How Judit Polgár Became The Greatest Female Chess Player Of All Time

Published April 19, 2018
Updated September 10, 2018

Judit Polgár's father believed that geniuses weren't just born; they could be made.

Judit Polgar

Wikimedia CommonsJudit Polgár playing multiple games of chess at once.

If you start teaching them early enough, can a child become a master in anything? Judit Polgár’s father thought so. That’s why he began training his daughter to be a great chess player from the time she could walk. And it’s hard to argue with the results. Over her long career, Judit Polgár has been widely recognized as the greatest female chess player of all time.

Polgár was born in Hungary in 1976. Her father had three children, all girls. And based on his theory that genius is made and not born, he picked a subject – chess – and pushed his children to study it relentlessly.

Of course, many people at the time doubted that women would ever be able to be truly great at chess. The idea at the time was that it was a mental game, and women simply weren’t as smart as men. Polgár’s father instead insisted that the problem was that no women had actually received the necessary training. With enough practice, a woman could play just as well as any man.

And Polgár would soon prove her father right.

Polgar practiced obsessively, often for five to six hours a day. By the time she was five, she could beat her father at the game. And at 15, she became the youngest person – male or female – ever to be awarded the Grandmaster title.

Polgár dominated the women-only tournaments she was required to compete in. But she was disappointed with how easy the competition was.

Polgár agreed with her father that most other women simply hadn’t been trained enough at chess to be challenging opponents. She wanted to test her skills at the highest levels. And that meant she needed to compete against the male players who dominated the chess world.

Judit Polgár With Her Sisters

Wikimedia CommonsJudit and her sisters, Sofia and Susan.

Polgár and her two sisters – both accomplished players in their own right – proved just as dangerous against men, something that didn’t sit well with the older, male players they were routinely beating. Judit Polgár’s sister Susan once remarked that she “never won against a healthy man. After the game, there was always an excuse: ‘I had a headache. I had a stomach ache.’ There is always something.”

But even though the Polgárs were rapidly working their way up the rankings, many of the world’s best players still doubted that women could really play as well as men. Garry Kasparov, the top-ranked player in the world, said of Judit, “She is talented but not greatly talented. Women by their nature are not exceptional chess players.”

In 1994, Kasparov had the chance to test Polgár’s skills himself. The match proved controversial. At one point, Kasparov moved his knight but quickly thought better of it and pulled it back. However, he had already released the piece from his hand. According to the rules, once a player removes a hand from a piece, the move is over. However, the referee allowed Kasparov to remove the piece. Kasparov eventually won the match.

It was a bitter loss, but Polgár wasn’t discouraged. And by the next year, she was ranked the 10th-best player in the entire world.

Polgár continued playing chess professionally for the next few years. And in 2005, she was ranked the eighth best player in the world. But after the birth of her child in 2006, she stepped back from the game. As Polgár explained it, her priorities had simply shifted. Over the past few years, she has focused on writing books and coordinating chess events, as well as raising her daughter.

But Polgár has never lost her interest in the game. She continued to play in tournaments before retiring in 2014.

Since she began playing, women have come a long way in chess. And Judit Polgár is no longer the top-ranked woman in the game, in no small part due to the example she set. But there’s little doubt that she remains one of the best players of all time.

Next after learning about Judit Polgár, read about the Onna-Bugeisha – Japan’s badass female samurai. Then, meet Lyudmila Pavlichenko – the deadliest female sniper in history.

Wyatt Redd
Wyatt Redd is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee.
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