Judit Polgár
April 24, 2012 5:37 AM   Subscribe

Judit Polgár is the greatest female chess player in history. The product of an educational experiment by her father, she was the first to break Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest-ever grandmaster - by which time she had already stopped competing in women-only tournaments. In 2002, she avenged an earlier controversial loss to Garry Kasparov - the first time in any sport that the No. 1 ranked female player has beaten the No. 1 ranked male player. At her peak, ranked 8th in the world, she became the first woman to compete for the World Championship. After several years of reduced activity spent raising her two children, Polgár returned to full-time competition - making it to the quarter-finals of the 2011 FIDE World Cup.

Sergey Shipov:
Judit Polgár’s mission on Earth has, by and large, already been completed – she’s successfully destroyed the remnants of male chauvinism. She’s proved that women are capable of competing with men at the very highest level. All the preconceived notions about the fundamental superiority of the stronger sex above the weaker in chess, and about an upper limit for women, have turned out to be wrong.

I’ve commented on many of Polgár’s games and I’ve never found myself bored. She always plays with great invention and is capable of seeing hidden resources in positions and posing her opponents unexpected problems.

Judit’s natural style is dynamic – she plays for complications and is always ready to sacrifice for the initiative. Her attacking potential is great and multi-faceted. However, her long stay among the elite has forced the warlike Amazon to moderate her fervour and master all the means of combat, including stubborn defence, patience and taking the psychology of her opponents into account. Of course, Polgár never became a technician on Kramnik’s level, but she was still able to grow into a player almost devoid of weaknesses. Except, perhaps, that her sense of danger isn’t at the elite level. Sometimes she gets carried away with activity, though that recklessness merely adds to the number of her fans. Bold play, shooting from the hip – what could be more beautiful in chess?

Chess Informant named this brilliant takedown of Levan Pantsulaia the best game of its 111th volume.
posted by Trurl (55 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
That brilliant takedown was like watching a cat play with a mouse before killing it.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:48 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


...she’s successfully destroyed the remnants of male chauvinism

Awesome! She should do homophobia next!
posted by Aizkolari at 5:54 AM on April 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


Polgar is one of the most exciting top-level chess players in the world and by all accounts is a really nice human being as well. I am really happy to see that she is writing a series of books for Quality Chess.

By the way, Sergey Shipov (quoted above and the writer on the "brilliant takedown" page) is a reliably great annotator. Worth seeking out, especially when he does live analysis of games in progress.
posted by dfan at 6:00 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Judit Polgár’s mission on Earth has, by and large, already been completed – she’s successfully destroyed the remnants of male chauvinism. She’s proved that women are capable of competing with men at the very highest level. All the preconceived notions about the fundamental superiority of the stronger sex above the weaker in chess, and about an upper limit for women, have turned out to be wrong.
posted by infini at 6:05 AM on April 24, 2012


Patty Wagstaff was the international Aerobatic champion in 1993, and won the US championship 3 times. So not the first time in any sport, but still.. good.
posted by sea at 6:08 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can anyone here explain why she didn't win the competition? If she beat Kasparov, can't she beat anyone? I thought Kasparov was the greatest of all time.
posted by Balok at 6:08 AM on April 24, 2012


Patty Wagstaff was the international Aerobatic champion in 1993

Aerobatic chess? I like where this is going.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:09 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chess is not a sport, IOC be damned.
posted by travis08 at 6:12 AM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


@Balok I'd suggest it's because at the highest levels of competition randomness takes a bigger role than a lot of people suspect. We're talking about people who are within a hair's breadth of each other's skills, so tiny things have more importance.

Who slept better the night before? Who is developing a minor cold? Who ate ever so slightly too much breakfast and feels a tiny bit lethargic? Who feels off because their pet goldfish died? Who is sitting on the north side when they have a preference for the south side? Who is wearing a new shirt that itches ever so slightly? Or nicked themselves shaving producing a little bitty distraction?

It's the same as Olympic level physical competition. Winners are separated from losers by the thinnest of margins, and therefore it doesn't take much to change those margins.

Kasparov wins one day, Polgar wins the next, they're both so insanely good that saying one is absolutely better than the other is problematic.
posted by sotonohito at 6:15 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Balok, just because you beat someone once doesn't automatically make you better than them.

Winning Wimbledon doesn't instantly make you No1 in the tennis rankings.
posted by pharm at 6:15 AM on April 24, 2012


Can anyone here explain why she didn't win the competition? If she beat Kasparov, can't she beat anyone?

First of all, that was a team competition - Russia vs. The Rest Of The World - and it had no individual winner.

In general, though, in chess tournaments, the person with the highest score at the end wins, not the person who beat Kasparov.
posted by thelonius at 6:20 AM on April 24, 2012


From what I gather the other top players train full time for the tournaments, while Polgar has to take care of her kids, so she's at a disadvantage. I am fascinated by chess; I wish for the life of me I could watch and understand elite play. It's as if you had to be a AAA baseball player to watch a baseball game.
posted by Balok at 6:22 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


No slam on chess players intended, but this is an activity that barely requires any physical effort at all. So why have different competitions or rankings for men and women?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:23 AM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


So why have different competitions or rankings for men and women?

While waiting for those more learned than I to offer comprehensive answers, I will jump in nonetheless to hazard a guess that this goes back to the days when women weren't thought capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation much less playing or excelling at chess.
posted by infini at 6:36 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


They don't have different rankings for men and women. They use the same numerical system with both genders on the same ladder. Men and women play each other as normal in most events.

The women-only tournaments are not because of an latent skill difference or baseline, or however you'd like to call it, but rather because women have been discriminated in chess. Polgar is an example of what a girl can accomplish in chess when she's given the same level of training as a promising boy.

Her accomplishments aren't to say that she's better than Kasparov, but only the fact that she's beaten him means that she can compete with the best in the world and win. That's unusual in most athletic sports, to the point where I cannot name a single example for sure (ultra-marathoning, I've heard perhaps?). The best woman golfer/tennis player/footballer/etc. simply cannot compete against an elite male player in her sport. In chess though, she can. To say that she isn't better than the best player perhaps to ever live is missing the point entirely.
posted by cotterpin at 6:38 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


No slam on chess players intended, but this is an activity that barely requires any physical effort at all. So why have different competitions or rankings for men and women?

This is an excellent question and is the subject of much debate, with lots of people of both sexes on either side of it. The main argument for women-only (and especially girls-only) tournaments is to encourage them in an environment where they can just compete with each other. The main argument contra is that it's patronizing.

To clarify the situation, tournaments aren't divided into male tournaments and female tournaments, like in tennis or something; there's no such thing (that I know of) as a chess tournament for which women are not eligible. Also the same rating system is used for all players; you can extract a list of "top women players" from that but it's not like they're in a totally separate pool. The two differences are 1) There are some women-only tournaments and championships, and 2) there are women-only titles that have less strict requirements than the corresponding generic title (e.g., one requirement to become a Grandmaster is to have a rating over 2500, but the corresponding requirement to become a Woman Grandmaster is to have a rating over 2300).
posted by dfan at 6:40 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, since I mentioned Shipov's live annotations, here he is commenting on today's match game between Vladimir Kramnik (#3 in the world) and Levon Aronian (#2). Aronian's just given up his queen for a rook and minor piece, so it's shaping up to be a really interesting game.
posted by dfan at 6:46 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The product of an educational experiment by her father --- So, genius is nurture, not nature?
posted by crunchland at 6:46 AM on April 24, 2012


Winners are separated from losers by the thinnest of margins, and therefore it doesn't take much to change those margins.

As additional evidence of this, in the World Championsip match beginning next month, the challenger is a guy who - to the best of my knowledge - would not have made many people's Top 5 Contenders lists. But he had a good run during the candidates matches and now here he is.

No slam on chess players intended, but this is an activity that barely requires any physical effort at all.

But requiring a considerable amount of endurance. Thinking as hard as you possibly can for three hours straight is draining. The top players routinely include physical conditioning in their tournament prep.
posted by Trurl at 6:55 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, genius is nurture, not nature?

It's both, but without one the other is unlikely to be sufficient.
posted by bap98189 at 6:55 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


But requiring a considerable amount of endurance. Thinking as hard as you possibly can for three hours straight is draining.

Sort of related, last week a guy passed out and went to the hospital trying to break a Scrabble marathon record. Sounds like he was in bad shape though. I play competitively and used to play tournament chess, and having some level of physical endurance is fairly important. I swim every day and go over my word lists in my head while I'm doing it. I have noticed a substantial improvement in my ability to play well, and to play all day, since I started working out regularly.
posted by freecellwizard at 7:22 AM on April 24, 2012


Thinking as hard as you possibly can for three hours straight is draining.

Even worse than that; games with the standard time limits for top-level games can take well over six hours. It is hard to overstate how tiring it is to play a serious long game of chess. I am pretty certain that the best single thing I could do to improve my tournament results is to improve the ability to manage my concentration for hours-long periods.
posted by dfan at 7:26 AM on April 24, 2012


So why have different competitions or rankings for men and women?

Part of the answer is the same as why we have Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress, even though there's no reason why men and women can't act equally well.

Another, maybe bigger, part of the answer is that historically very few women used to play chess at professional levels, so just by virtue of their rarity women weren't going to turn up in a top 10 or top 100 list much, and it made some sense to have a top-10 women list to give them some recognition.

But chess was never quite like say tennis, where men and women never play head to head. Women could have entered any tournament if they were strong enough, and Vera Menchik played in Moscow 1935 where the field included three former World Champions and a host of other top class players. (For the record, she finished 20th out of 20 there, not winning a single game.) However there were other occasions when she did beat top-class male players, including future world champion Max Euwe (Hastings 1930, 1931.)
posted by philipy at 7:33 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is hard to overstate how tiring it is to play a serious long game of chess

The analogy I'd use for non-chess players is: Think about a math exam.

If you had a 3-6 hour math exam, how tired would you feel after that? Now imagine that it's a math exam that is liberally sprinkled with trick questions that were set by a fiendishly smart person who is trying their best to catch you out. Now imagine that with some of those questions, if you make a small mistake in calculation, you immediately fail the exam. How nerve-wracking would that be? How draining of energy would it be?

It's like math and martial arts rolled into one.

It's hours of intense concentration, day after day, where loss of concentration just for a moment could be catastrophic.
posted by philipy at 7:47 AM on April 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Part of the answer is the same as why we have Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress, even though there's no reason why men and women can't act equally well.

I disagree. Acting awards are not a competition. Also, they're highly political - people campaign for Oscar nominations. Further, acting awards sell tickets - of course the industry groups that hand out these awards are going to maximise the number of awards, because then more films can include award winners, and more films will sell more tickets/DVDs.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2012


Now she can start on starcraft.
posted by delmoi at 8:12 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just a note that current women's world chess champion, 18 year old Hou Yifan of China, has been on a tear recently, including beating Judit Polgar head to head earlier this year as well as beating several other very elite Grandmasters. I think it is very likely that she might be able to match or even surpass Polgar's chess accomplishments.
posted by gyc at 8:14 AM on April 24, 2012


By the way, Judit's older sister, Susan, who is also a Grandmaster, was the subject of a recent MeFi post.
posted by alexoscar at 8:26 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Acting awards are not a competition

I think maybe you need to contemplate that statement some more. Esp in light of your remark that people campaign to win them.

Regardless of that... yes, movie awards sell movies. Book awards sell books. Chess events sell the game of chess, they sell orgs like FIDE, they often sell sponsorship, advertising and the like. Back in the day they sold entire countries and political systems.

If enough people are for whatever reason interested in who is the Best Female Actor, or who is the best British actor, or who is the Best Actor Under 25, or who is the Best Actor with Red Hair, there'll be awards for that. Likewise if enough people are interested in who is the best British chess player, or the best chess player under 21 or the best female chess player, there will be rankings and maybe awards and tournaments for that.

The question of why an award / ranking / tournament for category X exists has mainly to do with why some group of human beings care about category X specifically.

There's no reason why Scottish and English players can't compete on an equal footing at chess, but there are still people who care about who is the best Scottish player. So there are still such things as the Scottish Chess Championship.
posted by philipy at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2012


It's both sad and promising that a large part of her success seems to stem from merely not having been coached 'like a girl'. I've often wondered what the talent gap would be like in the physically demanding sports if girls and boys were more fully integrated early on. After all, girls are larger than boys for a couple of years of their development.
posted by teekat at 8:45 AM on April 24, 2012


So why have different competitions or rankings for men and women?

It spares men feelings of inferiority when they get their asses kicked by women.
posted by Renoroc at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2012


Chess is not a sport, IOC be damned.

I am curious about the reasoning behind your statement.

Do you feel that "a sport" must be an athletic achievement? Chess matches require hours of intense focus and concentration, so some physical stamina is necessary, but it is mostly a mental exercise, that's true. Is mental prowess not as worthy of the title of sport as physical prowess?

Do you feel that a sport must be competitive, with clear scoring and ranking for winners and losers? Chess certainly fits there as well; it is not as subjective as, for example, a gymnastics "floor" routine, and the IOC has no problem labelling gymnastics a sport.

Where exactly does chess fail in your sport metric?
posted by misha at 9:32 AM on April 24, 2012


Sport: "An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others."

I would say chess fails the physical exertion requirement, mental sure, not a lot of pulled muscles and bruises from taking down knight.
posted by Cosine at 9:56 AM on April 24, 2012


taking down "a" knight, argh.
posted by Cosine at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2012


I love Judit's aggressive style, which is rare at the top (for a reason most likely--look at the long list of aggressive greats who were never champs, from Frank Marshall to Chigorin to Keres to Shirov and Morozevich today). It's always fun to watch her. I loved when she beat Topalov with the King's Gambit (an old, romantic style hyper-aggressive opening).

Hou Yifan (the current Women's Champion) and I'd love to see them play a tournament--Judit has better opening and tactical ability; Hou is a machine in endings (she plays like a computer). As far as I know, that one 47-move loss, with Hou as white, is the only time they've played....and that went to an endgame early, which Judit played overly aggressively (it would have been a draw, had Judit played conservatively and not pushed so hard to win).
posted by whatgorilla at 10:15 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fun fact: Judit and her sisters learned Esperanto as children (probably not as "native speakers").
posted by gubo at 10:20 AM on April 24, 2012


Chess isn't a sport for the simple reason that pretty much no one, if asked, would say that it's a sport. Chess is a board game with zero randomness, like Go or Age of Steam or Puerto Rico. That doesn't mean it's not difficult or intense. It's just not a sport.
posted by smorange at 10:27 AM on April 24, 2012


A study on why women aren't rated high in chess:
http://phys.org/news150954140.html

Judit's currently #29.
The next female is Hou Yufan at just over #100....but then it drops down to like 500.

Of the 9 or 10 girls I know who were playing competitively as kids and taking lessons with GMs, only one, Cindy Tsai, stayed with it. I think she's stopped. Others, like Anna Hahn (aka Anna Khan), were backstabbed by the USCF (and Susan Polgar, coincidentally) and eventually stopped playing.

I can only think of two American-born WGMs: Alisa Maric and Jennifer Shahade.
posted by whatgorilla at 10:42 AM on April 24, 2012


I get what you mean, but I don't particularly feel like curling would meet the sport criteria for a lot of people in the U.S., and yet I find it fascinating. I don't know that you get a lot of bruises and pulled muscles from that, either.

I just think the concept of what makes something a "sport" is interesting. Is Starcraft a sport in Korea, where it is wildly popular? Depends who you ask, I think.

What about how the sports are represented in the games? We have both beach volleyball and indoor volleyball in the Summer Olympics. Yes, they are played really differently, with different numbers of players on each side--but still both volleyball, which makes you wonder how we decide which versions of sports should be represented at the Olympics. There are oodles of cycling skiing, and skating events in the modern Olympics, but none of those existed in the original games, of course.
posted by misha at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2012


Fischer was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which means it's a sport to me. :o)
That said, since the 60s, all of the world champions have stayed in really good shape.
posted by whatgorilla at 10:57 AM on April 24, 2012


Language doesn't work in the kind of precise, analytical way that would be required to say whether a borderline case, like curling, is or is not a sport. The concept of a sport is a linguistic fact, but it varies somewhat from place to place, and that's not overly surprising. That said, chess probably doesn't qualify (to the overwhelming majority of English speakers) because there's not enough physicality to it, and if chess were a sport, then there'd be no reason to exclude all sorts of things we don't think of as sports. Starcraft is not a sport, probably for the same reason. In Korea, it's more complex because the Korean language uses a loan word of the English "sport" as well as "game." There are native Korean words for these ideas, but they're not as well used anymore. Nevertheless, in my experience, Koreans tend to think Starcraft is a "game," although there are contrarians, but a quick glance at Korean search engine results seems to agree that it's more often conceptualized as a game, not a sport. But even if Koreans thought Starcraft qualified as a "sport," (i.e. 스포츠) that wouldn't have much of anything to do with whether English speakers correctly conceptualize it as a "sport." It would mean, simply, that the words are different, even if they sound the same.
posted by smorange at 11:51 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am probably one of the top ten chess fanatics on Metafilter and I would not call it a sport, although I do consider a game of chess to be a "sporting contest". Hopefully no one will force me to defend the distinction, because I'm not sure I can.
posted by dfan at 11:56 AM on April 24, 2012


I've always been awful at sports, but I'm pretty good at chess. Therefore, chess is not a sport.
posted by Crane Shot at 12:10 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


is_sport is probably not a boolean function.

If you'll let it be real-valued, either based on what some group of people think, or using some weighted criteria, maybe you'll end up with something like:

is_sport(Tennis) = 1.0
is_sport(Motor-Racing) = 0.8
is_sport(Golf) = 0.65
is_sport(Gymnastics) = 0.6
is_sport(Snooker) = 0.5
is_sport(Dressage) = 0.4
is_sport(Chess) = 0.35
is_sport(Videogaming) = 0.25
is_sport(Scrabble) = 0.2
is_sport(Novel-Reading) = 0.0

For the most part it's not important to make the distinction, and it's enough to note that chess has a lot of the characteristics of a sport, and understanding those sporting characteristics is pretty useful for gaining insight into chess and chessplayers.

As for the Olympics, for me there are far too many sports in there already. I don't even know why we have tennis and soccer in there, given that the Olympic events are far from the pinnacle of those sports. Hardly anyone can even remember who won the gold medals in those things, while most fans can reel off World Cup winners and Wimbledon winners.
posted by philipy at 12:33 PM on April 24, 2012


Of the 9 or 10 girls ... only one ... stayed with it.

What is the corresponding stat for boys?

In my limited experience, of all the people I used to know who played pretty seriously when we were all mid-teens, only one kept going into adulthood. That one eventually became a GM, though he wasn't particularly any stronger than any of the other people I knew.
posted by philipy at 12:40 PM on April 24, 2012


That Kramnik vs Aronian game today was crazy.
posted by Anything at 12:49 PM on April 24, 2012


The Psychology Today article is fascinating. I've now read several stories of people who specifically set out to have genius kids, and succeeded. I wonder what proportion of people who are extremely successful in their fields are fulfilling plans from their parents.
posted by miyabo at 12:53 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My anecdotal experience from my local club is that both boys and girls drop out of the chess scene as they get older, but girls drop out faster.
posted by dfan at 12:58 PM on April 24, 2012


Bridge also wants to be part of the Olympics.

I really don't think most top chess players are interested, by the way. The whole thing seems like driven by the chess politicians (don't ask) of FIDE.

I always thought that plans to turn your kids into geniuses produced unhappy and unsuccessful adults, but the Polgars seem to have done something right. I believe they made sure their kids were educated in general, for one thing, as well as being drilled in chess. It's interesting that the youngest child (Judit) became the strongest. Perhaps because she had older siblings who were already strong players, as well as the immersion program?
posted by thelonius at 1:09 PM on April 24, 2012


While I agree males drop out, too, the old men of the clubs where I've played (in GA and FL)--the guys who had formed and played at these places since Fischer got them playing in 1972--always seemed to say the same thing: that it's a shame girls get to a certain age and stop playing (I've heard their ideas on why: other interests or because boys don't like girls who can destroy them at chess). I don't know if it's true that the stigma on girls is any worse than guys (though it is with most things, so it wouldn't surprise me).
Dfan: I'd consider myself one of mefi's top 25 chess fanatics. Look me up--whatgorilla--on chess.com if you play there (I can't afford ICC).
posted by whatgorilla at 2:28 PM on April 24, 2012


There's the same basic problem in math and science education -- girls and boys are just as enthusiastic until roughly 12-14, but afterward most of the girls drop out. There are lots of theories but no real reasons.
posted by miyabo at 2:57 PM on April 24, 2012


Probably the most I ever played was when I was 13-15. I stopped before my 16th birthday, thinking I should skip a tournament with important exams coming up, but in fact never getting back into it to the same way again. The strongest player among our little group - stronger than the future GM - was not very academic and left school at 16, got a job, and dropped out of the scene. Other people I guess discovered girls or other non-chess interests. Or maybe they got to an age where it seemed chess was not a cool thing, and being cool got important.

In my case there wasn't any one factor, but a bunch of things. There was a school re-org happening and no one had time to run the chess team that year. A lot of my chess playing buddies had stopped for one reason or another. I was on a bit of a plateau, so there wasn't that sense of "just a bit more improvement and I'll be able to beat Y / win X". And there was some conscious decision that chess wasn't so important in the greater scheme of things, and it wasn't something I wanted to devote myself to doing.
posted by philipy at 3:46 PM on April 24, 2012


Never underestimate a chess player due to gender.

When I was a teenager, one of my friends started being very confident, even boisterous, about his chess skills. One day he saw a chess board at another friend's house, so he challenged him to a game. However, unbeknownst to friend A, friend B had been taking classes together with his sister. B neutralised A's openings, created huge holes in A's defensive setups and gleefully exploited them by moving his pieces throughout A's part of the board, picking off enemy pieces at leisure. They say chess is the representation of a battle; that game resembled Napoleon against someone who hasn't had his first cup of coffee.

As friend A surrendered ignominiously, B's sister walked into the room, took in what was happening and challenged her brother to a game. A very short game, as she proceeded to wipe him off the board without much fanfare. You see, the classes were mainly for her benefit and she went on to win a national championship. Good times.
posted by ersatz at 4:01 AM on April 25, 2012


Acting awards are not a competition

I think maybe you need to contemplate that statement some more. Esp in light of your remark that people campaign to win them.

For clarification, there is, IMO, a difference between a 'competition', where the most proficient competitor wins, and an 'election', where the most popular candidate wins.

You can't campaign your way to a victory in a chess match.

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:13 PM on April 29, 2012


Fine, use whatever definitions you like.

Most of us define competition like this.

I won't be responding any further, I have better things to do with my time.
posted by philipy at 5:24 AM on April 30, 2012


« Older Rambo. John Rambo. Like you've never seen him...   |   What's good for the goose... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments