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As ever, Judit Polgár’s timing is perfect. The only woman to have made a serious challenge in the previously male-dominated sport of chess, echoing certain elements of the Netflix smash mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, the Budapest-born child prodigy held the position of top woman’s player for 25 years (!) until her retirement in 2014.
During her time at the top, chess has moved from its lofty echelons to a more inclusive approach today, connecting generations and continents to solve problems over the chessboard, virtually or in the living room.
“I’ve heard so many stories recently of people returning to chess years later,” Judit Polgár tells We Love Budapest. “Especially during lockdown, when people were either playing online or bringing out the chessboard at home. I’m always hearing, ‘My grandfather taught me how to play’”.
Another recent factor in the transformation to democratise this age-old game is the runaway success of a fictional chess drama on Netflix, the most-watched scripted mini-series on the network. But long before Anya Taylor-Joy was winning Golden Globes, Judit Polgár was taking on and beating Boris Spassky in the ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel in Budapest in 1993.
The Queen's Gambit
“Chess has always had a wide base of people who play it,” says Judit. “but The Queen’s Gambit has given it a huge international push, which can only be a positive thing”.
In many ways, Judit was an unwitting pioneer and figurehead, a role that came about more due to the stuffy milieu of the chess world pre-Polgár – her effect on the global game justifies the epithet – than any deliberate strategy on her part.
“It just so happened that me being a role model paved the way for others,” is how she puts it.
The daughter of two pedagogues who
rejected state education for their children for intense home-school tuition in
chess, languages and higher mathematics, Judit and her two sisters became
internationally famous. For some time, she and elder sibling Zsuzsa held the
top two spots in the women’s chess world rankings.
The real revolution came at the 1988 Chess Olympiad in Salonika, when the Polgárs were refused permission to compete in the men’s tournament but swept the board in the women’s.
Thereafter, Judit challenged grandmasters and world champions at various invitational games and tournaments around the world, from Garry Kasparov in Spain in 1994 to Nigel Short on the Isle of Lewis in 1995. It was around this time that she became the first woman to break into the overall chess top ten.
Nature or nurture?
“The way my parents raised me allowed me to excel in a male-dominated sport,” she says. Judit’s upbringing also provided her with a wider world view, which she brings to the table with the Global Chess Festival.
“I’d like people to experience chess In a different way,” she says, “for it to be like PE in schools, but helping children use their brains for visualising situations and problem-solving, so they can bring these skills into other situations”.
The Global Chess Festival Judit started in 2014 has since snowballed into a major event. This year’s takes place on Saturday, 9 October, in the prestigious location of the Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle. The event is free and welcome to all.
It also forms part of Chess Connects Us, taking place worldwide from Cyprus to Nepal, and Belarus to Uruguay.
“Chess is not only for the chessboard,” explains Judit, whose presentation of her own method of teaching kids how to play the game is the curtain-raising event this Saturday. This involves a life-size chess playground, which allows participants to develop their creative thinking while learning how one piece moves and takes another.
This is only the most visually striking of
a more rounded approach to chess play as a form of education, now gaining
traction in schools and nurseries.
For the Global Chess Festival, games, presentations, talks, exhibitions and discussions also feature, in an English-friendly fashion. Speakers include Indian engineer Ashwin Subramanian, who sheds light on the little-known subject of biofeedback tools for chess players, and Israeli writer Noam Manella, whose book Creative Code helps readers awaken their dormant creativity.
Meanwhile, Budapest has been chosen to host the 2024 world Chess Olympiad. A century after the first tournament was held in Paris, real-time visual broadcasts, holograms and special chessboards for the visually impaired will now feature for the first time.
“We have a huge tradition here and there’s nearly always a Hungarian in the top world rankings,” says Judit. “It’s important that we bring through the next generation.”