The Journey to Greatness: Susan Polgar's Rise to the World Chess Hall of Fame
"Women belonged in the kitchen and bedroom, not at the chessboard."
This audacious declaration, hurled at a young chess prodigy during her formative years, became a rallying cry rather than a deterrent. At the tender age of four, this young talent set her sights on becoming a Grandmaster, only to face skeptics who dismissed such aspirations are not for girls. Amid racking up victories against male opponents, she encountered a shocking lack of sportsmanship, and unwanted sexual advancements followed by death threats. Despite these formidable obstacles, the chess world would come to know her as Susan Polgar—a trailblazing icon and a symbol of hope for aspiring women chess players worldwide. Susan Polgar's journey to greatness has been nothing short of extraordinary, marked by resilience, determination, and an unyielding defiance against societal prejudices.
Susan Polgar has made history by breaking several gender barriers in the male-dominated chess world. In August 1982, at the young age of 12, she clinched her first world title by triumphing in the World Chess Championship for Girls under 16. Despite facing restrictions to play international tournaments in July 1984, Polgar defied the odds to become the top-rated female chess player globally.
In January 1991, Polgar made history again by becoming the first woman to earn the men's Grandmaster title, achieving three GM norms and a rating over 2500. Subsequent years saw her dominating the chess scene, securing victories in various championships, including the Women's World Blitz and Women’s World Rapid Chess Championship in May 1992. The highlight of her career is becoming the Women’s World Chess Champion in 1996 and winning Blitz and Rapid championships in the same year to become the first one in history to win the Chess Triple Crown. She has also won eleven medals at the Women’s Chess Olympiad. Her legacy extends to chess coaching as well, under her guidance from 2007-2021, her students won 80+ national titles, 2 world championships, 5 Olympiad Gold, 7 Final Four, and 8 PanAm Intercollegiate Championships.
In this blog post, we delve into Susan Polgar's remarkable journey, exploring the indomitable spirit that propelled her to the esteemed status of a World Chess Hall of Fame inductee.
To truly understand how things came to be, we must first understand her childhood. Her father, Laszlo Polgar, an educational Psychologist, was notable in his idea that “Great Performers are made, not born”. He became one of the first to realize that by training intensively and vigorously at a young age, “talent” would be created.
While many at the time ridiculed him for this “ludicrous” notion, Lazslo still carried on. By the time his daughter, Susan, turned 4, he started teaching her about chess. He taught it playfully, often creating drama or telling stories about this ancient art, and she was hooked. Despite only being a mediocre player at best, he had planted the seeds that would eventually grow to be a chess legend.
By the age of 5, Susan Polgar had already accumulated hundreds of hours of dedicated practice. A few months later, her dad decided to put her in a local tournament. Despite the other contestants being at least twice her age, she managed to obtain a perfect score, not losing nor drawing a single game. This remarkable achievement was the start of what would eventually become one of the best players in chess.
When Polgar turned 12, she attended the FIDE World Youth Chess Festival for Peace for Under 16s, held in 1981. Though she was only 12, she managed to outcompete everyone and win the tournaments, despite being 4 years younger than her competitors.
A LEGEND IN THE MAKING
Upon turning 15, she achieved the requirements and gained the prestigious title of International Master making her the top 1% of the top 1%. Thanks to this, she managed to play for Hungary’s Team four years later, her goal ever since she was young. She also joined along with her sisters, Sofia and Judit, and achieved great success, earning a gold medal for her country.
While all of the aforementioned achievements are great, they all pale in comparison to the next groundbreaking achievement. In 1991, after several intensive games, she broke the gender barrier and obtained her third GM norm, becoming the first woman ever to become Grandmaster satisfying all requirements previously set for male players. This revolutionary achievement meant that she became an inspiration for many aspiring female chess players, many of whom finally have a role model to look up to!
Then, In 1992, the first Women’s World Championship for Rapid and Blitz tournaments was held in Budapest, Hungary. Being the only GM there, she crushed the competition, winning both tournaments.
The only thing out of her graphs for Susan was the Women’s World Chess Championship. It was held by Chinese Grandmaster, Xie Jun who won the Championship 5 years in a row. Managing to claim a spot at the 1994-95 Women’s Candidates along with many other famous individuals, most notably Pia Cramling, she drew GM Maia Chiburdanidze from Georgia to enter a tie-break after 9 intense rounds of play. During the tie-break rounds, Polgar managed to score an incredible 1.5 to 5.5, a stunning victory.
Upon entering the Women’s World Chess Championship of 1996, Polgar was met with a horrible defeat, even with the White Pieces in the very first round. The situation looked dire, on the very first day. Even with this defeat, she did not give up and managed to beat or draw Xie Jun every single round afterward, except for round 12, giving her a total score of 8.5 vs 4.5. This incredible performance earned Susan the prestigious world champion title.
In addition to the above world titles, she also won 12 Olympiad medals, including five gold medals and the first team medal for the United States. She broke four world records in a simultaneous chess exhibition in 2005, playing the most games, winning the most games, having the highest winning percentage, and playing the most consecutive games.
IMPACT ON THE NEXT GENERATION
Susan Polgar's impact as a chess coach stands as a testament to her exceptional ability to nurture talent and inspire greatness. From 2007 to 2021, her coaching prowess manifested in a remarkable string of successes achieved by her students. With a keen understanding of the game and a dedication to honing their skills, her mentees amassed over 80 national titles and seven Final Four competitions and dominance in eight Pan-Am Intercollegiate Championships, showcasing not only individual brilliance but also cohesive and successful as a team. Beyond the national stage, her students secured two world championships and five Olympiad gold medals, demonstrating the global reach of Polgar's coaching philosophy.
She retired from her coaching position at Webster University in May 2021, after leading the chess team to unprecedented success and recognition. She is now the director emeritus of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Webster, where she continues to support and mentor young chess players. She also sponsors various chess tournaments for girls and women and advocates for gender equality in chess.
In recognition of her outstanding achievements and contributions to chess, Susan Polgar was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2019, becoming the youngest woman ever to receive this honor. In 2023, she was also inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame, along with two other grandmasters, Bent Larsen and Lajos Portisch. The ceremony was held on Webster University’s main campus, where Polgar served as the first chess coach. She is the first woman to be inducted into both the U.S. and World Chess Halls of Fame, a testament to her remarkable legacy and impact on the chess world.
Susan Polgar's remarkable journey to the World Chess Hall of Fame stands as a testament to her unwavering dedication, unparalleled skill, and indomitable spirit. From her early days as a chess prodigy to her historic achievements on the international stage, Polgar's commitment to excellence has left an indelible mark on the world of chess. As we reflect on her extraordinary career, let us not only celebrate her victories but also admire the grace and dignity with which she faced challenges. Susan Polgar's motto, 'Win With Grace, Lose with Dignity,' encapsulates not only her approach to the game but also serves as an enduring inspiration for aspiring chess players around the globe. Her legacy reminds us that true greatness is not only measured by victories but also by the character and sportsmanship displayed along the journey.
Here are some of the T-shirts produced by ZeroBluners as a tribute to Susan Polgar's achievements. Click here to check out Grace Collection.
About the Author
Andy Nguyen (aka Andy Green) is a chess-based copywriter who also enjoys writing chess lessons for others to read. You can reach him on Twitter (@AndyGreenChess).
Sources + Footnotes
1. The source for this information is in this YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZiSxfCmOZY
2. As previously mentioned in the first footnote, she was the first woman to become GM by gaining 3 GM norms and gaining a rating of 2500. The 2 previous women who were GMs were awarded the title due to them being Woman World Chess Champions.