Barrier-Breaking Grandmaster Youngest Woman To Be Inducted In Chess Hall Of Fame | St. Louis Public Radio

Barrier-Breaking Grandmaster Youngest Woman To Be Inducted In Chess Hall Of Fame

Mar 18, 2019

A Webster University chess coach will today become the youngest woman to be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Susan Polgár was the first woman to win the coveted grandmaster title through traditional tournament play in 1991. The Hungarian-born champion has broken gender barriers in the male-dominated chess world during a career that spans five decades.

“There will be naysayers, and there will be men that don’t want to see women succeed, especially in a male-dominated field,” she said. “But don’t let that hold you back — just work harder and prove them wrong.”

Many consider Polgár one of the most famous players in the world. She became the first woman to qualify for the men's World Chess Championship, in 1986. She’s a five-time Chess Olympiad champion. 

Polgár also is the first person to earn the chess triple crown, becoming the reigning champion in blitz, rapid and classical forms of the game in 1996.

“It’s like winning the 100-meter dash, the 5K and the marathon,” she said. “Three different speeds.”

Since 2012, Polgar has coached Webster University’s Division 1 chess team. During her tenure, the school has not lost its number-one ranking.

The U.S. Chess Trust votes on who is admitted to the hall of fame. It includes star players as well as authors, philanthropists and others chosen for their impact on the game. There are 61 people in the hall of fame, but Polgár is only the fifth woman to be awarded the honor.

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Polgár and her two sisters were child chess prodigies growing up in the Budapest in the late 1970s and '80s. Their father, a psychologist, believed any child could grow into a genius, given the opportunity. He taught his three girls chess for hours a day. Her sister Judit is also a grandmaster chess player, and her sister Sofia is an international master.

In Budapest, Polgár was often the only girl in competitions. Men didn’t like losing to her, she said.

“When I started to get better and beating some of the boys and men, they would not take it kindly,” Polgár said. “It would not be uncommon they would swipe off the pieces on the chess board, not shake hands after a lost game.”

Even as an accomplished coach, Polgár still faces discrimination from men who refuse to shake her hand after a loss, she said.

Motivated in part by her determination to fight sexism, Polgár, in 2002, started the Susan Polgár Foundation, which awards scholarships and holds tournaments for young players. The foundation’s annual SPF Girls' Invitational takes place in June and will distribute $250,000 in cash prizes and scholarships, she said.

She also leads the Susan Polgár Institute for Chess Excellence, which promotes women’s chess and play in children and college players.

She tells her students she’s proof that winning is the best revenge.

“I tell them, 'Use it as a fuel for a motivation for yourself,'” she said. “That’s the best answer, to prove it with results.”

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Clarification: A  previous version of this story misstated where Susan Polgár won some of her championships. She is a five-time Chess Olympiad champion.