Frowning at the board, the grizzled Yugoslav chess player stabbed cigarette after unfiltered cigarette into an ashtray. Across the table—actually under the table—10-year-old Judit Polgar of Hungary hugged her teddy bear, seemingly uninterested in the game. The Yugoslav fingered the scar that ran the length of his cheek, dropped his hand to the board and tentatively moved a knight. Judit popped up and grabbed the knight with her rook. Her opponent howled in anguish, and she returned to play with her teddy. "Well-mannered and correct players, who react the same if they win or lose, are often reduced by Judit to mental jelly," observes former Chess Life editor Larry Parr, commenting on a game he watched in 1987.
Three years later, Judit is the chess world's enfant terrible and its youngest international master ever. With 2,555 points, she ranks 60th among all active players. "Judit is one of the three or four greatest chess prodigies in history," says British grand master Nigel Short, who is ranked third in the world.
Even more extraordinary is that Judit's sisters, Zsusza, 20, and Zsofi, 15, are nearly her match. "Before the Polgars came along, it was commonly believed—by men—that women couldn't play the game," says Short. Yet Short remains skeptical of how successful women can be at chess. "You've got to understand that not only has no woman been brought up in circumstances similar to the Polgars'," he says, "but virtually no man has, either."
The Polgars are products of an "experiment" conducted by their father, Laszlo, a retired psychologist and teacher. He decided not simply to teach his daughters chess but also to build their education around it.
A small, bearded man who fidgets constantly when he talks, Laszlo plotted his daughters' careers as carefully as a queen's Indian defense. "The secret is specialization," says Laszlo, who battled government officials for the right to educate his children at home. From age four, all three girls systematically studied chess, math and languages. Under Laszlo's tutelage, Zsusza mastered Russian by age five and English a year later.
Judit's favorite English word seems to be "ka-rushed," as in: "He blundered and I ka-rushed him." She's an engagingly modest, faintly giggly girl whose conversation is so cautious and well-considered that it takes on an imperious quality. At the board, she maintains the same relaxed pose and noncommittal expression whether she is winning or losing the match. But opponents seem transfixed by her cool, gray eyes. The histrionic world champion, Gary Kasparov, may be terrifying to opponents, but Judit is surely baffling.
Judit is not merely endowed with exceptional chess vision; she also plays a highly aggressive game. "She has a great combinative feel," Short says. "That's one area where women are usually weaker than men."
The Polgars disparage female-only tournaments and rarely play other women. "Segregation perpetuates the inequality of performance between men and women," says Laszlo, who demands and usually gets hefty sums for exhibitions and interviews with foreign journalists. Females, Laszlo insists, aren't competitive enough for his daughters.
Judit's biggest obstacle is the overweening chauvinism of male players. "It's inevitable that nature will work against her, and very soon," says Kasparov. "She has fantastic chess talent, but she is, after all, a woman. It all comes down to the imperfections of the feminine psyche. No woman can sustain a prolonged battle. She's fighting a habit of centuries and centuries and centuries, from the beginning of the world. She will be a great grand master, but she will never be a great grand master."
At last year's New York Open, international grand master Alonso Zapata of Colombia refused to concede he was losing to Judit even when his position was hopeless. He played on, to the point of rudeness, for 20 moves before resigning. After the inevitable defeat, Zapata sat at the board with his head bowed for another 10 minutes. Off in a corner, Judit's mother, Klara, sat knitting, a chess-world Madame Defarge.