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What Makes You So Smart, Greatest Female Chess Player of All Time?

Noah Davis talks to Judit Polgár about her unusual upbringing, her relationship with her sisters, and why hard work checkmates intelligence.
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(Photo: Judit Polgár)

(Photo: Judit Polgár)

Judit Polgár is the best female chess player in history. She is the only woman to reach the Elo ranking of 2,700, and she held the number one ranking for women between 1989 and this past March. Polgár and her two sisters, Susan and Sofia, spent their childhood under the watchful and intense tutelage of their father, László, who was convinced he could develop their skills to an otherworldly level. Judit, who currently runs the Judit Polgár Chess Foundation for Educational Benefits and recently completed the three-volume Judit Polgár Teaches Chess, spoke to Pacific Standard about her unusual upbringing, her relationship with her sisters, and why hard work checkmates intelligence.

You had a pretty isolated childhood. When did you realize you were smarter than most other people?

It was very clear from age five that our life was going to be very unusual. It was a lot different for me than for other kids in the same age group who were also very smart. In my situation, I was not going to school. I was home-schooled. I didn't have much interaction with girls and boys the same age. But it was clear to me that I didn't live a normal life. I started to be good at something, and in this case, it was chess.

At age six or seven, did you realize how smart you were?

No. It was more that I was realizing how different my life was. The first memory I have of being smart was when I was nine years old and I won the unrated section at the New York Open. The New York Times was covering it on the front page. I won seven games beating adults and then I had a draw at the end to secure first place. That was one of the moments when it was very clear from a competitive point of view how advanced I was. But also, back in Hungary when I was seven and a half, I was beating the master blindfolded. There were little hints that I might be getting very good at chess.

Your father believed that "geniuses are made, not born." Do you agree?

Generally speaking, yes I do. It's not an exaggeration to say that work makes you talented. It is very clear that there are some talents that show themselves when kids are very young, but many times, you don't see those later in their lives because they haven't worked enough on the subject in which they were talented. I do believe that 80 or 90 percent is basically work and circumstances. You won't find any big player in chess, and probably other fields as well, who is so talented that without too much work they have exceptional results.

Did you work harder than some of the other people who might have been as good at chess as you?

I think I worked harder than most of the same-age kids. I started to play when I was five years old. I did five or 10 minutes, but by the time I was nine or 10, I played five, six hours a day. I think it was not normal. Even today, I don't know that many kids that focus so much on chess.

Were you working harder than your sisters?

I don't think so. It became different later on when they started to take chess less seriously, but up to 14 or 15, it was about the same amount of hours and time. Sofia and I had most of the training sessions together. Sofia was not less talented. A lot of people said she might be the most talented. But I had the most motivation. I started to get extremely successful from a very, very young age, and that was something that motivated me too. I wanted more success and to win more games. That was what was pushing me.

Do your kids play chess?

They know how. From time to time, they play in competitions, but they are not very eager about competitive chess. Actually, they are not very crazy about competitions at all, even though they do judo. They do it every week, but they are not crazy about competing.

Do you read for pleasure?

I read mostly chess magazines and some books which are related to the activities I do. But not so much reading. A few magazines. Some interviews. That's about it.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.