Very few women play chess, and no wonder,” Webster University chess coach Susan Polgar said. “When a woman goes into a chess club, she’s the only one. It’s an unnatural and unhealthy social environment when you are a minority in a certain group.
Chess is a game long dominated by men. The world champions have always been men. The Grandmaster title — the highest title in the game — is carried by more than 1,500 men and just 33 women. Two years ago, Chess.com created an imaginary tournament that pitted the 16 greatest chess players of all time against one another. All 16 were men.
Susan Polgar is not a man. But at 15, she catapulted to the top ranking in female chess and held a position in the top three for 23 years. She broke gender barriers — first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle, first to earn the Grandmaster title and first to win the U.S. Open Men’s Blitz Championship — and now, after retiring from competitive play, she hopes to bring chess to the masses of young girls who, for centuries, have been neglected by the male-dominated game.
In late October, Polgar sat before a blue-and-white chessboard in the Clayton Plaza Hotel, outside St. Louis, where she was holding her annual Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) Cup. She’s now a coach for Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, but Polgar’s focus remains on young women. She hopes to make chess more accessible for young girls by organizing and traveling to all-female tournaments around the world: Geneva, Switzerland; Baku, Azerbaijan; Santa Clara, California.
Sitting in a room filled with long tables and chessboards, Polgar began explaining the game that shaped her life and made a young girl from Budapest the face of a female movement.
“Imagine a real-life war,” Polgar said in a soft Hungarian accent.
She’s talking about openings: the first few moves a player makes in any game.
“You have your soldiers and your tanks, your missiles — whatever tools you have to fight with, you get them ready to fight,” she said.
The game is built on initial equality: two players, two sides, 32 pieces, 64 squares, infinite moves, no flirtation with chance. But two sides are hardly ever equal. In the United States, roughly 12,000 of the 91,555 chess players rated by the United States Chess Federation (USCF) are women. It’s a numbers game — a war, if you will — and it’s one Polgar is hoping to equalize.
She began talking about her upbringing in a home that preached equality. Polgar grew up in Budapest, the oldest daughter of Laszlo Polgar, a teacher and child psychiatrist, who believed genius could be taught. Susan discovered the family chess set tucked away in a cupboard just before her fourth birthday. She loved chess, and her father patiently taught her — describing the game like a fairy tale, filled with kings and queens, horses and knights in shining armor. He believed he could help his children become prodigies.
Within months of learning the game, Polgar won the city championship for students twice her age. She began competing in tougher tournaments, with older and more experienced opponents, and she took trips to the local chess club with her father. Before she turned 10, Polgar got her first glimpse of inequality within the chess world. Men told her to go play with dolls, that women were dumber than men, that a woman’s place was in the home — not the chess club.
“Very few women play chess, and no wonder,” Polgar said. “When a woman goes into a chess club, she’s the only one. It’s an unnatural and unhealthy social environment when you are a minority in a certain group.”
The easiest way to combat the discrimination was winning. And she did plenty of that. But even in the 1980s, when Polgar competed for the Hungarian national team, a male teammate couldn’t fathom a woman earning the Grandmaster title.
“I like you. I have nothing against you,” she remembers him telling her, “but don’t make insane statements that you want to be a Grandmaster yourself. That’s impossible”
Less than a decade later, she earned the game’s highest title — the first woman to do so through conventional norms. Chess has always been a game of war for Polgar, both on and off the board, and she credits her success to a mindset she and her sisters developed early.
“It was an ‘us against the world’ mentality,” she said.
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