Chess

The politics of women's chess has had an interesting history. For hundreds of years everyone knew that women couldn't play chess, and there were no real problems. There had been Vera Menchik, of course, who beat several of the world's top players in the 1930s, but without support from other women players she could easily be dismissed as an aberration. Anyway, she only ever beat good players when they tried too hard to win level positions.

Then, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the top Soviet women began playing in men's tournaments and were at least beginning to look like grandmasters if not quite world champions. But then the Polgars arrived.

Trained from infancy by their educational psychologist parents, Zsuzsa, Zsofia and Judit Polgar re-wrote all the records for chess precocity, boy or girl. And they never competed in girls-only events.

When the 16-year-old Zsuzsa, the eldest of the trio, shot to the top of the women's rating list, it enraged the Soviet chess establishment. Their world champion, Maya Chiburdanidze, could not be seen to have dropped to number two. So, with the aid of some selective samples of results, they "proved" statistically that the rating system was unfair to women who only played against other women.

In one of its most bizarre and shameful decisions, the Fide ratings commission as a consequence decided to give 100 extra rating points to every woman on earth except Zsuzsa Polgar.

It made little difference apart from fuelling inflation in world ratings and shooting the pre-teen Judit Polgar high up the ranking list. Chiburdanidze was back on top, though she lost her world title a few years later to Xie Jun of China. After a few years, when the 100-point bonus became eroded by subsequent results, Zsuzsa Polgar regained her number one place, only to be quickly supplanted by her little sister Judit.

Hungary, by now generally known as Polgaria, won the Women's Chess Olympics twice, ahead of the Soviet Union, and would have won it last time too had Judit not been playing for the men's team. Ranked 20th in the world, she is now playing with the big boys.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world's women players, inspired by the Polgars, have become strong enough for Zsuzsa to consider the Women's world title at last worth pursuing. Last month, in a final eliminator, she scored a convincing victory over Maya Chiburdanidze and now goes on to challenge Xie Jun for the championship.

According to a report in Der Spiegel, Chiburdanidze has given her prize money to the poor and decided to hang up her pawns and retire to a convent. Funny chaps, women.

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