ACJ Extra

The Girl Who Would Be King

Christopher Chabris

Judit Polgar is slouching in a swivel chair, arms folded, chin down, eyes staring intensely at the wooden board and pieces in front of her. A striking mane of red-orange hair, tied at the top of her head, flows down behind the chair. Around her, television cameras are rolling, bright lights are shining, cameras flashing. Occasionally she looks around, smiles, answers a question.

Outside the playing room a small audience has gathered around computer screens and television monitors to follow the chess moves. A historic match is about to begin, and neither player is like any the game has ever seen.

Judit, who has lived in Budapest all her life, is not a typical grandmaster. At 17, she is the youngest among that elite, she is ranked 20th in the world, and, most surprisingly, she is female. She is beyond doubt the greatest female player in the game's thousand-year history and the first with a realistic chance of winning the world championship. (The "men's" world championship, that is. For several decades a separate championship competition-- one in which Judit has consistently refused to take part-- has been open only to women. The current titleholder is 23-year-old Xie Jun of China.)

Judit's opponent on this August afternoon is a prototype of the Deep Blue chess computer being developed at IBM Research in Hawthorne, New York. Deep Blue, which can analyze several million positions per second, is the top chess-playing computer in the world, and the only one of grandmaster strength. Its developers hope that their next version will search up to one billion positions per second and be powerful enough to defeat world champion Garry Kasparov.

"Chess is 30 to 40 percent psychology," said Judit before the two-game match. "You don't have this when you play a computer. I can't confuse it." A precise analysis, and probably an accurate one for Judit's style, which relies on adapting her play to the opponent's strategy and abilities as the game progresses rather than on executing a carefully constructed pregame plan. The greatest strength of her game is her quick sight of the board--an ability to calculate variations and assess positions rapidly--which some experts say is second only to Kasparov's legendary skill.

Judit has the black pieces in the first of two games. Each side has 30 minutes to complete all of her/its moves. Fast, time limits like this are often thought to favor computers because they don't make the tactical mistakes to which even the top human players are susceptible in tense situations, especially when time is short. But instead of the sacrificial melee the audience expected, a slow strategic struggle develops. Eventually Judit makes a pair of subtle errors and Deep Blue obtains the advantage of rook and pawn for knight, enough to force a win.

The second game goes more as expected. As white, Judit sacrifices material to launch a dangerous attack on the computer's king, but with time running out she can only chase it around the board, not checkmate it. A draw is agreed, giving Deep Blue an impressive 1.5-0.5 victory in the match (a win is worth one point, a draw is worth 0.5)--a milestone for computer chess and perhaps a harbinger of future developments.

For her part, Judit does not seem too upset by the result. The match was unofficial, no prize money was at stake, and she had not spent much time in preparation. "I need some practice, and then I'll kill it," is her brutal, matter-of-fact assessment.

Practice is what has brought Judit to this point in her career--that is, if you believe her father, Laszlo Polgar. He and his wife, Klara, say they planned their entire family as an experiment to test his controversial theory that geniuses are made, not born. Zsuzsa and Zsofia, Judit's older sisters, are also strong chess players--Zsuzsa, 24, is a grandmaster and the world's second-ranked woman, and Zsofia, 19, is an international master. All three have been playing and studying chess to the exclusion of virtually all else from the age of four. They have had no formal education. Instead, their parents educated them at home, resisting pressure from communist government authorities to conform--which at one point brought armed men to the Polgar residence. Now that the girls are international stars and Hungary is a democracy, things are different, but the family always tries to maintain a united front. Judit never travels to tournaments or appearances without at least one of her parents, who long ago quit their jobs as teachers to work full-time on managing their daughters' careers.

Family legend holds that the girls play chess because Zsuzsa at an early age preferred it to math, music, or anything else. Seeing their older sister playing made Zsofia and Judit curious, and the Polgar phenomenon became fully formed when the trio started attending international tournaments together in 1984. In that year Zsuzsa became the highest-rated woman in the world and received the international master title (the rank just below grandmaster). Judit took over the top spot in 1989 and has kept it ever since, while at the Rome Open Zsofia registered one of the greatest individual tournament performances in history with an 8.5-0.5 score. In 1991 Judit won the Hungarian championship and she and Zsuzsa became Grandmasters. When she completed the title requirements at age 15 years and 5 months, she was one month younger than world champion-to-be Bobby Fischer was when he earned the title in 1958.

I first met Judit when her entire family visited New York in July 1992 for a chess festival organized by Dan Edelman of the U.S. Chess Federation. Since the sisters had been specifically invited to be the stars of the show, we ferried them from the airport to their Manhattan hotel in a pair of stretch limousines. Judit and Zsofia were impressed, and had fun trading stories with us and playing with the on-board television during the ride.

But once the main tournament, the Reshevsky Memorial, started the next week, Judit was all business. In the first round she had to play Zsuzsa, but the expected draw (expected because they know each other so well) resulted only after a four-hour struggle in which Judit nearly prevailed. Playing solidly throughout the event, Judit finished in clear second place.

The highlight of her career came in early 1993 in Budapest, when she defeated former world champion Boris Spassky 5.5-4.5 in a 10-game exhibition match and took home $120,000. Because there had been rumors about a possible encounter between Judit and Fischer (who had just beaten Spassky in a "comeback" match in Yugoslavia), the chess world viewed this match as something of a letdown. But for Judit, the experience of playing 10 games against so strong an opponent was invaluable preparation for future high-wire encounters with the world's best.

Before the Deep Blue mini-match, Judit and her sisters stopped in Boston for three days of exhibitions, including an evening of matches pitting the girls separately against top American male players. These games were all played at "blitz" tempo--five minutes per player for the entire game. Among serious players blitz is the most popular form of recreational chess, but in this case a $7,500 prize fund (two-thirds to the winner, one-third to the loser) was on the line for the promised "10-game brawl" between Judit and U.S. Champion Patrick Wolff (the other players were paid appearance fees rather than prize money). After a few close games, Judit reeled off three straight wins and went on to win 6-3. The next day she won a 130-player blitz tournament open to all comers with an amazing 13 points in 14 games, conceding only a pair of draws to Wolff in the final round to clinch the $1,000 first prize. Although Zsuzsa and Zsofia also did well in their matches and in the tournament, Judit, as usual, stole the show.

The Boston blitz matches were called the "Battle of the Sexes," a label that can describe almost any event involving the Polgars, since they have generally played only male opposition. (They have avoided most women's chess tournaments, preferring to sharpen their skills against stronger competition in open events.) But the ultimate battle would be between Judit and Bobby Fischer, who has held that women simply are not good enough to compete with men in chess.

In Boston the Polgars were besieged by reporters asking about rumors that Bobby and Judit had agreed to play "shuffle chess," Fischer's chess variant in which the pieces start the game on squares other than their normal ones, for $5 million. Yes, was the answer, though a sponsor and a site were still needed. Meanwhile, Fischer was living in Budapest and visiting regularly with the Polgars. Four months later nothing had materialized, Fischer's promoter had deserted the cause, and well-placed observers were doubting that any Fischer-Polgar match would ever take place.

Fischer has always had an oddball reputation, which was only confirmed by his bizarre public statements during his 1992 "Revenge Match of the Twentieth Century" against Spassky. But his low opinion of women in chess is quite common among the top players, both male and female. Such stars as Lajos Portisch of Hungary, Ulf Andersson of Sweden, and world champion Kasparov (who is at odds with Fischer over everything else) have gone on record with similar views.

The result has been a lingering controversy over what the Polgar "experiment" proves, if anything. Judit Polgar's rise disproves the extreme position that no woman can ever be a strong grandmaster, but it sheds no light on the general question of whether women on average are less (or even more) suited for the game. A fair assessment of the limited evidence suggests that chess is a complex mental skill that relies heavily on visual-spatial abilities, that women overall have weaker spatial skills than men (but stronger verbal skills), and thus that they should tend to perform worse at chess. To go beyond this, further research is needed. Clearly, however, Judit has accomplished what many claimed was impossible.

According to Laszlo, Judit is the best of the three sisters because she works the hardest. In early childhood the sisters worked with the Hungarian-born American grandmaster Pal Benko, who lives in Budapest several months a year. Nowadays Judit undertakes several training sessions per year with various grandmasters, including Israeli Lev Psakhis and American Boris Gulko, both former Soviet champions. A session can last from three days to thirty, during which Judit and her trainer spend eight to ten hours a day analyzing her games, preparing openings for future opponents, working on exercises to sharpen specific aspects of her game, and playing practice blitz games.

Such a regimen may seem extreme, and reporters often marvel at the thought of a child spending so much time on a "hobby." But it is hardly different from the schedules endured by hundreds of hopeful Olympic gymnasts, figure-skaters, and other athletes who rise early, train before and after school, and often live far from home.

Overtraining may have contributed to Judit's disappointing performance last August at the Interzonal tournament in Biel, Switzerland. Before the event she had worked for a solid month with another ex-Soviet grandmaster, Alexander Chernin, but that session apparently did not go well. As the first woman ever to reach this second stage of the world championship elimination cycle, Judit came under even more intense media scrutiny than she is used to. Always the cameras were focused on her, and to get some privacy she skipped the birthday party thrown for her by the organizers. And Judit put pressure on herself by telling friends that her career depended on this first big test against the other contenders for the world championship. (The top 10 finishers in the 73-player tournament would become "candidates" and begin a grueling two-year series of elimination matches to find the challenger for the current champion.)

The early rounds did not go well for Judit. After the first seven rounds she had two losses and only 3 points. Since a final score of 8.5 would probably be needed to qualify, she realized that she had no real chance of getting the necessary 5.5 points in the last six rounds. But Judit possesses tremendous self-confidence. She relaxed a bit and decided not to force things in the remaining games. Despite running a fever near the end, she finished with three wins and three draws, moving up to a respectable 7.5 points and a five-way tie for 15th place.

"Judit didn't play up to her potential in Biel. She wasn't properly prepared, but basically she just had a bad tournament," said grandmaster Alex Sherzer, a longtime friend. "She has the talent to be world champion someday. She has a very aggressive, dangerous style, she's one of the fastest players I've seen, she is afraid of nothing, and she plays well even when her position is not good. But there are obstacles to her getting better."

Some experts have criticized her play in the endgame, where technique is all-important, and the way she prepares for specific opponents (a vital skill at the highest levels), but Sherzer--admittedly not a professional trainer--finds no serious flaws in those areas. Instead he pointed to a more subtle weakness in her game, hidden within her most visible strength: "Her understanding of chess isn't deep enough. She calculates variations quickly, but maybe too quickly. It's great to see, say, six variations instantly, but if the seventh is the most important one and you didn't look long enough to find it, you'll get in trouble." In other words, the price of Judit's phenomenal speed is a bit of impulsiveness. But it is no simple matter to surgically excise a weakness while leaving all your strengths intact.

Sherzer also suggested that Judit's work habits could be improved. Like a student who enjoys classes but hates homework, she studies much better with a trainer than alone. But she lacks a regular coach, and good freelance trainers are not always available. Nevertheless, compared to most players in the world, even most grandmasters, Judit is a superior player in almost every respect. Since chess players generally peak in strength around age 30, Judit's game is likely to continue to mature for many years. Sherzer believes this natural process will help to erase some of her current problems.

Organizer Edelman, an international master, agreed with those assessments, and added that Judit should focus on the top players of her own generation, such as top-rated American Gata Kamsky, Viswanathan Anand of India (currently number three in the world), Alexey Shirov of Latvia, and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia. "She must come up with specific ideas and recipes against those players if she wants to become one of the top 10 in the world," says Edelman. He believes that Judit's shot at the world championship will come naturally if she can join that elite group, but it won't come right away. "Perhaps in six or eight years, when the old guard has passed, she will be ready."

Judit may be thinking along similar lines. That could explain her reluctance to participate in the newly formed Professional Chess Association's world championship qualification tournament in December 1993. Her Biel experience may have taught her that not every goal must be achieved at the earliest opportunity. "I want to be in the top 10," she now says, neatly evading the question of whether her ultimate goal is the world championship. Judit has also changed her schedule. In 1992 and the first half of 1993 she played in several serious tournaments, but recently she has cut back, preferring to play in exhibition events and to stay at home in Hungary to study.

Judit lives with her family in a six-room apartment in an eight-story brick building in downtown Budapest. The place is a virtual chess museum, crowded with trophies, posters, paintings, boards, sets, magazines, and Laszlo's burgeoning collection of rare books. The phone rings constantly with calls from all over the world, many with half-baked promotional schemes or endorsement deals that Laszlo and Zsuzsa screen out. To get some peace and quiet Judit goes to the family's estate in Nagymaros, where three houses overlook the Danube, a medieval castle keeps watch from the mountains above, a giant chess set graces the lawn, and there are no telecommunications with the outside world.

Judit does not have a typical day, compared to the school-centered routines of most people her age. For several months a year she lives in hotels in foreign countries and keeps to the timetable demanded by tournament schedules and public appearances. But when not competing or training intensively, Judit leads a pretty normal life. She rises early, exercises by jogging, doing aerobics, and playing table tennis, and usually spends some time in the afternoon working on chess with her laptop computer and notebooks full of analysis and ideas. Her diet is vegetarian, and she enjoys music, movies, and especially shopping for clothes at small boutiques. Her colorful outfits are striking in the dark-suit-and-tie atmosphere of high-level chess.

Of course, being the most visible woman in an overwhelmingly male sport has its interesting moments. During an outdoor exhibition at the Boston festival, one of Judit's opponents resigned his game and extended his scoresheet, a customary way of requesting an autograph. Perhaps inspired by her appearance in a denim miniskirt, black stockings, and heels, he had written on it "What are you doing later on?" Another man used the same technique to ask for her phone number. "Those two guys did something strange," Judit told me, laughing. "Probably not for them," I replied. She answered their queries with a polite smile.

As a charming and attractive young woman, Judit has career options that are open to no other top players. A few endorsement deals have already been completed--with Mephisto for a chess-playing computer and with Amerigames International and Intense Games, makers of variant chess games--and the Polgar family is seeking a relationship with a maker of personal computers. Their biggest deal, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, is with the Hungarian national bank. But the potential is much greater.

How many grandmasters have been the ABC News Person of the Week, have been solicited for an autobiography by Simon & Schuster, or have been asked to appear in a full-page magazine ad for The Gap? Annie Leibovitz was ready to take the Gap photograph in 1992 ("Gap pocket T-shirt, as worn by Judit Polgar, 16, best female player in chess history"), but the Polgars turned down the standard $750 fee offered by the ad agency. "I do not want to be seen as a model," Judit has said.

Nor is Judit comfortable with the shallow public life that celebrities--even reluctant ones such as herself--must lead to promote themselves. Her contract for the 1992 U.S. visit included a commitment to do three television talk shows. Appearing on CBS This Morning with her sisters and mother, Judit was reserved and barely audible. She improved her performance with PBS's Charlie Rose later in the same week, but the segment inexplicably never aired. And she was turned down by The Tonight Show because she seemed nervous during a telephone pre-interview.

But when the cameras (and the pressure) are off, Judit's voice gets deeper and louder and her gregarious personality comes through. She doesn't hesitate to say what she thinks, and she is fun to talk to and be around. "Judit is a very pleasant person, and we've had great times together," said U.S. champion Patrick Wolff, voicing a common sentiment among those who know her on the professional circuit. Noted chess author Bruce Pandolfini described her as "well-composed and friendly, but hard to get to know well." Of course, there are more extreme opinions: Kasparov once said that all three sisters "are like trained dogs." The Polgars don't think much of Kasparov either, but over the chessboard, animosities recede. At a party in New York two years ago, the champion cheerfully took on Judit and Zsofia at blitz, the only time he has faced them to date, and won both games.

Obviously, Judit doesn't care much about impressing the media. Although she politely endures repeated softball questions ("How do you like playing chess? What do you think of New York?"), she generally answers without enthusiasm. At times her indifference shows, and is reflected in sarcastic reporting. An article in The Boston Globe said that she thinks "reporters who don't understand Hungarian can be made mild fun of" and derided her "keen sense of the value of a unit of currency" when she objected to posing for photos at F.A.O. Schwartz because she wasn't paid to advertise the store. But would the same writer have been surprised if the world's top female tennis player refused to appear at a sporting goods chain she didn't endorse?

What's next for Judit Polgar? Eventually she plans to marry and have a family of her own. (No, she does not currently have a boyfriend.) More immediately, she is focusing her energy on her toughest challenge yet, in February: the Linares, Spain, "supertournament" that perennially breaks its own record as the strongest gathering of top talent in chess history. As usual, she will be the first woman ever to play in the event, the media will scrutinize her to the point of annoyance, and there will be tremendous pressure. But Judit knows how to handle it all, she knows that her chances of finishing ahead of Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, and 10 other "supergrandmasters" are slim, and she understands that chess and life will both go on if she doesn't win.

So how can she lose?

Christopher Chabris was Editor in Chief of American Chess Journal. This article was voted Best Human Interest Story in the Chess Journalists of America 1994 awards. It appeared originally in Games magazine, February 1994, pp. 12-14, 65-66.

This page last modified on 28 April 2018.
Copyright (c) 1995-2018 Christopher F. Chabris. All rights reserved.