Judit Polgar, the greatest female player of all time, was a guest during the Play Magnus Group International Women’s Day event and answered questions posed by the teams. She talked about her career and a number of her best games, but she explained why beating Garry Kasparov in the 2002 Russia vs. the Rest of the World match wasn’t her most memorable encounter with the legend. Chilean singer Juga di Prima also answered questions and presented her newest song, dedicated to the first Women’s World Chess Champion Vera Menchik.
Let’s begin with Juga di Prima, who used the break in the Women’s Day Play Magnus Group Competition to present her new song, a version of the Russian classic “Black Eyes”, but with the lyrics changed to the chess version, “Black Squares”. Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but it does!
It’s the first song of Chess Divas, and it’s dedicated to Vera Menchik and the lyrics are in Russian. It was a very big challenge for me to sing in Russian because I cannot speak Russian, but the lyrics were written specially for this video by Alexandra Kosteniuk, so I’m very honoured and happy to collaborate with chess players creating songs and also this project aims to bring visibility to women’s chess.
Juga and Judit were interviewed by WIM Raluca Sgircea and GM Pepe Cuenca and you can rewatch the show.
We’ve transcribed Judit’s answers below.
What advice would you give about playing online?
Well, of course online it’s kind of a tricky atmosphere to play. I never had the chance to compete online and I was not a huge fan of playing online, to be honest, but I was still competing myself in times when it was not so professional, not such good conditions, not so entertaining as now.
I think the most important thing should be that you’re still focusing on the game and not on the circumstances, but obviously it must have been very difficult to get used to it, that you don’t look at your opponent physically but on the screen and you don’t see the pieces in three dimensions but in 2D.
But at the same time, I think by now we are so much used to the screen, watching chess while preparing, that from this point of view it’s not so frightening.
I think chess players are very good and very resilient and they can adjust themselves very well to new situations, and this is what the chess world showed also, that while the whole world was under lockdown we chess players and the chess community, the chess platforms, created even better circumstances for the players to compete.
Obviously we shouldn’t neglect the problem of the cheating element, but we hope that the players are honest. Also of course there are measures which can be taken against the cheating possibilities, but I can always advise everybody that the best thing is to play fair!
Is there a special game for you, and why?
I have quite a few games I’m very proud of. One of my most favourite games was when I beat Anand in 1999 in Dos Hermanas, then also one of my favourite games against Shirov, which I won in 94 in Buenos Aires, but I’m also happy with a few of my games against Boris Spassky which I won in 93.
We've put together a selection of the games Judit mentions in this article, including the full 10-game match she won 5.5:4.5 against Boris Spassky, so they can be replayed with computer analysis:
If you hadn’t become a chess player what would you have done instead?
I would be doing something definitely creative, I think, though it’s very difficult for me to say what would I be if I wouldn’t be a chess player, as I started when I was very young, when I was five years old. But with my mind of today, for sure I would be happy to do something else, something creative.
What was your approach to deciding games? Did it matter if you were playing a man or a woman?
When I was competing in a very important game obviously I had to be even more focused than usual, but at the same time I wanted to make sure I made my preparation right, so if I did so and I had a good rest, a good sleep, which I did sleep quite a lot during the tournament, it meant I was balanced emotionally, physically and that was the most important for me. Of course it’s not all the time it happened that it worked out the best way, but at least I knew that I did everything I could. So that was something very important.
For me it did not matter whether I played against ladies or men, though I played very few [women-only] events. Only in 86, when I was 10, I played the Under 16 Girls and then later on the two Olympiads which I won together with my sisters. The only issue was in the ladies tournament that I knew that I was much higher rated player, so I went there to win every game, because in the second Olympiad already that’s what they expected me to do. In the first Olympiad I was not so high in rating points yet, but after a few rounds, as I started to win my games, I was focused very much on the games.
Judit scored an amazing 12.5/13 in her first Olympiad in 1988
I was a practical player, so when I knew that I’m playing against a lower-rated player, or even when my opponent was in time trouble, I was not necessarily making the best move objectively but I was a real practical player and focusing on winning the game, so sometimes I made some combination, some dubious move even, or interesting idea, which I knew that my opponent had not enough time to figure out, and so that’s how I played until I was a teenager.
Later on I was more and more focused on finding the best moves, but still, I always considered myself a real practical player – how to win the game!
Who is the most empowering woman you have ever met and why?
Judit: My mum is maybe the first lady who gave me so much in many ways, and I think the most important thing that she gave me, apart from obviously the love she gave, was in some ways the simplicity. She was always caring for me and my sisters, being herself all the time, and that’s what she taught to me, to be yourself, and I think that’s one of the most important things in feeling good about yourself and being successful. I think in some ways I should say that she’s the lady, because the perseverance she has in family, in her beliefs, in life-long learning - there are so many important trademarks of her that I think a big part of my success comes from her.
How did you manage to
remain in the absolute elite for so many years in a world dominated by men?
Well, I think it’s not a matter of whether they were men or not. When you are in your profession I think you have to renew yourself from time to time, you have to put new goals and new challenges to yourself, in order to maintain where you are or even improve.
I always loved the game very much, and I think that gave me a lot of energy whenever I played a beautiful game or I saw some artistic element in chess.
I love studies.
Of course it was not easy to balance between opening preparation, middlegame and also when I had already a family, combining it was more challenging, but I started to become professional in my teenage years and that’s why for me it was always very natural to fight back and fight more for new challenges, and I loved the game very much and I think that also helped me a lot.
What was your first thought when you beat Kasparov?
Everybody thinks that that’s THE game of my life against Kasparov, but I have to tell you that that was not THE game.
Objectively and professionally my most memorable games were a year earlier in Linares, where I played with the white and black pieces, because that’s where I found out what is the strategy against Kasparov. I made two draws there, and when I won against him, from one point of view I understood exactly that the world got an earthquake, kind of, that “wow, Judit beat Kasparov”, but from a professional point of view it was much more valuable for me the Linares games.
I felt that Kasparov simply chose the wrong opening and that’s why I beat him.
At the same time, he beat himself, in a way. So I was obviously very proud and very happy, but because he chose this Berlin opening, not his style at all, I didn’t feel the full satisfaction of a victory, I must say. It was more for the public and the media, who really hyped it up, and obviously I understood, but I treasure the beauty of chess and the quality. From this point of view, I had mixed feelings.
What do you think that women can bring to chess that others cannot?
I think generally in tournaments where there are ladies, for example in Gibraltar, it’s a good example, I think there is much more fun in the event, and the atmosphere is much more loose, more laughing and so on.
At the same time, I would like to see more girls taking chess on the board more seriously, not only as a game but seeing it as their profession, because that’s why I think the mistakes also come on a lower level. But in general I think the atmosphere is just much better in a tournament with girl competitors.
What can chess bring women that a sport like football cannot?
I think chess generally can be very educational and if you learn it very systemically it can also be something good for self-learning - how do you behave, how do you think, to understand yourself better. And also if you play on the same level as you are, then also if you’re focusing you can gain self-confidence in improving and so on, and I think generally with all the logical skills and decision-making it’s also something very important you can learn in chess.
But I also want to distinguish between chess itself, what it improves, and what competitive chess improves, because when you compete you learn a lot of things like how to handle loss, how to handle victory, you understand your preparation, how does it affect your play. So generally, obviously,
I’m a big fan of chess in education, but definitely I always ask parents and coaches please don’t limit girls with the feedback that you can become ladies World Champion.
I really ask everybody to motivate the girls to reach and become the best version of themselves, not that they want to limit them, because I think that can be a serious problem by parents and coaches also.
So this is my goal, to achieve that whether it’s a girl talent or a boy talent you should be expecting them to reach the best they can, and I think chess is a great sport, a great game to challenge yourself and your abilities.
How did you feel when you won your first game against a top grandmaster?
First I remember the grandmaster I beat for the first time. I was 11 years old. That was something very special, it was in Brussels, I think, and it was Gutman. I think the reason was also that I felt very proud of myself because nobody expected me to do so well, first of all. Secondly, it was a very complicated attacking game where obviously both of us made mistakes and it was ups and downs, but somehow I outcalculated my opponent and then in the end in his time trouble he made the last mistake.
So that was something very memorable for me. I don’t remember exactly who was the first 2700 player, but another great memory which is very warm in my heart is the match with Boris Spassky, and he was the first World Champion I beat, in 93, when I was 16, 16 and a half, and that again was really great joy, but I think again because the game itself was also very nice, and a very good quality game. I outplayed him, it was not a blunder by him, it was not an easy game, it was a long game, it was a 5-6 hours game and actually that’s what gives me real joy, when I really have a great fight and then it shows, I can prove it that I’m better, I calculated better, I played better, my perseverance was better or I was focusing better, but it didn’t come easy at all.
I think being nervous is something natural, and actually I can say that if you’re not nervous or you’re not worried or your heart doesn’t beat faster at some points of the game, it means you don’t care.
If you care obviously you’re going to have moments and seconds where you’re worried, you’re excited, but obviously it’s also better if you don’t show it during the game - if you blundered something or you missed something - but it’s very clear that you can get very excited at some point of the game.
But also it’s part of chess that even if you have a winning position you have to stay calm and focused and control yourself, because you may easily ruin your winning position. This was also something I learned from a very young age, that no matter how winning you are you still have to be focused, calculating, paying attention, because you never know where you can go wrong, and actually that’s how I saved quite a few of my games, that my opponent was taking it easy and was not paying attention so much already, so you have to play until the last moment, being very focused.
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