CHESS Magazine: Judit Polgar on life as a Super-GM mom

by ChessBase
8/12/2011 – When Lars Grahn asked Judit Polgar eleven years ago, as she was about to get married to her boyfriend Gustav, if she thought it was possible to combine family life with a chess career at top level, and she told him she would let me know when she had some experience of it. Eleven years and two children later Judit replied provided the answer in an in-depth interview in CHESS Magazine.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

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Judit Polgar

The world number one woman player talks to Lars Grahn

When I met Judit Polgar eleven years ago in Malmö, Sweden, she was about to get married to her boyfriend Gustav. I asked her if she thought it was possible to combine family life with a chess career at top level, and she told me that she would let me know when she had some experience of it.

Eleven years later we met again. She spent a couple of days in Italy as a guest of honour at the Lido Adriano Open. We were sitting on the hotel terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and I had the impression that fashion houses had entered the chess world: Magnus Carlsen and G-Star, and Judit wearing a smart costume from the Airfield collection.

I reminded her of my question about combining family life and career. She remembered my concerns and smiled...

“Well, it is very difficult, that’s for sure. When my son Oliver was born – he is now six and a half – I was already very much looking forward to his arrival. I had been planning that for quite some time with my husband.

Very shortly after Oliver was born I was playing in the world championship in San Luís. I wanted to have everything, and chesswise it wasn’t really possible. I thought I could manage it, but 23 months later my daughter Hanna was born and then everything really kind of fell apart, even though I have had help with my children from day one from grandparents and nannies.

First of all, my priorities in life and in my mind definitely changed. I didn’t have the same interest in chess as I had before. Obviously I can’t blame my kids for the fact that I dropped my rating, that I fell from number ten to number fifty on the world rating list.

Now when they are older and we have got used to each other’s life styles and routines I see that I’m coming back, especially with my achievement in the European Championship. I’m very happy with my games. So I’m kind of back, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it’s possible to get back to the very top. In every sport – and chess is no exception – you have to work a lot, you have to compete a lot, you have to focus a thousand per cent. But when doing the right things in family matters, you mathematically have less time. Besides I have other interests, like writing books.

I’ve written a chess book for children, a work book based on first moves [in positions]. My sister Sofia has done the graphics. I’m interested in promoting chess amongst children. I implemented chess as a compulsory subject in the English-speaking kindergarten where my son and daughter go. It’s twice a week with the older children and once a week with the younger.

So I’m taking a different direction in the chess world. Even if I’m not as successful as before from a rating point of view, my life is somehow broader and I have other things coming up for the future. But I still enjoy chess: that’s why I compete, though not as much as eleven years ago. My next competition will probably be in July in Greece, the Greek Team Championships, only a few games. The World Team Championships will take place in China in July and I hope that our team will be able to travel there. Then it’s the World Cup in August”.

Eleven years ago you told me that you played 50-70 games a year.

Especially in 2000 I played quite a lot. I doubt that it will be 70 this year, but maybe close to 50. Maybe four or five tournaments, probably closer to 40 games than 50. But it’s not easy. It’s not only that I go away for weeks from my family, I obviously also have to do my daily training.

Did you expect the excellent score in the European Championship? Did you feel that you had it coming?

No, but I never felt like that in my life. Obviously it was very nice, especially the second half of the event and my game against Pantsulaia in round seven in particular. Clearly, the work I’ve done in the last one and a half years paid off.

Did you make some extra preparations for this tournament?

No. Somehow I was playing freely and things worked out for me.

Did you have a second?

My husband. (laughs)

So you normally don’t work with seconds?

It very rarely happens that I go with a second. Usually my husband accompanies me.

When did your children have their first chess lessons?

About a year ago.

Do you take an active part in the kindergarten?

I don’t teach there. Basically they use a text book. A chess teacher comes to school and teaches them.

If in the future your children would like to walk in your footsteps and become chess professionals – would you support that idea?

Well, in general my husband and I will support anything that they are hooked on and really enjoy a lot. We would probably give total support, but of course it’s a serious decision. Right now I don’t see that any of them are specially focusing on chess – or anything else yet. But on the other hand I’m not pushing them, I’m not working on the fact every day like my parents did with us to focus on chess. But for me it was of course kind of obvious as my sisters played already on a daily basis. It was natural for me.

Chess must have given you a lot, you can’t have any regrets about your choice?

I’m not regretting that I became a chess player and the kind of life I have, but you have to have many things to be able to live this life successfully. The child must love it and be talented, the parents must support it and give up a lot for that. I don’t want to take the responsibility to push my kids into chess and give up my own profession, because I just don’t think that in my case it’s the right decision. So I want to wait till something really appeals to my kids. Maybe it’s something they will not be successful in, at least not at a very young age.

Back in 2004 I had a talk with Magnus Carlsen’s mother Sigrun. She voiced roughly the same view as you. If he is enjoying it, fine, let him do it. If he isn’t enjoying it, he can do something else. They were not pushing him.

It’s a liberal way of thinking. I see Magnus, I’ve met his father and got the same impression. It’s Magnus’ choice. Actually that’s the key to his success, I think.

It seems as if Kasparov is not happy with Magnus having different interests, like fashion. But he was of course brought up in the Soviet chess school.

He grew up in a different way and was extremely focused on chess. There were quite a few people in his camp focusing him in that direction. It has its good and bad sides, if you have some people around pushing you to achieve things.

I’m pretty sure that Magnus will be successful all the way, and if he isn’t going to go on, it will be his decision. He is responsible for his achievements, motivating and pushing himself to go forward. Now, it’s also his choice to do other things and not spend so much time on chess. I remember when Simen Agdestein came to me when I was playing in Benidorm 2002 and said: ”You know, I’m teaching a very talented kid. His name is Magnus Carlsen. Remember his name because you’re gonna hear of that guy later on.” (laughs)

After all, he seems to be enjoying what he is doing.

It’s kind of logical that if previously he wasn’t very social, now that side of life has become more interesting to him. He has opened up to the outside world, and it shows in his results, especially in some games, like some games he played in the Olympiad, that he is not so focused at the moment. But maybe some day he will have another change of mind and he’ll say to himself, ”OK, now I’m gonna be a World Champion” and he goes for it. But then again, life is not only about results.

What do you think about his decision not to play in the world championship cycle?

It’s his decision. To be honest I don’t understand it, but I understand the fact that he is not very happy with the way FIDE in general is doing things. From that point of view I agree. On the other hand this is his chance and even if he didn’t achieve it this time it would’ve been a great experience for him. But everybody makes their choice. You never know, maybe in the next cycle he will go and win. Nobody knows.

I was present when you and your sisters played in the Hungarian team in Saloniki 1988. Was that your last women’s tournament?

We also played in the 1990 Olympiad and won the gold medals again. I played in the World Under-16 Championship for girls when I was ten. So altogether I’ve played three women tournaments in my life. Then I’ve played some ladies in open tournaments.

Do you think there will come a time when you play in a women tournament again?

I don’t know if it’s gonna be a big challenge. You never know.

It’s all about the challenge?

Well, it’s kind of funny that as a woman I’ve achieved practically everything in the chess world at the highest level, but the [women’s] world championship title I never got. I never won it, never competed for it and wasn’t really interested.

In the last five to ten years it’s clear that the mentality of a couple of women players have changed. You see it in China: the players get financial support and chess has become a respected sport. Money support is essential but respect is also very important. They say: your sporting achievement is valuable. It’s not like in the States where they say: ”What do you do? Chess, OK, but what’s your profession?” In such an atmosphere it’s simply difficult to be successful and be professional for many years. In countries like China, and also Russia (e.g. the Kosintseva sisters and Kosteniuk), they have very serious trainers. If you have that with daily training and talent as well, obviously it makes a difference. The attitude is much more professional than before amongst the top lady players.

Lars Grahn with Judit Polgar in Ravenna, Italy

So back to your question: if I get an extremely nice offer just to play for the title, then maybe I’d consider it and take it as a challenge. I don’t know, but I’m not saying I will never play.

It’s not a holy principle not to play in women events?

It’s not a principle. It’s funny that media write about me as a title holder. I’ve won many tournaments, the Chess Oscar, I have five gold medals, I beat Spassky, Karpov, I won the US Open, U12 and U14 World Championships for boys, and now my achievement in the European Championship. But in many magazines and papers they write: Judit Polgar, the World Champion. This is the only thing that objectively is not correct. (laughs)

OK, you can say that I’m the best women player of all times, but I’m not a world champion. But that’s of course just to keep things simple for their readers. It’s kind of funny, though, that I must explain to people that I’m not the world champion, although I’ve been leading the women’s rating list since 1989.

Do you see any girl at the moment with a potential to take over as the number one women player in the world?

The Chinese girls are extremely tough. Hou Yifan seems to be very serious, but maybe Humpy Koneru is somebody who will stay there for a long time. Actually, some of the Chinese girls seem to be quitting. Well, not completely, but, OK, Zhu Chen was world champion, but she is not in the top five any more.

I also think that it’s very difficult for a women to be up there for a long time. Even for a man, but especially for a woman with a family. You have to love chess very much and be successful. Your family have to be extremely supportive, and these thing are not very easy to combine.

When there are children in the family you sometimes get the impression that it’s easier for a man to continue with his chess career.

But if you really look into it it’s not perfect for them either. Obviously for a man, somehow in general it’s much more natural to go away and leave the kids behind for weeks, but it’s also because they have more opportunities than ladies, who have to be very good. And ladies seldom like to have this lifestyle after starting a family. If your priorities change and you don’t have your fighting spirit any more, it clearly damages your professional attitude.

Some time ago we had Gaprindashvili and then Chiburdanidze, but in Georgia chess was such a respected sport. They were like gods. The moral support was much more important than the financial support, they really felt they were doing something special for their country.

Gaprindashvili was an extremely good player. Even now, when she plays from time to time, she still shows that she is really good. Pia Cramling has been good all the time, and it seems that, except for the time when she had her child, she has also competed and played well. But OK, I think that she loves chess very much, that’s why she continues. Her husband is a chess player and they go to tournaments together. I heard that their daughter is playing in tournaments already, so of course this way it’s possible to continue. She is enjoying it and the family is supportive.

Postscript: the day after the interview came the news that Viswanathan Anand had become a father. How will that influence his chess career?

View or download the PDF of this review in CHESS Magazine

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  • Congratulations and happy birthday, Judit!
    24.07.2006 – Goodness, how time flies! Seems like yesterday we were playing table-tennis with the pre-teen Judit Polgar, and now she has turned thirty and given birth to her second child Hanna, who entered the world at 3.5 kilos two weeks ago. Judit remains by far the strongest female player in the history of the game. Portrait and pictures.

  • Happy Birthday Judit!
    23.07.2003 – Today one of the great chess personalities of our day is celebrating her 27th birthday. Judit Polgar is the strongest female player – by a long margin – in the history of the game. She is number 11 in the world men's rankings and 215 points higher than the number two ranked woman. Here is a personal tribute to this remarkable young lady.

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