László Polgár is an educational psychologist who believes a child can excel at anything if pressured.
He raised his three daughters at home as an experiment to prove this, encouraging them to play chess intensely from an early age. They practiced for hours on end with each other as they pursued perfection on the board.
The experiment quickly yielded results. Judit was the youngest of their children and at the age of five beat her father, who was also a chess teacher. By her twelfth birthday, Polgár was the highest-ranked woman in the world.
The Hungarian chess star achieved the title of grandmaster – the highest title a player can achieve – at age 15, becoming the youngest person at the time to do so.
No wonder Polgár is considered the real Beth Harmon. The protagonist of the hit Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” is also a female chess prodigy in a male-dominated sphere, and fans were quick to point out the similarities.
“I even got a few phone calls congratulating me on it. [a série]. So it was kind of funny,” Polgár told Connect the World during a quick match with a producer from CNN at the World Chess Championships in Dubai.
She marvels at how authentic the “Queen’s Gambit” is, in particular how the games were structured. These scenes were designed by Garry Kasparov, the #1 ranked chess player from 1984 until his retirement in 2005.
“It was a real delight for chess players, the games in the series. And also the body language, the way she played… it was extremely well done”, says Polgár, giving the producer a checkmate. CNN on the next move and breaking into a wide grin.
battle of the sexes
Retired since 2014, Polgár believes her battles against sexism in sport were even more challenging than those Harmon faces in fiction.
“My life, I can say, was much more interesting, much more challenging as a girl in the male-dominated sport,” reflects Polgár.
In a November 1989 interview with Playboy magazine, Kasparov said that “there is real chess and women’s chess.” Polgár would defeat the Russian in 2002, aged 24.
A gender imbalance at the highest level still exists today – there are currently no women ranked in the top 100 chess players in the world, and Polgár remains the only woman to make the top 10. Nigel Short, FIDE Vice President, World Chess Federation said in 2015 that “men’s and women’s brains are programmed very differently.”
Judit’s father took a very different attitude. Her message to her daughters was that chess was a purely mental competition and that performance on the board was gender independent.
“My father believed from the beginning that every healthy child is a potential genius. He wanted to prove it, wanted to create the environment as if we were boys and then he believed that we can reach the maximum, at least, the same way as if we were boys”, says Polgár.
Not that László’s approach has not met with opposition.
“Of course, my family and I were attacked and criticized many times because my parents were choosing for me…that I would become a chess player, a chess professional.”
Despite this, László persevered with spectacular results. Susan is also a great teacher, while Sofia is an international teacher.
changing the game today
Polgár doesn’t think she would have reached her height if it weren’t for the home environment her parents created.
“What can be done in the future is simply that the parents’ mindset [possa mudar], that they have the same goals and objectives for a girl [quando menino], says Polgár.
“So I think the mentality has to change, society has to approach girls in a completely different way. And it’s a long way to go until it’s getting better and more balanced.”
The greatest male player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, agrees.
Before starting the defense of his crown in Dubai, Carlsen told the CNN that it’s a mistake to tell girls that they can’t excel at chess and that boys are just being encouraged to play more than girls.
Even in retirement, Polgár’s presence in the game remains strong.
She started the Judit Polgar Chess Foundation and became a UN 50-50 female champion. By publishing several books on chess, she hopes to encourage girls to get into the game and follow in her footsteps.
Polgár speaks English, Hungarian, Russian and Spanish, but says “chess is like my native language”.
And if she hadn’t been made to play chess by her father, what would she have done?
“I envision myself doing something creatively, whether it’s computer science or photography or something. But it’s definitely a lot for my personality to be creative, to create and innovate something.”
Translated text. Read the original in English.
Reference: CNN Brasil