Interview by Dominic Lawson
Judit Polgar beat Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming a chess Grandmaster
at 15. Her spectacular talent – and her frustration at the game –
still endures, as Dominic Lawson finds when he meets her, 24 years after their
Almost a quarter of a century ago I met a 12-year-old girl in Budapest, who
told me: "When I am rich I want a castle. And five servants. Minimum."
It was an extraordinary aspiration for a child living in what was still a Communist
country. But then this was no ordinary girl.
Twelve-year-old Judit was already better at chess than any human had been at
that age; and within three years she had, at aged 15 and five months, beaten
Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest person – boy or girl
– ever to achieve the Grandmaster title.
Earlier this month this chess addict went back to Hungary to see Judit, now
a married 36-year-old with two children. She was a little late for our meeting
at her home, an entirely new-built two-floor apartment in one of Budapest's
smartest residential areas. So her husband of 12 years, a strikingly handsome
veterinary surgeon called Gusztav Font, showed me around their home while one
of two domestic helpers prepared a pot of tea. Judit's office, which Gusztav
opened with reverence, was wall-to-wall with chess books and cupboards full
of trophies, of course. But I was more taken with the main feature in the marble-floored
drawing room – an immense picture window with a stunning view across the
Danube to the old imperial palace of Emperor Franz Joseph.
So I couldn't quite resist saying, when Judit arrived home: "Well, you
didn't get a castle with five servants – but even a view of a palace like
that, and two domestic helpers, isn't bad."
"Yes, not bad at all," laughed Judit, who made it clear she had not
forgotten our conversation of 23 years ago – she forgets nothing, in fact.
In those days she had lived in a much less glamorous, smaller and viewless flat
with her two elder sisters and parents. Her mother and father, Laszlo and Klara
Polgar, had devoted their lives to their children in an extraordinary way: refusing
to send them to school and educating them at home with chess as the main subject
and Esperanto as a base for linguistic ability – Judit is nowadays fluent
in Russian, English and Spanish as well as her native Magyar.
Zsuzsa, Klara, Laszlo, Sofia and Judit in their original Budapest flat
Laszlo, an educational psychologist by profession, had wanted to demonstrate
that what we call 'genius' is not a naturally occurring or genetically created
phenomenon, but could be achieved by any child, given intensive early tuition
on a one-to-one basis. Chess was a natural way of trying to prove his theory
to the world, partly because the game is viewed as a touchstone of the intellect,
but also because results are easily compared and measured by a universal grading
system. Thus, as Judit put it in her recently published autobiography, How
I Beat Fischer's Record: "From the moment of my birth on 23 July 1976,
I became involved in an educational research project. Even before I came into
the world, my parents had already decided: I would be a chess champion."
Genius in the making: Susan Polgar with her little sisters Judit and Sofia
Laszlo Polgar proceeded to demonstrate his theory: his eldest daughter, Zsuzsa,
became a Grandmaster and woman's world champion; and the middle daughter, Zsofia,
achieved the title of International Chess Master (one rung below Grandmaster
status) before abandoning the game as "not enough for me". But it
was the Polgars' youngest child, Judit, who challenged all conventional thinking
about the innate superiority of the male mind at chess. Unlike all other girls
– or women – she refused to take part in the closed ghetto of female
events and would play only in male competitions: in these, having started playing
competitively at the age of six, she would chew up and spit out Grandmasters
and their egos in a style combining breathtakingly direct aggression with lethal
A recent picture of the entire Polgar family: Susan and Judit (standing),
mother Klara, father László and a gleeful baby Oliver
Between 1 and 10 December at the London Chess Classic in Kensington's Olympia,
Judit will be taking on her biggest challenge yet to the male elite of the chess
world. Among her opponents will be the reigning World Champion, Viswanathan
Anand of India, and the world's two highest-ranked chess players – Magnus
Carlsen of Norway and Levon Aronian of Armenia. Oh, and she'll also be up against
the former World Champion, Russia's Vladmir Kramnik, the man who took the title
from Garry Kasparov in the same city 12 years ago.
Because of her commitments as a mother, Judit does not play chess nearly as
much as she did, and has less time to dedicate to study and preparation –
she used to put in ten hours a day of practice, study and training; so I asked
her if she was apprehensive about taking on these monsters of the full-time
professional game. "I was hesitating about playing. I don't play as much
as a full professional should play. But I like a challenge. I just hope it's
not too much of a challenge!"
Gusztav Font is an experts with cats – of all shapes and sizes
With a friend, somewhere in Africa
Judit gave up the game entirely for two years, around the time of the births
of her and Gusztav's two children, Oliver in 2004 and Hanna in 2006. Lying with
her shoeless feet tucked underneath her on a vast red leather chaise longue,
Judit explained: "Actually we wanted to have kids earlier. But in 2002
I had a miscarriage, at 13 weeks. And funnily enough after that I had my best-ever
tournament result, in January 2003. That was when my international rating reached
its peak [she achieved the ranking of world number 8]. So it was a terrible
time personally but a great time professionally. It was then that I decided
to stop playing… I thought, perhaps if I stop playing then I will be able
to get pregnant again."
One can understand Judit's thinking. As one of the world's strongest women
players, Russia's Alexandra Kosteniuk has written of her own battle to succeed
in what is still a male-dominated sport: "It's almost impossible to explain
to non-chess players how physically demanding the game is, and how hard, physically
and psychologically, it is to compete in world-championship level competition".
Yet, I asked Judit, doesn't her decision to cut back on the career that once
dominated her life almost justify Garry Kasparov's dismissive remark that a
woman could never become a great chess player, because she will always be "distracted
by a baby's cry"? This, naturally enough, provokes Judit: "I grew
up to know what pressure is, for hour after hour! I grew up with pressure from
the very beginning. In 2005 I played in the world chess championship in San
Luis [in Argentina]: I was away from my family for 27 days. That was not nice
– you don't want your babies to suffer emotionally. But I did it. Anyway,
this is not just an issue for women, as Kasparov imagines. Don't tell me that
if a guy wants to be a good father it doesn't affect his job. My husband supports
me a lot – he would probably go higher in his field if he didn't. And
that relationship between the sexes is becoming more acceptable."
Yet in the world she moves in professionally, women are still second-class
citizens. This is not least because Judit remains a country mile ahead of all
other female players, none of whom have even broken into the world's top 100
ranking list. For 23 years now she has been the only woman to figure on it,
being currently ranked at number 43. So doesn't this perhaps prove the chauvinists
right – that there is an intrinsic superiority in the male mind, in this
sphere at least? Judit, naturally, bridles at that.
"No, I don't agree that it's significant that no woman has reached my
rating since. The problem is that women are still measured by how they do against
other women and that is where the bar is set. For example, the Chinese have
a great young woman player, Hou Yifan. But the Chinese government are interested
only in her becoming woman's world champion. For them that is enough, and it
is much easier to achieve than outstanding performances against the best men.
My parents, however, believed that there should be no limits to what you could
reach as a woman."
This fierce defence of her upbringing separates Judit from another home-educated
prodigy, Britain's Ruth Lawrence. Her father, like Judit's, had devoted himself
entirely to her schooling at home, with extraordinary results: Lawrence came
top in the Oxford University mathematics entrance exam at nine. She is now married
with four children and is also maths professor at the Einstein Institute in
Jerusalem – so there has been fulfilment both personally and professionally;
but she has apparently long been estranged from the father who had driven her
to such an early peak of performance.
A stunning portrait of Judit, taken this weekend during the UNAM tournament
Yet it's notable that Judit could have brought up her children in the same
way she and her sisters had been, but has chosen not to. Oliver and Hanna are
having a normal education (they had just got back from school and were zooming
around the family home, while I was there); and Judit has made no special effort
to make them focus on chess ahead of their schoolwork.
"Well, our kids have two parents. And while I may have been brought up
in a strange way, my husband was brought up in a normal way. Also, the effort
involved on my parents' part was extraordinary. They gave up everything for
us. My parents didn't believe in their method 100 per cent; they believed in
it 1,000 per cent. I'm not fanatical about such things in the way they were.
Plus, my parents were financially deprived, and there was a lot to win for them,
in terms of chess prize money. My father wanted to break out. It wasn't easy
for him. And I don't think he would even have started it if he'd known all the
struggles he'd have with the authorities… they threatened to put him in
a mental hospital and us in an orphanage. Also, for us, tournament invitations
were the key to travel outside [Communist] Hungary. It was magical to go abroad
and see the world. But for kids in Hungary now, it is not magical and their
parents don't have to do something extraordinary to make that happen."
Yet the experience of a young girl travelling with just her mother to far-flung
places – the Communist authorities kept the father grounded, just in case
– was not entirely magical. As Judit recalls: "In 1986, at the age
of 10, I won the unrated section of the New York Open and I was on the front
page of the New York Times; then, shortly after that, I did a press conference,
in Germany. And they killed me. The journalists said 'You are not normal'. They
attacked my family's lifestyle. They wanted to tear us apart. I had been speaking
English for only six months, so it was difficult for me to answer their questions.
Afterwards I was crying in the bathroom. And then I decided at that moment:
you know what? I don't care and I won't care. There's absolutely nothing you
can do about it."
Judit had the same tough-as-tungsten attitude over the board, something I noticed
a quarter of a century ago when watching her lose the odd game and showing none
of the wobbling lower lip or other signs of distress that most young children
– even the toughest-looking boys – tend to display after defeat.
When I mentioned this, Judit's response was fierce: "Of course I got angry
when I lost and maybe would cry in my hotel room afterwards. But I would never
show it. I didn't want the men's pity. I didn't want to share my pain with them.
I would never give excuses, even if I really had one, like being ill."
And then she laughs, recalling her sister Zsusza's remark that she "never
won a game against a healthy man", a reference to the excuses that grown-up
male Grandmasters would make when losing to one or other of the amazing Polgar
But it's very clear that Judit still craved something from her male rivals:
respect. And she felt she got it after that remarkable result in the annual
Wijk-an-Zee tournament of January 2003, when she was beaten to first place only
by Vishy Anand, and finished undefeated ahead of such giants of the game as
the reigning world champion Vladimir Kramnik and the former champion Anatoly
Karpov (whom she wiped off the board in characteristically ferocious attacking
style using her favourite Queen's Indian Defence).
1993: Anand and Judit playing an an early version of Fritz on a notebook
"After that tournament Anand said, 'She is one of us'. Finally! Finally
I got there!" Judit's dark eyes still light up at the memory; but I dared
to suggest to her that the Indian might have been saying not that she was a
fellow genius, but that she was an honorary man. "Ha! Well, it's true that
my old trainer [the Russian Grandmaster Lev Psakhis] would tell people, 'She's
a man. She only looks like a woman'. And when I first started going out with
Gusztav he would say, 'My God, you are looking at things with a man's brain'.
Well, that's how I live. People say I'm tough and harsh. But the truth is that
it's just not acceptable for a woman to be self-confident."
Aside from male chauvinism, Judit is also sharply sensitive towards a different
sort of prejudice, with dreadful historic echoes in that part of the world:
her great-grandparents were among the estimated half a million Jews from Nazi-occupied
Hungary who perished in the Holocaust. "In 1988 I received a letter with
a picture of my father with his eyes cut out, and an anti-Semitic message. You
don't forget things like that. We're still not doing too well in Hungary on
this, and maybe it's worse now than when I was a kid.
A superstar in her native Hungary – rather as a top footballer would
be in the UK – Judit is generally wary of getting sucked into politics,
of being used to promote the ideas of others. However, she has been very active
in trying to persuade the government to make chess an option within the national
curriculum, not because she wants all Hungarians to be chess players like her,
but because she is passionately convinced it is an attractive way of training
children to think logically, which in turn would aid their development in all
With her long auburn hair and dazzling smile, Judit has always been the most
glamorous presence in a sport not exactly long on sex appeal, and she is actually
quite coquettish in her manner, enhanced by the fact that she has a little of
the Mae West about her. It is hardly surprising that her husband – as
he explained to me, still charmingly smitten 14 years later – fell for
her immediately when she turned up at his veterinary surgery with her ailing
I suspect London will also fall for her when she arrives in the capital next
month – her first professional appearance in the UK since 1988, when no
one could quite believe what they were witnessing. If you can, try to get to
London Olympia to see her in action. We will not see her like again.