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Flapper Press Welcomes Hungarian-American Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar 

Updated: 6 days ago

By Annie Newcomer:

Susan Polgar - Photo by Paul Troung

"Hungarian-born Susan Polgar is one of the most decorated female chess players ever. In 1984, at age 15, she became the youngest ever to earn the world #1 ranking. In 1986, she made history by qualifying for the Men’s World Championship but was not allowed to play due to her gender. 

In 1991, she broke the gender barrier again by being the first female in history to earn the Men’s Grandmaster title by norms and rating. She is the only player in history to earn all six of the world’s most prestigious chess crowns (world chess triple-crown, individual and team Olympiad gold, and world #1 ranking).

In addition to her storied career, Polgar founded the Susan Polgar Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization to promote chess—with all its educational, social, and competitive benefits—throughout the U.S. for young people of all ages, especially girls. After her professional playing career, she became the only woman to coach a men’s division I collegiate team (Texas Tech 2007–2012 and Webster University 2012–2021). Her teams in the past 10 years have won more world championships, national titles, and Olympiad medals than all other collegiate chess programs in the United States combined, including a record 7 consecutive final four championships, and 9 consecutive years as the # 1 ranked team in the nation. She became the first player to ever play 1,131 consecutive games, winning 1,112 wins! She also broke the record for 326 simultaneous games played with 309 wins, and the highest winning percentage (96.93%). In 2019 she was inducted to the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, and in 2023 to the World Chess Hall of Fame. Susan was the subject of a National Geographic documentary, entitled My Brilliant Brain."


Please meet Susan Polgar!


Annie Newcomer: Welcome to Flapper Press, Susan. Not everyone is willing to share their passion with others, especially those in elite sports. How did you develop this skill to mentor and coach in chess? 

Susan Polgar: Being a daughter of parents who were both educators, perhaps this has always been in my blood. In addition, being the oldest sister in the family, I enjoyed sharing my passion and knowledge with my sisters, beginning with countless hours training them, starting in my early teenage years when they began to play chess. 

AN: What age is best to introduce children to chess? And do their parents need to play too for them to get the most benefit?

SP: I recommend anywhere from age 4 to 6, depending on the maturity of each child. Of course, it would help if at least one parent is somewhat knowledgeable about chess, but it is certainly not a must for the child to succeed. 

Susan Polgar - Photo by Paul Troung

AN: On the flip side, can you share about people who have come to chess later in life and why this is beneficial too?

SP: Chess is so much more than just a competitive sport. It offers countless benefits for people of all ages. It is an inexpensive fun activity that one can enjoy regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, etc. One can make friends locally or anywhere in the world while playing chess, as it is the most international game out there.

AN: Sometimes I hear that people who have excelled in their passion walk away because of burnout. Not just chess, but sports, acting, and other disciplines. Do you still enjoy playing chess?

SP: Yes, I still very much enjoy chess; although it’s mostly analyzing, coaching, writing, or commentating, etc. 

AN: We hear about the benefits of chess in subjects such as math, logic, & engineering, but as a former English teacher, I'd like to ask you to share your favorite poem and art piece. In addition, can you describe how being a chess player makes a difference in how you relate to art?

SP: I like the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling. I like art pieces by Vasarely and Kandinsky. Chess has its own beautiful art on the chessboard. Also, there are countless amazing chess sets with real pieces of art.



Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you   

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,   

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,   

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,   

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster   

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken   

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,   

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings   

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings   

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew   

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you   

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch;

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;   

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


AN: Susan, you are the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title in chess. You have gone on after your excellent career to coach in elite university chess programs. How does coaching differ from playing?

SP: They are quite different. As a player, I had to be “selfish” and focus mostly on myself. Obviously, no player would be helping or giving tips to his/her opponents. In sharp contrast, as a coach, I have to focus on my students, each one of them. My job is to share with them my knowledge and help them to be the best they can be. Also, as a coach, most of the stress happens in the preparation and training phase, while as a player, it is during the actual games. 

AN: During the pandemic, sales of chess boards and products soared. Undoubtedly, the popularity of the Netflix  production The Queen’s Gambit added to the wow factor and mystique of this ancient game. What do you feel The Queen’s Gambit "got right"? And what do you feel The Queens’ Gambit "got wrong"?

SP: Overall the Queen’s Gambit was a great series, and it did so much to popularize chess. It showed  a pretty good insight to the world of chess and the excitements that come during a seemingly quiet competition. 

There were a few parts that were not quite realistic. I can assure you that my experience as a young girl in the male-dominated sport was very different. Beth Harmon’s character in the series seemed to have a “walk in the park” compared to the sexism, bullying, mental and emotional abuse, physical intimidation, and much more that I had to endure. 

Also, a few other technical issues that were overlooked (perhaps internationally) were the players during competitions are not suppose to talk to one another, and the moves need to be notated after every single move. Also, a crowd applauding a game ending while other games are still on-going hardly ever happens.

AN: Susan, I have been reading the book Breaking Through — How the Polgar Sisters Changed Chess. Your story moved me not only because of the amazing accomplishments of you and your sisters but because of the family bond your parents and you and your siblings share. Can you tell us a little bit about your family?

SP: As I mentioned above, I am the eldest of three sisters and, largely due to our modest (or poor) economic situation while growing up, my parents could not afford to support three different interests. Therefore, for logistical and monetary reasons, we all ended up in the same field. We also accomplished a lot of success together as a family, including representing Hungary to win Olympic Gold at the 1988 and 1990 Chess Olympiads. 

AN: One of the advantages of excellence in a sport or profession can be world travel and meeting people of importance. Do you have any favorite countries and/or celebrities who you have met through chess?

SP: Indeed, traveling and seeing the world was one my favorite benefits that chess provided me. I have visited 80+ countries at this point, mostly thanks to chess. I have always enjoyed visiting Spain or Australia, just to mention a few. As for celebrities, I've  met many. Most recently I enjoyed the company of Lionel Richie, Gal Gadot, Jessica Chastain, Patty Jenkins, Danny DeVito, and Ed Norton.

AN: I would like to invite you to ask me a question that you wish that I had asked and haven’t. Then I would like you to answer your own question. Might we try this?

SP: Certainly. The question:

"What is one of the last things you would like to accomplish professionally?"

And the answer is: I would like to be able to coach a young girl to be the youngest grandmaster in history and to win the overall World Chess Championship to show that girls can be just as strong as boys with proper training and support.

Susan Polgar - Photo by Paul Troung

AN: The Chess for Life director, Dale Lombard, in the Kansas City, Missouri Local Investment Commission (LINC) after-school program invited all his coaches to a dinner to say thank you for a wonderful year. At this dinner, we were asked, "If you could be anyone in the world, who would you choose?" One of our best young Black coaches in KC chose you. So I went directly home and Googled you.

After reading through the Susan Polgar website, I emailed and asked if you might be interested in a short poem that I had written for my players. Within 3 minutes, you placed my poem, "The Princess," with graphics by a Canadian artist on your website. And, thus, began our 13-year friendship.

I would like to invite you to return to Flapper Press for another visit when your memoir comes out later this year.

SP: That would be lovely. Thank you.

AN: Susan, you are an inspiration and role model to so many. I value your friendship. I would like to end by sharing the poem that I wrote for my students that became the ticket to my meeting you in 2011.

Girls in Chess by Mike Magnan

The Princess 

This tale begins with a princess in flight,

how it ends, depends, if tactics are right.

It matters not if she’s pretty or thin;

her scheme needs smart with the fix the king’s in.

The kings' men measure her worth to be small,

make her move baby steps thinking she’ll fall.

She develops her mind – masters her whit,

as battlefields scare her not one wee bit.

Steadfast, she believes with all of her heart,

in games of intrigue she plays a big part.

Then a pony flies right over her head.

Next castle, bishop, lady the king wed.

She steps on eighth rank; successful escape,

stunning "princess" turned queen, secures checkmate.

— Annie Klier Newcomer 


Annie Newcomer

Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit, that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community. Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!

If you enjoyed this Flash Poet interview, we invite you to explore more here! 

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