such as GM Hou Yifan, GM Humpy Koneru, Anna Muzychuk, the Kosintseva sisters, and other Chinese women players, etc. I hope this trend will continue.

Another reason why this event was one of the most memorable moments for me is because it made me a stronger player and a better human being. Rather than dwelling on the discrimination and unfairness, I used it as a motivational tool. I realized that I had to work even harder to accomplish my goals. I also learned to be more compassionate and understanding to everyone because I want no one to experience what I had experienced.

5. Becoming the #1 ranked woman player in the world at age 15

At the age of 15, I became the #1 ranked woman player in the world. This was quite a memorable moment for me. My ELO at that time was the highest of any woman in history. In addition, I was also the youngest woman player in the top 25 in the world ranking. I may have been ranked #1 even sooner had I been allowed to travel freely to play. Unfortunately, I had very limited opportunity to play to gain ELO points. This was how things used to work in the Communist countries at that time. Many similar stories existed in the Soviet Union as well.

Beside the personal satisfaction of beating the system and gaining the #1 ranking in spite of so many roadblocks, the door was opened for me to travel to the West. I also had helped from the Western and domestic media, hounding the Hungarian Chess Federation. Finally, the Hungarian Chess Federation could no longer prevent me from playing abroad. And this also helped my 2 younger sisters, Sofia and Judit.

Therefore, even though I was not chasing after the #1 women’s ranking because I was going after the overall World Championship, this event changed my life and my the lives of my family. The Polgar name was then known worldwide. The long-kept secret was out.

In addition, beside the great player from Sweden Pia Cramling and me at that time, no one else could come close to the Soviet women. They had dominated the game for decades. In a way, I have to thank my friend Pia for my achievements in chess. We helped push each other toward the top. It was the kind of friendly rivalry that was needed to help both players.

Once I had the opportunity to play, good things happened. At the age of 16, I had a higher rating than the great world champion Anatoly Karpov at that same age. The following year at 17, I became the top-rated overall junior under 18 in the world, boys or girls. My success continued. By looking back, becoming #1 in the world was a stepping-stone for my professional chess career toward the bigger picture. This is one moment I would never forget.

4. Winning the 1992 Women’s World Blitz and Rapid Championship

In the preceding year (January 1991), I had become the first woman ever to earn the overall grandmaster title through norm qualification. At the end of 1991, my baby sister Judit became the second woman to do the same, followed by Pia Cramling in 1992.

As 1992 began, the Soviet women seemed to have something to prove. At the World Blitz and Rapid Women’s Championship, the big guns came to put on a show. The top 10 women who participated in both of these World Championships were: Judit Polgar; Susan Polgar; M. Chiburdanidze; K. Arakhamia; S. Matveeva; Sophia Polgar; A. Galliamova; A. Maric; E. Sakhatova; and M. Voiska

Even though our official ratings were only 20 points apart, my sister Judit was the odds-on favorite to win both of these world championships. I was the considered to be the contender for the silver medal in both events. The battle in both championships was quite intense. The competition was tough.

In the World Blitz Championship, I finished 1st with 22½ points out of a grueling 26 games, all in one day! With 26 rounds, there could be no luck. It was a battle of chess, mental toughness, physical endurance, and raw nerves. My sister Judit finished right behind me with 22 out of 26. Alisa Galliamova finished 3rd with 20 and my other sister Sophia finished tied with Women’s World Champion Chiburdanidze for 4th with 19½.

In the World Rapid Championship, the race was even closer. Going into the last round, my sister Sophia was leading both Judit and I by one-half point with World Champion Chiburdanidze a half-point behind Judit and me. Therefore, any of us had the chance to win. Both World Champion Chiburdanidze and I won while Judit drew.

Unfortunately, Sophia lost. Therefore, I finished 1st with 12 out of 15 while Sophia had to settle in a 3-way tie for second with 11½. However, Sophia got 2nd place on tie-breaks, with World Champion Chiburdanidze in 3rd and Judit in 4th.

This was a bittersweet moment for me. Even though I was ecstatic that I had won both World Championships, I was sad that it had to be over my two younger sisters. I wish I could have had both of them share the glory with me. How can you enjoy what supposed to be very happy moments when your own sisters did not do as well? It is like Serena and Venus Williams battling it out for the top spot in a Grand Slam. One has to win and one has to lose.

Winning these two World Championships gave me two of the three legs needed to win the Triple Crown in chess (Rapid, Blitz and Conventional Time Control). Only one more and I would accomplish something that had never been done by anyone in chess, male or female, and that is winning the Chess Triple Crown. Therefore, this was a very special moment for me.

Susan Polgar (2550) – Bent Larsen (2560)
Veterans – Women, Monte Carlo, 1994

1. d4 c6 2. c4 d6 3. Nc3 e5 4. Nf3 Nd7 5. e4 Ngf6 6. Be2 Be7 7. 0-0 0-0 8. Be3 a6 9. d5 cxd5 10. cxd5 Ng4 11. Bd2 Nb6?! 12. h3 Nf6 13. Be3 Ne8 14. a4 Nd7 15. a5 g6 16. Nd2 Bg5 17. Bxg5 Qxg5 18. Nc4 Rb8 19. Qc1! Qf4 [19…Qxc1 20. Rfxc1 b5 21. axb6 Nxb6 22. Na5±] 20. b4 h5 21. Ra2 b5 22. axb6 Nxb6 23. Na5! Kg7 24. Nc6 Ra8 25. Qxf4 exf4 26. Rc1 Nf6 [26…Nc7 27. Na4 Nxa4 28. Rxa4±] 27. Rca1!+- 27…Re8 28. f3 Nfd7 29. Bxa6 Bxa6 30. Rxa6 Rac8 [30…Rxa6 31. Rxa6 Ra8 32. Rxa8 Nxa8 33. Nb5+-] 31. Nb5 Nc4 32. Nca7 Rb8 33. Nxd6 Nxd6 34. Rxd6 Ne5 [34…Rb7 35. Nc6+-] 35. b5 Rb7 36. Rda6 h4 37. Rc1 Nd7 38. Nc8! Rb8 39. Nd6 Rf8 40. Rc7 Ne5 41. b6 Ra8 42. Rxa8 1–0

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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