Friday 19 January 2018

A Queen of Kings: Meet the child prodigy who beat sexism on the black and white board

Judit Polgár
Judit Polgár
Judit Polgár defeating world champion Boris Spassky in Budapest, Hungary 1993
Judit Polgár teaching chess to children

Zoë Brennan-Whitmore

"Before I was born my parents decided that I was going to be a genius."

This was the opening line of Judit Polgár's first Ted Talk. She wasn't exaggerating.

Judit Polgár was born in Budapest in 1976, the third child to parents László and Klara Polgár. Before meeting his wife, László, an educational psychologist, had decided that he was going to have children in order to prove a theory that he believed to be true.  László believed that any healthy child could become a genius if they were specially educated from a young age.

Using chess as a specialised subject Judit and her two older sisters Sofia and Susan were home-schooled in order to excel their learning. By the time Judit was five she was already beating her father at chess. This was was no surprise as both her older sisters were making waves in the world of women's chess. However, as time went on it became apparent that Judit would have a different path. It was decided that she would not compete in women's competitions, she would only compete against men.

Living behind the Iron curtain in Hungary during the 1980's and 90's, chess opened up the opportunity for Judit and her family to travel which would never have been there otherwise. This saw Judit travel to New York to win her first international tournament when she was just nine years old.

Of course chess being a male dominated sport, this was an extreme feat to expect any young girl to out smart men 10, 20, 30 years her senior. Judit told the Independent.ie that pressure was never an issue.

"I was very lucky to be a part of a family where I got all the support I needed and I think this was essential for me to be able to reach my results.

"Of course there were difficult moments but I was fortunate because people could not follow the speed at which I was increasing my level," she said.

At age 11 she beat her first Grandmaster.

Then in 1991 at age 15 Judit beat American Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest ever Grandmaster.

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Judit Polgár defeating world champion Boris Spassky in Budapest, Hungary 1993

Polgar was the number one female chess player for 26 years and went on to beat nine chess Grandmasters including Garry Kasparov, who previously said she was "talented, but not greatly talented". He added that the likelihood of them ever even playing against each other would be "almost impossible."

Polgar explained that she was not deterred by these comments: "I had a very strong background so these comments did not influence me. He was entitled to his opinion.....but he changed his mind." she said with a grin. 

Judit was in Dublin last Friday to receive UCD's prestigious James Joyce award where she recalled her rise to Grandmaster and also how she wants to give back to the game.

Now a mother-of-two, Judit has retired from competitive chess and is focusing on introducing educational chess to school curriculum's around the world.

"There are two ways to have educational chess in schools, either through after school programs or using chess as a tool in classrooms to improve children's thinking," she explained.

Judit's program 'Chess Palace'  projects the chess board as a castle where the pieces turn into characters with different values that are based around the castle, it is a creative way to introduce chess to children born in the digital age.

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Judit Polgár teaching chess to children

"In a very playful way they are thinking and visualising things in a more complex way.

"I do hope in Ireland children in schools can experience the richness of chess and it's positive effects."

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