Friday, May 21, 2010
Texas Tech chess institute head Susan Polgar stresses game's importance during match with reporter
Posted: May 21, 2010 - 12:31am
By Matthew McGowan
Nobody expected it to be pretty.
She's a grandmaster, the highest honor a chess player can earn.
I occasionally challenge, and frequently lose to, strangers online.
She has won international acclaim and holds myriad world records.
I take pointers from 13-year-old amateurs in Sweden.
So who knows what I was thinking, challenging Susan Polgar to a game a chess.
Mental illness, perhaps. Or maybe hubris.
I like to think it was just another gauche act of daily journalism - you know, a work hazard.
But whatever the reason, I found myself sitting across a chess board from Susan Polgar on Wednesday morning.
Yeah. Call your bookies and place your bets, folks.
No surprises here. She won - twice.
Of course, I had no delusions of victory going into this thing, but I did have the faintest hope that maybe, just maybe, she would have to pause and think just once before moving a piece.
She didn't, as far as I could tell.
Polgar, one of the best players in the game's history, took no mercy. I watched helplessly as my pieces - my doomed minions - disappeared from the board.
The first game lasted only a few minutes, and even most of that passed during the question-and-answer pauses between moves.
Pretty soon my king was cowering in the back-left corner of the board, his entire posse helpless on the sidelines.
"Checkmate," Polgar smiled.
"Play again?" I asked.
My opponent nodded and we were off.
I put the notebook down and vowed to concentrate this time.
She immediately took me off guard and had her queen on the offensive.
The queen, as I understand it, is a piece used best in the middle- and end-phases of the game.
But Polgar undoubtedly knows all the strategic norms ... which means she's allowed to break them.
Her white queen shirked my pawns and landed deep behind my lines, where she took my rook - so much for my counterattack! - in seconds.
Within minutes, my king was again cornered. Then came the second checkmate.
You may not know it just by looking at Polgar - soft-spoken and patient with constantly calculating eyes - but she's one of the most skilled chess players in the world.
She made history in Pamplona, Spain, on Jan. 1, 1991, when she became the first woman to earn a grandmaster title on men's terms. Her title, she said, gave women access to what had historically been a boys club.
Natural, raw talent? I wondered.
No, she said. A lot of hard work.
"One of the main ingredients of success is to be motivated and driven, in addition to knowledge," she continued.
Polgar came across a chess set as a bored 4-year-old in search of "a new toy." She vaguely remembers that day, she now says, but she brought it to her mother - a school teacher in their home town of Budapest, Hungary - and asked if she could show her how to play.
Her mother had never played, so the young Polgar waited for her father, now a retired psychologist, to come home and teach her.
He was delighted, she said, that his daughter had taken an interest.
It took her less than a year to become Budapest's youth champion. She won her first world title at the age of 12. By 15, she ranked as the No. 1 female player in the world.
And that, she said, is the beauty of chess. No matter their color, gender, socio-economic status or age, anybody can play.
"That's one of the best things about chess," she said. "It's an equalizer between all those things. I enjoyed the feeling that I could play with grown men and I could have a fair game."
My own introduction to chess also came at a young age. I was no older than 5 years old when my father called me into his study, where he was puffing on his pipe and staring down at a peculiar array of little wooden figurines.
It didn't take me long to appreciate the dazzling choreography of the game. The knights and their L-shaped tracks. The bishops and long-range diagonal threat. The helpless king. The henchmen-like rooks on the flanks. The eight pawns - they're the grunts.
And then there's the queen, the doomsday weapon with unrestricted motion.
Mastering all the dynamics takes time, study and plenty of practice.
I played a few tournaments back in grade school, but not much since, I told my opponent, except for a few quick games online or chance game against an acquaintance.
"It's never too late to start again," Polgar, always the educator and advocate, reminded me without pause.
I surveyed the board and nodded, "You're absolutely right."
Chess is, after all, hard not to love. To me, it's the perfect game - a potent combustion of space, motion and wit.
According to the U.S. Chess Federation, the game's roots stretch back some 1,400 years to ancient India. Persian merchants brought it to Europe in the 11th century, where some of the eastern pieces were renamed to fit western norms - bishop, queen, etc. - but their range of motion was still restricted, thus slowing the game and blunting its intensity.
Then, in Europe in the 15th century, the game Polgar and I played this week was born when the rules were changed to allow longer movement ranges. This, in turn, unbridled a faster pace of play and yielded more excitement.
Nobody knows exactly who, or which group, was responsible for the major changes all those centuries ago, but they clearly hit the mark.
Today, the game is played by millions, but it's still mostly a men's game.
Women comprise between 3 and 5 percent of U.S. Chess Federation members, according to the group's numbers.
That's one of Polgar's priorities today.
She moved to New York City from Budapest in 1994 and began touring the country on exhibition tours and lecture circuits. She even came through Lubbock in 2005, where the seeds of Texas Tech's Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) were planted.
She returned as a commencement speaker in May 2007, when the university announced it would create the institute.
Polgar knew Tech was offering a "one-of-a-kind" opportunity through SPICE, so she moved to the Hub City with her two sons, now ages 9 and 11 (and, yes, they both play chess).
She has also written several books on the game and coaches Tech's team, which has won many national and even international titles under her guidance.
But there's more work to do, she said. The game has yet to find a broader pop-culture foothold.
If poker can land a television slot, she said, why not chess?
"Certainly, chess has the merits and worthiness to make it popular," she said. "Unfortunately, we haven't it made it there yet, but I believe it's only a matter of time."
Source: Avalanche Journal