Polgar: My Top 10 Most Memorable Moments in Chess (Part 1)
By Susan Polgar
Over the years, one of the most popular questions which I am being asked is what are some of the most memorable moments in my career? I have experienced hundreds if not thousands of exciting, wonderful and memorable moments during my chess career that has spanned almost 40 years. It was not easy, but I have narrowed it down to the top 10.
10. Meeting Bobby Fischer
If you randomly ask someone on the street to name one chess player, chances are the name Bobby Fischer will come up. Some consider him the greatest world champion ever. Some consider him the most eccentric. People may disagree with his views on various issues. However, no one can ever dispute what he has done for chess. No one can doubt his love and passion for the game and definitely no one can question his skills in chess.
Bobby Fischer is a chess genius. He is a chess legend. He raised chess to another level. One of my memorable moments in chess was meeting him. He visited my family and me in Hungary and stayed in our summer home. Even though it was supposed to be a secret, he could not escape the media frenzy.
When Bobby did not talk about issues that were very dear to his heart or chess, he was a very friendly, funny, and definitely a “normal” person. When he talked about issues he feels strongly about, he became very “passionate”. Whether I agree with his views or not is irrelevant. It does not change my respect and admiration for his abilities, knowledge and accomplishments in chess. He was simply one of best ever. And he was definitely one of the most colorful and one of the most recognized world champions ever.
It was such a unique experience for me to be able to play (Fischer Random Chess) against Bobby. Some of the games were blitz at home. Others were played while we were in restaurants. We also analyzed some positions.
Everyone knew what Bobby used to think about women’s chess. After our many games, even though I was not able to change his mind about many other topics, I am sure that I changed his mind about women’s chess. I had very good results against Bobby. But the final score is something I have not revealed out of respect for him. Trust is something that was very important to him.
We even agreed to play an official “Battle of the Sexes Fischer Random Chess Match” on the world stage. Bobby believed that Fischer Random Chess is a true test of skills and talents, without just relying on home analysis. I agree with him. I wish this game would be more popular. Unfortunately, the match did not happen. Now that he has passed, it never will. Overall, it was a very good and, undoubtedly, a memorable moment in my chess career.
9. Scoring 10-0 at the 1973 Budapest Championship for girls under 11 at the age of 4!
When I first started to play chess at the age of 4, no one could ever predict what the future would hold for me. I of course did not know it myself. But when I competed and won the Budapest Championship for Girls under 11 with a perfect 10-0 score, my life was changed once and for all. Winning any tournament with a 10-0 result is incredible. To do so at the tender age of 4 against other girls who were as much as twice my age was something I can never forget.
I was so small I could not reach the chessboard. I had to sit on pillows just to be able to see the pieces. I was just a little munchkin. After this tournament, I realized that I could compete. My parents began to recognize my potential in the game. This one tournament changed my life. It set a direction for my future. Four world championships and ten Olympic medals later, I looked back and understood that this tournament was the turning point of my life.
8. Winning the 1981 World Junior Championship for girls under 16
Another milestone in my life was winning the 1981 World Junior Championship for girls under 16-years old. Some may wonder what is so special about a winning a World Junior Championship when I have won many other prestigious titles? Because it was another confirmation during my career that I could compete in chess at a world-class level.
Prior to this tournament, I had never been allowed to travel to the West to play chess. When one has not competed against a wide range of international players, it is difficult to validate one’s ability. In addition, to be able to win a big tournament the first time out under extreme pressure and incredible expectations from countless people was a test for me to see. Not only that, if I did not do well, I may not have been allowed to travel to compete and represent my country again.
I succeeded with flying colors. It confirmed once again that I could play chess. It proved that I could handle pressure. That is why this event was a memorable one. In a way, it helped shape my chess career and my future. It resulted in headlines in many newspapers in the West. The name (Susan) Polgar would now be a name to be reckoned with.
7. Winning the gold medal at the 1990 Olympiad
Prior to Hungary winning the gold medal in the 1988 Chess Olympiad, the Soviet women had ruled the chess world. Because the Polgar sisters usually only competed in men’s tournaments until then, many people felt that we would not do well in a women’s tournament.
After the Polgar sisters stunned the chess world by taking the gold medal in the 1988 Olympiad, becoming the first non-Soviet team to do so, many people still did not believe that we were good. Many people believed that we were just lucky. This is why returning two years later with the same unit to win the gold again was important to us. We wanted to prove to the world, not to mention ourselves, that we could do it. In a long and nerve-wracking event such as the Olympiad, anything can happen. Nothing can be taken for granted.
We did what we had to do. We took care of business. We came away with back-to-back gold medals, ahead of the Soviets once again. I think this victory shut down all talk about the Polgar sisters not being able to compete against other women. This myth has been put to rest for good. It certainly was a memorable moment of my career.
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 notgoing 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, 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.