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A man with a talent for creating genius: William Hartston meets Laszlo Polgar, the father of three world-class chess players

William Hartston
Tuesday 12 January 1993 01:02 GMT

'THE EXPERIMENT is not finished yet,' says Laszlo Polgar. It began 23 years ago with a simple premise: that any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialise at six.

So far Laszlo, a Hungarian educational psychologist, and his wife, Klara, a teacher, have had three subjects: their daughters Zsuzsa, 23, Zsofia, 18, and Judit, 16. The results have been impressive. Zsuzsa speaks nine languages and is an international chess grandmaster; Zsofia is also a polyglot with many international chess trophies; and Judit has become the youngest grandmaster in history and the strongest female player in the world.

Laszlo looks like a disgruntled garden gnome and answers questions in a musical voice, with an evangelical tone and a tendency to stare into space. He wears the scars of weariness after decades of battling against Hungarian chess organisers who wanted his daughters to play in women's tournaments rather than competing against men, and educational authorities who sent an armed policeman to drag Zsuzsa off to school.

His formula for happiness is 'work, love, freedom and luck'. But the key is hard work, because hard work creates luck; work plus luck equals genius; and a genius is more likely to be happy. With three daughters, the experiment has inevitably been diverted down the path of sex equality. 'Men must be clever and hard,' he explains. 'Women must be beautiful and look after the family. Only then, if they have time, can they be clever.' He hopes his experiment will help to change this prejudice.

Zsuzsa now lives with her boyfriend (who happens to be Peru's top grandmaster), and the role of the Polgar parents has changed from that of educators to professional managers of the hottest properties in international chess.

If they could run the experiment again, they would prefer to do it outside Hungary and would seek commercial sponsorship, but still stick to chess. But Laszlo concedes: 'The problems of cancer and Aids might be more easily solved if our system were used to educate 1,000 children.'

The experiment will be considered over when all three daughters are living independent lives. They will still be chess players, even though the system is supposed to allow excellence to be transferred from its primary area to another. 'They like chess so much, they cannot go away from it.'

Boyfriends or husbands will, according to the Polgar prescription, become part of the extended family: Klara and Laszlo look forward to educating their grandchildren.

When Judit loses, it is Klara and Laszlo who seem to suffer; the 16-year-old takes it all in her stride. They give every appearance of being a healthily close- knit family, rather than a travelling circus under a tyrannical patriarch, as some rivals have portrayed them.

In the highly individualistic and competitive world of chess, however, selfishness seems an occupational necessity for a top grandmaster. I ask if there are ever arguments in the family. 'What are arguments?' Klara asks.

'When one person wants to do something, another wants to do something else, and you all shout at each other,' I explain.

She translates for Laszlo, then smiles. 'Of course,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)

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