By Ethan Sanitt
There’s one scene in The Queen’s Gambit when Beth Harmon enters her first tournament, the Kentucky State Championship. After she walks into the hall and up to the front desk, one of the organisers asks Harmon whether she has a rating. She says she doesn’t, and the arbiters point her to the section they think she should be playing in. Harmon ignores them, and signs up for the main Championship anyway.
According to Judit Polgar, the best female chess player ever, this wouldn’t have happened. “Obviously it was a very nice series for chess, it was a very nice series showing development of a character”, Polgar says, but The Queen’s Gambit ignored how rife sexism often is in chess tournaments.
Beth Harmon would probably not have been treated as kindly as she was by the organisers of the Kentucky Championship, Polgar tells me. Instead, Harmon would have likely been told: “because you’re a girl, because you’re a woman, you don’t belong in the Open Section”, Polgar says.
Judit Polgar is probably the closest chess player there is to a real-life Beth Harmon. Raised as part of an unusual educational experiment carried out by her parents, Polgar was home-schooled and received chess tutoring along with her two sisters, Sofia and Susan. In her first international tournament, Polgar finished first in the unrated section of the New York Open, aged nine.
Polgar describes the sexism she encountered playing in her first tournaments. “Of course, when I was a kid, people said I was lucky, that they’d had a bad day.”
“So there were many excuses and I had to prove myself many more times than if I were a boy. But with time, I gained respect by playing again and again, performing again and again, winning against strong players again and again”.
Five years after the New York Open, in 1991, Polgar won the Hungarian National Championship and became the youngest-ever grandmaster, aged fifteen, breaking the American Bobby Fisher’s record by one month.
Then, in 2002, Polgar beat Garry Kasparov, which marked the first time that a female chess player had defeated the world number one.
“That moment was something special for me”, Polgar says. It was “not the final destination but [it was] a very big milestone in my career”.
‘‘There was a long road to it, not only chess-wise, but also mentally, psychologically”. “We’re going to make an NFT out of it”, Polgar adds. “We want to put it [out] there as a key moment for chess”.
At her peak, Polgar was ranked eighth in the world, and she remains the only woman to have broken into the top ten. Even though Polgar finally retired from top-level chess in 2014, she still commentates on matches and organises events.
Polgar’s Global Chess Festival, an annual event held in Budapest, Hungary, is clearly something that she is passionate about. “We want to show the diversity that chess can offer … As a sport, chess connects us, chess connects everybody.”
Besides this, Polgar has also worked to introduce chess as an educational tool, and has created the ‘Judit Polgar Method’, which is now part of the Hungarian National Curriculum. “You learn a lot about planning, about taking responsibility”, Polgar says. “You learn a lot by experiencing the battle”.
This week, the world champion, the Norweigan Magnus Carlsen is playing his challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, in the Chess World Championships. So what advice does Polgar have for Nepomniachtchi? Is there any way to beat Carlsen?
Polgar considers this. “The higher level you go the more difficult it gets, because the less holes, the less weaknesses the opponent has [in their play].”
“Nepomniachtchi … even if he has a worse position, he has to defend it to the last moment, he has to get ready to be tortured in some situations”.
Polgar also suggests that Nepomniachtchi should be aware of any opportunities he might have. “If he gets a chance, he has to notice it, because in a world championship match against Magnus Carlsen, you’re not going to be getting chances in every game”.
So will Carlsen keep his title? What odds would Polgar give for the match?
“I would say 60:40 to Magnus that he wins”. “He’s clearly the favourite”.
“Nepo [Ian Nepomniachtchi] cannot win the match without Magnus’ contribution”, Polgar says. “If Magnus is in good shape, there is not much chance for Nepo to win the match”.
Despite this, Polgar continues, Ian Nepomniachtchi should not be written off altogether. If Carlsen is “a little rusty”, she says, “then anything could happen […] I think it’s going to be a very interesting match”.