'I never wanted men's pity': Chess child prodigy Judit Polgar on the game's inherent sexism

Judit Polgar beat Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming a chess Grandmaster at 15. Her spectacular talent – and her frustration at the game – still endures, as Dominic Lawson finds when he meets her, 24 years after their first encounter.

Dominic Lawson
Saturday 24 November 2012 01:00 GMT

Almost a quarter of a century ago I met a 12-year-old girl in Budapest, who told me: "When I am rich I want a castle. And five servants. Minimum." It was an extraordinary aspiration for a child living in what was still a Communist country. But then this was no ordinary girl.

Twelve-year-old Judit was already better at chess than any human had been at that age; and within three years she had, at aged 15 and five months, beaten Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest person – boy or girl – ever to achieve the Grandmaster title.

Earlier this month this chess addict went back to Hungary to see Judit, now a married 36-year-old with two children. She was a little late for our meeting at her home, an entirely new-built two-floor apartment in one of Budapest's smartest residential areas. So her husband of 12 years, a strikingly handsome veterinary surgeon called Gusztav Font, showed me around their home while one of two domestic helpers prepared a pot of tea. Judit's office, which Gusztav opened with reverence, was wall-to-wall with chess books and cupboards full of trophies, of course. But I was more taken with the main feature in the marble-floored drawing room – an immense picture window with a stunning view across the Danube to the old imperial palace of Emperor Franz Joseph.

So I couldn't quite resist saying, when Judit arrived home: "Well, you didn't get a castle with five servants – but even a view of a palace like that, and two domestic helpers, isn't bad."

"Yes, not bad at all," laughed Judit, who made it clear she had not forgotten our conversation of 23 years ago – she forgets nothing, in fact. In those days she had lived in a much less glamorous, smaller and viewless flat with her two elder sisters and parents. Her mother and father, Laszlo and Klara Polgar, had devoted their lives to their children in an extraordinary way: refusing to send them to school and educating them at home with chess as the main subject and Esperanto as a base for linguistic ability – Judit is nowadays fluent in Russian, English and Spanish as well as her native Magyar.

Laszlo, an educational psychologist by profession, had wanted to demonstrate that what we call 'genius' is not a naturally occurring or genetically created phenomenon, but could be achieved by any child, given intensive early tuition on a one-to-one basis. Chess was a natural way of trying to prove his theory to the world, partly because the game is viewed as a touchstone of the intellect, but also because results are easily compared and measured by a universal grading system. Thus, as Judit put it in her recently published autobiography, How I Beat Fischer's Record: "From the moment of my birth on 23 July 1976, I became involved f in an educational research project. Even before I came into the world, my parents had already decided: I would be a chess champion."

Laszlo Polgar proceeded to demonstrate his theory: his eldest daughter, Zsuzsa, became a Grandmaster and woman's world champion; and the middle daughter, Zsofia, achieved the title of International Chess Master (one rung below Grandmaster status) before abandoning the game as "not enough for me". But it was the Polgars' youngest child, Judit, who challenged all conventional thinking about the innate superiority of the male mind at chess. Unlike all other girls – or women – she refused to take part in the closed ghetto of female events and would play only in male competitions: in these, having started playing competitively at the age of six, she would chew up and spit out Grandmasters and their egos in a style combining breathtakingly direct aggression with lethal tactical trickery.

Between 1 and 10 December at the London Chess Classic in Kensington's Olympia, Judit will be taking on her biggest challenge yet to the male elite of the chess world. Among her opponents will be the reigning World Champion, Viswanathan Anand of India, and the world's two highest-ranked chess players – Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Levon Aronian of Armenia. Oh, and she'll also be up against the former World Champion, Russia's Vladmir Kramnik, the man who took the title from Garry Kasparov in the same city 12 years ago.

Because of her commitments as a mother, Judit does not play chess nearly as much as she did, and has less time to dedicate to study and preparation – she used to put in 10 hours a day of practice, study and training; so I asked her if she was apprehensive about taking on these monsters of the full-time professional game. "I was hesitating about playing. I don't play as much as a full professional should play. But I like a challenge. I just hope it's not too much of a challenge!"

Judit gave up the game entirely for two years, around the time of the births of her and Gusztav's two children, Oliver in 2004 and Hanna in 2006. Lying with her shoeless feet tucked underneath her on a vast red leather chaise longue, Judit explained: "Actually we wanted to have kids earlier. But in 2002 I had a miscarriage, at 13 weeks. And funnily enough after that I had my best-ever tournament result, in January 2003. That was when my international rating reached its peak [she achieved the ranking of world number 8]. So it was a terrible time personally but a great time professionally. It was then that I decided to stop playing… I thought, perhaps if I stop playing then I will be able to get pregnant again."

One can understand Judit's thinking. As one of the world's strongest women players, Russia's Alexandra Kosteniuk has written of her own battle to succeed in what is still a male-dominated sport: "It's almost impossible to explain to non-chess players how physically demanding the game is, and how hard, physically and psychologically, it is to compete in world-championship level competition".

Yet, I asked Judit, doesn't her decision to cut back on the career that once dominated her life almost justify Garry Kasparov's dismissive remark that a woman could never become a great chess player, because she will always be "distracted by a baby's cry"? This, naturally enough, provokes Judit: "I grew up to know what pressure is, for hour after hour! I grew up with pressure from the very beginning. In 2005 I played in the world chess championship in San Luis [in Argentina]: I was away from my family for 27 days. That was not nice – you don't want your babies to suffer emotionally. But I did it. Anyway, this is not just an issue for women, as Kasparov imagines. Don't tell me that if a guy wants to be a good father it doesn't affect his job. My husband supports me a lot – he would probably go higher in his field if he didn't. And that relationship between the sexes is becoming more acceptable."

Yet in the world she moves in professionally, women are still second-class citizens. This is not least because Judit remains a country mile ahead of all other female players, none of whom have even broken into the world's top 100 ranking list. For 23 years now she has been the only woman to figure on it, being currently ranked at number 43. So doesn't this perhaps prove the chauvinists right – that there is an intrinsic superiority in the male mind, in this sphere at least? Judit, naturally, bridles at that.

"No, I don't agree that it's significant that no woman has reached my rating since. The problem is that women are still measured by how they do against other women and that is where the bar is set. For example, the Chinese have a great young woman player, Hou Yifan. But the Chinese government are interested only in her becoming woman's world champion. For them that is enough, and it is much easier to achieve than outstanding performances against the best men. My parents, however, believed that there should be no limits to what you could reach as a woman."

This fierce defence of her upbringing separates Judit from another home-educated prodigy, Britain's Ruth Lawrence. Her father, like Judit's, had devoted himself entirely to her schooling at home, with extraordinary results: Lawrence came top in the Oxford University mathematics entrance exam at nine. She is now married with four children and is also maths professor at the Einstein Institute in Jerusalem – so there has been fulfilment both personally and professionally; but she has apparently long been estranged from the father who had driven her to such an early peak of performance.

Yet it's notable that Judit could have brought up her children in the same way she and her sisters had been, but has chosen not to. Oliver and Hanna are having a normal education (they had just got back from school and were zooming around the family home, while I was there); and Judit has made no special effort to make them focus on chess ahead of their schoolwork.

"Well, our kids have two parents. And while I may have been brought up in a strange way, my husband was brought up in a normal way. Also, the effort involved on my parents' part was extraordinary. They gave up everything for us. My parents didn't believe in their method 100 per cent; they believed in it f 1,000 per cent. I'm not fanatical about such things in the way they were. Plus, my parents were financially deprived, and there was a lot to win for them, in terms of chess prize money. My father wanted to break out. It wasn't easy for him. And I don't think he would even have started it if he'd known all the struggles he'd have with the authorities… they threatened to put him in a mental hospital and us in an orphanage. Also, for us, tournament invitations were the key to travel outside [Communist] Hungary. It was magical to go abroad and see the world. But for kids in Hungary now, it is not magical and their parents don't have to do something extraordinary to make that happen."

Yet the experience of a young girl travelling with just her mother to far-flung places – the Communist authorities kept the father grounded, just in case – was not entirely magical. As Judit recalls: "In 1986, at the age of 10, I won the unrated section of the New York Open and I was on the front page of the New York Times; then, shortly after that, I did a press conference, in Germany. And they killed me. The journalists said 'You are not normal'. They attacked my family's lifestyle. They wanted to tear us apart. I had been speaking English for only six months, so it was difficult for me to answer their questions. Afterwards I was crying in the bathroom. And then I decided at that moment: you know what? I don't care and I won't care. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it."

Judit had the same tough-as-tungsten attitude over the board, something I noticed a quarter of a century ago when watching her lose the odd game and showing none of the wobbling lower lip or other signs of distress that most young children – even the toughest-looking boys – tend to display after defeat. When I mentioned this, Judit's response was fierce: "Of course I got angry when I lost and maybe would cry in my hotel room afterwards. But I would never show it. I didn't want the men's pity. I didn't want to share my pain with them. I would never give excuses, even if I really had one, like being ill." And then she laughs, recalling her sister Zsusza's remark that she "never won a game against a healthy man", a reference to the excuses that grown-up male Grandmasters would make when losing to one or other of the amazing Polgar sisters.

But it's very clear that Judit still craved something from her male rivals: respect. And she felt she got it after that remarkable result in the annual Wijk-an-Zee tournament of January 2003, when she was beaten to first place only by Vishy Anand, and finished undefeated ahead of such giants of the game as the reigning world champion Vladimir Kramnik and the former champion Anatoly Karpov (whom she wiped off the board in characteristically ferocious attacking style using her favourite Queen's Indian Defence).

"After that tournament Anand said, 'She is one of us'. Finally! Finally I got there!" Judit's dark eyes still light up at the memory; but I dared to suggest to her that the Indian might have been saying not that she was a fellow genius, but that she was an honorary man. "Ha! Well, it's true that my old trainer [the Russian Grandmaster Lev Psakhis] would tell people, 'She's a man. She only looks like a woman'. And when I first started going out with Gusztav he would say, 'My God, you are looking at things with a man's brain'. Well, that's how I live. People say I'm tough and harsh. But the truth is that it's just not acceptable for a woman to be self-confident."

Aside from male chauvinism, Judit is also sharply sensitive towards a different sort of prejudice, with dreadful historic echoes in that part of the world: her great-grandparents were among the estimated half a million Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary who perished in the Holocaust. "In 1988 I received a letter with a picture of my father with his eyes cut out, and an anti-Semitic message. You don't forget things like that. We're still not doing too well in Hungary on this, and maybe it's worse now than when I was a kid. There are these ultra-nationalist organisations… there is a band – Karpatia – which supports this sort of thing and one of its singers invited me to a concert they were doing. And I told him, 'Don't you know I'm Jewish?' and he said, 'Yes, but you're different'." Judit shakes her head at the memory of this bizarre encounter.

A superstar in her native Hungary – rather as a top footballer would be in the UK – Judit is generally wary of getting sucked into politics, of being used to promote the ideas of others. However, she has been very active in trying to persuade the government to make chess an option within the national curriculum, not because she wants all Hungarians to be chess players like her, but because she is passionately convinced it is an attractive way of training children to think logically, which in turn would aid their development in all subjects.

The politicians have consistently expressed their support for her initiative, but Judit – at least the day I saw her – was deeply frustrated that no announcement had yet been made: "The biggest enemy we have is the teachers. They are scared to death by the idea. And the politicians drive me nuts! I don't mind talking about something, OK, but then you've got to take action. For the politicians it's only about talking."

Probably Hungary's exclusively male political elite does not much enjoy being subjected to such treatment by a woman. But it would be completely wrong to give the impression that she is without feminine charm. With her long auburn hair and dazzling smile, Judit has always been the most glamorous presence in a sport not exactly long on sex appeal and she is actually quite coquettish in her manner, enhanced by the fact that she has a little of the Mae West about her. It is hardly surprising that her husband – as he explained to me, still charmingly smitten 14 years later – fell for her immediately when she turned up at his veterinary surgery with her ailing Hungarian Vizsla.

I suspect London will also fall for her when she arrives in the capital next month – her first professional appearance in the UK since 1988, when no one could quite believe what they were witnessing. If you can, try to get to London Olympia to see her in action. We will not see her like again.

For more details, visit londonchessclassic.com

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