A talk with Judit Polgar - Knowing the Human Side of the Woman behind Global Chess Festival
Today is the 10th of October and the Global Chess Festival has just begun! The woman behind this vibrant annual gala hardly needs any introduction. Dubbed as the strongest female chess master of all time, she is the only woman to have ever challenged male hegemony in the sport. Though everyone is familiar with Judit the chess player, we thought the world would also do good by knowing Judit the mother and the wife. On the 27th of last month, ChessBase India's Amruta Mokal conducted an exclusive interview with the former world no.1. In this article we bring you the full transcript of this candid tête-à-tête. With Judit's festival in full swing, time now is especially ripe to look back at this revealing conversation! | Photo credit: globalchessfestival.com
When we think chess, we usually think of just two colours - Black and White. For those however, who have made Caïssa their lifelong muse, it is the chiaroscuro of only these two shades that is the greatest of all joys. Bichrome it may be, but chess is a beautiful game. Nay, it is in fact more than merely a game. Capablanca once called it an "Intellectual Diversion", while going a step further Karpov had famously declared that it was everything - art, science, and sport - all combined in one. To its loyal adherents, the checkerboard and the thirty-two pieces eccentrically gamboling on it presents a world of its own. No wonder therefore, the lucky souls who spend years exploring it, often feel the urge to return and introduce new enthusiastic members into its folds.
Chess has always been life for Judit Polgar. The strongest female chess player ever and once a breaker of many glass ceilings, she has now passionately taken to promoting her favourite sport. The Global Chess Festival is a portal of sorts into her world of the Black and White. Celebrating its sixth edition online this year, the event is all about promoting "the thousand faces of chess" across the globe. The idea is to connect people of all nationalities and generations through chess and show them how the game can prove relevant to their life's diverse facets.
There are more than fifty programmes. The most exciting ones include the Champions Talk with Gary Kasparov, the Champions Talk with the Chess Artisat Jan Timman, and the Champions Talk with the Chess Scientist John Nunn, all of which will feature Judit as the host. There are numerous other events as well and all you have to do to join in is sign up here for free!
Who is Judit Polgar?
Read our exclusive interview below to know more about the greatest female chess player in history and the wonder woman behind Global Chess Festival
This interview was conducted by the COO of ChessBase India as Daughter's day special on the 27th of last month. We bring you the transcript of the same.
Amruta Mokal (AM): Hi Judit, here's the first question to you, can you tell us about your upbringing in family and how it impacted your life and made you who you are?
Judit Polgar (JP): Well, my life is an interesting and exciting story from all respects. I started to play chess when I was five and I grew up with two older sisters who were chess players already. My parents had actually decided before Susan was born that they wanted a very special kind of education for their daughters or their sons. They decided they didn't want their kids to go to school but rather specialize in something. Susan was the first one. She eventually decided to become a chess player. She is 7 years older than I am and so for me it was very natural to become a chess player as well because both of my sisters were into it already. Later on it was very obvious that we are a chess family and that's how I started to grow up.
AM: So you are saying school was not very important and that really helped?
JP: Well, in the beginning it was quite easy in elementary school to combine the chess classes and travelling but later on when it started to get more demanding my parents made it clear that they were not asking too much from our studies in our school, so we didn’t have to spend too much time on academics. We were doing exams yearly basis and focusing very much on the competitions.
AM: I would also like to ask you, what would your suggestion be for the upbringing of girls especially in India?
JP: Well, I think your country is too huge to make a general suggestion I guess! I think it very much depends where you come from (financially and socially) and where you want to be. Chess is something that really connects everybody and your performance over the board is a matter of how much you dedicate your time to it and how much you train. I think the most important thing, if a child likes to play the game, is that you have to support them and you have to look for opportunities where they can excel. There are a lot of online courses, there are a lot of teaching platforms. You guys doing a great job generally speaking, making a lot information available to parents and everybody, and I think in India, as far as I understand, a lot of things are happening regarding chess. You have chess clubs, enthusiastic chess teachers and chess coaches.
When Vishy Anand started to play chess, as far as I remember, he said that he was also going and travelling quite a lot to reach out to chess clubs and so on. Well, you can call it sacrifice, but you have to spend a lot of your time and you have to be very creative, how to manage time and financial demands and many other things. You have to be able to combine the various elements to be successful. Of course, it's essential that the kid loves the game and has a kind of inner drive kind so that wherever they go they think about chess and it makes them busy all day around, reading chess books or watching a nice streaming of analysis.
So there are a lot of potential and lot of opportunities for talents to excel but you have to be clever, your parents should not be shy to ask questions from the big ones or from whoever is around because I think that's how you can move from one to two—you are going after people you are asking questions, asking for advices, and amidst all this you also have to have your common sense as to how you are going to manage your child's future. It is a very serious journey, and if you want your child to excel, then it's definitely a huge challenge.
I don’t know how it is in India for girls but internationally I see there are always different aspects... and what I am always asking from parents is that whether you have a boy or girl, don’t limit their potentials, don’t let people tell you that chess is for boys. Chess is a game with a tradition of having very few girls but that does not mean it's a game for boys. I think there are girls who are talented as much as some boys but it's very important that the parents believe in them and that the coaches treat them the right way. I dream of a day where whenever a coach sees a 7-year-old child, whether boy or girl they react in a same way.
To become a woman world champion, of course you need to have a competitive character. But still a woman champion are rarely among the top hundred players in the world. So it's clearly a lower objective, right? So I think it's very important for girls to be able to have a mindset that they can perform as good as boys... but of course everybody is an individual so you have to aim to get the best out of yourself and not simply compare yourself to boys, you always have to have a inner drive and belief that I should get better.
AM: From all that you have said, I realize that it is very important for the parents and their children to be very focused about chess. It should be everybody thinking all the time on how to get better.
JP: Of course, if you look at the startup companies or something new coming up and becoming successful, you will always find that those people or those teams are at what they are doing for 24 hours and it's not painful for them because it simply keeps their mind busy and I am sure you have met a lot of kids and stronger players who are in the habit of talking about chess positions even when they are walking and they are having a great time, drinking wine they are discussing studies and so on! This is an interesting thing you will always find in successful people. It is extremely important how much time you are engaged with the activity outside of the routine study hours or work hours. I remember when Anand was visiting us back in 1989, it was very clear, he had a chess book in his hand even when we were not playing blitz or playing chess, so you will always find this with prodigies or kids who are really going to become very good. Usually they are very much engaged even outside their normal study time.
AM: I agree with you on this matter, it's always in the mental space that chess is going on and yes that definitely makes a big difference, so moving to the next question I would like to ask you that as a girl you must have had to travel alone a many number of times, right? How was that challenge like?
JP: Actually, I was not travelling to tournaments alone to tell you the truth. For a long time when I was small we would go to festivals and tournaments where they had groups of different strengths, we were travelling together as a family, so Susan was playing in the highest group and Sophia and myself were playing in the lower groups and then later on when I became better, became no.1 in the world and started getting other kinds of invitations, I was travelling with my mother most of the time. Sometimes my father joining me or much later it was already that I was travelling with my future husband and then he was joining me for tournaments. Actually, I was travelling alone only during rapid events, but usually there always used to be somebody accompanying me.
AM: Oh wow! that's very interesting to know, it's not very often when you play tournaments that you travel with your family!
JP: In case you are a girl it's also something, somehow it's advisable that you go with a trainer and someone who can support you, unfortunately it's a fact that it's much simpler for boys to travel. I remember Kramnik was travelling all across the world alone when he was just 16 or something. Anyway, for me my family accompanying me or joining later always gave me a lot of stability emotionally, that before the game we could simply go for a walk not having to think what to say if you go with someone else, with another chess player, was liberating. When I was travelling with my mom, we used to talk about flowers, we used to talk about everything before the game. She knew exactly how I felt when I lost a game or when I won a game, so she knew very much my emotional state and understood me very well. I was very comfortable with her, so when it's a family member or someone very close to you it can give a very special feeling of safety and comfort. When I play chess I always need the great balance in everything and this gave me great balance generally.
AM: Yes true, I also want to know that you used to play a lot of tournaments, and that require a great deal of stamina; women are physically weaker than men as we know, so how did you work on your physical fitness normally and during the tournaments?
JP: Generally speaking I think well of course ladies have a monthly situation, right? It is something I was never thinking about too much. I was never focusing on it. I had bad days and I had good days but I was ignoring it outwardly because I didn’t want them to think I am having excuses for bad results. Even guys could also get sick, you can have a headache and so on. I was taking it that way, that you have pluses and minuses. When you go on a competition, you have to think about your physical preparation and especially nowadays when you play a lot. Physical training now is simply a part of the preparation much more than it was before, I was doing gymnastics an hour before breakfast or brunch or also at home I was doing sports at least three or four times a week. I was doing many different sports like aerobics, tennis, table tennis, kickboxing later even skiing. It was an important part of course, to sit for four-five hours and to have preparation before an hour and half or two, you have to have some physical preparation.
To be honest I never believed that just because we are physically weaker it would mean any different. I think it depends on your potential, it depends on how much of a fighter you are, how strong are you psychologically and how much stronger mentally and how much support you have, that is very important. Because for girls there are many comments done by others and I think this is also important when someone is travelling with a girl, in that case people are not going to make dubious comments on them on their outlook or on their play. I mean when a girl is with someone around it's not so easy to criticize or make nasty comments about her.
AM: While playing against men chess players did you face any disrespect or things like that? Something which is more towards gender inequality?
JP: Well, when I was a kid, I felt that people were looking at me and underestimating. But after they lost, they left from the board, they glared at me in a very nasty way, they couldn't handle the loss, they didn't have similar experiences, right? So it was kind of understandable but of course at that time I didn't understand that as a kid, what they were so unhappy about or why they behaved strangely. But later on I think people got to understand that I was talented that I was beating adults and even strong players and by the time I was 17 or 18 I think they accepted me as one of the strong players and after that I didn't have any problem.
AM: Coming to your husband, I want to know how he has been a great support in your life. What would be his most important qualities which helped you sustain your career and evolve as a person?
JP: Well, first of all he is a big sports fan, he was playing handball at the National level. He always followed sports, so his love for sports was very important during the times he was joining me in tournaments. He could understand the psychology of the game and learned how the tournaments are happening and how a rapid tournament was different than a classic tournament. He learned quickly what my habits were, how I prepare, when I am nervous, and what bothers me and what doesn't. He was very happy to support me and he did it by himself, I never asked him to partly give his job up. He used to be away for two weeks here and there with me. He is a vet and somehow he felt that he could support me by joining me. It was also good for him because at home he was working seven days a week and when we were going away he could relax, like he would read books when I played. He had to adjust himself to my routine of course but he was happy to do so. After the game we would go to dinner, then we used to go for walk. And he knew how to react when I was upset or when I was preparing; somehow it worked very well, he was enjoying accompanying me to tournaments. In the beginning he used to have a lot of questions, like why I lost some games and why I couldn't win some games; and he was always asking "why didn't you play this?" or "why didn't you play that?" and I was always patiently answering his questions.
AM: Interesting! As you said it is very difficult for a person to immediately try to adjust to all these habits and somehow to adjust quickly for life partners is very difficult. I have seen this issue in many of the couples when it is a new relationship. But from what you say I feel like he has been leading two parallel lives. As you said on one hand he is completely busy when he is at home and then when he is travelling with you it's completely different life!
JP: Yes, in some ways it has been interesting for him and it's like a double life. When we were in Hungary, I was at home having my training sessions and he was very busy with his clinic and when we were going away he was not the doctor but the husband of Judit Polgar. So it was a big contrast in that sense, but I think his mentality for sports in general was also the reason why he could adjust himself so easily. This is why I think it was obvious for him what a chess competition demanded. He was always following other players and their games, who is in what situation. He also remembers games, if you would call him and ask about my game with Anand let's in our mini match in the rapid then there is a good chance he will remember some of the games!
AM: Wow! that's amazing, and could you tell us a little bit more about where did you guys meet? In brief tell us about your love story?
JP: Well, actually we met in budapest in 1998 when we had a Hungarian Vizsla Hunter dog and she was sick and we took it to the doctor and the doctor was my husband! Then we started to meet and then I went to Hawaii for the US open and we didn't see each other for month or two and then in Autumn we met again and then in 2000 we got married.
AM: That's a perfect Hollywood movie story. In India we have lot of arranged marriages so to a woman who has a choice what would you say is the most important quality in a husband which she would definitely not consider giving a miss?
JP: Well, it's very difficult to say, it depends very much of course on the culture and background and in India you have arranged marriages but to tell you the truth I have mixed feelings about it. Of course in Hungary you would never think of having an arranged marriage, but certainly in the background people are trying to match people here and there. The most important thing I think is you have to have love for the other person and common interests, it helps a lot like in our case, sport was something essential. And you have to be ready to compromise all the time, it's a very strong journey. But even if you have the right match it doesn't mean it will stay that way forever, right? You have to always work, invest your time, and be ready to make sacrifices. And once you have kids, of course it becomes completely different.
AM: That was my next question, after kids generally in India, it is a complete stop there and after kids it's absolutely tough, it's not impossible but it's really tough. So I want to know your approach as an ambitious woman, you knew your career would definitely be affected because of it, so can you tell us more about it?
JP: For me it was a big challenge how will it be when I have kids and how can I be so competitive and well for me it was not easy to get pregnant. I lost my first baby and then I got into the top 10 in the world actually and later on I got pregnant with oliver and he was born in 2004. Of course once you have kids the priority is changing because as a top sports person obviously everything you do is about supporting your success, the best you can perform when the tournament comes, whether you do sports, whether you go to movie theatre, whether you go for excursion or having a spare time for meeting your friends, it's always a disconnect but then you go back to your chess to be focused on, when you have a child it's so obvious you need a partner who supports you in that and also takes care of the child or you have support from the grandparents or babysitters. Whoever you can make sure in your mind with that okay I am not with the kid but everything is fine, they are in good hands. This way we could manage that, I was never worried when I was going to competition. Life becomes richer by having kids but its also something not for everybody, it's not an easy challenge to raise kids I must say but it can be very rich and emotional and very interesting to raise children.
AM: Yes, it does make you a different kind of person. What would be your most important advice to career oriented women who do not want to get stagnant due to this biological process?
JP: Well, it depends very much on the environment they are working in and it depends on the society how they are reflecting on these things, right? Because I know quite a few ladies in Hungary who got a family with kids and then it was kind of over for their careers because they wanted to stay home for years ...one kid, two kids, three kids and then you can stay at home and the government pays for years. But of course after you are five years away from your profession you cannot go back in a second, right? You have to study again, reconnect again, it's extremely difficult, but I have also met ladies who have their families and after few months after giving birth they are back in business maybe not completely full time but only half time or they are freelancers.
I think it very much depends on their mindset , what is their goals, if they really think after having children they want to get back - like you have Koneru [Humpy] there, she had her baby and she came back, right? and she plays extremely well. And I also believe that after having children, there are lot of positive things that can happen, in your profession as well, because there is lot of tension between what you project on your career when you don't have family, it gives you a lot of tension, once you have kids, you get extremely tired already from them, I remember myself also going to chess tournaments when Oliver was like half years old, it was already paradise, it was kind of vacation because I could sleep properly, I could have breakfast properly.
You challenge yourself a lot, when you are home, they are demanding a lot, the housework and other things that you are doing and sometimes when you go to work its kind of so called relaxation even though its very challenging the tournament itself, I spoke with many chess players as well after they had their kids, they also felt something very similar. I remember talking with Vladimir Kramnik he said, "oh I am sleeping it's wonderful." I think a lot of positive energy comes also after having kids and when you go back to work so it's not an easy thing to combine but if you like your job you can manage it.
AM: So we were saying that it's the patriarchal society affecting the environment is one thing definitely it has to be supportive and the other thing is your strong will, but if you have strong will and you don't have that kind of environment. You need to definitely fight to create that kind of environment, right?
JP: Yes I think it's very difficult if you have your will but you don't have the support of your partner, your family or your workplace. I think it's extremely difficult to get back to work.
AM: You have always played among men and have been successful but it seems to be that you are one of a kind and I believe that many have tried and didn't succeed anything even close to your level so when I think about women playing with men but without success, it is practically not possible to sustain the level of motivation I would say, otherwise we would have seen more than one Judit, right? So my question is why there is no second Judit?
JP: It's a very complex question I think being the youngest and having the support of the sisters and my parents believing in me from the very beginning really helped. When I was born they believed I was going to be the Chess Champion. I was very much supported from every respect. I have a very strong character which suited very well for competition. I like challenges all the time. But the main thing is that my parents had the same expectations from me as they would have for a boy. I think this is one of the important things that doesn't get much spotlight. Because society shapes us and I think the feedback that the girls get from society is what makes them more girlish and boys more boyish. So actually I believe that if we want to see girls be good at math and science, then probably they will just go in that direction.
I still think there are many girls who potentially can be very strong but there are lot of things that need to come in place. Just to work hard and be talented aren't enough. I always say and some people say that they are surprised that I am saying this. For example, Hou Yifan was obviously a very talented chess player. I believe only by the fact if she aimed for the top 10 in the world rather than only competing among women, she could have gained 30 rating points more. The higher you put your goals, you are rushing in that direction, so you are passing a lot of other levels but that doesn't mean you can't be happy with small results.
AM: It's really eye opening the way you explained it to me in such a short time, I have been wondering this really really for a long time. I definitely get your point and I agree with it. But there will be a transition period spanning 20 or 30 years. I don't know, when parents, coaches as support system would have to put up with the girls not succeeding. So it comes down to society and the system in the end. And it's not easy to change the system overnight.
JP: Of course there are expectations from the society and how this society supports and looks at the success of a girl or success of a boy influences your comfort zone, whether you are happy to play among the girls or do you want to compete with the boys too. I wanted to play chess with more than just girls. At the same time. if I know it correctly, in china the chinese teams of boys and girls many times they train together, so this is something which is exceptional. More important than the girls can just also be there, is the fact they can ask questions to the guys. So it is also very important whom you are training with. I think for this the Chinese ladies team found a lot of success.
AM: So you think there should not be different titles for men and women and different national championships, what is your opinion on this?
JP: I think for the moment Chess is not ready to delete the titles, its simply a motivation for reaching those titles, but my dream is to delete all these ladies titles and reach those titles that are in absolute category, but I don't want to take away the motivation that so many girls are happy to play and happy to win titles and I understand we have to keep it for quite a long time but at the same time, I feel important to view my parents and coaches that they should not limit their girl's mindset, they should not damage a girl's potential.
I know a many times the children who are talented think that wow they can really become women's world champion oh thats 2600, thats fantastic, what is the chance that when you are dreaming of only 2600, you are going to be reaching 2800? So I think it's really important to open up your mindset, for parents and for teachers and then whatever happens, happens. But at least to give the choice to the girls whether you want to go and play with the boys or you want to keep yourself in the environment of girls, it's already a huge step if you can open up the minds and let the child decide, because there are many girls who would want to say that I just want to play chess, I don't mind if it's boys, I think it's very important to give the choice and within years we will see if they want to go to this direction because it gives them a lot positive feedback and results or they want to stay with the girls competition.
AM: You have been one hell of a fierce and fearless female chess players who has surpassed many of the men and is actually admired by most of them, tell us how actually to be an aggressive chess player and at the same time such a courageous women in all the other spheres of life?
JP: In this environment where chess is a male dominated sports, it was not difficult for me because I grew up as a child, playing against the adults and later on I was playing against professionals, I was focusing on the game itself, it was such a natural environment for me, I was not focusing on the lady competition. I was playing in the olympic twice which we won with hungary. So for me that was the natural way of playing competitions.
AM: So I realise that your environment was really very supportive and it impacted your life and your character to such an extent, its a very important part which in a way is related with a society, the thinking in your family was very different.
JP: Now it is very clear that the support of my parents and my sisters has played a vital role in my career, I would not have reached anything close to what I have. It's important that not only my parents were supportive and created all the circumstances to be able to train but its also very important what I am doing, because I know in many countries or in many places like in USA, I remember it was clear that their parents were not supportive, even for talented kids to become a professional chess player, they said that you go to university first, then after that if you have time to play chess, after your degree you can go play chess and be professional. Thats already your decision, so i think this is also very important that where is it standing that you are playing chess, is it a secondary thing in your life and if your parents are supportive of that but of course priority is school. Once you have this, its most likely you are not going to reach your potentials, the maximum of your potentials, that's very clear, especially in chess, you have to be young to experience a lot of things that goes under your skin.
AM: Ok final question, one decision you would say changed your life or in hindsight you would want to change that decision
JP: Usually I am a person who lives in the present, at the same time I also like to plan a lot of things but I don't go back so much in my life and also I think because I have this idea that when you have difficulties and new circumstances, you can take it as a pain but you can also take it as a new opportunity. So that's how I take it, and most of the time I convert it into something positive or interesting or challenge for myself.