Judit Polgar: On "chess parents", beating Kasparov and female rivals
A conversation with the holder of the highest women's rating
Friday 4 January 2013 10:40am
Judit Polgar is the strongest female chess player in history. Born in Hungary in 1976, she won the title of GrandmMaster when she was 15 years old. Thus, she was able to outperform the similar achievement of Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Now she is the only woman included in the list of the 100 best players in the World Chess Federation .Macleans met with Polgar in London, where she is playing classical chess.
- Q: Are you nervous?
- Judit Polgar: It's not nerves, it's about preparation.
- And how do you prepare? Is there a certain morning ritual before the game?
Well, I wake up around 9:30 or 10 am, I go to the gym and eat breakfast. Then prepare for a specific opponent. I look at how he plays, his opening repertoire. You see, in chess everyone has a style of play, as in any other field. There is also the fashion for certain types of opening systems. So I'm trying to learn about the opponent as much as possible.
- Are you superstitious? Every day before the game you have to eat the same breakfast?
- No, not really. I believed in certain omens, when I was little. For example, in my "lucky pen" which it is always good to have with you.
You are often characterized as an aggressive player. Much has been written about the "piercing eyes" and about how you look at your opponents. Is that right?
- I learned to play chess when I was five. I learned the moves from my mum, and then worked with my father, and later with the coaches. My technique grew, but I sacrificed a lot of things. I always attacked the king, played for mate and forget about the other components. Up to a point it worked, and I won a lot of games that way. But later, when I started to play at the highest level, the time came when it was leading to "self-immolation." And then I had to modify my style. But overall, I'm still a player with an attacking style.
This competition is old hate for you, because you have been playing chess since the early 80's. Is the game still interesting for you?
- Well, the game is changing. Especially in the last decade or so. In the old days, I took my notes and analysis to the competition. It could be 15 or 20 kg of notes. I had chess magazines and books, and I had to write down and remember everything. Now we all have laptops and computer databases.
- That is, playing these days, you feel different?
We used to use our heads, and worked things out ourselves.. But for the past 15 years we use computer analysis. Each professional has an engine now as an assistant. A computer program consists of six or seven million games, has the ability to search by openings, players, countries, time controls. This gives the opportunity to really explore the upcoming opponent. The program also calculates better, and does not blunder. Thus, one can completely avoid major blunders in preparation. Today, players are more confident in themselves, because they have the opportunity to rely on the computer. The programs are also able to generate new ideas. Because of this, the game has changed. Chess is still creativity, but is different. But we have the creativie potential to guide the computer to search for new ideas.
In the last few years it has become difficult. There are three - four or five different programs and each evaluates each situation differently. So if you know that someone is working with a particular engine, you can say, "Oh, he probably will go that way." Thus, computerization has reached a very high level. However, if you are just relying on the engine, you may find yourself in a situation where, say, you prepare 22 moves and then on the 23rd, you look at the board, and do not understand what is happening.
- Are you nostalgic for the old days? You improved by playing against your father ...
- For several years, I have handicapped yourself before accepting that it was necessary to use engines and computers so much. Because one of the things I loved most in chess, was the creativity, the ability to be original and unexpected, which is the most difficult in the present. But that's how it is.
- Do you have a photographic memory?
- Much has been written about your childhood and how you learned to play chess. Can you tell us when you started?
- I was five years old. I have two older sisters, and they also played. I just wanted to do the same.
-Your sisters became professional chess masters. You are competing with each other?
- In fact, never. We received a very special education, taught at home. In Hungary in 1980, the federation did not welcome it. We had a lot of detractors. Therefore, we were very close to each other.
- Did you get home schooled to focus on chess?
- Yes. In fact, even before he met my mother, my father developed the idea that his children would not go to school. He wanted to have six children. And he wanted to focus on one particular area. Well, after three children, he stopped, but still carried out his plan.
- Why did your father choose chess?
- When Susan, the eldest of us was 3 ½ years old, she was already quite well versed in chess and mathematics. My parents thought that it was better to focus on one. They chose chess.
- In Canada, we are talking about "hockey parents" who constantly drive to train their children to succeed. I think the concept of "chess parents" is the intellectual equivalent. Was it hard for your father to push you into chess?
- My parents are very good teachers. They are both teachers. Thus, they knew exactly how to deal with their children to make them happy and motivated. Chess was a natural pastime for me, so I was extremely successful. In the mid 80's my parents left work to coordinate our training and performances.
- I read that your home education and training was in Esperanto.
- Yes, we've all been taught, but I do not speak it more because of lack of practice. But Esperanto gave a lot to my family. We were very poor. Through Esperanto, my parents met new friends. There were times when we took part in the tournaments, and people in the Esperanto community provided us with the opportunity to relax.
- Your father is a proponent of the theory that genius can be manufactured. Do you agree?
Actually, yes. But talent does not hurt.
- A part of your father's theory was that his daughters should not play in women's tournaments. You actually never participated in the Women's World Cup. Why?
- Growing up, I knew only one chess. Today, professional chess is divided into "male" and "female." I always liked to face challenges. Since 1989, I have been the number one among women. So I do not feel the need to compete in the women's tournament. I never considered it enough of a challenge.
- It seems strange that men and women compete separately in chess, though it is an intellectual sport.
- It is difficult to change tradition. But if the majority of women, support it, why not? They may be world champions and play in the women's world championships.
- Are you saying that women are in favour of the "separation", because it is easier, right?
- Well, yes. And actually, I cannot blame them. I understand that the womens' competitions are at a completely different level. It is different from, say, playing with number one Magnus Carlsen, who I just met in Mexico. But the victory is a victory, is not it? I think women know that if women's chess were abolished, they will suddenly be "nobodies" in the chess world.
- Do you think this is something biological? Are women less able in chess?
- No, no. This has nothing to do with ability. This is the social factor. Women make up less than five percent of registered players. When children start to play chess, up to 10 or 12 years old, girls and boys are roughly in equal amounts. Later, the ratio varies, the girls drop out.
- You won a resounding victory in a game with the best player Garry Kasparov in 2002. Kasparov was for a long time sceptical aboutt women players, and once said that "shortcomings of the female psyche" will prevent a woman dominating the chess board. You must have felt "vengeance", when you won.
- (Laughs) Well, Kasparov was not the only one.
- He apologized?
- I think there are some people who never apologize. But later he behaved normally with me, talking to me, as with other serious chessplayers. Some time later, I worked with him.
- You have two children. How did that change your career?
- I still play chess, but I have too many other activities that compete with it at the highest level. I am the organizer of the chess festival in Hungary. I support chess in schools, and I have my own method of teaching, I have started writing a book ...
- Does this dull the competitive spirit?
- It's too weak.It feels bad. I cannot get used to it.
- Your children play chess?
- Yes. My daughter is 6. My son is 8.
- Will they be professional players?
- I do not think so. But I'm glad that they are playing, because I believe that chess is good for children.
Interview taken by Katy Engelhart
Judit Polgar: On "chess parents", beating Kasparov and female rivals