An interview with chess legend Judit Polgar

by Manuel Weeks
9/30/2016 – Judit Polgar was a chess prodigy and is the only woman who has ever made it to the top ten in chess. After the Chess Olympiad in Tromso 2014 Judit Polgar retired from tournament chess but of course remained faithful to the game she loves. At the Chess Olympiad in Baku 2016 she was captain of the Hungarian team that played in the Open and she is the driving force behind the Global Chess Festival in Budapest, a fine celebration of chess. Manuel Weeks spoke with the "first lady of chess".

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Chess legend, organiser and now team captain: an interview with Judit Polgar

All photos, if not otherwise indicated: Judit Polgar and Global Chess

At the captains meeting at the Baku Olympiad were many famous grandmasters who were now in charge of a team. One of the most interesting and well-known was Judit Polgar who held strong views about certain matters as has already been written about in other articles. This was a lady who was not here for a holiday!

As the Olympiad went on you could see she was willing her team on, standing behind them concentrating almost as much as when she was playing herself. If someone needed coffee then Judit got them coffee, and if someone had a difficult position she seemed to suffer with them. Now that the Olympiad is over I thought it would be interesting to talk to Judit – not only about the Olympiad and her Hungarian team but about her other great passion, junior chess and her own Global Chess Festival that she cares about greatly. Judit may have retired from playing chess but she is as busy as ever!

Manuel Weeks: Now that you have a little time to recover from Baku can you tell us how you became captain of the Hungarian team?

Judit Polgar: I retired from competitive chess after the Tromso Olympiad in 2014. I said “goodbye” with a team Silver medal! Which was wonderful. Shortly afterwards the Hungarian Chess Federation asked me if I would take the job and help the team by being captain as I had been playing with most of the players for decades and knew them very well. This was no easy decision – when I agree to do something I want to do my very best. However, after some thought I decided to accept the offer.

I am doing everything I can to help the players but I think most important during the competition is to give emotional support and make the players feel that everything is taken care to allow them to focus on the battles with as little pressure as possible. I was really proud of the team last November in Reykjavik where we won bronze with great fights!

MW: Did being a captain feel like a natural progression after being an active player for so many years?

JP: Not necessarily.

MW: We have to ask. Did you ever get the feeling (as many other captains do!) of wishing to take over someone’s position and show them how it’s done!

JP: Interestingly enough, during the games I have never had the urge to push my players aside, sit down and make the right move (smiles) As a captain you have to see the whole situation. I also have other duties where some mistakes would be deadly. For example, if you forget to submit the line-up of the team in time. But after the games we analysed of course.

MW: Were you active in helping in preparation sometimes? If we can be allowed to ask……did you ever tell Richard Rapport he was not allowed to push his h-pawn for a certain number of moves! It is a team event after all!

Judit Polgar (Photo: André Schulz)

JP: I have always believed that chess is an individual sport but the Olympiad is, of course, a team-event. Normally chess players only fight for themselves but there is a unique element in team competitions which some players tend to forget: if you play a bad tournament but your team mates play well, you can become a hero if you win a critical game (smiles). (Editors note: who can guess the game Judit is referring to?) I consider myself as a coach for psychological matters who from time to time also helps with concrete chess preparation.

MW: The Hungarians seem to be a close-knit team. Tell us something about the players!

JP: At the Baku Olympiad we missed Peter Leko but we still had a great team: Richard Rapport is a fantastic talent, but unfortunately he went through a very difficult period of his life during the time of the Olympiad. But I am sure that he will have fantastic tournaments in the future. The Olympiad simply came at the wrong time.

Berkes was very stable on board two and Almasi, who in Baku played his 11th Olympiad, played on board three. For tactical reasons – but this worked out perfectly and he won the silver medal for the second best performance on board three. He played fantastic and energetic chess. Balogh also had a good event. The newcomer in the team was Gledura. He is only 17 years old but extremely motivated and his character is well suited for team competitions. Of course, he will have to get stronger and more experienced to achieve even better results and raise his rating.

Zurab Azmaiparashvili, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Zurab Pataradze, and Judit Polgar (Photo: Maria Emelianova

MW: I believe Zoltan Almasi, a player of your generation, was your best performing player. Many “mature” players did very well at the Olympiad – does experience still count for something in modern times?

JP: Yes, it is very interesting how knowledge and experience appear on the chess board. If an experienced player is physically and mentally well prepared and gets enough sleep then he/she can perform fantastically. Of course, you need a lot of energy to play well. But some players of the older generations like to avoid theory and forced lines and just strive to get a playable position – hoping to show that they simply understand chess better.

MW: What did you think of Baku, the city? Have you ever been there before?

JP: This was my second visit to Baku. The city is beautiful and I would be happy to come again as a tourist with more time.

MW: What did you think of the organisation of the Olympiad? How does this Olympiad compare to the many others you played in?

JP: I played in ten Olympiads. I have great memories of Thessaloniki because of the result. I loved Bled because it was the first time I was part of the team that won the silver medal in the open section, but as far as playing conditions and organisation is concerned, I would say Khanty Mansysk 2010 was great. Baku also had great playing conditions. Lots of space.

MW: I am sure you were watching many other teams and players. Anyone who particularly impressed you?

JP: Eugenio Torre and Zoltan Almasi (smiles)

At the last Olympiad in Tromso you announced your retirement from tournament chess but I know that you now work harder for chess than ever because you are the driving force behind the well-known Global Chess Festival in Budapest. How did the Global Chess Festival come into being?

Judit Polgar enjoys the many facets of the Global Chess Festival in Budapest

It started ten years ago with a nice afternoon event when my sisters were both visiting Budapest and we gave a 100 board simul. The next years we gave simuls again, but in 2011 I wanted to widen perspectives. I thought for possibilities to get kids interested in chess: an interactive board, hand crafting a chess crown, the “trust chess game” where all the pieces have the same color, an artist painting me during a simul, life chess with kids in costumes, chess courses, tournaments in which mother, son and grandparent can form one team, a tournament for kids, chess puzzles etc.

I want to connect chess to other areas of life. I like things like chess chocolate, chess marzipan, or hand-painting a chess piece on porcelain. Part of the Global Chess Festival is a gala fundraising where all the artists I work with exhibit artwork with chess themes.

Sofia Polgar

MW: What are your goals for the Festival – this year and in the long run?

JP: My goal is to show how powerful chess is – in a lot of different ways: “Chess Connects Us”, it does indeed, and quite a lot of us. Through education, history, art, sport, as a game, as a science. Chess is a kind of common language and offers a way to communicate. Chess teaches kids how to think and chess is part of culture.

I would like to see millions of people on the chessmap of the Global Chess Festival webpage. I would like to turn the second Saturday in October to a day on which chess is celebrated all over the world. On our site we will show as many events as possible to show how many people are playing on the same day. To show how millions of people are playing, watching, and loving this game.

MW: What happens during the Festival? In Budapest and in other places?

JP: We expect that on 8th October thousands of people will visit the Global Chess Festival in Budapest. It is a non-working day and the Festival offers a lot for families and something for everyone. For many activities you don’t even have to know how to play chess. E.g. there is the Chess Palace where the kids can play different games based on chess and can take part in a whole number of events.

My sister Sofia and I will play a simul and, of course, there’s the Highlander Cup, a tournament, in which last year’s winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Boris Gelfand are the big stars. However, Almasi, Gledura, Berkes, Thanh Trang Hoang, our women’s first board, Gabor Papp and Gergely Antal also take part. The rules of the tournament are unusual and hard: the winner takes it all!

The games will be played with a time limit of 10+5, which will lead to exciting chess and a sports event that the spectators will like.

Judit Polgar - a real ambassador of chess

We will present our chess song and whole number of school will perform on stage and show chess-related programs. Moreover, legends from the world of sports and Olympic champions will be there. Not to forget our chess quiz, chess lessons with my sister Sofia, a Q&A event, etc., etc..

A new generation discovers the fascination of the ancient game

There will be food and cakes, workshop, ceramic painting, a Chess Palace Cup tournament for kids, an internet match in which juniors from Hungary play against juniors from the US. We want the visitors to leave the festival with the memory that this is something special, something worth remembering. We want them to say, “wow, chess is not boring, chess is fun, interesting”.

Chess has so many faces. Is it a game? A sport? Art? I think, chess is something special because it is an ancient game that millions of people still find interesting and inspiring. All kinds of people play chess: artists, film makers, hand crafters, etc. Events from the Global Chess Festival in Budapest will be shown LIVE in Hungarian and English, to give all those who cannot be in Budapest a chance to follow the festival.

MW: What are your long-term goals?

JP: I would like to show the 1000 different faces of chess, the enormous diversity of chess that makes it attractive for so many people.

MW: Do you hope to discover the next “wonderkid” while creating a truly global day of chess?

JP: I love that the people who come to the event enjoy themselves, smile and are happy. I believe this experience is one of the nicest and most precious things you can give because you will always remember how you felt. It is a great feeling that I can help to create these feelings of happiness through the game I love the most. I love the festival with all its details.

MW: How can chess organisers from all over the world join in?

JP: We offer a platform with the chessmap where you can join the chess community. Anybody who would like to organise an event on 8th October, the day of the Festival, can tell the world on our webpage. I would like to inspire clubs or small locations to share the events they organise to make them more visible.

MW: What message would you like to send?

JP: I would like to send the message that chess is something people love! And if chess is “served” nicely then it also appeals to people who do not play chess.

I would very much like to show young kids that chess is fun, that it is fun to think and fun to play, fun to challenge yourself, fun to be creative, that chess can be fun for the whole family and for different generations, that chess can be exciting and that chess is a great strategy game, a game that it is good to know because it is part of our culture. If chess is organised with creativity and merged with different elements it can be a fantastic game, wonderful, and a great social gathering for many people!

MW: Thank you for the interview!

As always it has been a great pleasure to catch up with the “first lady” of chess, Judit Polgar!

The official website of the festival: www.globalchessfestival.com

If you connect to the Festival you can take your place on the “chessmap”, you will receive interesting puzzles. Also, you can ask questions to Judit Polgar. She will be answering the most interesting questions in the LIVE coverage.

Postscript by Manuel Weeks:

For the readers interest I first met Judit as a ten year old when her family visited Australia and have seen her many times at various tournaments throughout the years. We are now talking around three decades! As a supporter of junior chess in Australia and around the world I would always support such worthy causes. For myself it really is true, I have met most of my closest friends over many years because of chess and now I can visit Judit in Budapest during her festival to show that the world is really a small place and chess can connect us all!



Manuel has been an international arbiter, a national coach at various world Juniors, a press officer, the Director of various tournaments and has been to eleven Olympiads as captain of the Australian Open team. Straight after the last Olympiad a small group went immediately from Tromso to Mainz to see Manuel get married to his lovely wife Brigitta. They live in London.
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weerogue weerogue 10/3/2016 10:16
Thanks a lot for this - very interesting article!
Scrolled down to see who had provided the answer to the Editors question and... there were no comments whatsoever! Perhaps just too many other interesting articles of late?
Anyway, great to hear from the legend J. Polgar.

...and I've got no idea about who the alluded-to 'hero' (who had a bad tournament, but won a crucial game) is!
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