Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar Shares Struggles and Triumphs on Gazelle Life TV

Hungarian-American Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar is featured in the May editon of The Melting Pot, a new monthly program produced by Gazelle Life TV. The Melting Pot chronicles the stories of people who may not have been born here, but now call America home.

Susan Polgar

 Hungarian-American Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar is featured in the May editon of The Melting Pot, a new monthly program produced by Gazelle Life TV.  The Melting Pot chronicles the stories of people who may not have been born here, but now call America home. Polgar broke the gender barrier by becoming the first woman in history to qualify for the “Men’s” World Chess Championship. She was not allowed to play due to her gender. Because of Polgar, the world chess federation (FIDE) eventually had to change their policy to admit women players.

Watch Susan Polgar's interview with Trish Muyco-Tobin

The proudest moment of my life was when I broke the gender barrier in 1991, and became a grandmaster.

Susan Polgar, Chess Grandmaster

Below is Polgar's feature in Gazelle Magazine, the sister publication to Gazelle Life TV. The feature appeared in the February edition and on

By Trish Muyco-Tobin

Susan Polgar did not get to be a trailblazer without doing the work – hard work.

“There’s too much with cell phones, video games and texting … many kids in America today are not used to rolling up their sleeves and doing the work. As a child in Hungary, for me, there was definitely more respect and expectation for hard work,” she said. “Back in the ‘70s, when I was growing up, our living conditions were very modest. We had no phone, no car, we lived in a small place without luxuries, like having a color TV or air conditioning in the summer.”

Polgar’s parents were both teachers. It was her father who fostered in her and her two younger sisters a love for the game of chess. And for Polgar, who would grow up to dominate the game and shatter stereotypes, coming of age in Budapest was – in many ways – being in the right place at the right time.

“Chess was very popular. There were dozens of chess clubs in Budapest – it was the second-most popular sport after soccer,” she said.

With her father’s guidance, Polgar earned her first title within months of being introduced to the game.

“I won the championship in elementary school at age 4,” she said. “I was fortunate. My father was extremely good in showing me how to play. He made me fall in love with the game.”

But the young prodigy is quick to add she was not handed the world on a string.

“It wasn’t easy to grow up as a young Jewish girl in Hungary who wanted to play chess,” Polgar explained. “The game was very male-dominated, and little girls and women were discouraged from playing. There was an attitude that women weren’t as smart as men – and being Jewish was an additional obstacle.

Back then, in Hungary and throughout Europe, it was unheard of for women to play chess for a living, much less conquer the game.

“My dream was to become a chess grandmaster, but people – including some in my family and our neighbors – believed it was impossible, and they laughed at the thought,” she said.

But did she ever prove them wrong: Polgar won her first world title at age 12, and by the time she turned 15, she was ranked the No. 1 female player in the world.

“That was the final answer. I realized I had the potential to make a living at the game,” she said.

Polgar went on to make history as the first female player to qualify to compete in the Men’s World Chess Championship in 1986. Her rising dominance over the game opened doors, including the opportunity to compete in New York City.

“I first came to the U.S. when I was 16, and then visited at least once a year to compete,” Polgar said.

At age 25, she officially made New York her home, and was able to spread her wings and exert her mastery of chess further.

“The proudest moment of my life was when I broke the gender barrier in 1991, and became a grandmaster,” she said, explaining that a grandmaster is the highest title awarded to a chess player, and the title remains with the player for life.

In addition, Polgar continued to achieve extraordinary feats, including reigning as the Women’s World Chess Champion from 1996 to 1999.

Polgar lived in New York until 2007, when she began her involvement with college chess and launched her career as a coach at Texas Tech University. There, she accrued two Final Four National Championships and founded the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence. SPICE works to promote chess education as a vehicle for academic excellence and success following graduation. In 2012, Polgar brought her prestige to St. Louis, becoming the head coach at Webster University and reestablishing SPICE on campus.

But even with years of preeminence as a player and now coach, Polgar said she has continued to encounter roadblocks, not unlike the ones she experienced as a young girl.

“The reality is … I’ve come to the acceptance that I’ll always have an accent, that people will immediately know that I’m an immigrant, that I’m not American-born,” she noted.

Polgar said that while college sports is a big deal, and collegiate chess is more mainstream, being a female coach in Division One can still be a challenge.

“It’s a double whammy being a woman and an immigrant. If you would take my resume – without my name – and you compare it to anybody’s, it’s a no-brainer,” she said. “And yet, I’m not in the Chess Hall of Fame. If I were a man, I’d have been inducted a long time ago.”

Not to despair, Polgar said she uses her setbacks as a motivation to work harder – a philosophy she also imparts to her students.

“There will always be jealousy and in some cases, unfairness, but don’t let those things distract you – use them to motivate you and show it on the board,” she stressed.

Polgar’s methods are working – and winning. Webster’s chess team has won five consecutive Final Four National Championships, and is ranked the No. 1 team in the country.

“The competition is getting stronger every year, and everybody expects us to win, but all of our competitors are trying hard not to let that happen,” she said.

There are 20 players on the Webster team, eight of whom are grandmasters. The team is very diverse, with players hailing from all backgrounds and from a number of countries all over the world – a point that’s not lost on Polgar, who has fought her entire life to be recognized for her achievements and their place in history.

“I tell my team – just like I tell my own kids – you can compensate for a lot with hard work.”

Next up for her and her team is the Final Four this spring in New York City, but don’t expect her to discuss strategy. After all, a grandmaster never reveals her next move.

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