/ 1 December 1989

The father who breeds geniuses

When Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian vocational school teacher, married his Ukranian wife, Klara, in 1965 he carefully studied a number of books on ”fathering”. Stepson of a rabbi and product of a broken home, Laszlo was brought up in an orphanage, and it is clear that from a very early age this intense, obstinate man sought not only to bring order to his own life but to control to an unprecedented degree the environment of his future family. The result is the greatest phenomenon in the history of chess: three sisters, Zsuzsa, Zsofia and Judit Polgar, all of whom have achieved Grandmaster status in their teens. 

Zsuzsa, who had been playing chess since the age of four, won her Master title in 1982 at the age of 13 (Karpov did not reach that standard until 15); she was an International Master at 18. The two other Polgar girls were, by then, already astonishing the world. Zsofia achieved International Master and Grandmaster results in 1988, aged 14. But it is Judit to whom the chess world most readily gives the title of genius: last year, aged 13, she achieved a Grandmaster norm and became the world’s top-ranking woman player. This beats even the great Bobby Fischer by a wide margin. 

The mathematical probability of any family producing one chess Grandmaster was thought to be relatively low; the mathematical probability of producing three in a row goes off the chart. The astounding point about the Polgar phenomenon is that Laszlo Polgar planned such results before the children were born. The story of the Polgars is therefore much more one of educational techniques, a unique and deliberate experiment in environmental conditioning, than it is of chess. Until recently, public interest in the West has centred largely on the performances of the girls, as it would in any competitive sport. But now ques¬tions are being asked about the conditions in which the girls have been obliged to live to produce such results. 

For years Polgar was the object of intense hostility from the Hungarian public because of his unorthodox educational methods. Defying the authorities, he never allowed his children to go to school. He, his ex-teacher wife and chess coaches provided their education at home. The President of the Hungarian Chess Federation, Sandor Szerenyi (also a former Party Secretary) called him ”a scoundrel and an anarchist”. Another of Polgar’s battles is his refusal to allow his girls to play in women’s tournaments, with the exception of the Olympics, where Zsuzsa triumphed. To challenge male players they are obliged to play in teams. The question many ask is: has Polgar turned his children into robots and marionettes? 

The Polgars live on the eigth floor of a block of flats on Semmelweis Street, a workers’ area in Budapest. The tiny flat is copiously furnished with crammed bookcases. But what is remarkable is that every single book is about chess; every cassette features chess games; most of the ornaments are chess trophies; even the framed prints depict chess scenes. Occasional tables bear computer chess sets. There is an encyclopaedia, but it is an encyclopaedia of endgames. A card index of chess openings covers an entire wall from floor to ceiling; there is a computerised data bank of opening variations and middle game types. There is a name index used to prepare against certain adversaries. The entire home is a shrine to chess. The only apparent relief from chess are two dolls and a golliwog on Judit’s bunk. 

The achievements in chess are incidental to Laszlo Polgar’s obsessive theories of ”genius rearing”. Chess was simply the most convenient route for demonstrating those theories. Its attraction was that it has the advantage of any competitive sport, that measurable results can be easily obtained. The cold-bloodedness of this experiment becomes apparent when we discover that chess was not one of Polgar’s great interests; even now he is only a mediocre player. So this was not the equivalent of a father wanting to pass on the passionate love of his hobby to his children. 

Polgar told me that in the early days of his marriage he examined the childhood of many famous persons and saw that geniuses all specialised in a field very early. He read that Ye¬hudi Menuhin’s father gave up his career as a teacher so that the family could live together and organise Ye¬hudi’s concerts. Polgar resolved to do the same, although for years it resulted in severe poverty. Polgar is against conventional schooling, he says, because ”it did not make learning a beloved activity.” Although he still speaks bitterly of the pressure put on him by the authorities, in fact they never succeeded in obliging him to send the children to school; he was not even fined. The children sit for normal exams at the local school and have so far maintained a necessary standard.

Polgar’s approach to teaching is, he says, that ”the pleasure of the accomplishment must be several times as much as the experience of failure.” He claims to reject blind discipline. ”I achieve discipline”, he says, ”by kindling interest in, and love for, the subject. I believe that early childhood is not at all early in respect of learning, not even of specialisation. ”In my opinion the period from three to six is the most important and should be utilised much better than it is today. Children like to solve problems. The richer the content of the problem solved the happier the child. Learning was a greater pleasure for my children than sterile play for play’s sake.” 

He accepts that his children play less than other children, but considers this is normal for children of high ability who demand more absorbing tasks. He had thought of experimenting with three different subjects – maths, foreign languages and chess – but his financial circumstances in those days did not make it possible. The three children would have needed three different teacher-trainers. ”True psychologists do not recommend siblings competing directly because they could become jealous and envious, and might even come to hate ach other”, says Polgar. ”This, however, cannot take place if they are brought up properly.”

The girls admit they do not go to discos, but say they have friends. Zsuzsa swims with a friend at 7 every morning. They all play ping-pong; Zsofia has reached competition standards. The girls give the impression of children of a particularly sheltered family. Polite, friendly, neither in¬tense nor passionate in their response, they do not appear to have strong opinions either about chess or about their own future. They would just like to keep on playing, they claim, and if they have children they would probably use educational methods similar to their father’s. But it was clear that they had not given the subject much thought, nor did they feel there was any need to. If the girls do not appear to have an even average awareness of culture – a friend said that a couple of years ago Zsuzsa had never heard of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – neither do they appear to be in any way neurotic. 

I asked Zsuzsa if she had a boyfriend. She was very hesitant in her response. ”She is not sure”, said her mother. The Polgars are still a united and, in a quite humane way, isolated family. The intransigence of the Communist Government in not allowing them passports until 1985 might have protected the children at a crucial time in their development. What will happen when other individuals lay claim to the girls’ loyalty is another question. Polgar claimed that nothing would change; when the girls married, their husbands would become part of an extended family. ”He won’t divide up the chess books,” Mrs Polgar said. ”So they will always coin back.” 

Has Laszlo Polgar really created geniuses? It is possible he has unwittingly done something more subversive: totally demystified chess. He has demonstrated that any obedient, healthy child, fed on an almost exclusive diet of chess, can become a Grandmaster. –The Guardian, London –  Peter Lennon

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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