Polgar and Hou on BBC The Conversation

by Macauley Peterson
7/3/2018 – The two best female players of all time recently came together for The Conversation, a BBC podcast interview. They spoke about their respective chess careers as the best women in the sport, the challenges they each faced, and how they chose to transition away from dedicated competition. These are subjects both have dealt with often before, but rarely have the two come together for a direct back-and-forth conversation like this.

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Girls and women in chess

The 27-minute interview with the BBC's Kim Chakanetsa centres around the perennial question: Why don't more women reach the position you have?

Polgar notes that she had a practically unique chess education, being homeschooled from the age of 5 years with the objective of reaching the highest levels of chess. By the age of 8 or 9, she was playing all or most of the day.

Hou also emphasises hard work and having a strong competitive mindset but also opportunities in terms of coaching and chances to play, as well as the importance of achieving early success in tournaments. That opened the way for her to gain further opportunities. Contrary to Judit's upbringing, while Yifan's dad lobbied for her to learn chess, initially her mother wanted her to learn something “more suitable for girls, like dancing.”

Polgar notes that when she beat her first grandmaster at the age of 11, she was told that he did not take it well — going so far as to bang his head against an elevator door after losing. She doesn't specify in the interview, but the first GM she beat was the German player Lev Gutman in 1987 in a spectacular Sicilian attacking game:


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Polgar attributes her unique success, reaching the top ten, to the attitude imparted by her parents from an early age, and the fact she eschewed women-only events in favour of always playing against the toughest opposition. "When you put your goals higher then you can reach higher as well."

"Unfortunately there are no other female players who are even in the top 100, and this is a very serious issue and everybody is trying to get an explanation, even women chess players themselves."

Other topics discussed include Polgar's early attempt to play for Hungary in the chess Olympiad in 1992, Hou's throwing a game in protest in Gibraltar 2017, Nigel Short's views on women reaching the elite level, the relative merits of women-only events, and the role that chess played and continues to play in their respective lives.

Polgar: “It also gave me so much that I became the person who I am — I’m very open, tolerant, curious, and I think it’s very important that I got all this."

Listen to the full interview.

What does it take for a woman to excel in the ruthlessly competitive, male-dominated world of chess? Kim Chakanetsa meets two outstanding female players from Hungary and China to find out.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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