Female Chess – Judit Polgar

In my summary of female World Champions elsewhere on this site, I miss Judit Polgar: the strongest female chessplayer ever. She just refuses to become a female World Champion! I make up for this with a short bio:

Judit Polgar (born July 23, 1976) is a Hungarian chess player. Easily the best female chess player in history, in the April 2004 FIDE rating list (including men and women) she was ranked number nine in the world with an Elo rating of 2728.

Polgar sisters

Judit and her two older sisters (Zsuzsa (GM) and Zsofia (IM)) (from left to right in the picture below) were reportedly part of a educational experiment carried out by their father in an effort to prove that women could achieve high mental aptitude when trained from a very early age (see more below).

Judit, Zsuzsa and Zsofia Polgar

He set out to educate his daughters in many fields, not merely chess, but all three latched on to the game at a young age, and have achieved heights in chess few men ever achieve.

Youngest GM

Judit could almost certainly have won the title of Women’s World Champion of Chess several times over. No other woman was even in the top 100 of the January 2004 FIDE rating list. However, she has refused to participate in women-only chess events, stating that she wants to be the true World Champion of Chess. Amongst her achievements are earning the men’s Grandmaster title at the then-record age of 15 years and 4 months, one month earlier than Bobby Fischer’s previous record.

Her climb up the ranks once seemed to put her on target for the world championship, but although she has played many winning games against some of the world’s best players, she has yet to win a major tournament. She has also been unable to beat former champion Garry Kasparov in any of their encounters in standard time control games. In 2002, she finally beat Kasparov in a rapid game of the “Russia vs The Rest of the World 2002” tournament.

In 2015 she retired from chess.

The Polgar Experiment

Educational psychologist László Polgár studied the biographies of 400 geniuses. From Socrates to Einstein, he researched them all. And now he was preparing for one of the most extreme experiments ever done—so extreme that people thought he was going crazy. A local government even told him to see a psychiatrist to “heal him of his delusions.” But Polgár was determined. He only needed a wife who was willing to jump on board.

Laszlo and Klara

He started corresponding with a number of young ladies, outlining the pedagogical project he had in mind. Klára, a foreign language teacher, was one of them. “Like many at the time, I thought he was crazy” Klára recalls, “but we agreed to meet.” When they were dating, Klára was charmed by him and got interested in his bold idea. They ended up marrying. And so the experiment began.

They named their first daughter Susan. And soon Sofia and Judit followed. László and Klára quit their jobs and devoted their lives to home schooling their 3 children. Polgár believed talent did not exist. Anyone could become a master in any field—the top 3 percent—if you applied the right kind of practice. “A genius is not born, but is educated and trained” Polgár tells The Washington Post. “When a child is born healthy, it is a potential genius.” Polgár had always been an advocate of the practice theory as opposed to the talent theory. He wrote papers on the subject and lobbied with government to change the education system. But nobody wanted to listen. “Children have extraordinary potential, and it’s up to society to unlock it,” Polgár says. “The problem is that people, for some reason, do not want to believe it. They seem to think that excellence is only open to others, not themselves.” It seems that people’s mindsets are programmed incorrectly.

Proof

As nobody wanted to listen to what he had to say, the only way was to prove it. He was going to raise his children to become geniuses. It took him a long time to pick a field to focus on. After his first daughter was born, he knew it was time to finally make a decision. “I needed Susan’s achievements to be so dramatic that nobody could question their authenticity,” he says. “That was the only way to convince people that their ideas about excellence were all wrong. And then it hit me: chess.” He decided to go for chess because the measurement was objective. “If my child had been trained as an artist or novelist, people could have argued about whether she was genuinely world-class or not. But chess has an objective rating based on performance, so there is no possible argument.” In other words, if he announced upfront that his children would be chess geniuses and was able to pull it off, his theory about mastery was proven.

Chess

Polgár, an amateur chess player himself, dived into the depths of the game and learned as much as possible about chess training. With the help of his wife, he turned their modest apartment in the heart of Budapest into a real chess temple. It had a library with thousands of chess books stuffed onto shelves on one wall, with another wall lined with sketches of chess scenes. A file card system took up an entire third wall. It included records of previous games and even an index of potential competitors’ tournament histories.

Once he felt sufficiently developed as a trainer, he started to introduce chess to each of his daughters. And while the children were also learning all the regular subjects and spoke several languages, chess was always at the core.

First results of Susan

At age 4, Susan, the eldest of the Polgár sisters, won her first chess tournament, the Budapest Girls Under-11 Championship, with a 10-0 score. At age 12, she won the World Under-16 Girls Championship. At age 15, despite restrictions on her freedom to play in international tournaments, she became the top-rated female chess player in the world. At age 22, Susan was the first woman to earn the men’s Grandmaster title in the conventional way—the highest rank in chess. By the end of her career, she had won the World Championship for women on 4 occasions and 5 chess Olympiads. In December 2006, she married her long-time business manager and friend, Paul Truong. She now lives in the US where she runs a chess institute and coaches the Webster University chess team, the number 1 ranked team in the nation.

First results for Sofia

Sofia, the middle sister, won the gold medal at the under-11 Hungarian Championship for girls, the World Under-14 championship for girls, and numerous chess Olympiads and championships. But she is best known for the ‘Miracle in Rome’ where she won 8 straight games against many of the greatest male players. “The odds against such an occurrence must be billions to 1,” one chess expert wrote. It is still seen as one of the most extraordinary chess performances in history. She married fellow chess player Yona Kosashvili and moved to Israel. She now helps to run a chess website and is an acclaimed painter.

First results of Judit

Judit, the Benjamin of the family, is considered the best female player of all time. At the age of 12, she was the youngest player ever to break into the Top 100 players’ rating list, ranking number 55. At the age of 15 years and 4 months, she became Grandmaster. At the time, she was the youngest to have done so, breaking the record previously held by former World Champion Bobby Fischer. She defeated 11 current or former world champions in either Rapid or Classical Chess, including Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov. She occupied the number 1 position (highest rated female) for 26 years until she retired in 2015. Today she lives with her husband and 2 children. She authored 2 children’s books on chess and is Head Coach of the Hungarian National Men’s Chess Team. She also founded the Judit Polgár Chess Foundation to bring chess as an educational tool to children in schools.

Laszlo’s gamble

By publically declaring that his children would become geniuses even before they were born, Polgár took a huge gamble. He could be ridiculed and be the laughing stock of science by stating this upfront.

But even then, the talent myth was hard to kill. When his eldest daughter Susan won a local competition as a 4-year-old, the local newspaper called her a ‘genius.’ And father László remembers many occasions when he was congratulated by other parents for having such talented daughters.

Although Polgár was criticized by some for encouraging his daughters to focus so intensely on chess, the girls later said that they had enjoyed it all. “We spent a lot of hours on the chess board, but it did not seem like a chore because we loved it,” Susan recalls. Father Polgár, always careful not to push his daughters too hard, once found Sofia in the bathroom in the middle of the night, a chessboard balanced across her knees and said “Sophia, leave the pieces alone.” Her reply… “Daddy, they won’t leave me alone!” László Polgár ignited their interest and made them care about the game. They became passionate about chess.

Female Chess – The Champions

Below I list the female chess worldchampions.

1. 1927-1944 Vera Francevna Menchik (1906-1944) from Czechoslovakia/England.

Born in Moscow, daughter of a Czech father and an English mother. At the age of nine she learned chess and as a teenager moved with her family to London, where she took chess lessons from Geza Maroczy (Hungarian, 1870-1951), at the time one of the top-10 players in the world. Vera Menchik was easily the strongest female player of her time, having at one time or other beaten most of the strongest players in the world (the defeated became members of the “Vera Menchik Club“). In 1927 she won the first Women’s World Championship tournament with a score of 10.5 out of 11. She defended her title with ease in Hamburg 1930, Prague 1931, Folkestone 1933, Warsaw 1935, Stockholm 1937 and Buenos Aires 1939. Menchik met a tragic death in June 1944. She was killed with her mother and chess-playing sister during one of the last German air attacks on London.

2. 1944-1950 There was no champion(ship)

3. 1950-1953 Liudmila Rudenko (1904-1986) from the Soviet Union.

Ludmila Rudenko from Byelorussian started her career by winning the women’s champion of Moscow in 1928. She went on to win the Women’s World Championship tournament in 1949, with a score of 11.5 out of 15. She held the title until 1953.

4. 1953-1956 Elizaveta Bykova (1913-1989) from the Soviet Union.

Elizaveta Bykova was coincidentally born in a town called Bogolyubovo in Russia. In 1938 she became women’s champion of Moscow, which she subsequently won a number of times. She was first the USSR Championships of 1947, 1948 and 1950. The first Candidates Tournament for women was held at Moscow in 1952. Elizaveta Bikova won the event (+11-3=1), one point ahead of 2nd/3rd places, earning the right to face Rudenko in the first modern Women’s World Championship match. Behind by one point in the last game, Rudenko needed a win to retain the title. She fought hard, but lost. Elizaveta Bikova thus beat Rudenko (+7-5=2) to become the second women’s World Champion.

5. 1956-1958 Olga Rubtsova (1909-1994) from the Soviet Union.

At 17 Olga won the first USSR Women’s Championship. That was in 1927. After that she won a great number of tournaments, including the USSR Women’s Championships of 1931, 1937 and 1949 and the Moscow Championships of 1953 and 1954. The second Candidates Tournament, Moscow 1955, was won by Rubtsova (+13-2=4), one-half point ahead of 2nd place. FIDE decided that the World Championship would be a triangular match of the three strongest players in the world. Olga Rubtsova won at Moscow in 1956, one-half point ahead of Bikova who finished five points of Rudenko.

6. 1958-1962 Elizaveta Bykova (1913-1989) from the Soviet Union.

With no intervening Candidates event, Bikova regained the title at Moscow in 1958, beating Rubtsova (+7-4=3). She accomplished the first successful defense of the title by beating Kira Zvorikina, winner of the Candidates Tournament, with a score of +6-2=5 at Moscow in 1959. In that same year she also won an International Tournament in Amsterdam.

7. 1962-1978 Nona Gaprindashvili (1941- ) from the Soviet Union.

She was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and was the greatest female player of her generation. She won the fourth Candidates Tournament, Vrnjacka Banja 1961, (+10-0=6) two points ahead of 2nd place. Gaprindashvili crushed Bikova (+7-0=4) in the title match, Moscow 1962, to become the fourth Women’s World Champion. Gaprindashvili defended her title against Alla Kushnir of Russia in matches at Riga 1965 (+7-3=3), Tbilisi/Moscow 1969 (+7-2=5), and Riga 1972 (+5-4=7). Her last successful title defense (+8-3=1) was against her compatriot Nana Alexandria of Georgia at Pitsounda/Tbilisi 1975. Gaprindashvili played in men’s tournaments, winning amongst others Hastings 1963/64 and and tied for first at Lone Pine 1977. In 1978 she came second and earned a full male GM title.

8. 1978-1991 Maia Chiburdanidze (1961- ) from the Soviet Union.

The Georgian was one of the first women chess prodigies, becoming the youngest WIM in the history of the game (in 1974 at the age of 13). The 1976-78 cycle saw two Interzonals at Roosendaal and Tbilisi. Chiburdanidze finished second at Tbilisi behind Elena Fatalibekova, the daughter of Olga Rubtsova, third World Champion. Fatalibekova was eliminated in a semifinal Candidates match by Kushnir, but Chiburdanidze beat Alexandria (+3-2=5), Elena Akhmilovskaya (+4-3=5), and Kushnir (+4-3=7) to earn the right to challenge Gaprindashvili. When 17-year old Maia Chiburdanidze beat Gaprindashvili (+4-2=9) at Tbilisi in 1978, the torch passed from one generation of Georgian women champions to the next. She defended her title against Alexandria at Borsomi/Tbilisi 1981 (+4-4=8), Irina Levitina at Volgograd 1984 (+5-2=6), Akhmilovskaya at Sofia 1986 (+4-1=9), and Nana Ioseliani at Telavi 1988 (+3-2=11).

9. 1991-1996 Xie Jun (1970- ) from China.

Xie Jun became junior Xiangqi (Chinese chess) champion of Beijing at the age of six. She was later persuaded to take up chess. The Georgian domination of women’s international chess ended abruptly at Manila 1991, when the young Chinese star Xie Jun beat Chiburdanidze (+4-2=9). She had earned the right to be challenger by finishing second behind Gaprindashvili at the 1990 Interzonal in Kuala Lumpur, tying with Alisa Maric at the Candidates Tournament, Borzomi 1990, then beating Maric (+3-1=3) in a tiebreak match.

10. 1996-1999 Susan Polgar (1969- ) from Hungary.

The oldest of the famous Polgar sisters initially refused to play in women’s tournaments, becoming a male grandmaster in 1991 at the age of 23. In 1993 she decided to play for the women’s world championship, but did not win the title after a 12-12 draw against Nana Ioseliani. The next cycle was all Susan Polgar’s. After tying with Chiburdanidze in the Candidates Tournament, Tilburg 1994, she beat the ex-World Champion in the final match (+4-0=3), St. Petersburg 1995. She went on to beat Xie Jun (+6-2=5) at Jaen 1996, giving the Polgar family its first World Champion. Susan has also won the Women’s World Chess Champion titles in rapid and blitz chess (both in 1992).

11. 1999-2001 Xie Jun (1970- ) from China.

In the summer of 1994 Xie Jun was awarded the full Grandmaster title. The final match in the Women’s Championship was scheduled to be played in Shenyang, after sponsors from China made the best offer for the prize fund. Galliamova refused to play the entire match in China and the win was awarded by default to Xie Jun. The title match would be Polgar – Xie Jun II. By the time FIDE announced the date and venue for the title match, Polgar had given birth to her first child. She considered that the time to recover from childbirth and to prepare for the new match was insufficient. She requested that the match be postponed, FIDE refused, and negotiations broke down. After the contract deadline passed, FIDE declared that the title match would be played between Xie Jun and Galliamova. The forfeited Candidates match was to be resurrected as a title match! The 1999 match, with a venue split between Kazan and Shenyang, was won by Xie Jun (+5-3=7). A year later, at New Delhi 2000, Xie Jun defended her title by winning the first Women’s Championship played with the knockout format. She beat her compatriot Qin Kanying (+1-0=3) in the final match of the six round event. Xie Jun is one of three women to have at least two separate reigns, besides Elisaveta Bykova and Hou Yifan. Xie Jun is the current president of the Chinese Chess Association.

12. 2001-2004 Zhu Chen (1976- ) from China.

The Chinese player Zhu Chen became Women’s World Champion in the FIDE knock-out event in Moscow 2001, beating Russian Alexandra Kosteniuk in the process.

13. 2004-2006 Antoaneta Stefanova (1979- ) from Bulgaria.

This top Bulgarian female player won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (June 5th 2004) in Elista, Kalmykia, defeating Russian  WGM Ekaterina Kovalevskaya in the final. In this world championship Zhu failed to defend her title due to pregnancy and attached scheduling problems.

14. 2006-2008 Xu Yuhua (1976- ) from China.

She won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (March 25th 2006) in Ekaterinburg,  Russia, defeating Russian IM Alisa Galimova in the final. The knockout event had 64 participants, with both former world champion Zhu Chen and reigning world champion Antoaneta Stefanova. Xu Yuhua was 3 months pregnant at the time…

15. 2008-2010 Alexandra Kosteniuk (1984- ) from Russia.

She won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (September 18th 2008) in Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkaria region of Russia. 64 players were eligible to play in the knock-out event, which had a prize fund of US $450,000. Due to the tensions in the region the Georgian players and a few others decided not to participate. Kosteniuk defeated the 14-year-old Chinese wondergirl Hou Yifan in the final.

16. 2010-2012 Hou Yifan (1994- ) from China.

She won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (December 24th 2010) in Hatay, Turkey. It was a 64-player knockout tournament, with two-game mini-matches qualifying a player to the next round, until the final and 6th round, which was a four-game match to determine the champion. Hou Yifan defeated compatriot Lufei Ruan in the tie-break games of the final to become the youngest World Champion.

17. 2012-2013 Anna Ushenina (1985- ) from Ukrania.

She won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (November 2012) in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia. It was a 64-player knockout tournament, with two-game mini-matches qualifying a player to the next round, until the final and 6th round, which was a four-game match to determine the champion. Anna Ushenina defeated ex World Champion Antoaneta Stefanova in the tie-break games of the final to become the 14th World Champion.

18. 2013-2015 Hou Yifan (1994- ) from China.

As the winner of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix 2011-2012, Hou won the right to challenge Anna Ushenina in a 10 game match for the world title. Scheduled from September 10 to the 27th, the Women’s World Chess Championship 2013 was played in Taizhou, Jiangsu, China. She won the match in 7 games with a 5.5-1.5 score (+4 =3, TPR 2730) regaining her championship title.

19. 2015-2016 Mariya Olegivna Muzychuk (1992- ) from Ukrania.

She won the title in the FIDE knock-out championship (April 2015) in Sochi, Russia, after defeating Natalia Pogonina (Russia) 2,5-1,5 in the final match. She was expected to defend her title against Hou Yifan in the Women’s World Chess Championship (match) later in 2015.

20. 2016-2017 Hou Yifan (1994- ) from China.

In 2010, she became the youngest Women’s World Chess Champion in history by winning the 2010 Women’s World Championship in Hatay, Turkey at age 16. In the Women’s World Chess Championship 2012 she was eliminated early, but she regained the title in 2013, defeating Anna Ushenina. She then lost the world title by not playing in the 2015 Championship for scheduling reasons. Hou then defeated former world champion Mariya Muzychuk in the 2016 World Championship match to regain the title. The scheduled 10-game match was held from 1 to 14 March 2016 in Lviv, Ukraine. Hou Yifan won convincingly, not losing a single game.

21. 2017-2018 Tan Zhongyi (1991- ) from China.

In the final match of the World Championship in Tehran Tan Zhongyi defeated Anna Muzychuk on tie-break with 1,5-0,5. The championshio was a 64-player knock-out tournament. The final tie-break of the Women’s World Chess Championship took place in the Espinas Palace Hotel in Tehran March 3. Four previous games with classical time control finished with 2:2 score. Some top female players had decided not to attend the tournament. Hou Yifan, the outgoing women’s world champion and top ranked female player, decided not to enter the tournament because of dissatisfaction with FIDE’s Women’s World Championship system. The 2015 Women’s World Champion, Mariya Muzychuk, and US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze also elected not to attend, out of protest at the tournament’s location in Iran, where it is mandatory for women to wear a hijab in public. Other notable absentees were women’s world number 4 Humpy Koneru and 7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush.

22. 2018-xxxx Ju Wenjun (1991- ) from China.

In February 2016, Ju Wenjun won the Tehran leg of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix 2015–16. By also winning the last tournament of the Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, she finished first in the overall standings and earned the challenger spot in the Women’s World Chess Championship Match 2018, which she won. Several months later, in the Women’s World Chess Championship Tournament of November 2018, Ju defended the women’s world chess champion title. In December 2017, Ju won the Women’s World Rapid Chess Championship in Riyadh, and won in the same championship held in St. Petersburg in December 2018, scoring 11½/15 (+8=7) and 10/12 (+8=4), respectively. In January 2020, Ju successfully defended the women’s world chess champion title against Aleksandra Goryachkina in the Women’s World Chess Championship 2020. She won with the score of 2.5–1.5 in the tiebreaker after having equalized the regular matches 6–6.

Female chess – Jan Hein Donner

Women, for whatever reasons, have not truly attained an equal footing with the male chessplayers. Madame Chaudé de Silans, one of the better female players (in 1950 she was the first woman to play in an Olympic Chess Team (for France)), had this contemptuous remark on why her own sex didn’t do better: “Women can’t play chess because you have to keep quiet for five hours.

Chantal Chaudé de Silans

On the other hand Milunka Lazarevic, a top Yugoslav female player, notes: “No one asks me why I play better than 19 million Yugoslavs, but only why I play weaker than some 100 (male) Yugoslavs.

Milunka Lazarevic

Indeed, the question has been raised many times: “Why can”t women play chess on the same level as men?“. I”ve seen several answers. The best and funniest ones (in my opinion) were given by the late Jan Hein Donner (more about him soon elsewhere on this site!).

Observations

In 1968 he noted: “However painful it may be, we must not shrink from the truth: women cannot play chess. And, if you ask me, they will never learn to play chess. … And why can”t they play chess? After more than twenty-two years of pure scientific research, I think I have found an explanation. It is a well-known fact that a woman is superior to a man. Physically she is stronger. With her endless patience she will win, in the end, the everlasting battle of the sexes. She can think more logically… She has a far better memory… In everything a woman is superior to a man, but she misses one thing: intuition.

And: “I have studied Fraulein Jorger closely and attentively. In any aeroplane whatsoever, I would completely put myself in her hands, her piano playing is a delight, but chess… forget it, she is hopeless at it, just like any other woman.

A little bit later I hear the echo of a quote by Anna Garlin Spencer: “The failure of women to produce genius of the first rank in most of the supreme forms of human effort has been used to block the way of all women of talent and ambition for intellectual achievement in a manner that would be amusingly absurd were it not so monstrously unjust and socially harmful.

This is what Donner has to say about the subject, in 1972: “The difference between the sexes in chess is remarkably big, but in my opinion no bigger than in any other cultural activity. Women can not play chess, like they can not paint, nor write literature, nor compose music, nor be a philosopher. In fact, there is nothing thought or done by a woman, that is worth noticing. So chess is not to blame. But what is? First of all a woman is far more stupid than a man. And, a woman is not at all capable to amuse herself.”

Reactions

A little bit later after he received some “fan” mail regarding his observation, he writes: “The authoress Hanny Michaelis protested against my assertion that women cannot write, citing a number of names as evidence to the contrary. What a ghastly list it was! The nastiest hags and frumps that ever wielded a pen!

To another woman who wrote: “Donner forgot to mention the blacks. It should have been: women and blacks can not play chess, because they are too stupid“, he answered: “She misses my point: black men can play chess, black women can not.

Adjustments

He adjusted his views a little bit in 1973: “The feeling of horror a real chessplayer gets when looking at women playing chess, should not make us blind for reality. They are not as silly as we like to think.”

And even more in 1977, after Nona Gaprindashvili won the Lone Pine tournament: “Even in the world of chess there is at least one woman who rates as a world-class player. For inveterate masculinists and for those who must write jocular pieces to earn a living, this is a serious setback, which will naturally not prevent us in the least … from continuing our struggle unabatedly.”

And then…

In 2002 Judith Polgar wins from Gary Kasparov (the World’s number one for many years). This was the game:

Judith Polgar – Garry Kasparov

Alas, Donner did not live to see this game…