As part of the ‘Planet 50/50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality’ initiative, chess grandmaster and Planet 50/50 Champion Judit Polgár spoke on the theme of ‘fighting stereotypes’ at a special event held on the evening of March 15 at the United Nations (UN) in New York. The event was a chance for engaged dialogue, a question and answer session, and a fast-paced simultaneous game with two teams of talented young chess players. The evening, though celebratory, also highlighted the amount of work needed to address gender equality in chess.
by Karen Holmberg
H.E. Katalin Bogyay, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN, introduced Polgár and spoke to the importance of her accomplishments in dissolving stereotypes as a female champion in a male-dominated sport.
The audience filling the UN Economic and Social Council chamber, an international mix of children and adults, then watched the short documentary video, 'Queen of Chess' (2016) from the BBC News 'Witness' series. The film pivots around the career-defining 2002 game in which Polgár beat Garry Kasparov.
In the video as well as in her comments and answers to questions after it, Polgár described the unorthodox home schooling and chess-centered education that she received as a child. By the age of 8, she focused upon chess 5-6 hours a day. By age 15, she beat Bobby Fischer’s record and became the youngest grandmaster in the world.
Polgár noted from her own experience the importance of efforts exemplified by the ‘HeForShe’ UN solidarity campaign that seeks to engage men and boys as agents of change against the negative inequalities faced by women and girls. Despite the strong family support she received, Polgár noted the many gender limitations that can be set by societies and that these need to be addressed by efforts from both men and women. As she stated from her own father’s vantage in his approach to child raising, ‘If a girl gets all the opportunities in any field… she can achieve the same result as a boy.’
The interplay between chess and sports was a recurrent theme of the evening on several levels. Polgár was firm that without the strengthening benefit of sports the endurance to play chess for long stretches is not possible. On a more abstract level, both H.E. Bogyay and Polgár emphasized the global importance of sports diplomacy and cultural diplomacy accessible via chess. As a cerebral sport, however, it was also noted that chess does not require physical size or strength hence the global gender disparity in chess champions and players is confounding.
When the floor was opened to questions, 7-year old Reid Segarra, a first-grader at PS 77 school, asked Polgár about her favorite and most memorable game and her winning position in it. She answered that it was a 1994 game against Alexei Shirov in Buenos Aires:
Here she was able to play 16...Ne3!! (17.Qxg5 Nf3# is mate!). Replay the full game with computer analysis.
Rose, mother of a 2-year old daughter, Hannah, asked how we can best encourage girls to play chess. Polgár responded that we need to provide opportunities for all children to play in a social way that increases skill level in a way that is fun. She also noted that we should not segregate girls and boys and that they need the opportunity to compete against one another regularly.
A father queried whether the book written by Polgár’s father will ever be published in English so that non-Hungarian speakers could benefit from it. Polgár stated that no publisher was in place for it, which prompted some discussion with the Ambassador regarding finding one.
Most evocatively, when asked by a young boy about when she began to play competitively, Polgár recounted her first tournament at age 6.5 and the magnetic chess set she won, noting with perhaps some nostalgia that she still remembers it well.
The simul game was played with young players on two teams against Polgár.
It became a melee of parents and photographers seeking to get shots of the very well-composed teams and good-natured comments from Polgár.
When asked for his response to the event as an attendee, a recent Harvard graduate in gender studies/economics who was a member of the chess team at that school, Shaun Chaudhuri, noted, ‘This event epitomizes the valuable intersection of positive social change and professional sports and is a great learning lesson for the young girls and boys who will become the leaders of tomorrow.’ The work those leaders will face is clear from the YouTube comments on the BBC video on Polgár that we watched during the event. The YouTube comments on that video, readily available online, skew to overtly sexist and objectifying comments.
Polgár cited herself from an earlier interview by reiterating that in chess 'It's not a matter of gender, it's a matter of being smart'. This comment was originally made in response to Nigel Short's belief that women lack the battle skills requisite to chess. These are reminiscent of a statement by Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt that women are not capable of being scientists. Hunt's response led to his resignation as well as an exceptionally humorous Twitter campaign, #distractinglysexy, which makes fun of the absurdity of such a belief.
Perhaps chess needs to come up with its own hashtag campaign to highlight overt sexism? Perhaps through Polgár it already has one. The UN name plaques in front of each participant at the event were lighted with #ChessConnectsUS, the hashtag for Polgár 's initiative, the Global Chess Festival. This initiative includes a global chess map to which people can add their data point and receive information regarding the intended goal of sharing chess with 5 million people in 10 years across the planet. The #ChessConnectsUS tag is meant to highlight how the 1500 year old game provides a tool for education and is a language through which people from very different cultures and contexts can communicate. It forms a way to bring people together and connects generations, cultures, genders, and the world through logical thinking and respect.