Toy chess pieces, chess story books and large-scale chess boards are spread across the rooms of a primary school in District XVI of Budapest. Judit Polgár greets me with a smile and talks me through her workshop, as children and parents buzz around the chess paraphernalia.

“Chess is everywhere, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities…chess connects us,” she says. How can we keep young people interested in the ancient game, in an age of computer games and instant internet gratification, I ask? “It’s done by establishing an emotional attachment,” Polgár replies. “We provide tools to help teachers to become more creative, bigger thinkers. We can, for example, establish a cultural connection between the rook piece and real-life towers and structures.”

Recently retired from the world of competitive chess, she has been on the road promoting the game. “I was previously in New York working with the United Nations to promote chess for women. It’s been a busy few weeks,” she says.

As we sit down in the corner of a classroom to talk about her momentous career and life, I delve right in about her 2002 victory against then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov. She laughs heartily. “Well actually, there had been an emotional barrier in place for some time that prevented me playing on equal terms, and I broke through that barrier one year earlier, when I was playing two very bloody games in a tournament where Kasparov was very well prepared and very sharp. After that I felt mentally ready to fight on equal terms…although he was a better player.”

Her life now is a far cry from her very early years growing up in communist-ruled Hungary in a modest home. But perseverance, obsession and a very special upbringing have brought her to this destination. While Polgár aims to encourage a love of chess among youngsters, the journey from child prodigy to world champion is no easy one, as she herself knows too well.

Educational experiment

“I grew up in a very special environment,” she recalls, “as the youngest of three sisters. Susan is seven years older than me and Sofia is one year older. We had a special lifestyle and were home-schooled, and in my life chess became a very unique game and later on a sport and much more. It was a creative platform for me, somewhere I could express myself and win – and all kids love to win.

“Susan was competing seriously by the time I learned my first moves, and Sofia was very active. It was great to follow my sisters and enter my first competition when I was 6. It gave me a lot of self-confidence and good moments.”

The idea to home-school the girls with intense chess training was the brainchild of their father, teacher and psychologist László Polgár, who wanted the girls to excel by focusing on one field rather than following a traditional education that would spread their attention across multiple subjects. He had another aim – to prove that girls could reach the same attainment level as boys on an equal footing.

In time their parents’ decision led to all the girls becoming grandmasters. “I grew up hearing from my parents that the school system is not good and that you cannot excel in anything,” says Polgár. “The social part is also not necessarily good. There are a lot of difficult and risky moments for kids. I heard at home that kids could not develop emotionally or academically at school”.

Their father’s decision to raise the girls in this manner, with the full support of their mother, was made even before the girls were born. But why chess? “My father liked chess as an amateur player. My sister was born in 1969 and in 1972 there was this huge impact on the world of the Fischer-Spassky match. My sisters were very good at maths but my parents decided that by the age of 4 I needed to choose between maths and chess. So it was kind of by chance, but also because 1972 and 1973 was a magical era in chess.”

At the time, chess victories were tinged with political symbolism. Russian champion Boris Spassky’s defeat at the hands of American player Bobby Fischer in the 1972 World Chess Championship had a huge symbolic political impact, dealing a decisive blow to 24 years of Soviet hegemony in chess at the height of the Cold War.

Intensive chess training began at home, with trainers coming to tutor all the girls in the game. Seeing her elder sisters disappear behind closed doors piqued Judit’s curiosity and spurred her on. “My sisters were competing a lot, so it was a natural choice for me. The chess coaches came to our house, we didn’t go to clubs to train. We learned other subjects to some extent but my parents didn’t demand perfect scores.”

Political battle

As the girls developed into international chess stars, they were afforded rare privileges. Judit was in the unique position of being able to travel frequently outside communist Hungary, something that impacts her to this day. “At that time, to go out of the country was something incredible. It was a luxury not only financially but to have the opportunity to see other cultures, views, interiors and landscapes. I could experience this from the age of 6, when I first flew in a plane.”

The Hungarian Chess Federation and even members of their own family eyed the three young prodigies with suspicion. In the cloistered world of Central Europe behind the Iron Curtain, travelling to the West was rare. “I can say it was something amazing, not exactly like travelling to Mars now, but similar,” Polgár laughs. “Most of the positive feedback was when we were travelling, but gradually in Hungary people overcame their scepticism and saw that we were achieving results.”

In 1988, just before the dying days of the Soviet Union, 12-year-old Judit and her sisters won the gold medal for Hungary at the 28th Chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki, beating the Soviet team in the women’s category. It was another key victory for her, in what she describes as a political battle against the Soviet (especially Georgian) women players who had dominated the women’s category for decades.

Being a woman

Had I not already seen several YouTube clips of her speaking, I may not have known what to expect. In my mind a female chess grandmaster would be taciturn and introverted, with a certain defensiveness built around being a woman in a male-dominated sport. But Polgár has none of these traits; she guards her femininity while talking straight and being fearless about taking on men in the game.

She is warm, personable and an excellent speaker, traits that serve her well in her current role as ambassador for the ancient game of strategy. She is also full of confidence, well aware of her record-breaking achievement. After all, this is the female chess player who in 1991 at the age of 15 years and five months became the youngest grandmaster at that time, something she later wrote about in her book “How I Beat Bobby Fischer’s Record”.

From an early age she was determined that her gender should not be a factor in her play, and competed with adult men from the very beginning, graduating from all-women’s to open competitions.

But in the world of chess, top male players remain far in the lead. Most female chess players only aim to beat other women and to lift their ranking in the women’s category. But Polgár always set her bar higher.

“In the ladies competition they are much lower level players, and for a long time I did not understand why there are not many ladies who follow this path. I was number one in the ladies ranking for 26 years, whereas for a time I was the number eight between men and women.

“But besides me there was only one woman in the top 100 who slid in an out of the rankings. Even in tournaments where ladies play against men, for the men playing against women is just a form of practice for the harder games against men. It was my goal to be the best not just among ladies but, for example, to beat Kasparov.”

Some believe that the physical demands of chess make it hard for women to keep up, and various male chess players have made comments about why women are not tough competition. Kasparov declared that “women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players: they are not great fighters”. Sometimes female players don’t do themselves any favours either. Georgian player Nona Gaprindashvili reportedly said women cannot become world champions because of their period, Polgár recounts.

But she believes it is society that essentially prevents women competing at the higher level. “Girls are not motivated to become professional chess players. There are a lot of girls who compete in physical sports. With chess as with anything, you have to be a fanatic, and this involves lots of ‘so called’ sacrifices. I hope more ladies enter the profession,” she says.

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Giving back

Polgár is now focusing her energies on an educational chess program that assists learning through the basic rules of chess, particularly since the European Parliament adopted the “Chess in School” program in 2012. The 64-square chess board is, for example, used to boost mathematical literacy.

It is clearly a challenge she enjoys, and her initiative has attracted international interest. Two hundred and forty six Hungarian schools are taking part in the Chess Palace educational program, and she aims to launch a pilot project in the Unites States and other countries. “Today we are doing a demo class for grades 1 to 3, where they can ask questions from the school teachers and give them more experience, confidence and knowledge.”

She also runs an annual global chess festival in Budapest in October. “This 1500-year-old board game is played across boundaries and you have all kinds of hand-crafted boards and pieces. Kids can come along and create marzipan chess pieces. We basically want to show different aspects of the game: as art, as a sport, in literature. We want to show the diversity chess can offer anyone from any part of society. Having travelled to over 60 countries, my experience is that chess connects us. We hope to do this one day in thousands of destinations with millions of people taking part.”

Despite Hungary’s small size, it is consistently in the top 10 worldwide for the number of international master and grandmaster players, and the hope is that more will emerge.

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