First female chess grandmaster faces off against locals
Though chess enjoys worldwide acclaim as one of the oldest and most popular strategy games for people of all ages, competitive chess remains a heavily male-dominated sport. Susan Polgar, a five-time Olympiad champion and the first woman to earn the title of Grandmaster through tournament points, is seeking to change that.
On Wednesday evening, Polgar shared her life story with members of the Brandeis community as part of the ’DEIS Impact social justice festival. Prof. Shulamit Reinharz, Ph.D. ’77 (SOC) and Polgar discussed the latter’s identity as a third-generation Holocaust survivor. “All four of my grandparents were very fortunate Holocaust survivors,” Polgar said, “unlike 300 members of my family.”
She told Reinharz and the audience about growing up in post-war Hungary with grandparents who had survived Auschwitz and parents who were children of that survival. Polgar described how, to them, their circumstances were never an excuse to give up in life. “On the contrary, it was used as a motivation,” she said, “to show that we don’t give up, that we persevere, that … our actions and results speak louder.”
Heavy, lingering anti-Semitism marked much of her childhood in Hun gary in the 1970s, but Polgar expressed hope that younger members of the audience would take lesson from her stories. For example, she said her grandparents’ hardships were humbling and taught her gratitude. “Compared to their problems, my problems are nothing,” she said. “What really matters is to put it in perspective.”
In her conversation with Florence Graves, the founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Polgar shared her father’s belief that “any healthy-born child is a potential genius.”
Polgar elaborated that her father had a theory that all future geniuses were children who started specializing in a subject or talent from a very young age. When Polgar stumbled upon a chess set and showed interest at four years old, her father felt that the game was “the perfect subject.” Chess was a game that most anyone could play, being “gender-neutral, size-neutral and inexpensive.”
However, Polgar emphasized that more than any innate talent, it was her parents’ support that allowed her to thrive. She recalled how she first fell in love with chess, with her father as her first mentor and opponent. “He made [the game] sound like a fairytale,” Polgar said, before describing the first time her father took her to a chess club.
This opened into a panel discussion about the gender-exclusive nature of chess, as Polgar articulated her experiences and feelings with sexism throughout her career. She quoted comments thrown at her in her childhood, when she was told to “go play dolls,” as well as the excuses made to exclude women from competition by claiming that “women’s brains are smaller” or “women can’t fight for four hours.” Polgar then asserted that these comments did not discourage her, instead leading her to wonder why she couldn not be the one to prove them wrong.
She remarked on male competitors’ disbelief at her victories, laughing, “I have never beaten a healthy man!”
The panel then opened the floor for questions from the audience, and several individuals asked how one would go about cultivating a child’s interest in chess. Smiling, Polgar advised: “Be patient. Believe in the power of hard work and perseverance,” and encouraged them to let their children enjoy the experience of chess without rushing them. To aspiring chess players, she emphasized the importance of objective assessment and consistent practice. As a life philosophy, she warned the audience to “not give up at the first difficulty” and to “not get used to the habit of giving up.”
After the event, ten individuals had the opportunity to play chess against Polgar in a simultaneous exhibition, chosen by a raffle.
The majority of chosen players included younger children who were in attendance with their parents.