In 2002, a 26-year-old Hungarian girl sat down to play a game of chess with Garry Kasparov, a Russian Grandmaster considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time.
The girl then proceeded to do something that had never been done up until that point in time, and became the first female to ever beat a reigning world No. 1 in a competitive match-up.
The girl's name was Judit Polgar (pictured above), the youngest of three sisters, who would become the strongest female chess player in history and the youngest Grandmaster ever at 15 years, 4 months — the youngest person to do so until then, male or female. Her two elder sisters, Susan and Sofia, were (and still are) chess champions in their own right, with Susan becoming the very first woman to earn the Grandmaster title, the highest title afforded to a player.
The three Polgar sisters are also well known outside of the world of chess for being part of an experiment conducted by their father, Hungarian psychologist Laszlo Polgar, who believed that genius can be educated into any healthy child. The experiment challenged the assumption that women were naturally weaker chess players (as only about 1% of the 950 people who have achieved Grandmaster titles have been women), and the family's success ignited an ongoing debate about whether genius is born or created.
How He Did It Laszlo Polgar’s ambition for his daughters is perhaps analogous to Serena and Venus Williams’ autocratic tennis dad, Richard Williams, who had famously written a 78-page plan for Venus and Serena to become No. 1 in the world well before they were born.
As a university student, Laszlo studied intelligence and the biographies of hundreds of great intellectuals. In his research, he identified a common theme — early and intensive specialisation in a particular subject. He began to believe that genius was made, not born, and advanced a theory that said any child had the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialise at six.
Laszlo thought the public school system could not be relied upon to produce brilliant minds. Yet, with excellent instruction, provided in a stimulating home environment, he believed he could turn any healthy child into a prodigy, ideas which he put into a book on the subject called “Bring Up Genius!” But there was just one problem: he couldn’t test his theory. He needed a wife to be a willing … er … “participant.” Laszlo courted a Ukrainian foreign language teacher named Klara, who found Laszlo and his grandiose ideas interesting, and agreed to marry. She gave birth to their first daughter Susan in 1969 (pictured below).
Susan's parents, both from teaching backgrounds, had no intention of "forcing" their daughter into chess, and it was actually Susan who found a chess set while searching the house one day for a new toy. Upon its discovery, she asked her mother to show her how to play, but she didn't know the rules and said she would have to wait until her father came home. Laszlo was only an amateur chess player himself, but saw in Susan an immediate love for the game marked by her enthusiasm for learning tactics, so they commenced an in-depth study of gameplay while she was just four and lined the shelves of their small apartment with hundreds of chess books.
Six months later, Laszlo took Susan on her first visit to their local chess club, a competitive environment where aged men sat in pairs while bets were yelled out on matches. The men were more than a little surprised when Laszlo presented his daughter of barely five years old as a serious contender. One of the regulars erupted into laughter when he was asked to give the little girl a game. When he was finally persuaded, she wiped him out, and then everyone else in the club.
Susan’s incredible talents, which include playing (and winning) multiple games simultaneously with her eyes closed, as well as memorising the positions of all the pieces on a board in less than 3 seconds, plus more on the Polgar family, can be found in the amazing documentary by National Geographic called “My Brilliant Brain Featuring Susan Polgar" (available on YouTube).
Susan is now an author, educator and chess's ambassador at large, promoting the game in schools, especially for girls. "Chess teaches children concentration, logic and creativity. It also teaches them to be responsible for their actions," she says. "There are no take-backs — just as in life. You must think before you move."
By Theo Winter, Client Manager / Writer / Researcher, DTS International