Culture Report

Fi l m S p o r t s D a n ce Ar t Fo o d M u s i c

The queens
of chess
The story of Hungary’s
famed Polgár sisters gains
a new lease on life in an
Israeli documentary
By Tibor Krausz, Budapest

Laszló Polgár watches as his daughters Zsuzsa (left) and Zsófia
the family’s Budapest home in the early 1980s 35

t the height of communism
in Hungary in the 1970s, a
cramped little apartment in a
dreary housing project in a non-
descript district of Budapest
was the site of a grand experiment.
A young Jewish-Hungarian educational
psychologist came to believe, after study-
ing the lives of famous child prodigies, that
geniuses weren’t born but made. If children
were immersed in one intellectual pursuit or
another from very early on, László Polgár
theorized, then anything was possible.
He set out to prove it.
As his test subjects, Polgár would use his
own daughters: Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit. As
the focus of their instruction, the Hungarian
Jew chose chess.
Polgár was a middling player himself, but
the highly cerebral game suited his purpos-
es just fine. “In chess, your progress can be
measured empirically,” he tells The Jeru-
salem Report. “You either win or lose, and
you can compete against players who are
ranked based on their achievements.”
Chess was at the time enjoying a renaissance
across the Eastern bloc by serving as a proxy
Cold War battleground of sorts between the
United States and the Soviet Union. At an epic
showdown in 1972, the mercurial up-and-com-
ing American grandmaster Bobby Fischer de-
feated the stolid Russian world champion Bo-
ris Spassky, thereby breaking the Soviets’ de-
cades-long dominance of the game. By 1975,
Fischer forfeited his title to another Russian,
Anatoly Karpov.
Using Fischer, a child prodigy, as their
model, Polgár and his wife, Klára, a teach- rest of the day until bedtime at 10 pm. players to train the girls, even as the family
er, set about training a new generation of The girls, who did all their studies at lived frugally.
grandmasters – right at home. In defiance home and at special classes, attended state- “We were penniless,” recalls Polgár,
of Hungary’s communist authorities, the run schools only to take their obligatory a thoughtful, personable and avuncu-
couple would homeschool their three exams in history, literature and other com- lar 71-year-old who will expound on his
daughters, who were born a few years apart. pulsory subjects. child-rearing philosophy one minute and
Polgár, who sleeps only around four hours Polgár fashioned cardboard catalogues regale you with colorful anecdotes the next.
a night, subjected Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit with analyses of professional chess games In between, he may feel you out about Israe-
to a strict training regimen for years. Three – 200,000 of them in all, by his own count li politics, link you up with other prominent
hours of sports in the morning – table tennis, – that he culled from specialist magazines Hungarian Jews, or offer to act as a match-
swimming, running, cycling – were followed to create a giant handmade reference library maker for your single Jewish friends. “We
by chess, more chess and yet more chess the for his daughters. He also hired expert chess breathed air but didn’t eat,” he elucidates.


“We had bread and dripping for breakfast, the male-dominated world of chess, which (Left) Tel Aviv filmmaker Yossi Aviram,
lunch and dinner.” had – and still does – separate events and who produced his documentary on a
At times, his daughters also had fruit and rankings for men and women with the latter shoestring budget, discovered the chess
other treats – thanks to the few forints they hitherto dismissed as also-runs. trio at a tournament in Israel; (above)
made by winning against grown men at a The Polgár family’s story is well known the Polgár sisters today, from left: Judit,
nearby park during improvised neighbor- in Hungary and chess circles worldwide but Zsuzsa and Zsófia
hood tournaments. has now gained a new lease on life in “The
By their early teens, the Polgár sisters Polgár Variant,” an Israeli documentary that
were each breaking old records, setting new features a series of revealing biographical premier in early May at a Jewish arts festi-
ones and beating grandmasters at their own vignettes and one-on-one interviews, both val, was a labor of love for Yossi Aviram, a
game both in Hungary and abroad. In the archival and newly recorded. Tel Aviv-based filmmaker who produced it
process, they smashed the gender barrier in The documentary, which had its Budapest on a shoestring budget. Aviram, an amateur


chess enthusiast, first came across the Polgár a chessboard. She was just four when Laszló “My daughters could play chess while they
sisters’ story at a tournament in Israel more decided to pit Zsuzsa against trained adult played ping-pong by shouting out chess
than a decade ago. “I’d never heard of them players at Budapest’s best chess club. moves,” Laszló recalls to The Report.
before,” he concedes. “But I began to look “My father challenged the guys to play Zsófia and Judit, who were born in 1974
into it and became fascinated by this family.” me a game,” Zsuzsa recalls, in English, in and 1976, respectively, received similarly in-
After securing some funding, Aviram set one of the most memorable anecdotes nar- tensive training from age four. By age five,
about filming in 2007 – which he would do rated in the Israeli documentary. Judit, the youngest of the three sisters, was
himself over several years. He travelled to also practicing chess seven hours each day.
Budapest, where Judit still lives. He flew to They smashed the She would go on to develop her trademark
the US, where Zsuzsa now makes her home. style of play: aggressive, creative and forever
He befriended Zsófia in Tel Aviv, where she gender barrier in the attacking – “hunt for the king,” as she puts it.
“[I]f to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in
has relocated after marrying Georgian-born
Israeli chess grandmaster Yona Kosash-
male-dominated world chess, it would mean relentless aggression,”
vili. In each location, the Israeli set up his of chess, which had – the Jewish-Armenian grandmaster Garik
camera and started asking away. Weinstein, better known as Garry Kasparov,
But, first, he had to gain the Polgárs’ and still does – separate has said of her style in his 2007 book “How
trust. The family has long been guarded in Life Imitates Chess.”
its dealings with the media, owing partly to events and rankings for “She’s sweet in life, but she’s a different
the frequent broadsides on its strong-willed person when she plays. You can see it in
patriarch back in the day when Laszló faced
men and women her eyes,” observes Aviram, who decided to
routine accusations in Hungary of abusing test his chess skills against Judit’s. “When
his daughters and depriving them of a nor- you play against her, it’s like being in the
mal childhood. It comes early on, between bits of grainy tentacles of an octopus squeezing you from
“They attacked him a lot, especially at contemporary news footage and fading different angles,” he goes on. “She played
first,” Zsófia, now a mother of two, tells family photographs that serve up evoca- against me without her queen and still beat
The Report. “We girls never took those tive snippets of life under Hungarian-style me in 10 minutes. And she was speaking on
claims seriously. We were born into [this “goulash communism” circa 1973. Most the phone with someone the whole time.”
lifestyle] and it was natural for us.” men wear shaggy bowl-cuts and suitably
Aviram’s documentary, she adds, “is an subdued pastel-hued sweaters, which they AT AGE seven, having barely turned prima-
intimate portrait of our family – our strug- complement with solemnly furrowed brows ry-school age, Judit started playing against
gles and victories. It’s fantastic that Yossi as they stare intensely at chessboards. scores of adult male chess enthusiasts at
got so close to us and gained an insight into “At first, they were laughing, ‘You must high-profile simultaneous exhibitions.
how we were.” be kidding. She can hardly reach the ta- Within four years, a British chess corre-
How they were is on full display in “The ble,’” adds Zsuzsa, today a youthful-look- spondent proclaimed her to be “the best
Polgár Variant.” ing middle-aged woman who is married to 11-year-old [player] of either sex in the en-
“I developed a pedagogical theory,” Lasz- the Vietnamese-American chess player Paul tire history of chess.”
ló, a soft-spoken man who now divides his Truong and lives in St. Louis, Missouri. The By age 12, in 1988, she became the
time between Miami, Tel Aviv and Buda- men weren’t laughing for long. “I won the then-youngest-ever international master.
pest, tells Aviram, recounting the parental game [against an adult opponent]. The guy That same year, she won an international
philosophy that has made him almost as stood up and ran away.” mixed tournament in London, besting sev-
famous in Hungary as a shared mastery of At age 12, in 1982, Zsuzsa won her first eral male grandmasters and making history
chess has made his daughters worldwide. international trophy, the under-16 World in the process. By age 15, she was a grand-
“Every healthy child is a potential genius.” Championship title for girls, in England. master herself, the youngest ever, breaking
By age three, Zsuzsa, his oldest child who Soon, she was officially recognized as a Fischer’s record. Henceforth, she would play
was born in 1969, was being taught math and chess master and, by age 14, as the then only against men and would soon become
foreign languages. If she wanted to play, it best female player in the world. In a feat of the world’s best female chess player of all
wasn’t – at her father’s insistence – with dolls showmanship, she could play blind, without time, snatching the honor from Zsuzsa.
or other toys; it would have to be with rooks, having to see the board, and do so simul- The three Polgár sisters first became
pawns, bishops, knights, kings and queens at taneously against five different opponents. national celebrities in Hungary and then

international sensations – a curious trio of
child prodigies from behind the Iron Curtain.
They were the Brontë sisters of chess.
One child prodigy in a family can be a
fluke. But three? Either the Polgár sisters
were all preternaturally gifted at chess or
their father was on to something.

TWO AND a half millennia ago, the Greek
philosopher Aristotle proposed that children
are born with minds that are like empty
stone tablets, or “blank slates” in modern
parlance, upon which training and life ex-
perience combine to inscribe knowledge
and ability. The rabbis of yore came to sim-
ilar conclusions about the plasticity of chil-
dren’s minds and stressed the importance of
early learning under targeted tutelage.
Laszló Polgár is no rabbi, yet he could eas-
ily pass for one with his portly frame, white
beard, thick spectacles and pensive mien.
“To get results, you have to work hard,” he
observes. “The Talmud says the same.”
The single-minded intensity of his home-
based boot camp for his daughters would
have befitted an elite yeshiva. In fact, ye-
shivot did serve as an inspiration for him.
“My grandfather started studying Torah
for several hours a day when he was just

four,” he tells The Report. “It’s always been
common practice among Jews to begin
teaching children intensively from an early
age,” he adds. “We’ve been so successful
as a people not because we’re superior ge-
netically but because we’ve always valued Then all you have to do is guide them. “I László Polgár today cedes his daughters
learning so highly.” set things in motion for my daughters and may have had to sacrifice the carefree
But not even hard work alone will cut it they did the rest on their own,” he stresses. joys of childhood, but counters that they
if you want to turn children into geniuses, “Even if children [who are introduced to this traveled the world for tournaments and all
he believes. method] don’t become geniuses, they’ll still turned out happy, smart and successful
“In early childhood, kids need to start become very good in their chosen field.”
specializing [in a single field of endeavor] To his critics in communist Hungary, the
and not have their attention fragmented on Jewish pedagogue was a misguided, domi- smart, happy and successful,” Laszló says.
different subjects,” he stresses. “Remem- neering and monomaniacal drill sergeant of “Do they seem like people who had terrible
ber how many useless things you learned a father who exploited his daughters in the childhoods?”
in school.” Once children get hooked on a service of a psychological experiment. To His daughters, he concedes, may have had
subject – be it physics, math, chess or any- his admirers, he was a trailblazing educator to sacrifice the joys of a carefree childhood
thing else – they will pursue it on their own who showed that brilliance and ingenuity in favor of spending most of their time
with single-minded zeal, encouraged by could be learned traits. indoors, hunched over chessboards, but they
their progress and their successes, he posits. “My daughters are all well-adjusted, also traveled the world on the international


tournament circuit in an era when most the Hungarian Chess Federation wanted the “What was new was that dad did it in such
Hungarians were barred by their government Polgár sisters to dominate the international a closed society and that we were girls in
from setting foot anywhere outside the women’s competitions, scoring propaganda a men’s world,” Zsófia, who speaks fluent
Eastern bloc. The Polgár sisters played with points for the communist regime. But the Hebrew, tells The Report.
kangaroos in Australia; posed for photos with Polgár family, spearheaded by their stiff-
Aztec pyramids in Mexico; and appeared on necked patriarch, openly defied the wishes THE POLGÁRS were also proudly Jewish
television talk shows in Germany. of Communist Party leader János Kádár, an in a country where anti-Jewish sentiments
“In my little world, the Polgárs were he- amateur chess buff. “My father and I, we had have long lurked under the surface, ready
roes,” says Laszló (Eli) Berger, a Hungar- the vision that I would become a grandmas- to burst forth any minute in a smirk, scowl
ian-Israeli cinematographer who helped ter among men,” Zsuzsa recalls. or insult. “I find it hard to tolerate antisem-
produce “The Polgár Variant.” Berger, 47, itism,” Laszló observes. As a child, he says
grew up at the same time as the Polgár sis- My daughters could he was tormented and humiliated by neigh-
ters in communist Hungary before making borhood bullies for being Jewish. “Being a
aliya in 1991. “They became globally suc- play chess while they Jew gave me extra motivation to succeed,”
cessful from behind the Iron Curtain all on
their own,” he explains. “What they did was
played ping-pong by he explains.
His daughters’ increasing success in chess
groundbreaking.” shouting out chess on the international stage became a form of
The documentary doesn’t dwell on the security for the family against threats and
ethical implications of Laszló’s approach to moves intimidation at home from Hungary’s com-
child-rearing, but nor does its maker side- munist regime. It didn’t save them, howev-
step them entirely. er, from being barred by the government
“His method does raise some moral ques- In communist Hungary, where children’s from competing at international tourna-
tions,” Aviram, 46, says. “I’m a parent education had to be in line with state-sanc- ments for three years after 1984.
with three young children of my own. If tioned Marxist principles of obedient uni- When the three sisters were at last al-
I’d sensed that there might have been child formity, Laszló’s independent-minded ap- lowed to compete internationally, they did
abuse in the Polgár family, I couldn’t have proach drew the ire of apparatchiks. They so spectacularly. In 1988, they won gold for
made this film. What I felt was a deep sense threatened to jail him or confine him to a Hungary’s team at the 28th Women’s Chess
of warmth and love among them.” psychiatric hospital and take his daughters Olympiad in Thessaloniki, Greece, breaking
away to a state-run institution. the Soviet Union’s decades-long dominance
LASZLÓ WAS a feminist back when most Yet, Laszló was simply following in the of competitive chess. “All of a sudden, we
men weren’t – certainly not in communist footsteps of like-minded fathers who, for became national treasures,” Zsuzsa recalls.
Hungary. “I believe a woman could win centuries, have sought to excel vicariously Laszló, their doting father, finally felt
the men’s world championship title,” he through their progeny. The 18th-century validated.
explained in a TV interview in the 1980s, German musician Leopold Mozart began The following year, the Berlin Wall fell and
apropos a game that has always been dom- teaching music intensively to his son Wolf- his daughters were free to compete against
inated by men at the highest levels, “if she gang Amadeus when the boy was still a tod- men abroad without any political interfer-
received the same professional, psychologi- dler. By age five, little Amadeus was com- ence. That same year, in a pair of seminal
cal and social [support] as a man.” posing music. achievements for female players, 12-year-
The trouble, as he saw it, was that peo- Through similarly rigorous training, the old Judit won eight competitive tournaments
ple expected less of girls so they ended up 19th-century Hungarian mathematician Far- in a row, while Zsófia won her first eight
aspiring to do less and thus achieving less. kas Bolyai turned his famous son, János, games straight against as many expert male
Not his daughters. They competed as equals into a wunderkind who had, by age 13, mas- opponents at a tournament in Rome.
against adult men, besting all of them. “My tered calculus. In the 20th century, Moshe “The Polgár Variant,” which runs a little
daughters beat all the 13 male world cham- Menuhin, a Jewish immigrant from Belarus more than an hour, largely eschews Lasz-
pions [of recent decades] and they won 200 who was a descendant of Chabad Hassi- ló’s views on child-rearing and opts instead
games against the best male players of the dism’s founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of for a straightforward retelling of the Polgár
world,” Laszló says. Liadi (himself a child prodigy), set his Amer- family’s story through the eyes of the three
The father’s ambitions for his daughters ican-born son Yehudi on course to becoming sisters. Much of it makes for compulsive
became the girls’ own ambitions. Officials at one of the world’s greatest violinists. viewing.

In one touching segment, Aviram escorts annihilated, strangled, killed and murdered successes of his three daughters. Although
Zsófia back to the small unit in a Sovi- in the service of pitiless hatred and bloodlust, the three Polgár sisters have all retired from
et-style apartment building in Budapest alongside our 600,000 [Hungarian] coreli- professional competitions, they remain ac-
where her family of five once lived. The gionists. Their memory will live on forever.” tive in promotional and educational projects
flat is now occupied by an elderly man, His young granddaughters stand around involving chess.
who doesn’t seem to recognize her. Zsó- in their crisp white shirts as birds chirp in They’ve also remained in the limelight.
fia surveys the walk-in closet-size kitch- the trees. Zsuzsa has starred in a National Geographic
en and cramped little rooms nostalgically. Aviram discovered the footage on one of documentary about the wonders of the hu-
Once this setting was the center stage of her the old VHS cassettes that Laszló lent him. man brain; Judit has given a TED talk on
family’s life and seemed spacious enough; “When I came across this recording, I knew how to become a genius; and Zsófia has
today, it looks like an odd relic from a by- I had a film,” the Israeli filmmaker recalls. written and illustrated award-winning chess
gone historical era, where people’s mental “It gave new meaning to their story.” manuals for children to help them think
and physical horizons were confined by a So does another small but telling detail: creatively.
repressive political system. “It looked so Laszló, who spent two years in a Jewish “What I regret is that none of them have
small to me as an adult,” she tells The Re- orphanage in his early teens because of followed my example in raising their own
port, laughing. “But back then it seemed the breakup of his parents’ marriage, gets children,” their father laments.
like a nice apartment.” misty-eyed over the classic vaudeville song They’ve also left another one of his en-
“My Yiddishe Mama.” He’s collected some during hopes for them unfulfilled – none of
IN ANOTHER vignette, Zsófia, a cheerful, 70 different versions of the song on care- them has won the men’s world champion-
amiable woman who was the first among fully stored CDs. “Laszló is a very likeable ship title.
the sisters to turn her back on professional guy,” Berger observes, “but he’s quite driv- Only Judit ever really stood that chance.
competitions in 2003 to start a family, plays en and obsessive.” In her career, she claimed the scalps of
a game of speed chess with her husband at He’s also relentless. numerous male grandmasters and world
their home in Tel Aviv. Kosashvili, an or- champions, leaving most of them in com-
thopedic surgeon, provides some lightheart- His daughters, he plete disbelief.
ed rapid-fire commentary. “This is a variant In 1992, when she was still just 17, she
of the ‘Spanish opening.’ It’s a very closed concedes, may have defeated Spassky, the former world cham-
pion, at an exhibition match in Budapest.
position,” he explains, while pushing his
king into a position before hurriedly repo-
had to sacrifice the A decade later, at a competitive event in
sitioning it. “Sofi, with a big smile on her joys of a carefree Moscow, she beat Kasparov, an expert strat-
face, is going to checkmate me.” egist and arguably the best chess player of
In yet another segment, Aviram shows old childhood in favor of all time, who dominated the sport for two
family footage, recorded by Laszló with a decades. Kasparov, who had once dismissed
camcorder in 1986, of his elderly father, spending most of their her as a “circus puppet,” left the table in a
Armin, who had survived Auschwitz, where huff, refusing to shake her hand.
he lost his parents, first wife and six chil-
time indoors, hunched Today, she’s married in Budapest with
dren. After the war, Armin remarried, to a over chessboards two children and competitive chess is no
longer her first priority. “The only thing she
fellow survivor of Auschwitz, and Laszló
was born of this second union in 1946. The has not achieved she probably never will,”
elderly man is shown holding a memorial He has, to date, published 123 books, Aviram observes laconically.
service to the Hungarian victims of the Ho- several of them bestsellers, on his enduring Then again, what matters in the end is
locaust at the local Jewish cemetery in his twin interests: chess and child psycholo- that the Polgárs took on the world and won.
hometown of Gyöngyös, east of Budapest. gy. He’s also invented two new variants They did it in style and they did it together.
“In death camps, on snowfields, on roads of chess, including one called star chess in “As children, we were so close together,
and on riverbanks,” the elderly man, who in which the game is played on a star-shaped this small team of us, for 24 hours a day,”
the grainy home-video footage resembles board with slightly different rules to allow Zsófia says, a hint of bittersweet nostalgia
a Hasid in his immaculate black suit and for different creative strategies. There are creeping into her voice. “Now, we’ve been
matching black fedora, intones indignantly now international championships held in it. flung around the world. But chess will al-
from a prepared note, “We were tortured, But his greatest success has been the ways remain a large part of our lives.”  