70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Our Hungarian-Israeli grandmaster
Zsófia Polgár

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon –Sándor Silló - 2018-03-20

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Two interviews. They were almost done at the same time. Here the two can be – to use a chess term - simultaneously read. The occasion for the first one was the film Polgar Variant,  recently released in Israel and Hungary. The other one was prompted by biographical parallels.

The Polgar Girls' career is one of the most fabulous success stories in chess, and there are not too many stories of this quality in the entire history of sport. This is known even by those who have never gone beyond the title pages of sport journals. The movie goes much deeper. Firstly, it introduces heroic father figure.

László Polgár had claimed that every healthy child is a genius and the rest is a matter of education. Together with his wife, they based all their child-raising practices on this principle. All this happened during the stupidity of the so-called socialism. The girls have already stood out as a very small child. Their strict schedule, similar to that of top athletes, Spartan lifestyle, and being privately schooled was disapproved by the system. László Polgár was threatened with jail, with lawsuits, but he did not budge. Then came the international successes. The three girls moved up to the women’s list. When the manager dad decided that the girls could compete with men as well, their passports were revoked under the pressure of the Kadarist sport profession. After several years of back and forth and stubborn fighting - perhaps because the system had been slowly disintegrating by that time - they won!


Team-victories at Chess Olympics, famous male grandmaster trophies, numbers in the men's rankings, hitherto unprecedented among women...frantic, noisy popularity in this quiet sport. Who could list all the stations in this fantastic series of successes?


This is how far we got in the story. Judit Polgár lives in Hungary, Zsuzsa in America, and Zsófia in Israel. Krisztina Politzer-Maymon talked with her.

We are the same age; we used to live in the same house in Pest. We have made aliyah to Israel just a few days apart - we live just a few steps from one another in the center of Israel. While I was still at school in Lipótváros, she has already played thousands of chess games with huge success.


What do you do these days?


Quite a few things. When I came to Israel twenty years ago I was an active competitor. Then my son was born 15 years ago, since then I have rarely played, I just teach. When I arrived in Israel in 1995, I did not speak a word in Hebrew. My husband (Yona Kosashvili, Israeli chess grandmaster) was a soldier at the northern border at that time, and I moved to Kiryat Shmona to be closer to him. I wanted to learn something that did not require strong language skills. I always liked to draw, so I came up with the idea of ​​learning how to draw at The Arts Institute at Tel-Hai College. 

Were you able to do it with the same enthusiasm and energy like the chess before?

I think yes. This is a matter of character ... Or rather a habit. I was used to always wanting to get the maximum out of myself. In those years when I was learning to draw, that was the goal, and it lasted for many years. I have had an online gallery where the pictures are still visible today. Then my artwork took on another form. In recent years, we have been working with Judit on an educational program called Sakkpalota [chess palace]. I drew the illustrations in the books that were made for this, so my two passions met.

”Sakkpalota és Sakkjátszótér” [chess palace and chess playground]: this is a skill-developing program for kindergarten and grade school children, hugely successful. We started it in Hungary but it is getting to be known in more and more places in other countries as well. We have teacher training courses that have been completed by hundreds of teachers, and today there are thousands of children in close to 500 schools who have participated in it. It was introduced as an optional subject in most schools, and those who would seriously want to play chess can continue later in chess clubs, and study groups. This is not about competing here; we want to provide a foundation, so the point is not to become an Olympic champion in chess, but to develop one’s skills and creativity. We take the kids to a fabulous world where they can become friends with the different characters of the "Chess palace," so, from language to math, they are helped to learn playfully.


These books have been used for years in two hundred Hungarian schools. We also won a Hungarian Product Prize, and a great prestigious award at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We hope this has been the first step in an international success story.


Your children?


My sons are 13 and 15 years old.


Do they play chess?


They were very good at chess until about the age of 8. Then they became interested in other things and did not continue. The younger one still plays very well and could be very good, but if he isn’t interested, it won’t work ...


That pedantic, regular life as you were growing up - which was legendary in the Polgár family – does it live on in your home?


We also expect our children to do better. They know this, too, but they are being treated differently. Much more liberally. Both of them are good at math and of course they do sports, basketball, swimming, krav maga. They no longer need me every minute to be with them, but still … I am still their mom!


How do you spend your days?


My husband also stopped active competition. He works as an orthopedic doctor, and I'm helping him. The Sakkpalota program continues, and I'm helping Judit a lot again. Besides, I love painting; I'm painting more and more. So I'm not at all bored.


What does success mean for you?


I think success is a relative thing. It means something else to everyone; it is experienced differently by each of us. In chess, it is very easy to measure success because there is a value system, scoring, which is an objective, mathematical system. The better ones have a higher value than the weaker ones. Then, there are the titles: Grandmaster, Olympic and World Champion.


What was your greatest success in chess?


At the Rome Competition in 1989, where I reached 2900 in the score points system, which was a record at that time. What we are most famous about is the Olympic success when, as a team, we won the Women's Chess Championship in 1988 and 1990, where we were three-quarters of the team, with Ildikó Mádl. It was a teenie-team.

Are children aware of being successful?


Yes, to a certain extent, but I think less so than when looking at it in hindsight. We were born into this competitive spirit and it was natural to compete: sometimes we lost, but usually we won. And to win feels good, children like that, too; to lose less so, but you’ve got to learn that as well. It's also an important part of education, I believe. I have not known anyone who loves losing. There were some lost games that hurt more, others less. The point is for us to learn from our failures. I think that's why sport is so important so one learns not to become overly conceited when winning, and also be able to handle losing. Down at one time, up the next. If you're down, you'll get up and go on. You have to try to analyze what did not work and do better next time.


Your achievements had been mostly spoken of as the success of the "Polgár-girls."  Was the success really shared?


Our successes were absolutely shared. Individually, but also by the family. What is special about this story is that our parents had decided even before our birth that they would do something very special with their kids. They had not yet known what this would turn out to be - it happened to be chess. We received private tutoring at home; we also participated in a lot of competitions together, and this connected us even more than other families.


There was no rivalry, jealousy between you?


No, the truth is that we have been attacked so often from the outside: the Communist system did not approve that we were home schooled, or that we participated, as girls, only in male competitions. We were an eccentric family, and in that system it was not clear how to tolerate this. I think it was the external attacks that had forged a resilient and close-knit family out of such a small group like ours.


Because of the work, we have almost daily contact with Judit. With Zsuzsi, it is more difficult because she lives in America and the time lag is great. With our parents, too, we have a close relationship; we are lucky that there is Skype in the world. They come quite often here to visit.


Don’t you miss the busy life you had as a little girl, or as a teenager?


I really like to travel. In fact, this is what I miss. Since I was four or five we had traveled a lot. We were on the road for six months when we competed. I really liked this, getting to know different cultures. I have acquaintances from all over the world I can call even after 20 years, as I know they’d welcome me. Such friendships were created through the chess. This part is the one missing; I would be lying if I said that it is the competitions. I have been playing for thirty years, battled, won, it was enough!

The first part of this piece was published on ujkelet.live page; the second part was published in the Új Kelet newspaper in May 2017. The full interview can be found at izraelinfo.com.

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