The Grandmaster Experiment
The queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard. Yet in the ultra-elite ranks of chess, a woman who can hold her own is the rarest of creatures. How, then, did one family produce three of the most successful female chess champions ever?
By Carlin Flora, last reviewed on September 23, 2008
The world’s first female grandmaster was ready to deliver her regular Thursday-night lecture. Susan Polgar was perfumed, coiffed, made-up and dressed in a sleek black pantsuit, an elegant contrast to the boys and young men hunched over their boards in her Queens, New York, chess club. “I have a special treat,” Susan, 36, announced in her gentle Hungarian accent. “Tonight, everyone will get to play me.” Blitz chess it was—each opponent received five minutes on his clock to Susan’s one. She first sat across from a young Serbian man. The two began slamming pieces and punching down their side of the clock, creating a percussive sound track to their lightning-fast moves. Susan beat him with a good 30 seconds to spare. He shook his head and avoided her eyes. A retired bartender and a 14-year-old boy succumbed almost as quickly. A reluctant 9-year-old suffering from an allergy attack was then coaxed to step up to the challenge. “Don’t worry about your eyes—everybody loses to her anyway,” his mom said helpfully. The boy’s minutes slipped away to inevitable loss. “Once you have a winning position,” Susan said, “play with your hands, not your head. Trust your intuition.”
When Susan was the age of many of her students, she dominated the New York Open chess competition. At 16 she crushed several adult opponents and landed on the front page of The New York Times. The tournament was abuzz not just with the spectacle of one pretty young powerhouse: Susan’s raven-haired sister Sophia, 11, swept most of the games in her section, too. But the pudgy baby of the family, 9-year-old Judit, drew the most gawkers of all. To onlookers’ delight, Judit took on five players simultaneously and beat them. She played blindfolded.
In 1991, when Susan was 21, she became the first woman ever to earn the designation Grandmaster, the World Chess Federation’s title for top-ranked players. Judit picked up the honor the same year, at age 15. She was a few months younger than Bobby Fischer was when he won the title.
Judit, who is now the top-ranked woman and eighth overall player in the world, would go on to win a match in 2002 against reigning champion Garry Kasparov, who has said that “women by nature are not exceptional chess players.” But the Polgar sisters may be the exceptions that prove Kasparov’s point: Only 11 out of the world’s about 950 grandmasters, including Susan and Judit, are female. The sisters’ saga may cast light on the knotty question of why so few women are elite performers in math and the hard sciences. But in the Polgars’ case, a unique upbringing and the idiosyncrasies of chess itself further complicate the picture.
Judit, Susan and Sophia grew up in a veritable chess cocoon spun by their father, Laszlo, the intellectual equivalent of Serena and Venus Williams’ autocratic tennis dad, Richard. Some people consider Laszlo’s role in shaping his daughters’ careers to be absolute; others call it a happy coincidence. Raw talent and a childhood with all the advantages account for success in many fields, and chess is no exception. But the paths Susan, Judit and Sophia took as adults illuminate many intangibles in the achievement equation. An aggressive streak, birth order, a chance encounter that leads to a marriage on the other side of the world—these factors and changes of fortune are just as critical in determining whether a person rises to the top of his or her game.
Forty years ago, Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, conducted an epistolary courtship with a Ukrainian foreign language teacher named Klara. His letters to her weren’t filled with reflections on her cherubic beauty or vows of eternal love. Instead, they detailed a pedagogical experiment he was bent on carrying out with his future progeny. After studying the biographies of hundreds of great intellectuals, he had identified a common theme—early and intensive specialization in a particular subject. Laszlo thought the public school system could be relied upon to produce mediocre minds. In contrast, he believed he could turn any healthy child into a prodigy. He had already published a book on the subject, Bring Up Genius!, and he needed a wife willing to jump on board.
Laszlo’s grandiose plan impressed Klara, and the two were soon married. In 1973, when she was barely 4 years old, Susan, their rather hyperactive firstborn, found a chess set while rummaging through a cabinet. Klara, who didn’t know a single rule of the ancient game, was delighted to find Susan quietly absorbed in the strange figurines and promised that Laszlo would teach her the game that evening.
Chess, the Polgars decided, was the perfect activity for their protogenius: It was an art, a science, and like competitive athletics, yielded objective results that could be measured over time. Never mind that less than 1 percent of top chess players were women. If innate talent was irrelevant to Laszlo’s theory, so, then, was a child’s gender. “My father is a visionary,” Susan says. “He always thinks big, and he thinks people can do a lot more than they actually do.”
Six months later, Susan toddled into Budapest’s smoke-filled chess club. Aged men sat in pairs, sliding bishops, slapping down pawns and yelling out bets on their matches. “I don’t know who was more surprised, me or them,” she recalls. One of the regulars laughed when he was asked to give the little girl a game. Susan soon extended her tiny hand across the board for a sportsmanlike victory shake. It was an ego-crushing gesture. Soon thereafter, she dominated the city’s girls-under-age-11 tournament with a perfect score.
In 1974 Susan was in the middle of a chess lesson when Laszlo received the call that Klara had given birth to another daughter, Sophia. Just 21 months later, Judit was born. As soon as they were old enough to feel the pain of parental exclusion, the younger girls peeked through a small window into the room where their father taught Susan chess for hours each day. Laszlo seized upon their curiosity. They could come in and watch, he told them, but only if they also learned the game. With that, Laszlo gained two additional subjects.
Laszlo battled Hungarian authorities for permission to homeschool his children, and he and Klara then taught them German, English and high-level math. (All three are multilingual; Susan speaks seven languages, including Esperanto, fluently.) They swam occasionally and played Ping-Pong, and a 20-minute breather just for joke telling was penciled in each day. But their world was largely mapped onto the 64 squares of the chessboard. “My dad believed in optimizing early childhood instead of wasting time playing outside or watching TV,” Susan says.
Laszlo believed that the girls’ achievement in chess would bring them not only success. More importantly, it would make them happy. Klara took care of the pragmatic aspects of her family’s intense home-life, and in later years, coordinated their travels to tournaments in 40 countries. “They complemented each other perfectly,” says Susan. Laszlo initiated the great plans, but, as Klara said, “I am always part of the realization. The thread follows the needle. I am the thread.”
The brain has three tasks to carry out when contemplating a chessboard. It must comprehend the rules, as each piece moves according to its own powers and restraints. Then it must analyze potential moves, which involves envisioning different configurations on the board. Lastly, it must decide which move is most advantageous. Here the game requires critical thinking in the visual-spatial realm. Visual-spatial processing is the single biggest ability gap between men and women—the glimmer of truth behind the stereotype of men-as-road-trip-aces who deftly follow maps and fit the luggage into the car. The visual-spatial processing center is located in the right side of the brain; among elite chess players (Kasparov included), there is a much higher proportion of left-handers, who have dominant right brains, than chance would predict.
Testosterone accelerates development of the right brain and may slow development of the left side. But the effects aren’t binary: Regardless of its sex, each brain falls on a continuum between “male” and “female” extremes in an array of traits. Furthermore, the neural pathways that allow for chess’s cognitive pyrotechnics develop in response to environmental influences and are most malleable in young children. Estrogen, in fact, enables neural plasticity—women tend to recover better from strokes than men, for example—and the hormone primes women for neural growth and change, points out neuropsychiatrist Mona Lisa Schulz, author of The New Feminine Brain. By teaching his daughters chess at a young age, Laszlo essentially molded their brains, enriching their visual-spatial centers and closing any gap that gender may have broached.
Gender differences do emerge, however, in the way kids look at chess. “Girls can learn how to play just as well as boys,” Susan says. “But they often approach the game differently. Girls would rather solve chess puzzles than play against one of their friends,” she says. Boys will always choose to compete.
These orientations can long influence a player’s style, says Paul Truong, captain of the U.S. Women’s Olympiad chess team and coauthor of Susan’s forthcoming book, Breaking Through: How the Polgar Sisters Changed the Game of Chess. “When I play Susan,” he says, “I look for the quickest, most brute force way to win—even if it’s a very typical checkmate. She looks for a more elegant, unusual way.” As a teacher, Susan indulges girls’ preference for conflict-free mental challenges and supports sex-segregated events for beginners. There are so few girls in attendance at national coed tournaments, she says, that their self-consciousness often squashes their enthusiasm for the game.
Susan’s feminine touch is apparent at her club, where tea and cakes are served to the mostly male members. “It’s rare to have someone of Susan’s stature interacting with amateurs like us. You wouldn’t see Kasparov sitting here, talking to a normal person,” notes Ruth Arluck, a retired teacher. Truong agrees. “Susan even insisted on wooden instead of plastic chess pieces. It takes a woman to notice these things,” he says.
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