Chess grandmaster Susan Polgar is a model for kids in all sports

The nation is wrapped up in the throes of the Final Four college basketball tournament this month. Meanwhile this weekend, another college championship – equally competitive – took place, with a female coach leading a men's team to victory. 

Paul Truong
Susan Polgar (front right) leads the Webster University chess team through the Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Mo. From left to right behind Ms. Polgar: Anatoly Bykhovsky, Georg Meier, Ray Robson, Fidel Corrales Jimenez, Le Quang Liem, and Wesley So, carrying the President's Cup trophy. The team won its second national title on Sunday, April 6.

This weekend, a contentions “Final Four” battle took place – not on the hardwood, as basketball fans might think, but on the chess board. The Webster University chess team, led by coach Susan Polgar, earned its second consecutive national title, winning the President’s Cup at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.

As the team celebrates consecutive wins, Ms. Polgar, a chess grandmaster, goes down in the record books as the only woman to coach collegiate male sports teams to national titles four years in a row (she has won two with Webster, and two with Texas Tech University).

However, Polgar’s role in the achievement was barely a side note, let alone highly celebrated, by her peers in the chess world.

The President’s Cup is commonly referred to as the “Final Four” for college chess.

The four college teams in competition were: Webster University, University of Illinois, Texas Tech (Polgar’s former team), and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

“When my team at Texas Tech won ‘Final Four’ the first time, people in the chess community called it a ‘fluke.’ ” says Polgar. “Then we won again. It was ‘luck.’ Last year when I moved over to Webster University and we won, oh another ‘fluke.’ I guess, maybe, it has to be that way in the minds of some people in order to accept a woman’s success.”

At some point, the naysayers may want to redefine their terms, or risk being in the minority, as Polgar continues to rock the chess world with her team wins.

According to the Washington Post, the President’s Cup competition, “has been overtaken both in pizazz and talent by another Final Four participant — Webster University in St. Louis, which is led by Grandmaster Susan Polgar, a powerful, controversial and ultra-competitive figure in chess. She makes her players work out at the gym.”

I have known Polgar for the past five years, as both a chess colleague and fellow mom of boys – she has two sons, and I have four.

Motherhood is the only arena in which I can compete against a grandmaster.

Her teen sons, Tom and Leeam, are both accomplished chess players. Tom is also a varsity tennis player, and both play basketball and soccer.

I run a free children’s chess group for families in Norfolk, Va.

Over the years, I’ve marveled at Polgar’s ability to juggle motherhood, coaching, and traveling the world as a public speaker, all while suffering an ongoing battle with the mainstream chess world over the roles of women in chess.

Like many women in traditionally male-dominated sports, Polgar has chosen to repeatedly challenge the status quo, which has resulted in her upsetting the hierarchy of her sport.

“Yes, well, I ask a lot of my players,” says Polgar. “I want them to pay attention; to focus on academics, team work; to win with grace and lose with dignity; plus, yes, I have them do CrossFit to be in shape.”

Polgar adds, “If that makes me ‘controversial,' then it is my hope more coaches of Division One teams of any sport will also become controversial as well.”

In addition to coaching a Division One team, Polgar is also the team's executive director and director of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Webster University, which focuses on enhancing chess education, technology, and research.

“I suppose as a woman and a mother I have that multitasker ability,” Polgar says of her multiple roles at Webster.

Polgar has never shied from controversy, on or off the chess board.

In 1982, she took her first world title, winning the World Chess Championship for Girls under 16 at the age of 12.

In 1986, Polgar broke the chess gender barrier by becoming the first woman in history to qualify for the “Men’s” World Chess Championship.

However, she was not allowed to play in the competition. Because of Polgar, the world chess federation eventually had to change its policy to admit women players.

In the early 1990s, Polgar and her two sisters, Sofia and Judit, all emerged as dominant players on the world chess circuit. The feisty Polgar sisters avoided the Women’s World Championships and instead preferred to earn their titles by winning against men.

In 1991, she broke down barriers once again by becoming the first woman to earn the men's grandmaster title by achieving a rating more than 2500 playing against men instead of women. A player’s rating represents the strength of that player based on all the games played in tournaments over the course of a player’s entire chess career. Most grandmasters and international masters are rated between 2400 and 2600. 

When she did play against women in the Women's World Championship in 1996, Polgar won her fourth world championship title.

In the past, I have written about the difficulty of getting girls into chess, as well as the much harder task of keeping them there past middle school.

In order to encourage more girls to want to grow up to be in leadership positions, they need to see women in those positions.

When mavericks such as Polgar succeed, it is important for kids to read about those accomplishments.

Maybe this year President Obama will invite Polgar and her team to the White House to celebrate their national championship. If not, then perhaps parents can introduce the news of the other “Final Four” into sports discussions with their kids.

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