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Happy B'day Judit Polgar: the greatest prodigy ever

by Albert Silver - 23/07/2016

When Judit Polgar retired from chess, it marked the end of an era the likes of which none could foresee, but that galvanized women chess for all time. She did not simply break the barriers of a highly prejudiced establishment, she shattered them with records that no male has come close to. Here is a profile with videos of her greatest triumphs.

Happy Birthday Judit Polgar: the greatest prodigy ever

Her eldest sister, Susan Polgar, was the first female player to challenge the gender-biased establishment, culminating in one of the oddest and most controversial moments in FIDE history: the notorious 100 Elo gift to all women minus Susan. Despite reaching the summit of women ratings in 1986, Susan was still not seriously competitive with the top male players, allowing many men to still nurse their prejudices of an 'inherent male advantage'. This all changed in 1988 and 1989.


In 1988, at the Thessaloniki Olympiad, Hungary revamped the entire women's team with a lineup that consisted of Susan Polgar, Judit Polgar, Sofia Polgar, and Ildiko Madl, amidst enormous fanfare. The team was dubbed 'Polgary' by the press, and prior to the start was met with no small amount of curiosity and skepticism by many who viewed it as more of a publicity stunt.


Eduard Gufeld, Soviet GM and team coach for the Soviet women's team, dismissed the Polgars. "I believe that these girls are going to lose a good part of their quickly acquired image in the 28th Olympiad", he said. "Afterward, we are going to know if the Hungarian sisters are geniuses or just women!"

Video footage of Judit Polgar and her sisters at the 1988 Olympiad [4 mins. 38 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

Judit was rated 2365 FIDE at the time, with rating lists coming out every six months. She played on board two and by the end of the event, Gufeld and other detractors were left trying to remove their foot from their mouths. Not only did Hungary sweep the championship to take gold, but Judit Polgar's flabbergasting 12.5/13 result was good for a 2694 performance, and she was barely twelve years old. To better put this in perspective, you need to realize that in 1988, only two players in the world had even 2700 ratings: Kasparov and Karpov.


This and further results, propelled the pre-pubescent to stratospheres never seen before in chess history, making her the greatest prodigy the game has ever seen. This claim is not made idly, and takes into account names such as Capablanca, Reshevsky and even Karjakin, the youngest grandmaster in FIDE history. Capablanca is famous for becoming Cuban champion at age twelve, a title that is somewhat disputed by chess historians, but even so, this did not make him one of the top players in the world. Reshevsky was a noted master at a very young age, beating first category players in simuls even, but would only realize his potential further down the road. The great Karjakin is the best documented challenger to the title of greatest prodigy, having achieved a 2500+ rating at age twelve, and the grandmaster title, but it wasn't until 2005, at age fifteen, that he broke into the Top 100 since by then the minimum rating had inflated to 2600 and there were over a dozen players rated 2700. This is where Judit's precociousness is most visible.


In January 1989, FIDE published its newest ratings list topped by Garry Kasparov with 2775, Anatoly Karpov with 2750, Nigel Short in third at 2650, and down at no.57 in the world was... twelve-year-old Judit Polgar, rated 2555, and the first and only female for 25 years, to break into the Top 100 players. Not only did she never leave the Top 100, but later would break into the Top Ten players. The idea that a woman could not compete with the world's best was shattered forever.


In 1990, Polgary was once again at the fore, and though many had hoped to see Judit playing in the men's team, the FIDE rule forbidding women from participating in men's team competitions was still in effect, another residue of sports misogyny. FIDE was hardly unique though, even at such a late date, as can be attested by the very first inclusion of the Women's marathon in the Olympic Games in 1984. Before that, excuses had been made that women were either too weak, or that running such a distance might lead to fatal results. In chess, it took Judit Polgar to start trampling the prejudices with a stream of results that could not be ignored. Not only did Hungary take the team gold, but all three Polgar sisters won the individual gold medals for best board one, best board two and best board three.

A video of the Polgar sisters at the 1990 Olympiad in Novi Sad [2 mins. 06 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

In 1991, Judit broke a record that had stood since 1959: Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest grandmaster ever. Though this was later broken by others, Judit was the first to do so in the 32 years it had stood. Obviously, she was of grandmaster strength long before, since she had never left the Top 100 in the three years since she entered it, and it was fitting that she was the first to set a new standard for chess precociousness.


In January 1996, another barrier came tumbling down as the 19-year-old Hungarian appeared on the FIDE ratings list at the number ten spot with 2675 Elo, thus becoming the first woman to become a Top Ten player.

In 1998, Judit played an eight-game match against Anatoly Karpov, the FIDE World Champion. The games were at 30 minutes, and she beat Karpov 5-3. [1 min. 45 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

In 2000, playing for the 'male' Hungarian team at the Olympiads in Istanbul, she played on board three and scored 10.0/13 for a 2772 performance, just barely missing out on the Bronze in both the team medal and individual. At the 2002 Olympiad held in Bled, Judit was moved to second board, and there she scored 8.5/12 taking bronze for second board, and more importantly was Hungary's key weapon to take silver for its greatest result in over twenty years.

In their silver medal win in 2002, the Hungarian team defeated the almighty Russians led by Kasparov [1 min. 40 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

Prejudices are slow to break and even Garry Kasparov, who was once confronted about his derisive views on women chess players with Judit's example, commented her success was because she played chess 'like a man'. That said, in 2001, at the elite Linares double round-robin invitational with Kasparov, Karpov, Shirov, Grischuk and Lékó, Polgár drew both her games with Kasparov, the first time in her career she had done this under tournament time controls, and in 2002, in the Russia versus the Rest of the World Match, Polgar finally defeated Garry Kasparov in a game. The game helped the World team win the match 52–48, and was historic as it was the first time in chess history that a female player beat the world's No. 1 player in competitive play.


A video of Judit Polgar during the Russia vs Rest of the World, including her historic win over Garry Kasparov [2 mins. 25 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

In January 2003, Judit became the first woman to break 2700, in fourteenth place, but she was on a roll and by January 2004 she had moved to number eight with 2722, and finally, in July 2005 she raised her rating to 2735, her highest ever. This was in spite of having given birth to her first son, Oliver, a year earlier in 2004.


In 2003, she also scored one of her best results, by coming clear second at Wijk aan Zee, half a point behind Anand, but ahead of Kramnik, Grischuk, Topalov, Karpov, Ivanchuk, Radjabov, Ponomariov, and many others. Although she certainly won some less prestigious events outright, by coming ahead of so many giants in chess, it was further evidence that there was room for women at the very top.


In her game against Anatoly Karpov, she unleashed a novelty found at the board and won a great game. Here she analyzes her game in the post mortem for the audience. This is part one. [10 mins. 04 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

Here is part two of her analysis of her win over Karpov [10 mins. 02 secs. | click on the box (below right) for full screen]

In 2011, despite a considerable drop in chess activity over the preceding years, she once more showed the depth of her class by playing in the European Individual Championship, the Open division, with no fewer than 167 grandmasters, and came tied for first with three others. On tiebreak Vladimir Potkin took gold, Radoslaw Wojtaszek took silver, and Judit Polgar took bronze. Judit's tie for first place at the European Championship represented yet another gender barrier going down.


The Mega-Database is a premier ChessBase product and has a collection of annotated games by almost every strong player around, and of course, Judit too has made her contribution. Enjoy her personally annotated games here.


In a singularly fitting fond farewell, at the 2014 Chess Olympiad, her last competition, Hungary came in second, for her second team silver.

For the last several years, the Polgar sisters have spearheaded a fantastic chess bonanza called the Aquaprofit-Polgar Chess Festival, designed to promote chess in glorious fashion. See the video.

Videos from Judit Polgar's official YouTube channel


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