St. Louis feels like home to Hungarian native Susan Polgar, the four-time Women’s World Chess Champion. “There is a nice metropolitan feel to St. Louis. There are more things to do, the people here are very nice, and the nearby hills and rivers remind me of home,” she says.
Born in Budapest in 1969, Polgar came to the United States in her mid-20s. Prior to St. Louis, she and her family lived Lubbock, Texas, for five years and in New York City for 13 years. Last year, Polgar moved her collegiate chess team and the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence program from Texas Tech University to Webster University.
Polgar says the board game has helped brighten her world and break the barriers she faced regarding age, gender, national politics and economics. “Chess is a miniature version of life,” she explains. “To be successful, you need to be disciplined, assess resources, consider responsible choices and adjust when circumstances change.”
Polgar picked up her first chess piece at the age of 4; and with her parents financing her chess education, she won her first tournament a few months later in Hungary, a Communist country in the former Soviet Union. The differences between her native country and the one she now calls home were not lost on Polgar. She notes that while Americans had abundance and could travel freely, people in the Soviet Union had plenty of restrictions. For instance, whereas all American homes were equipped with multiple phone lines, she says, “Few people in the Soviet Union even had telephones.” It was the same scenario for televisions. So while Americans enjoyed MLB and NFL games, people in Communist countries enjoyed chess.
The good chess players were groomed to be national representatives, and were allowed to travel throughout the Soviet Union and overseas to compete in tournaments. “Neighbors made a big deal of people returning home from a trip,” recalls Polgar, who began to view chess was an equalizer, of sorts. “I was a tiny girl of 4, playing and winning against people three to four times older or bigger than me,” she says. “It didn’t matter that we spoke different languages.”
By 1986, Polgar qualified to complete in the Men’s World Chess Championship Tournament, but officials prevented her from entering the competition. “My presence at the tournament belied its name,” she explains. The conflict eventually forced the World Chess Federation, the organization that regulates the tournament, to allow women to compete for the championship.
In 1991, Polgar became the first woman to earn the highest title in chess—Grandmaster—by achieving the specified standards. “That was a fulfilling experience because for years, a lot of people said that I couldn’t become a Grandmaster because I was a woman,” she says.
Polgar credits her parents for her success, saying they shielded her from society’s then-prevailing sentiments, sacrificed vacations and hard-earned money to pay for chess coaches, and instilled in her the belief that all people are born with equal ability and potential. “They told me that if I had the passion and put in the hours of work, then I should be as good as any man.”
After giving birth to her first child in 1999, Polgar retired from competitive play. But she came out of retirement in 2003 to achieve a few remaining goals, namely: for all children to benefit from playing chess, to use chess as a tool to improve education, to attract more women to the game and to raise its popularity in America. The next year, Polgar joined the U.S Women’s national chess team, winning two personal gold medals and helping the U.S. team secure the silver medal in the 2004 Chess Olympiad in Spain.
Since then, Polgar has patiently built the foundation to attain her goals. She won the Women’s World Chess Cup for the U.S in 2006, set a few international chess records, and developed the top-ranked college chess team in the nation, moving the program to St. Louis seven months ago. Webster University is one of few colleges offering full or partial college scholarships for chess players. Currently, there are 40 students under the Grandmaster’s wing at Webster. “That’s pretty good—after being in St. Louis for only one summer.”