“Why is there a need for Girl’s or Women’s tournaments?”
This is probably one of the top 5 questions I have most often been asked over the past 15 years, since creating the Susan Polgar Foundation in 2002.
I would like to walk you through some history and then explain to you some challenges girls / women face in chess. But before we start down this journey, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. I have not changed my point of view. I do strongly believe that if given equal opportunities, women are just as capable in chess, and many other STEM fields, as are men. However, I still adamantly believe that there is a serious need for SOME “girls only” or “women only” events.
One of the first accomplishments of my foundation was to successfully lobby the US Chess Federation (USCF) to allow me and my foundation to organize all-girls events. I personally fought for this, and through other initiatives as well, to get more girls in chess. Up until my fight, there were no all-girls tournaments in the United States. I faced many objections and challenges to this idea. A number of the chess politicians really believed that it was a bad idea to “encourage” more girls to play chess, or to provide them with “opportunities” to excel in chess. Some even went out of their way to express their beliefs that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to introduce girls to chess. They are not bad people but that is what they believed or just how they felt. Unfortunately, some people still feel the same way today.
In 2003, the Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls, which is now SPF Girl’s Invitational (SPFGI), became the first ever all-girls’ event approved and sanctioned by the USCF, after more than a year of lobbying and countless meetings. It was my dream to revolutionize chess for young people, especially girls. I believe with all my heart that chess can and will help children of all ages, in many different aspects. Naturally, some will want to take chess seriously, maybe to become grandmasters, or even World or Olympiad Champions. But for most, chess will be a fun game which can teach them many valuable life lessons. This is important to me.
The first ever Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls took place in 2004. Many young ladies who took part in this annual event went on to college, have families, and wonderful careers. Many became doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, engineers, bankers, entrepreneurs, etc. Some are starting to teach their own children how to play chess.
Because of the recognized value of the SPFGI, today there are countless all-girls tournaments and girls’ chess initiatives across the country. Not only do more girls participate in chess than ever before, but the level also went up dramatically! SPFGI remains the top, all-girls chess event in the world, with over $207,500 in scholarships and cash prizes in 2017, and with a budget of about $250,000. Unfortunately, many young girls and their parents today do not know the history and what it took to change the chess culture in this country.
First, even though we are in the 21st century, there is still a social stigma, according to which, girls are not supposed to want to become firefighters, mathematicians, engineers, or (yes!) chess players, etc. Many parents do not recognize that they are inadvertently feeding into this by giving their daughters stereotypical girl-toys, such as Barbie dolls, make-up and other “girly” toys.
For those parents (or teachers) who believe that girls can be anything they want to be, they face an uphill battle and a lot of extra obstacles (and expenses) in the chess world (just as in other male-dominated fields). It starts out with the serious difficulty in finding female chess coaches. There is a tremendous shortage. Some ask why the need for a female coach. There are several valid reasons, besides mentorship. For example, while a male coach may take a male student to an out-of-town competition and share a room, most parents of girls would never consent to the same. Therefore, even if they would allow their teenage daughters to travel with the male coaches, they would need to get a second hotel room which is a significant extra expense. Let’s say a hotel room with taxes is $100-150 a night, and most serious events would range from 6-11 days, you can do the math.
Secondly, boys / men are on average more aggressive and competitive. At a younger age, girls often face demeaning and insulting comments such as “chess is not for girls”, “girls cannot play chess”, or “you’re stupid”, etc. For the girls who survive the early difficult years and still remain in chess, things get worse during the adolescent years. An even bigger and more dangerous issue looms larger. While 90% of guys at most chess tournaments (or in chess clubs) may behave as perfect gentlemen, there is about a 10% who behave very disrespectfully towards women, especially when they have had a few drinks.
During my career, I had numerous occasions from personal experience where various male chess players made me feel awfully uncomfortable, and very unsafe, by making unsolicited and unwanted sexual advances. At times, they refused to take “NO” for an answer. On a few occasions, I was even extremely fearful for my physical safety. Sadly, many of my female chess- playing colleagues have similar stories to mine. This is why during my early years, I rarely dressed up or wore make-up. I did not want to stand out and be a bigger target. While many women want to look better, I “chose” to be less attractive.
This is why I am so thankful that my parents have sacrificed a lot (and not just financially) to accompany me to most of my out-of-town chess competitions even into my 20’s. This is an issue that most guys rarely, if ever, face. Given the gross disproportion of men versus women at most open chess tournaments, this is a serious issue that can make girls/ women feel uncomfortable, distracted, and in fact, for many girls to the degree that they give up chess all together.
Even today, when women are more accepted in chess compared to when I started out in the 1970’s, these problems still continue. For example, when I recently made a complaint about a certain male chess player, not only did the organizer ignore my warnings (implying that it is a non-issue), but they went ahead and spent more money to promote this person. Many in the chess world know who the “trouble makers” who demean, insult, and abuse women are, but nothing is done about it. To make it worse, those trouble makers in their circles get high-fives and praises for their despicable actions. Some of them compete to see who can “score” more.
These are some of the main reasons why I feel that it is very important for young girls, as well as for women to have also SOME female-only events. This is where they do not have to deal with all the above mentioned possible distractions and uncomfortable situations as we often face in open events. Also, such all-girl events serve as wonderful bonding experience, especially for younger girls, where they encourage each other to stay in chess instead of quitting.
Thirdly, even when a few blossomed, they are being punished and pushed down. When I became the #1 ranked female chess player in the world at age 15, some chess politicians could not accept this unprecedented success. They wanted to punish me for wanting to be as strong as the boys by competing only in open tournaments with boys and men. They wanted to make an example of me to discourage others from following my footsteps.
So when I became the first woman to qualify for the “Men’s” World Championship cycle, the male chess politicians decided to block me from competing. The official reason? Because I am NOT a man so I CANNOT compete in a “Men’s” World Championship.
Sounds like a joke? But it happened!
Then it happened again! It was not enough that they blocked me from competing against men, more punishments were needed in their minds. So what did they come up with next? They decided to award all other women players an extra 100 rating points except for me. This was an outrageous and disgraceful act. But for going “against” the conventional wisdom that girls “should not” or “could not” play chess, chess politicians simply cannot allow one girl with a big dream to break through the glass ceiling, to prove that women are just as capable with proper training and support, that girl, me, MUST BE PUNISHED.
The road to fight for women’s rights and equality was a long, costly, and painful one for me. There were many sleepless nights. There were tears that can fill Lake Balaton. But I am still standing strong. I am still fighting and I will never cave. And I will fight for this incredible cause which is so dear to my heart as long as I can physically do it. These naysayers slowed me down. And they can continue to put up road blocks. But they could not stop me. They will never stop me, ever. Even if I have to do it alone, I will.
When they tried to block me from advancement, my family supported me more. And I trained even harder to silence the critics. In January 1991, I broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman in history to earn the grandmaster title through conventional tournament play (3 GM norms and 2500+ rating). Eleven months later, my baby sister Judit became the second woman in history to accomplish it. And in 1992, Pia Cramling of Sweden, a friend of mine, became the 3rd woman to do it. Today, there are nearly 3 dozen women who accomplished this feat, a feat which at one time seemed impossible.
I posted this recently: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat the same catastrophic failures!”
Many parents of girls do not know about the history and difficulties girls and women before them faced. And because of this, they often have to learn the hard way from bad personal experiences. I am sad to see that some girls I helped early on, after becoming more successful in chess, do not bother to support and help the next generation of girls succeed. They even look down on girls with lower ratings. The good news is that while there are a few exceptions, many are big supporters and are doing their jobs to get more girls in chess in their local communities.
I simply fail to see why some people are so troubled by the idea of girls and women having SOME events for themselves, where they are the positive focus point for the right reasons, and not for unwanted reasons. This is the same as with the SPFGI. It used to be held together at the same location with the Denker Tournament of High School Champions, where each player got $100 stipend. Seriously? That does not even cover one night of hotel, not counting a lot more for food and travel expenses.
Grandmaster Arnold Denker personally told me in a private conversation in Fort Lauderdale back in 2004, that he wished there would be more sponsors that could cover most of the expenses for the young players at his annual event as well as for the SPFGI.
So I worked tirelessly to find sponsors. I succeeded. Today, we have a budget of around $250,000 from the sponsors to host the annual SPFGI. Then I moved the event to independent locations where every qualifier gets free rooms and meals (savings of up to $1,500 per player each year) from the sponsors, as well as significant annual scholarships and cash prizes (more than $207,500). I even offered to find sponsors to cover the rooms and meals for the participants of the Denker tournament as well. The answer was a flat out NO. Instead of embracing this success and be happy that a significant financial burden has been lifted from the players and their parents, some chess politicians were furious and decided to blacklist the SPFGI.
The SPFGI continues to be the most prestigious all-girls event in the US. We continue to get more sponsorship. The prizes next year will increase once again.
So, what do girls who still would like to try and succeed in chess need to do?
1. Train hard (if not harder) than the boys.
2. Have a strong support system (in most cases, family) who will give them emotional, physical and material support.
3. Opportunities to learn and compete at high levels against the best possible competition.
For the girls who are strong enough, and have the right training and support, they can play in any tournament they want. Go for it! Dream big! I did and so did my sisters. But the problem in chess is we are losing so many girls at a certain age (because they and / or their parents feel that it is simply NOT worth it to spend so much time, money, and effort and have to deal with the hostile, unfriendly, and uncomfortable environment for girls). So this is the problem I am trying to tackle.
Lastly, success in chess is a numbers game. It takes time and patience. Take China or India for example. These were relatively weak or lesser known chess countries not so long ago. Today, China is #2 and India is #5 among the strongest chess countries in the world. What caused this drastic change? Because it is a numbers game! And when it is combined with good training and support system, success happens.
– Why is it a problem if some girls are sexually harassed by male players at tournaments? It will make them stronger to deal with the real world.
– …shielding girls from the realities of the world isn’t the way to improve the conditions. What this does is subconsciously reinforce the notion that they are somehow inferior.
– If the girls didn’t provoke first, there would be no problem at all.
– If you have Girl or Women’s tournaments that exclude men, then shouldn’t you have Men’s tournaments that exclude women?
– Oooh, you’re so pretty. Are you married?
– If girls can’t deal with the reality of chess, maybe they could try something less challenging?
– Get a grip. Girls won’t ever be as good as boys.
– It’s good to have more girls in chess, especially the pretty ones.
– Chess is a men’s sport. You can’t change the fact.
– Girls are surely seeking attention when they go to chess tournaments. What do they expect?
– Why do you always wanna to rock the boat? Why can’t you accept it?
Below are some essays from girls who participated in the 1st ever Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls in 2004 in Fort Lauderdale:
“Where’s my Attack?”
By Demetra P. Chernesky Fotis (Ohio Representative)
August 17, 2004
I am sitting at my sixth and final game and studying my board. I just finished my Sicilian Dragon Defense, and am trying to develop my pieces to get a good position and a strong center. Should I castle, and protect my king? Do I develop my white squared bishop? E6 looks like a good square for the bishop. Look at that guy playing to my left. The dude’s hot! Does my opponent’s brother have to keep coming over to look at her game? Now he’s a distraction, too!
I like playing chess, but if you asked me to explain why, I might have trouble explaining it to you. Traveling, playing the game, and meeting new people are all integral parts of why I enjoy the sport. I find that strategizing for my attack can be intense, but enjoyable. If I’ve played a strong game, win or lose, I leave the table feeling that I have accomplished something. I can sit for 4-hours during a game and not even notice the time flying by. To say that I am in a parallel universe might be close to how I feel when I am involved in a chess game. I am aware of what is going on around me, but focusing on my game is my top priority.
To be chosen as Ohio’s representative to the Polgar Invitational is an unbelievable honor for me, and I have been playing all week for a personal best. As an underdog in the rankings, there is nowhere to move but up! I am trying to win my games not only for myself, or my state, but also for my chess team at Columbus Alternative High School. I want to earn the spot of team captain for the CAHS Girls’ Chess Team. The fact that I am the only girl who plays tournament chess for CAHS will not ruin my vision. Have you heard the saying, “build a stadium, and they will come?” I am sure that there’s something in that message that would apply to girls and chess! Thanks for throwing the first ball, Susan!
My Experience at the Inaugural Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls
By Emily Nicholas (Idaho Representative)
August 19, 2004
Emily Nicholas of Idaho, winner of the Fighting Spirit Award
The Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls was the best tournament I have ever been to. It was very exciting because there was always something happening, always some girl to hang out with or watch the chess games with. It was cool to be around so many nice girls interested and serious about chess, and we hung out and laughed a lot. Having this tournament along with the Denker and US Open made it even more exciting. There were so many chess games to watch being played in the evenings. I was so involved with chess that I didn’t want to leave the hotel and do other things.
It was so much fun just to play whether you won or lost. It was so much fun to go over our games with all these other girls and talk about how we played. When I’m around the girls in chess, it puts more fun into chess. We even bought tiaras to wear while we played.
Meeting Susan Polgar made me feel important. She really made us feel like she cared about us and that she wanted us to keep playing chess. She made me feel like I could really do something and advance in chess, not just get better but like I could really go far in chess. She made me feel like this was not just some regular tournament but something special. Susan met with us to go through chess questions and give advice. She even had a pizza party for us at the end of the tournament. I hope that she keeps her tiara to wear next year.
I met so many other girls that I hope to be able to see again. I will work hard to try and qualify to go next year.
By Ettie Nikolova (Virginia Representative)
August 23, 2004
There is only one word to describe the way I felt as I walked from my hotel room to the reception area for the Polgar tournament. Nervous! Even my stomach had felt queasy that morning to the point that I had trouble eating breakfast. What if I tripped onstage, or all the girls in the tournament hated me, or I ended up losing every single game? These were just some of the questions plaguing me. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered how nice and down to earth everyone turned out to be. Even Susan Polgar, one of the biggest Chess celebrities, was as kind as could be.
When the reception was over and the first game began, I started to understand what the Polgar was all about. In Virginia, as in many other states, there are barely any girls past elementary school who play chess. Before I played in the Polgar Tournament, I could have counted the games that I had played against girls on a non scholastic level on one hand. When I played in the Polgar, I was in a place, for the first time in my life, where girls were not only excited about chess, but also advanced enough to play good games. As a result, the Polgar tournament has made me want to improve the way I play Chess because it helped me realize the true potential that women have in the world of Chess.
Although I didn’t win a prize in the conventional sense at the Polgar tournament, I certainly left richer than I was when I had first nervously entered the reception room. I gained good experience from the games that I was able to play at not only the Polgar tournament, but also the US Open, which was held at the same place. I was also inspired to develop my abilities with regards to the game of Chess. Most importantly, I left with a few new friends.
War Of The Girls
By Stephanie Heung (Florida Representative)
August 23, 2004
When it comes to chess, Grandmaster Susan Polgar’s words expressed the circumstances perfectly “Where are the girls?” The chessboard is strikingly glorious: alternating black and white squares dotting a mysterious and unpredictable realm of eternal battles and intuitive sacrifices. Yet hardly any girls savor and appreciate the meticulousness of the opening, the complex and breathtaking enchantment of the middlegame, and the apparently clear-cut yet intricate endgame. Fortunately for those Queens of this King’s Game, Susan Polgar has yet again devoted her time, energy, and money to generate a spectacular and dazzling display of youthful feminine potential – The Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls!
In this prestigious tournament, there was a ferocious competitiveness between contenders for the title, yet with little or any hostility or resentment, unlike some other national level tournaments. As soon as the competition blasted off with a marvelous reception and impressive opening ceremony, everyone was certain it would be a success, as this tournament was a flawless blend of chess and girls. It was quite a spectacle in the playing hall during the round: rows after rows of chess boards, each with a unique position, each with two determined and intensely focused girls mentally fighting in a silent room. Especially on the top boards, there the level of concentration seemed to be at the maximum the human mind could withstand without collapsing in fatigue. Participants reviewed their games together and blitz and bughouse dominated the skittles room.
Over the board, girls were archrivals, yet after the game the instinctive social personality of many of the girls prevailed. Complete strangers from coast to coast went out shopping together, and “girl talk” was plentiful. Some girls even wore tiaras and matching earrings during one game! The playing hall was a delicate blend of pale pink and light green, with a graceful flamboyance in the elaborate crystal windows on the ceiling. Outside the playing hall, gorgeous carpeting and sparkling chandeliers added to the impeccable elegance of the hotel. The intense and fiery excitement of the U.S. Open added to the spirited atmosphere of the tournament. Playing in the same hall with the renowned Denker tournament, the presence of Former World Champion Anatoly Karpov, and chatting on a more personal level with Grandmaster Susan Polgar made the tournament players feel more significant than a mere event.