Saturday, April 11, 2009

Blast from the Past: Susan Polgar and Chess

The following is excerpted from Cathy Forbes' The Polgar Sisters - Training or Genius?, published in 1992, ISBN 0-8050-2426-3, by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York, NY. It is from Chapter 7 in the paperback edition I own entitled "Grounded!"
Because it was written so close to the time during which these events occurred, by a woman who participated in the international chess circuit as a tournament player and had some acquaintance with the characters involved, I believe it embodies more palpably than anything I could ever write what the atmosphere was at the time, and starkly lays out the incredible obstacles that GM Susan Polgar faced, and overcame, in order to earn her GM title.
I think we should never forget this.
In the July 1984 FIDE rating list, fifteen-year-old Susan Polgar appeared as the world's top rated female player with 2405, ahead of Women's World Champion Maya Chiburdanidze on 2375. Two more tournaments in Bulgaria in 1984 were sufficient to furnish Susan Polgar with the two further norms she needed for the title of International Master: she came third at Varna, and equal first at the Alen-Mak International Open. She was awarded the title at the age of fifteen, at the 55th FIDE congress at the Thessaloniki Olympiad in November 1984. "Susan Polgar makes history!" exclaimed the caption to her photograph in Magyar Sakkelet. In this picture, her Star of David pendant is clearly visible outside her striped sweater; and her hair has been cut short. What was not mentioned was Susan Polgar's non-participation in the 1984 Women's Olympiad, and the reason for it: neither her father nor her mother were permitted by the Hungarian Chess Federation to travel with her. Thus the Hungarian women's team, minus its highest rated player, finished sixth. (Emphasis added). To shed a little light on the divisions Susan Polgar's career progress caused in the Hungarian chess establishment it's worth taking time out to consider a few personalities involved. Until 1989, the President of the Hungarian Chess Federation was Sandor Szerenyi, an orthodox communist of the old school. He also was no feminist: "Mr. Polgar only wants his girls to play with the boys!" complained Szerenyi in comically broken English at the FIDE Congress in Manila in 1983. Whether as a result of the ensuing mirth or from common sense the FIDE delegates fortunately defeated Szerenyi's proposal that FIDE ban or othewise punish the Polgars for refusing to conform. From 1929 until 1931 Szerenyi was, in fact, general Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. Thus it will be appreciated that in Hungary, as in other eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union, sport and politics were (and, despite recent political upheavals, still are) closely intertwined. Chess in these countries is unquestionably classified as a professional sport, unlike the prevailing attitude of leisured, amiable amateurishness that has traditionally characterised the competitive chess activity of the West. For Hungary's chess masters, male and female, chess was a very serious business. They played league chess as salaried sports officials, employed by clubs as players and coaches. Their livelihoods depended, not just on their chess reputations, but on keeping on the right side of the authorities. Thus it is not surprising that certain players found it advantageous to cultivate personal links with powerful people like Szerenyi, who was a personal friend of the Premier, Janos Kadar. Hungarian GM Gyula Sax wrote a letter to New in Chess in 1990, after the retirement of Szerenyi. In it he alleged close links between GM Portisch, Szerenyi and Kadar. Implicit, also, was the suggestion that Portisch's assumed position as Hungarian No. 1 owed much to these links and the denial of playing opportunities to his rivals. Another player of the 'old guard' reputedly close to Szerenyi was the veteran woman player, Zsusza Veroci. The jealously, fear for livelihood etc., felt by her and other Hungarian woman players in the wake of Susan Polgar's meteoric ascent may safely be deduced. Imagine the wrath, then, when Susan Polgar declined to compete in the 'Super-Hungarian Women's Championship' that had been designed to give Veroci the chance to challenge the supremacy of the upstart Polgar! Professional jealousy apart, there was strong resentment from players accustomed to toeing the line that the rule-breaking Polgars should receive any 'special treatment'. If any other player, it was reasoned, broke the rules, declined the 'correct' tournament invitations etc., that player would expect to be penalized. Why should Susan Polgar be a special case? On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that the attitude of the Hungarian establishment, as distinct from Hungary's established players, was more ambivalent. An outstanding sportsperson, however 'troublesome,' has public relations and propaganda uses - as indeed the Polgar sisters, in the fullness of time, proved. Such international successes as the Polgars, for instance, might be used by a repressive regime to provide nationalistic headlines in times of domestic crisis. It is against this background that we can understand, not only Susan Polgar's 'punishment', i.e her three-year 'grounding' inside the Eastern Block between 1982 and 1985, but the fact, seeming inexplicable at the time, that she was let out again.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...