The Polgár sisters - Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit - with their father, László Polgár.

Drama series revives memories of Polgár sisters’ reign

Men chess kings bad losers to Hungary’s queen

Netflix chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit,” has proved to be a winner worldwide and has thrown the spotlight back on Hungary’s famous chess player sisters the Polgárs. Judit Polgár, who is considered by far the strongest female player of all time and the only woman ever to be ranked in the world top 10 players, has admired the series but says there is one respect in which she cannot identify with the protagonist, Beth, a chess prodigy, and that is how the male competitors treated her. “They were too nice to her,” Polgár said.

When Polgár was proving herself and rising in the world rankings to her peak of No. 8 in 2005, becoming the first woman to play for the World Championship title, the men often made disparaging comments about her ability, she said. They thought their jokes about her were funny but they were actually hurtful.

And no one ever resigned to her, as one male opponent does to Beth in the seventh and final episode of “The Queen’s Gambit”, by gallantly holding her hand near his lips. “There were opponents who refused to shake hands,” Polgár recalled. “There was one who hit his head on the board after he lost.”

The Netflix series is named after a chess opening move and is based on a 1983 novel by American author Walter Tevis. Some commentators have remarked that it resembles the lives and chess careers of the Polgár sisters, particularly Judit, who became the youngest to achieve the International Grandmaster title at the age of 15 years and 4 months in 1991, breaking the record held by former World Champion Bobby Fischer.

However, they were born between 1969 and 1976, two decades later than when fictional character Beth Harmon takes on the also fictional Russian champion Vasily Borgov in Moscow. At that time, in the real world, women weren’t even allowed to compete in the World Chess Championship, something that didn’t occur until the 1980s.

Beth Harmon, the protagonist of The Queen’s Gambit – Photo: Netflix

So the similarities arise in that “The Queen’s Gambit” shows how a woman, in this case a Kentucky orphan, could excel in the 1950s and 1960s in the ruthlessly competitive, male-dominated world of chess,

The program has been on the Netflix platform’s top series list since its release on October 23, and its popularity has inspired a debate about inequality and sexism in chess, a game where it seems that men and women would be able to compete on an equal footing but historically few women have been able to do so.

Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can attain apart from world champion. Although Judit Polgár made gold medal-winning appearances for the Hungarian Olympic women’s teams of 1988 and 1990, she spurned women-only events. Polgár defeated former world chess champion Boris Spassky in a match in 1993. The following year she went undefeated in winning a chess tournament in Madrid, Spain, the first woman to win a strong Grandmaster tournament open to both genders.

After world chess champion Garry Kasparov, Polgár became the most popular and charismatic player in chess. In 2011 she won the bronze medal at the Men’s European Championship. She was the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world from 1989 until 2015, just after she announced her retirement from competitive chess in August 2014.

Polgár challenged male hegemony and played on an equal footing with the best men, defeating Magnus Carlsen and Anatoly Karpov as well as Kasparov and Spassky. Norwegian Grandmaster Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion and World Blitz Chess Champion. Russian Grandmaster Karpov was World Champion from 1975 to 1985. Russian Grandmaster Kasparov, a former World Chess Champion, was ranked world No. 1 for 255 months between 1984 and his retirement in 2005. Russian Grandmaster Spassky was World Chess Champion from 1969 to 1972.

Judit Polgár was the youngest player ever to break into the top 100 players rating list of FIDE, the International Chess Federation, ranking No. 55 in January 1989 at the age of 12. She and her two elder sisters, Zsuzsa and Zsófia, were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father László Polgár, in an attempt to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in specialist subjects from a very early age. The father’s thesis was that “geniuses are made, not born”. The girls were educated at home, with chess as the specialist subject.

Zsuzsa and Zsófia also won serious competitions. Zsuzsa was Women’s World Champion from 1996 to 1999. On the FIDE rating list of July 1984, at the age of 15, she became the top-ranked female player in the world. In 1991 she became the third woman to be awarded the title of Grandmaster by FIDE. She won 12 medals at the Women’s Chess Olympiad – five gold, four silver and three bronze. Zsófia holds the FIDE titles of International Master and Woman Grandmaster.

Zsuzsa has said she thinks Beth is a composite of Bobby Fischer, the eccentric American who beat Spassky, and of Lisa Lane, the US Women’s Champion who was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story in 1961.  She said that although “Lisa Lane never achieved anywhere near that kind of success, she was glamorous and lived a, let’s say, active life like Beth Harmon did”.

The seven-episode Netflix miniseries has been the top show in a dozen countries and prompted enthusiastic reactions from chess players and non-chess players alike. Netflix describes the coming-of-age story thus: “Abandoned and entrusted to a Kentucky orphanage, Beth (played by Isla Johnston in her early years but mostly by Anya Taylor-Joy) discovers an astonishing talent for chess while developing an addiction to tranquilisers provided by the state as a sedative for the children.

“Haunted by her personal demons and fueled by a cocktail of narcotics and obsession, she transforms into an impressively skilled and glamorous outcast while determined to conquer the traditional boundaries established in the male-dominated world of competitive chess.”

At least one commentator has pointed out that a similar story happened in real life when Vera Menchik was the first woman to challenge the men in chess. She rose to fame in the deeply patriarchal 1920s-1930s, an ascent in many ways even more astounding than that of the fictional Beth Harmon in the 1950s-1960s.

Menchik was born on February 16, 1906 in Moscow and became the first Women’s World Chess Champion, holding the title from 1927 until her death during the Second World War in 1944. She completely dominated women’s chess in ways that none of the men champions of the time ever did.

The closest comparisons among the men were probably Emanuel Lasker, a German who was World Chess Champion for 27 years from 1894 to 1921, the longest reign of any officially recognised World Chess Champion in history, or Alexander Alekhine, a Russian-French player and the only world champion other than Menchik to die on the throne, in 1946.

Menchik is famous for being the first woman to play in top-level men’s tournaments. She paved the way for other women, such as Nona Gaprindashvili and Maya Chiburdanidze, both of Georgia, who were able to compete with male Grandmasters, and later the Polgár girls.

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