GM Susan Polgar

Full name
Susan Polgar
Born
Apr 19, 1969 (age 51)‎
Place of birth
Budapest, Hungary
Federation
United States
Retired
in 2005
Profiles

Rating

Bio

The eldest of the renowned Polgar sisters, Susan Polgar (Hungarian: Polgar Zsuzsanna, Zsuzsa for short), was born April 19, 1969 in Hungary. During 2002-2019 she played for the United States. She became the top ranked woman in the world in 1984 and the third-ever female grandmaster in 1991, beating her younger sister Judit Polgar by only months.

Early Life And Career

Polgar was born and raised in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Several of the family’s ancestors were Holocaust victims or survivors. Her sister Sofia was born in 1974 and the youngest Polgar, Judit, in 1976. Like her sisters, Susan was homeschooled, and chess was the main subject of their education. 

It didn’t take long for Susan to start learning. By the time she was four years old, she was already better than girls twice to almost three times her age: She won the under-11 Budapest championship without losing a game. By the time she was 11, she won the girls’ division of the Under-16 World Youth Chess Championship in 1981. 

L-R: Judit, Susan, Sofia, and Lazslo Polgar
Susan (second from left) with her sisters (Judit on far left) and father in 1989. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

By 1985, still in her teens, Polgar had begun playing in men’s and mixed events almost exclusively and was rated 2430, the highest-rated female player in the world. She, Pia Cramling of Sweden, and Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia spent much of the mid-1980s fighting for the top spot until Judit Polgar eclipsed them all starting in 1989.

Grandmaster

Nona Gaprindashvili became the first female grandmaster in 1978, followed by Chiburdanidze in 1984. Both came from the Caucasus nation of Georgia. Susan Polgar would be the first from another country, doing so in January 1991. She was also the first to become a GM by meeting all the norms (Gaprindashvili played one fewer game than the standard 24). Judit would join her as a GM later the same year.

Gaprindashvili, Polgar, Chiburdanidze, 2018
The first three women grandmasters, pictured in 2018: Susan Polgar, center, with her predecessors Nona Gaprindashvili (left) and Maia Chiburdanidze. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Becoming GM was not the end of either player’s progression. While Judit would soon be playing top-flight events with top-ten overall players in the world, including champion Garry Kasparov, Susan continued to improve as well. 

Most of her notable successes came in women’s events, which she had begun playing again. In 1992 she became the women’s rapid champion and blitz champion. That same year she defeated Judit in a game played in Aruba.

 

Susan became women’s world champion in 1996, the only Polgar sister to accomplish the feat (although Judit certainly could have won that championship consistently had she played for it). Polgar lost the first game of the match to Xie Jun, but wins in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth games created a runaway match. In just the 13th game, Polgar won in just 24 moves to win the match 8.5-4.5 (+6 -2 =5).

She lost the title in 1999, not at the board, but in a dispute over match conditions. The 1996 match was held in Spain, but the 1999 match was to be held in Xie’s home country of China, and terms were never agreed upon. In part because of the dispute, Polgar never played in the event again.

Her playing career continued for less than a decade after that. She held a 326-game simultaneous exhibition as recently as 2005, where she won 309 games and lost only three. That same year she set a career-best with a 2577 rating but would soon leave competitive play. She scored +7 -0 =4 in the 2006 Women’s Chess Cup, and then she transitioned into coaching collegiate chess in the United States.

Post-Playing Career Activities

Polgar has been a chess coach for almost 25 years. She began the Polgar Chess Center in New York in 1997. In 2007 she became the chess coach at Texas Tech University, and the Polgar Chess Center soon closed down. Led by Polgar, Texas Tech won the Division I chess championship in both 2011 and 2012. 

The Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) opened in 2009. SPICE moved with Polgar to Webster University in 2012, and the program won five consecutive Division I championships during 2013-2017. Her time there overlapped with Wesley So, who had already been a GM for several years by the time he joined on scholarship in 2012. He left Webster in 2014. 

Polgar remains the director of SPICE, which holds a tournament, the SPICE Cup, every year. 

Outside of coaching, Polgar also became an author, writing several books, and a columnist for Chess Life and other publications. Additionally, from about 2008 to 2018 she chaired or co-chaired FIDE’s Commission for Women's Chess.

Legacy

Although Judit’s accomplishments as a chess player eventually eclipsed Susan’s, the Polgar sisters as a whole broke barriers. Their parents, Laszlo and Klara, were able to raise three very successful chess players with their unique approach to education, and each went on to successful careers away from the board as well.

Susan’s legacy at the board cannot be separated from her success as a female in a male-dominated sport. Although she was the third woman to become a grandmaster, not the first, her achievement broke down the door for good: Six years passed between Gaprindashvili and Chiburdanidze making GM and another seven until Susan Polgar did, but then Judit, Cramling, and Xie followed her within just two years. There are now about three dozen female grandmasters.

Polgar’s contributions as a collegiate chess coach have also served to spread chess’s popularity into areas it doesn’t usually permeate, and that will be part of her legacy as well. 

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