Chess sisters sweep the board

Local heroes Zsuzsa, Zsofia and Judit Polgar
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The Independent Online
Budapest - Take a child, girl or boy - and set it to work at the age of three. Forget conventional schooling and pick a specialisation by the time they reach six. Work hard, praise generously and be patient. With any luck, the result should be a genius.

When Laszlo Polgar first propounded his unconventional educational theories more than 20 years ago, most Hungarians thought him slightly unhinged, and he quickly found himself coming into conflict with the Communist authorities.

But that was before Zsuzsa, the oldest of Mr Polgar's three daughters, began sweeping the board at almost every chess tournament she entered, rising to become the world's first female grandmaster. Then Zsofia, the second of his daughters, began clocking up a host of trophies.

Judit, the youngest of the three girls, sent any doubterspacking. A polyglot like her sisters, Judit displayed an even more prodigious talent for chess. At eight she could beat masters blindfolded. By 14 she was challenging to become the first woman to win a national men's title and at just 15 years and five months, she became the youngest ever grandmaster, beating a record set 33 years earlier by Bobby Fischer.

"Judit Polgar is a national treasure," says Pal Benko, a former Hungarian chess champion who, like most of the country, has followed her progress with awe. "She is an aggressive, brilliant, attacking player. She is dangerous. She does not play chess like a woman."

Not surprisingly, most of the adulation has fallen on Judit, who at 20 stands at number 18 in the men's world rankings and who will be competing for the Hungarian men's team in the Chess Olympiad opening in Armenia at the end of this week.

But Zsuzsa and Zsofia - respectively numbers one and seven in the women's world rankings - have also fired the imagination in a country where chess is played with a passion akin to that in Russia and where large public chess boards are to be found in parks and swimming pools.

According to Mr Polgar, the decision to specialise in chess was almost accidental, resulting from the fact that as a baby, Zsuzsa had always enjoyed playing with chess pieces. But once chess was chosen, it dominated a demanding routine that included physical activity, culture, languages, even humour.

Mr Polgar wanted to disprove the idea that women were intrinsically less able than men at chess. It was always going to be an uphill struggle. The Hungarian Chess Federation for years opposed the three girls competing in men's tournaments. Top players such as world champion Gary Kasparov dismissed them as "trained dogs" who lacked the physical and psychological stamina to beat the best of the male world.

To date, Judit has yet to defeat Kasparov or his great rival Anatoly Karpov, but scalps she has claimed include former world champion Boris Spassky and British champion Nigel Short, and she is seen as one of a small handful of players who could capture Kasparov's crown.

Whether she does or not, Judit and her sisters have forced a fundamental reappraisal of women's role in chess. As one Polgar fan put it: "Twenty years ago no leading men's player would ever feel threatened in a game against a women. Today many do and it is now no ignominy to lose to a women. The Polgars have led the way."