The Jewish queens of chess

By TIBOR KRAUSZ
June 10, 2017 10:33

The story of Hungary’s famed Polgár sisters gains a new lease on life in an Israeli documentary.




Polgár sisters

Laszló Polgár watches as his daughters Zsuzsa (left) and Zsófia play chess at the family’s Budapest home in the early 1980s. (photo credit:MTVA)

At the height of communism in Hungary in the 1970s, a cramped little apartment in a dreary housing project in a nondescript district of Budapest was the site of a grand experiment. A young Jewish-Hungarian educational psychologist came to believe, after studying the lives of famous child prodigies, that geniuses weren’t born but made. If children were immersed in one intellectual pursuit or another from very early on, László Polgár theorized, then anything was possible. He set out to prove it. As his test subjects, Polgár would use his own daughters: Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit. As the focus of their instruction, the Hungarian Jew chose chess. Polgár was a middling player himself, but the highly cerebral game suited his purposes just fine. “In chess, your progress can be measured empirically,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “You either win or lose, and you can compete against players who are ranked based on their achievements.”

Chess was at the time enjoying a renaissance across the Eastern bloc by serving as a proxy Cold War battleground of sorts between the United States and the Soviet Union. At an epic showdown in 1972, the mercurial up-and-coming American grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeated the stolid Russian world champion Boris Spassky, thereby breaking the Soviets’ decades-long dominance of the game. By 1975, Fischer forfeited his title to another Russian, Anatoly Karpov. Using Fischer, a child prodigy, as their model, Polgár and his wife, Klára, a teacher, set about training a new generation of grandmasters right at home. In defiance of Hungary’s communist authorities, the couple would homeschool their three daughters, who were born a few years apart.

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Polgár, who sleeps only around four hours a night, subjected Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit to a strict training regimen for years. Three hours of sports in the morning – table tennis, swimming, running, cycling – were followed by chess, more chess and yet more chess the rest of the day until bedtime at 10 pm.

The girls, who did all their studies at home and at special classes, attended state- run schools only to take their obligatory exams in history, literature and other compulsory subjects. Polgár fashioned cardboard catalogues with analyses of professional chess games – 200,000 of them in all, by his own count – that he culled from specialist magazines to create a giant handmade reference library for his daughters. He also hired expert chess players to train the girls, even as the family lived frugally. “We were penniless,” recalls Polgár, a thoughtful, personable and avuncular 71-year-old who will expound on his child-rearing philosophy one minute and regale you with colorful anecdotes the next. In between, he may feel you out about Israeli politics, link you up with other prominent Hungarian Jews, or offer to act as a match - maker for your single Jewish friends. “We breathed air but didn’t eat,” he elucidates. “We had bread and dripping for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

At times, his daughters also had fruit and other treats – thanks to the few forints they made by winning against grown men at a nearby park during improvised neighborhood tournaments. By their early teens, the Polgár sisters were each breaking old records, setting new ones and beating grandmasters at their own game both in Hungary and abroad. In the process, they smashed the gender barrier in the male-dominated world of chess, which had – and still does – separate events and rankings for men and women with the latter hitherto dismissed as also-runs. The Polgár family’s story is well known in Hungary and chess circles worldwide but has now gained a new lease on life in “The Polgár Variant,” an Israeli documentary that features a series of revealing biographical vignettes and one-on-one interviews, both archival and newly recorded.

The documentary, which had its Budapest premier in early May at a Jewish arts festival, was a labor of love for Yossi Aviram, a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker who produced it on a shoestring budget. Aviram, an amateur chess enthusiast, first came across the Polgár sisters’ story at a tournament in Israel more than a decade ago. “I’d never heard of them before,” he concedes. “But I began to look into it and became fascinated by this family.”

After securing some funding, Aviram set about filming in 2007 – which he would do himself over several years. He travelled to Budapest, where Judit still lives. He flew to the US, where Zsuzsa now makes her home. He befriended Zsófia in Tel Aviv, where she has relocated after marrying Georgian-born Israeli chess grandmaster Yona Kosashvili. In each location, the Israeli set up his camera and started asking away. But, first, he had to gain the Polgárs’ trust. The family has long been guarded in its dealings with the media, owing partly to the frequent broadsides on its strong-willed patriarch back in the day when Laszló faced routine accusations in Hungary of abusing his daughters and depriving them of a normal childhood. “They attacked him a lot, especially at first,” Zsófia, now a mother of two, tells The Report. “We girls never took those claims seriously. We were born into [this lifestyle] and it was natural for us.” Aviram’s documentary, she adds, “is an intimate portrait of our family – our struggles and victories. It’s fantastic that Yossi got so close to us and gained an insight into how we were.” How they were is on full display in “The Polgár Variant.”

“I developed a pedagogical theory,” Laszló, a soft-spoken man who now divides his time between Miami, Tel Aviv and Budapest, tells Aviram, recounting the parental philosophy that has made him almost as famous in Hungary as a shared mastery of chess has made his daughters worldwide. “Every healthy child is a potential genius.” By age three, Zsuzsa, his oldest child who was born in 1969, was being taught math and foreign languages. If she wanted to play, it wasn’t – at her father’s insistence – with dolls or other toys; it would have to be with rooks, pawns, bishops, knights, kings and queens at a chessboard. She was just four when Laszló decided to pit Zsuzsa against trained adult players at Budapest’s best chess club.

“My father challenged the guys to play me a game,” Zsuzsa recalls, in English, in one of the most memorable anecdotes narrated in the Israeli documentary.

It comes early on, between bits of grainy contemporary news footage and fading family photographs that serve up evoca- tive snippets of life under Hungarian-style “goulash communism” circa 1973. Most men wear shaggy bowl-cuts and suitably subdued pastel-hued sweaters, which they complement with solemnly furrowed brows as they stare intensely at chessboards. “At first, they were laughing, ‘You must be kidding. She can hardly reach the table,’” adds Zsuzsa, today a youthful-looking middle-aged woman who is married to the Vietnamese-American chess player Paul Truong and lives in St. Louis, Missouri. The men weren’t laughing for long. “I won the game [against an adult opponent]. The guy stood up and ran away.”

At age 12, in 1982, Zsuzsa won her first international trophy, the under-16 World Championship title for girls, in England. Soon, she was officially recognized as a chess master and, by age 14, as the then best female player in the world. In a feat of showmanship, she could play blind, without having to see the board, and do so simultaneously against five different opponents. “My daughters could play chess while they played ping-pong by shouting out chess moves,” Laszló recalls to The Report. Zsófia and Judit, who were born in 1974 and 1976, respectively, received similarly intensive training from age four. By age five, Judit, the youngest of the three sisters, was also practicing chess seven hours each day. She would go on to develop her trademark style of play: aggressive, creative and forever attacking – “hunt for the king,” as she puts it.

“[I]f to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in chess, it would mean relentless aggression,” the Jewish-Armenian grandmaster Garik Weinstein, better known as Garry Kasparov, has said of her style in his 2007 book “How Life Imitates Chess.”

“She’s sweet in life, but she’s a different person when she plays. You can see it in her eyes,” observes Aviram, who decided to test his chess skills against Judit’s. “When you play against her, it’s like being in the tentacles of an octopus squeezing you from different angles,” he goes on. “She played against me without her queen and still beat me in 10 minutes. And she was speaking on the phone with someone the whole time.”

AT AGE seven, having barely turned primary-school age, Judit started playing against scores of adult male chess enthusiasts at high-profile simultaneous exhibitions. Within four years, a British chess correspondent proclaimed her to be “the best 11-year-old [player] of either sex in the entire history of chess.” By age 12, in 1988, she became the then-youngest-ever international master. That same year, she won an international mixed tournament in London, besting several male grandmasters and making history in the process. By age 15, she was a grandmaster herself, the youngest ever, breaking Fischer’s record.

Henceforth, she would play only against men and would soon become the world’s best female chess player of all time, snatching the honor from Zsuzsa. The three Polgár sisters first became national celebrities in Hungary and then international sensations – a curious trio of child prodigies from behind the Iron Curtain. They were the Brontë sisters of chess. One child prodigy in a family can be a fluke. But three? Either the Polgár sisters were all preternaturally gifted at chess or their father was on to something.

TWO AND a half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that children are born with minds that are like empty stone tablets, or “blank slates” in modern parlance, upon which training and life experience combine to inscribe knowledge and ability. The rabbis of yore came to similar conclusions about the plasticity of children’s minds and stressed the importance of early learning under targeted tutelage. Laszló Polgár is no rabbi, yet he could easily pass for one with his portly frame, white beard, thick spectacles and pensive mien. “To get results, you have to work hard,” he observes. “The Talmud says the same.” The single-minded intensity of his home- based boot camp for his daughters would have befitted an elite yeshiva. In fact, yeshivot did serve as an inspiration for him. “My grandfather started studying Torah for several hours a day when he was just four,” he tells The Report. “It’s always been common practice among Jews to begin teaching children intensively from an early age,” he adds. “We’ve been so successful as a people not because we’re superior genetically but because we’ve always valued learning so highly.”

But not even hard work alone will cut it if you want to turn children into geniuses, he believes.

“In early childhood, kids need to start specializing [in a single field of endeavor] and not have their attention fragmented on different subjects,” he stresses. “Remember how many useless things you learned in school.” Once children get hooked on a subject – be it physics, math, chess or any- thing else – they will pursue it on their own with single-minded zeal, encouraged by their progress and their successes, he posits. Then all you have to do is guide them. “I set things in motion for my daughters and they did the rest on their own,” he stresses. “Even if children [who are introduced to this method] don’t become geniuses, they’ll still become very good in their chosen field.”

To his critics in communist Hungary, the Jewish pedagogue was a misguided, domineering and monomaniacal drill sergeant of a father who exploited his daughters in the service of a psychological experiment. To his admirers, he was a trailblazing educator who showed that brilliance and ingenuity could be learned traits.

“My daughters are all well-adjusted, smart, happy and successful,” Laszló says. “Do they seem like people who had terrible childhoods?” His daughters, he concedes, may have had to sacrifice the joys of a carefree childhood in favor of spending most of their time indoors, hunched over chessboards, but they also traveled the world on the international tournament circuit in an era when most Hungarians were barred by their government from setting foot anywhere outside the Eastern bloc. The Polgár sisters played with kangaroos in Australia; posed for photos with Aztec pyramids in Mexico; and appeared on television talk shows in Germany.

“In my little world, the Polgárs were heroes,” says Laszló (Eli) Berger, a Hungarian-Israeli cinematographer who helped produce “The Polgár Variant.” Berger, 47, grew up at the same time as the Polgár sisters in communist Hungary before making aliya in 1991. “They became globally successful from behind the Iron Curtain all on their own,” he explains. “What they did was groundbreaking.” The documentary doesn’t dwell on the ethical implications of Laszló’s approach to child-rearing, but nor does its maker sidestep them entirely.

“His method does raise some moral questions,” Aviram, 46, says. “I’m a parent with three young children of my own. If I’d sensed that there might have been child abuse in the Polgár family, I couldn’t have made this film. What I felt was a deep sense of warmth and love among them.”

LASZLÓ WAS a feminist back when most men weren’t – certainly not in communist Hungary. “I believe a woman could win the men’s world championship title,” he explained in a TV interview in the 1980s, apropos a game that has always been dom- inated by men at the highest levels, “if she received the same professional, psychological and social [support] as a man.” The trouble, as he saw it, was that peo- ple expected less of girls so they ended up aspiring to do less and thus achieving less. Not his daughters. They competed as equals against adult men, besting all of them. “My daughters beat all the 13 male world champions [of recent decades] and they won 200 games against the best male players of the world,” Laszló says.

The father’s ambitions for his daughters became the girls’ own ambitions. Officials at the Hungarian Chess Federation wanted the Polgár sisters to dominate the international women’s competitions, scoring propaganda points for the communist regime. But the Polgár family, spearheaded by their stiffnecked patriarch, openly defied the wishes of Communist Party leader János Kádár, an amateur chess buff. “My father and I, we had the vision that I would become a grandmaster among men,” Zsuzsa recalls. In communist Hungary, where children’s education had to be in line with state-sanctioned Marxist principles of obedient uniformity, Laszló’s independent-minded approach drew the ire of apparatchiks. They threatened to jail him or confine him to a psychiatric hospital and take his daughters away to a state-run institution. Yet, Laszló was simply following in the footsteps of like-minded fathers who, for centuries, have sought to excel vicariously through their progeny. The 18th-century German musician Leopold Mozart began teaching music intensively to his son Wolfgang Amadeus when the boy was still a toddler. By age five, little Amadeus was composing music. Through similarly rigorous training, the 19th-century Hungarian mathematician Farkas Bolyai turned his famous son, János, into a wunderkind who had, by age 13, mastered calculus. In the 20th century, Moshe Menuhin, a Jewish immigrant from Belarus who was a descendant of Chabad Hassidism’s founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (himself a child prodigy), set his American-born son Yehudi on course to becoming one of the world’s greatest violinists. “What was new was that dad did it in such a closed society and that we were girls in a men’s world,” Zsófia, who speaks fluent Hebrew, tells The Report.

THE POLGÁRS were also proudly Jewish in a country where anti-Jewish sentiments have long lurked under the surface, ready to burst forth any minute in a smirk, scowl or insult. “I find it hard to tolerate antisemitism,” Laszló observes. As a child, he says he was tormented and humiliated by neighborhood bullies for being Jewish. “Being a Jew gave me extra motivation to succeed,” he explains. His daughters’ increasing success in chess on the international stage became a form of security for the family against threats and intimidation at home from Hungary’s communist regime. It didn’t save them, however, from being barred by the government from competing at international tournaments for three years after 1984. When the three sisters were at last allowed to compete internationally, they did so spectacularly. In 1988, they won gold for Hungary’s team at the 28th Women’s Chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki, Greece, breaking the Soviet Union’s decades-long dominance of competitive chess. “All of a sudden, we became national treasures,” Zsuzsa recalls. Laszló, their doting father, finally felt validated.

The following year, the Berlin Wall fell and his daughters were free to compete against men abroad without any political interference. That same year, in a pair of seminal achievements for female players, 12-year- old Judit won eight competitive tournaments in a row, while Zsófia won her first eight games straight against as many expert male opponents at a tournament in Rome. “The Polgár Variant,” which runs a little more than an hour, largely eschews Laszló’s views on child-rearing and opts instead for a straightforward retelling of the Polgár family’s story through the eyes of the three sisters. Much of it makes for compulsive viewing. In one touching segment, Aviram escorts Zsófia back to the small unit in a Soviet-style apartment building in Budapest where her family of five once lived. The flat is now occupied by an elderly man, who doesn’t seem to recognize her. Zsófia surveys the walk-in closet-size kitchen and cramped little rooms nostalgically. Once this setting was the center stage of her family’s life and seemed spacious enough; today, it looks like an odd relic from a bygone historical era, where people’s mental and physical horizons were confined by a repressive political system. “It looked so small to me as an adult,” she tells The Report, laughing. “But back then it seemed like a nice apartment.”

IN ANOTHER vignette, Zsófia, a cheerful, amiable woman who was the first among the sisters to turn her back on professional competitions in 2003 to start a family, plays a game of speed chess with her husband at their home in Tel Aviv. Kosashvili, an orthopedic surgeon, provides some lighthearted rapid-fire commentary. “This is a variant of the ‘Spanish opening.’ It’s a very closed position,” he explains, while pushing his king into a position before hurriedly repositioning it. “Sofi, with a big smile on her face, is going to checkmate me.” In yet another segment, Aviram shows old family footage, recorded by Laszló with a camcorder in 1986, of his elderly father, Armin, who had survived Auschwitz, where he lost his parents, first wife and six children. After the war, Armin remarried, to a fellow survivor of Auschwitz, and Laszló was born of this second union in 1946. The elderly man is shown holding a memorial service to the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust at the local Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Gyöngyös, east of Budapest. “In death camps, on snowfields, on roads and on riverbanks,” the elderly man, who in the grainy home-video footage resembles a Hasid in his immaculate black suit and matching black fedora, intones indignantly from a prepared note, “We were tortured, annihilated, strangled, killed and murdered in the service of pitiless hatred and bloodlust, alongside our 600,000 [Hungarian] coreligionists. Their memory will live on forever.” His young granddaughters stand around in their crisp white shirts as birds chirp in the trees. Aviram discovered the footage on one of the old VHS cassettes that Laszló lent him. “When I came across this recording, I knew I had a film,” the Israeli filmmaker recalls. “It gave new meaning to their story.”

So does another small but telling detail: Laszló, who spent two years in a Jewish orphanage in his early teens because of the breakup of his parents’ marriage, gets misty-eyed over the classic vaudeville song “My Yiddishe Mama.” He’s collected some 70 different versions of the song on carefully stored CDs. “Laszló is a very likeable guy,” Berger observes, “but he’s quite driven and obsessive.”

He’s also relentless.

He has, to date, published 123 books, several of them bestsellers, on his enduring twin interests: chess and child psychology. He’s also invented two new variants of chess, including one called star chess in which the game is played on a star-shaped board with slightly different rules to allow for different creative strategies. There are now international championships held in it.

But his greatest success has been the successes of his three daughters. Although the three Polgár sisters have all retired from professional competitions, they remain active in promotional and educational projects involving chess.

They’ve also remained in the limelight. Zsuzsa has starred in a National Geographic documentary about the wonders of the human brain; Judit has given a TED talk on how to become a genius; and Zsófia has written and illustrated award-winning chess manuals for children to help them think creatively. “What I regret is that none of them have followed my example in raising their own children,” their father laments.

They’ve also left another one of his enduring hopes for them unfulfilled – none of them has won the men’s world championship title. Only Judit ever really stood that chance. In her career, she claimed the scalps of numerous male grandmasters and world champions, leaving most of them in complete disbelief.

In 1992, when she was still just 17, she defeated Spassky, the former world champion, at an exhibition match in Budapest. A decade later, at a competitive event in Moscow, she beat Kasparov, an expert strategist and arguably the best chess player of all time, who dominated the sport for two decades. Kasparov, who had once dismissed her as a “circus puppet,” left the table in a huff, refusing to shake her hand.

Today, she’s married in Budapest with two children and competitive chess is no longer her first priority. “The only thing she has not achieved she probably never will,” Aviram observes laconically.

Then again, what matters in the end is that the Polgárs took on the world and won. They did it in style and they did it together. “As children, we were so close together, this small team of us, for 24 hours a day,” Zsófia says, a hint of bittersweet nostalgia creeping into her voice. “Now, we’ve been flung around the world. But chess will always remain a large part of our lives.”

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