Judit Polgar: the greatest prodigy ever

by Albert Silver
8/15/2014 – Judit Polgar's announced retirement from chess competitions at the 41st Chess Olympiad marks the end of an era the likes of which none could foresee, but that galvanized women chess for all time. She did not simply break the barriers of a highly prejudiced establishment, she shattered them with records that no male has come close to. Here is a profile with videos of her greatest triumphs.

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Her eldest sister, Susan Polgar, was the first female player to challenge the gender-biased establishment, culminating in one of the oddest and most controversial moments in FIDE history: the notorious 100 Elo gift to all women minus Susan. Despite reaching the summit of women ratings in 1986, Susan was still not seriously competitive with the top male players, allowing many men to still nurse their prejudices of an 'inherent male advantage'. This all changed in 1988 and 1989.

In 1988, at the Thessaloniki Olympiad, Hungary revamped the entire women's team with a lineup that consisted of Susan Polgar, Judit Polgar, Sofia Polgar, and Ildiko Madl, amidst enormous fanfare. The team was dubbed 'Polgary' by the press, and prior to the start was met with no small amount of curiosity and skepticism by many who viewed it as more of a publicity stunt.

Eduard Gufeld, Soviet GM and team coach for the Soviet women's team, dismissed the Polgars. "I believe that these girls are going to lose a good part of their quickly acquired image in the 28th Olympiad", he said. "Afterward we are going to know if the Hungarian sisters are geniuses or just women!"

Judit was rated 2365 FIDE at the time, with ratings lists coming out every six months. She played on board two and by the end of the event, Gufeld and other detractors were left trying to remove their foot from their mouths. Not only did Hungary sweep the championship to take gold, but Judit Polgar's flabbergasting 12.5/13 result was good for a 2694 performance, and she was barely twelve years old. To better put this in perspective, you need to realize that in 1988, only two players in the world had even 2700 ratings: Kasparov and Karpov.

Video footage of Judit Polgar and her sisters at the 1988 Olympiad 

This and further results, propelled the pre-pubescent to stratospheres never seen before in chess history, making her the greatest prodigy the game has ever seen. This claim is not made idly, and takes into account names such as Capablanca, Reshevsky and even Karjakin, the youngest grandmaster in FIDE history. Capablanca is famous for becoming Cuban champion at age twelve, a title that is somewhat disputed by chess historians, but even so, this did not make him one of the top players in the world. Reshevsky was a noted master at a very young age, beating first category players in simuls even, but would only realize his potential further down the road. The great Karjakin is the best documented challenger to the title of greatest prodigy, having achieved a 2500+ rating at age twelve, and the grandmaster title, but it wasn't until 2005, at age fifteen, that he broke into the Top 100 since by then the minimum rating had inflated to 2600 and there were over a dozen players rated 2700. This is where Judit's precociousness is most visible.

In January 1989, FIDE published its newest ratings list topped by Garry Kasparov with 2775, Anatoly Karpov with 2750, Nigel Short in third at 2650, and down at no.57 in the world was... twelve-year-old Judit Polgar, rated 2555, and the first and only female for 25 years, to break into the Top 100 players. Not only did she never leave the Top 100, but later would break into the Top Ten players. The idea that a woman could not compete with the world's best was shattered forever.

In 1990, Polgary was once again at the fore, and though many had hoped to see Judit playing in the men's team, the FIDE rule forbidding women from participating in men's team competitions was still in effect, another residue of sports misogyny. FIDE was hardly unique though, even at such a late date, as can be attested by the very first inclusion of the Women's marathon in the Olympic Games in 1984. Before that, excuses had been made that women were either too weak, or that running such a distance might lead to fatal results. In chess, it took Judit Polgar to start trampling the prejudices with a stream of results that could not be ignored. Not only did Hungary take the team gold, but all three Polgar sisters won the individual gold medals for best board one, best board two and best board three.

A video of the Polgar sisters at the 1990 Olympiad in Novi Sad

In 1991, Judit broke a record that had stood since 1959: Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest grandmaster ever. Though this was later broken by others, Judit was the first to do so in the 32 years it had stood. Obviously, she was of grandmaster strength long before, since she had never left the Top 100 in the three years since she entered it, and it was fitting that she was the first to set a new standard for chess precociousness.

A commented game of one of Judit's great wins, her brilliancy with black over Alexei Shirov in 1994

In January 1996, another barrier came tumbling down as the 19-year-old Hungarian appeared on the FIDE ratings list at the number ten spot with 2675 Elo, thus becoming the first woman to become a Top Ten player.

 

In 1998, Judit played an eight-game match against Anatoly Karpov, the FIDE World Champion. The games
were at 30 minutes, and she beat Karpov 5-3.

In 2000, playing for the 'male' Hungarian team at the Olympiads in Istanbul, she played on board three and scored 10.0/13 for a 2772 performance, just barely missing out on the Bronze in both the team medal and individual. At the 2002 Olympiad held in Bled, Judit was moved to second board, and there she scored 8.5/12 taking bronze for second board, and more importantly was Hungary's key weapon to take silver for its greatest result in over twenty years.

 

In their silver medal win in 2002, the Hungarian team defeated the almighty Russians led by Kasparov

Prejudices are slow to break and even Garry Kasparov, who was once confronted about his derisive views on women chess players with Judit's example, commented her success was because she played chess 'like a man'. That said, in 2001, at the elite Linares double round-robin invitational with Kasparov, Karpov, Shirov, Grischuk and Lékó, Polgár drew both her games with Kasparov, the first time in her career she had done this under tournament time controls, and in 2002, in the Russia versus the Rest of the World Match, Polgar finally defeated Garry Kasparov in a game. The game helped the World team win the match 52–48, and was historic as it was the first time in chess history that a female player beat the world's No. 1 player in competitive play.

A video of Judit Polgar during the Russia vs Rest of the World, including her historic win over Garry Kasparov 

In January 2003, Judit became the first woman to break 2700, in fourteenth place, but she was on a roll and by January 2004 she had moved to number eight with 2722, and finally, in July 2005 she raised her rating to 2735, her highest ever. This was in spite of having given birth to her first son, Oliver, a year earlier in 2004.

In 2003, she also scored one of her best results, by coming clear second at Wijk aan Zee, half a point behind Anand, but ahead of Kramnik, Grischuk, Topalov, Karpov, Ivanchuk, Radjabov, Ponomariov, and many others. Although she certainly won some less prestigious events outright, by coming ahead of so many giants in chess, it was further evidence that there was room for women at the very top.

 

In her game against Anatoly Karpov, she unleashed a novelty found at the board and won a great game.
Here she analyzes her game in the post mortem for the audience. This is part one.

 

Here is part two of her analysis of her win over Karpov

In 2011, despite a considerable drop in chess activity over the preceding years, she once more showed the depth of her class by playing in the European Individual Championship, the Open division, with no fewer than 167 grandmasters, and came tied for first with three others. On tiebreak Vladimir Potkin took gold, Radoslaw Wojtaszek took silver, and Judit Polgar took bronze. 

 

Judit's tie for first place at the European Championship represented yet another gender barrier going down

In a singularly fitting fond farewell, at the 2014 Chess Olympiad, her last competition, Hungary came in second, for her second team silver.

 

For the last several years, the Polgar sisters have spearheaded a fantastic chess bonanza called the
Aquaprofit-Polgar Chess Festival, designed to promote chess in glorious fashion. See the video.

Videos from Judit Polgar's official YouTube channel




Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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Patzerking Patzerking 12/7/2015 02:15
"It' s well known that men have an 11% bigger brain and are simply much, much better at not only chess but all other mental pursuits. "
Sickest argument ever. Elephants have bigger brains too, coz their body is larger. I am far far from a radical feminist supporter, but your ignorance and lack of understanding how tradition and culture selects 99% men to science, chess etc, seems to prove sensational fact that among us men some can write without using the brain at all. Like you.
Najdork Najdork 8/17/2014 02:30
Lol GM title means nothing, she was no.57 in the world.
KevinC KevinC 8/17/2014 02:04
Najdork, that is not true at all. Karjakin was the youngest GM ever at 12, and Carlsen 2nd youngest at the time. She was not nearly as strong as they were...nice try though.
Najdork Najdork 8/16/2014 01:58
It's probably true that at 12 she would have kicked Carlsen's, Kasparov's and Karjakin's butt.
jackjill jackjill 8/15/2014 11:38
Or Kasparov.....
jackjill jackjill 8/15/2014 11:36
Biggest propaganda article ever : yes !

Best women chess player in history so far : yes!

Biggest prodigy : no!

That would probably be Carlsen who has Elo 1 universal rating since age 19........that might be the biggest prodigy ever.......him or Fischer!
VileCircuit VileCircuit 8/15/2014 10:41
What happened to Tania Sachdev's interview, immediately after her game? lol
Judit...as the goat? Nope.
rijslaav rijslaav 8/15/2014 08:31
I am in love with Judith
DoctorMove DoctorMove 8/15/2014 06:16
This is my favorite of Judit games, which she played at the age of 11!
I have used it for lessons many times. Note the opening pawn sacrifice and 9.e5! and of course the sweet combination at the end.

Polgar, J - Angelova-Chilingirova, P [B31] Sicilian Defense

Thessaloniki ol, 1988

1.e2-e4 c7-c5 2.Ng1-f3 Nb8-c6 3.Bf1-b5 g7-g6 4.0-0 Bf8-g7 5.c2-c3 e7-e5 6.d2-d4 e5xd4 7.c3xd4 Nc6xd4 8.Nf3xd4 c5xd4 9.e4-e5 Ng8-e7 10.Bc1-g5 0-0 11.Qd1xd4 Ne7-c6 12.Qd4-h4 Qd8-b6 13.Nb1-c3 Bg7xe5 14.Ra1-e1 Be5xc3 15.b2xc3 Qb6xb5 16.Qh4-h6 Qb5-f5 17.Qh6xf8+ 1-0
jefferson jefferson 8/15/2014 05:36
"It' s well known that men have an 11% bigger brain and are simply much, much better at not only chess but all other mental pursuits.

So there is no 'prejudice', there is just realism."

While the reason women don't excel at chess to the degree men do is not fully known, implying this is because men's brains are larger is an irrelevant red herring. Intelligence scores of men and women have been converging for a few decades now and are virtually equal in many developed countries, as women are allowed to participate more fully in intellectually demanding pursuits and occupations, which seems to make a big difference. I know you and your ilk think this is being "politically correct", but the reality is closer to the reverse, as being PC is more about defending ideology that flies in the face of evidence, whether to the right or left. The only reality here is that your misogynist, antiquated viewpoint is anti-science, unempirical, and capable of causing great harm to our game by making it ugly and unappealing to half the world's population.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 8/15/2014 04:43
A pretty good tribute to Polgar is marred noticeably by some rather mean-spirited against the so-called biased establishment, prejudiced against her. The Polgars have been media darlings (deservedly so) since they first appeared.

The "100 Points to Every Woman Except Susan" incident obviously had nothing to do with her gender (all the players who got the points were women!), it was an attempt to keep Maia Chiburdanidze on top of the rating list (the article omits this).

The chess world as a whole has always been eager for increased female participation, and gone through a lot of undeserved self-flagellation over the fact that women tend to prefer Bridge to chess (my Bridge Master/chessplaying friends assure me that the two games are about equally complex, but Bridge is more social).

It's a shame that Albert Silver himself couldn't look past her gender and tout her accomplishments without trying to turn her a victim, in need of his protection.
KevinC KevinC 8/15/2014 03:35
While certainly great, and while certainly the strongest woman player, I don't agree for one second that she is the greatest prodigy.
Fischer won the U.S. Championship at age 14 at a time when players developed much later, and often were not even allowed into clubs due to their young age. He also did it without the help of computers.
Kasparov was the youngest ever (at least at that time) to play in the highest level of the Soviet Championship at 15. Kasparov's first ever provisional FIDE rating was 2595, making him 15th in the world! That still blows my mind: First rating makes you 15th in the world! (Yes, I said that twice).
Even Carlsen can claim to have been more prodigious.
lecganesan@yahoo.co.in lecganesan@yahoo.co.in 8/15/2014 02:58
if hou yifan is given as many opportunities as it was given to judit, she too will prove herself as the worthy successor/ why she can overshadow judit!
remember, she won the gibralter open a few years back/ and the best woman prize ahead of judit
and free flowing is her chess, which got her world titles at will, an indication of her prodigious talent!
ChessHulk ChessHulk 8/15/2014 01:57
Nice retrospective! Thanks for putting this together!
Camembert Camembert 8/15/2014 12:24
Does anybody know if her father's book "Geniuses are made, not born" has been translated from hungarian into english ?
Anthony Migchels Anthony Migchels 8/15/2014 11:12
Sad, this feminist hate speech article.

Endless blathering about 'gender bias' and 'prejudice'......

It' s well known that men have an 11% bigger brain and are simply much, much better at not only chess but all other mental pursuits.

So there is no 'prejudice', there is just realism.

Judith was a great exception, a remarkable woman with a remarkable father, and once in a while there will be more women who manage to compete with men.

But they will remain exceptions, because as long as chess is not destroyed with affirmative action by the feminists, it will remain one of the last true meritocracies on the planet.
VGerber VGerber 8/15/2014 11:01
"Yes, it’s true, we don’t like her obtrusive sister, but we say Namasté bowing down to Judit Polgar who announced her retirement from competitive chess. Just like a good Taoist she understands to be one with the natural flow, to let go at the right moment without clinging to her position in the chess world, to practise real wu wei – strong move of a strong woman. Respect!
At the same time we have to admit that we are extremely proud of the current world champion and the future Number One in Women’s Chess Yifan Hou. With her unique and pure personality she will write a completely new chapter in the history of chess. Looking at the rating lists the changing of the guard was imminent anyway.
Who knows, maybe the door will remain open for a match between these two great personalities who deeply respect each other – preferably organized outside the FIDE realm with Western sponsors in a metropolis like Berlin, Paris or New York, especially for all those who don’t like the venues and the funds of the Kremlin and the Russian oligarchs."
Taken from www.yifanhou.net
alnoth alnoth 8/15/2014 09:13
oh yeah, garry DID let go of that knight :D
thlai80 thlai80 8/15/2014 07:52
A piece tribute to Judit cannot be complete without the mention of the controversial touch move game with Kasparov at Linares 94. Before Judit, there was Vera Menchik who had fought against legends of her time. After Judit, heir apparent is Hou Yifan, but still yet to be fully proven unless she breaks to the world top 10 as well as beat the world champion of her time, at least once in a game.
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