Features Apr 22, 2015 | 4:56 PMby Tarjei Svensen

Nigel Short and Susan Polgar at war

Nigel Short is embroiled in controversy over allegedly "sexist" comments he made in an article in the last issue of New in Chess, but our correspondent Tarjei J. Svensen was more struck by the criticism of former Women's World Champion Susan Polgar and her husband Paul Truong. He takes a look at a chess feud between three highly prominent members of the chess community.

Nigel Short takes aim at Susan Polgar and Paul Truong

by Tarjei J. Svensen

Susan Polgar sips a drink during her simul at Palm Beach Gardens in 2005 | photo: Paul Truong

Did Susan Polgar really play 1131 games in 16.5 hours, an average of 51 seconds per game, to claim a world record for a simultaneous display? That's one of the questions Nigel Short asks in a New in Chess column that has now gone viral for other reasons.

Nigel Short won the 2015 Bangkok Chess Club Open (replay all the games here) and should be warmed up for his match with Garry Kasparov that starts in only a few days (games live here) | photo: Short's Facebook page

Short's column in New in Chess 2/2015.

Former World Championship Challenger, chess commentator and Grandmaster Nigel Short is a regular columnist for the world’s leading chess magazine, New in Chess. Never afraid to speak his mind, Short has as many fans as he has enemies in the chess world.

In his latest column (02/2015) Vive La Différence!, the British Grandmaster takes a look at the male dominance of chess and argues that it can be explained by physical differences between the sexes. He concluded the article:

Men and women's brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don't have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn't feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.

The column has made headline news on major media sites all around the world, including The Telegraph, The GuardianThe Daily Mail and Time. Nigel Short also made a TV appearance on Sky News:

Susan Polgar: "Outrageous comments about women"

On CBC Radio, former Women's World Chess Champion Susan Polgar attacked Short for making "sexist and outrageous comments about women for decades". Then she upped the rhetoric:

Just imagine if Nigel Short would say blacks don't have the brains to play chess; how crazy that would sound... It has nothing to do with the race or gender. It has to do with the opportunities.

Polgar thinks the attack is personal and might even be right, though it's unlikely it's for the reason she gives:

I think he has something personal going on here. He can not accept the fact that he is not doing that great against the Polgar sisters.

That the oldest of the Polgar sisters took the opportunity to strike back at Short is unsurprising, given the rest of Short's column.

A history of controversy

Polgar, along with her business partner, manager and husband Paul Truong, currently run the college chess program at Webster University in St. Louis. The couple are no strangers to controversy themselves. 

In 2008, four members of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) board published a statement requesting Truong resign from his position on the board. They claimed that Polgar’s husband had, “neglected his fiduciary duties, and based on discussions between him and our attorney, there seems little likelihood this situation will change in the future.” The case involved computer hacking and posting under false names in an apparent attempt to influence USCF elections.

The dispute reached the courts, but in 2010 the couple had their USCF membership revoked as part of a settlement of lawsuits brought by the USCF against Polgar and Truong. The two are no longer members of the USCF, although they are still listed as “non-playing members”.

Happier times in Las Vegas. From left to right: Ray Robson, Susan Polgar, Paul Truong, Wesley So, Le Quang Liem and Ashwin Jayaram | photo: Chessdom

Recently Paul Truong again made the news when he was accused of being Wesley So's "worst enemy" during the 2015 US Championships in St. Louis. Wesley So's estranged mother showed up at the tournament and apparently upset the new U.S. no. 2 to the extent that he asked for her to be banned from the tournament venue. A post on Wesley's Facebook page, which was later removed, claimed that Truong had used his credit card to book a hotel room for So's mother, despite his claim to have had no involvement in her visit except to give publicly available details of the tournament. Truong later published two e-mails from the hotel that apparently contradict So's statements. The Vietnamese-born FM, who now represents Cambodia, categorically denies any involvement in the appearance of So's mother.

Nigel Short, meanwhile, has not been accused of any illegal activities, but has been criticised for overstepping the bounds of good taste in his writing, most notoriously in an obituary of fellow English Grandmaster Tony Miles that somehow found its way into The Sunday Telegraph newspaper despite including a mention of how Short had slept with his colleague's girlfriend.      

Vive la différence?

In Short's latest New in Chess article he pulls no punches when describing the role played by Paul Truong in Susan Polgar's "self-publicity machine":

Her husband and business-manager, the twice bankrupt Paul Truong – who claims to have won the Vietnamese Junior (under 21) Championship at the age of 5, and to have been kidnapped by pirates on several occasions while narrowly escaping death by circling sharks – continues to run her successful, relentless, self-publicity machine. He has not, as yet, been abducted by aliens, but it is surely only a matter of time.

It's of course FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who has talked on record about his alien abduction on numerous occasions, while for the other details you might want to take a look at the interview, A Man with a Noble Cause, that Susan Polgar conducted with her future husband for Chess Cafe. It opens:

Susan Polgar: Why are you so passionate about changing the face of chess in America?

Paul Truong: Well, it is a very good question and one I don’t think I have ever talked about before. It started from circumstances I had to deal with throughout the early part of my life. Growing up in Saigon, Vietnam, I became a chess icon at a very young age. I won the first National Junior (under 21) Championship when I was only 5 years old, unexpectedly. All of a sudden, I became a sensation, a child prodigy. I defended this title for the next three years. At the age of 8½, I stunned the country by winning my first national championship and defended it successfully for four consecutive years. My celebrity status skyrocketed.

In the New in Chess article it's another claim that Nigel focuses on, though, calling a 2005 account of Susan smashing a record for consecutive games played in a simultaneous display "extravagant and literally incredible". Although there were no Guinness representatives present to monitor the event at the time, Polgar announced that “World Guinness Simul Records were broken”. The previous record holder, WGM Anna Maria Botsari of Greece, had managed 1102 games consecutively in 30 hours. However, Polgar reportedly smashed the record, playing an amazing 1131 games. In only 16.5 hours.

Susan Polgar on her way to breaking four records in over 16 hours? | photo: Susan Polgar's blog

Does that really add up? Short is certain it doesn’t:

Given Susan Polgar’s undoubted genuine achievements – such as being the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title conventionally by making three norms – it is tragic that her brand is tarnished by extravagant and literally incredible claims like her supposed world record in 2005 of playing 1,131 games consecutively (winning 1,112!) in just 990 minutes. This works out at just 52.5 seconds per game – although it would be somewhat less when one takes into account bathroom breaks. Given that she was walking around the whole time, which causes a second or seconds to be lost on every move, for this record not to be fictitious would require an extraordinary number of Scholar’s Mates. It is hard to understand why an emotionally stable individual would even imagine anyone else might believe this record to be genuine.

Susan Polgar herself responded to a letter by the previous holder of the most simultaneous games record, Andrew Martin, in an article in 2005:

There is one fact I would like to clarify. Each game did not take a minute to complete by both sides but only by me. While I was walking, my opponents had plenty of time to think. We did not allow any pass. Therefore, a move must be made as I arrive at the board. Then I responded basically instantly. My moves against the weaker players did not take more than a second or two at most. If each game averages 30 moves or even less, it would take about a minute or less to complete. After all, I gave more than 1,000 exhibition simul games in the last year or two throughout the United States and North America. Therefore, I had a lot of practice in advance.

"Not one chance in a billion"

Speaking to chess24, Short considers the response “absurd”.

No-one plays a 30-board simul in under half an hour. And certainly there is not one chance in a billion that someone can play over 1,000 games at that speed. If you play 30 boards in one hour that is super fast and that is not even half the speed which she is claiming for a 1,000+ board simul.

We also got in touch with Susan Polgar for a response to Short’s claims. Although it was brief, she didn’t miss the chance to strike back at the Brit for a previous column.

As for Paul's and my accomplishments, facts are facts, even if GM Short does not like them or has a hard time believing them. I would not lose even a second of sleep over what he said.

As to his other narratives, after I read his column (in NIC 2012/7) about what "Chess Olympiads are about" in his mind, I do not pay much attention to anything he says or writes. 

Nigel Short's column on the Olympiad put a strong emphasis on the "extra-curricular" activities that take place in a huge sporting event bringing together a large number of male and female competitors.

On a request for further details on the display and an explanation of how the feat was possible, Polgar explained:

On my DVD Learn Chess in 30 minutes, there is footage of the simul captured by various videographers. There were also hundred of pictures taken. I did not come up with the numbers. I have no way of knowing how many I played. The numbers and the exact time were recorded by official record keepers provided by the city and organisers.

Nigel is not alone in being curious about the claims, with chess historian Edward Winter noting the lack of any attempt to rebut Short's criticism despite the media frenzy.

An incident in Tromsø

It’s not the first time these three have been involved in a public quarrel. In Tromsø it became apparent that the two just didn't like each other.

During the FIDE World Cup in 2013, Susan Polgar was hired to do live commentary while Paul Truong led the press center. 

Susan Polgar and Lawrence Trent were the commentators for the first four rounds of the 2013 World Cup

When the Tromsø organization decided to hire Short as one of the co-commentators for the second part of the event, it caused some serious friction between the two.

Truong is not only the man behind Susan Polgar's website but also runs her Twitter account, which boasts an impressive 30,000 followers. When tweets in Susan's name regularly appeared during her live commentary it was clear that Paul was the man typing, as he may have been when this tweet was released about commentary by Nigel Short and New in Chess editor Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam:

The tweet was a response to a comment Nigel Short made on air when Slovak Women's Champion Eva Repkova joined the show to talk about games involving Vladimir Kramnik and other players:

Short: Am I allowed to divulge some information here from the dim and distant past? I believe that you were once the girlfriend of Vladimir Kramnik.Is that right?

Repkova: Well, it was a very long time ago, but I'm still cheering for him!

You can watch the relevant moment from 03:20 onwards below:

Short told us:

Neither of them was in the least bit offended.

Sources claim that the tweet led to an angry reaction from the Chess Olympiad in Tromsø organisation.

Where now?

It seems unlikely Short will be settling his differences with Polgar and Truong any time soon. In the New in Chess column Short was critical of the way Susan behaved after she claimed the Women's World Championship throne in 1996. He wrote that her demands, “smacked of insincerity given that her actions, or rather lack of them, demonstrated that she had no inclination to play at all”. He expanded on that statement when we contacted him:

I have written about pathetic behaviour in the World Championship, saying “she couldn't play because she was pregnant,” or “because the match was in China,” or “the money wasn't high enough,” and all of these were transparent excuses because she had already stopped playing chess basically the moment she became World Champion.

The antagonism is very much mutual, with Polgar and Truong using social media to attack Short (sometimes by name, sometimes by implication) and call for sanctions against him by the World Chess Federation FIDE. It's worth noting that Susan has an official role as the Chairperson of the Commission for Women's Chess

Where do your sympathies lie in the continuing debate?

Tarjei J. Svensen

Tarjei is a keen amateur chess player, arbiter and organiser who, with the rise of Magnus Carlsen, quickly became indispensable as the interpreter of all things Norwegian. He commentates on chess for Norwegian TV and is a must-follow on Twitter.

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