Schooled By The Queen Of Chess
By Thomas Lin
In a well-lit Rego Park basement one Thursday evening, around 20 students sit before green and white checkered vinyl boards eagerly awaiting instruction.
Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar takes her place next to a large, magnetic demo board hanging from the wall, greets the class and gets right down to business. Todayís lesson is about open files Ė columns on the chess board that no longer have any pawns. Her approach is methodical, deliberate.
A large sign behind the students reads, "Susan Polgar Chess Center."
During the hour-and-a-half lesson, Polgar starts from basic, easy to understand concepts like using a point system to account for material disparities or counting the number of pieces protecting and attacking a square as a safety precaution. Then she progresses to deeper, more complex concepts.
To illustrate how to capitalize on open files, she reviews a grandmaster game on the big demo board. Move by move, the game offers a concrete example of open file theory while enhancing pattern recognition.
"I think itís very important to teach chess as pattern recognition," Polgar said. "Thatís one of the better benefits, not only to become a chess player, but that they can use in life."
Her approach is to show students examples so they can recognize the pattern in similar situations. "In a chess game, you rarely get same position twice, but you often get something similar. Through chess, kids can learn that in a fun way."
Polgarís students range from preschoolers to senior citizens. They listen intently as the grandmaster explains the importance of candidate moves ó considering all potentially good moves as candidates from which to select the most advantageous ó and long-term planning based on a sound understanding of pawn structure and piece placement.
Mostly, itís the preschoolers who have their hands up, eager to show off their newfound knowledge.
"I like chess because you learn concepts and then you get to use them right away," said 33-year-old Ernst Prince, a self-proclaimed "park player" who volunteers at the Polgar Chess Center in exchange for free lessons. "Here you get to learn from the best."
Polgar opened the center in 1997, offering Queens a fulltime club, chess store and grandmaster instruction.
"I really wanted to give an opportunity to the community not needing to go to Manhattan, if they wanted to get a game of chess or instruction," Polgar said.
In the beginning, she wasnít sure the club would succeed. "At the time it was just the beginning of the internet era. I didnít know if people would stay at home and play on the internet instead of going to the club."
Eventually, as members began to multiply, she realized that personal touch and instruction do make a difference.
Now her club has 65 members of all ages, including about 20 kids from all over Queens. Some members even come from upstate New York and Long Island.
The center sometimes holds special events featuring world-famous grandmasters who visit or give simultaneous exhibitions, also called "simuls."
To promote the game, Polgar frequently offers simuls of her own ó at the World Peace Festival in Armenia on Sept. 21, she took on 70 players all at once, including one international master. The result: 69 wins and one draw. The draw went to her friend and business manager Paul Truong, not the international master.
Born April 19, 1969 in Budapest, Hungary, "Zsusa" Polgar was introduced to chess by her father. At the age of four, she won all ten games to take the under-11 section of the Budapest Chess Championships.
By the time she was 15, Polgar was the top-ranked female chess player in the world and has remained in the top three in the 19 years since.
Her success paved the way for her two younger sisters, both of whom followed her into the world of professional chess. The youngest, Judit, is ranked tenth in the world among all players and has the best chance of becoming the first female world chess champion.
Polgarís list of accomplishments is enormous, as must be her trophy room, which, one would image, is probably the size of Stephi Grafís.
As a chess pioneer, itís appropriately a list of firsts.
She is a four-time Womenís World Chess Champion and the only champion ever to win the "triple-crown" in chess Ė rapid, blitz and traditional time control.
She is a three-time Olympic Champion and has won six overall medals: three gold, two silver and one bronze. Sheís twice won the prestigious "Chess Oscar."
Last year alone, she was the first woman ever to become Grandmaster of the Year and U.S. Open Blitz Champion.
In addition, she is a best-selling chess author and has won numerous awards for her magazine columns and analysis.
But one achievement stands out above the rest.
"Iím most proud that I broke the gender barrier, becoming first woman to obtain grandmaster title in January 1991," Polgar said.
In 1986, when she qualified to compete in the "Menís World Championship" as the second-ranked player in Hungary, Polgar was prevented from participating. Because of her, the tournament name the following year was changed to just the "World Championship."
After winning her fourth womenís world championship in 1996, she took a break to start her own family, moving to Queens. With both of her children now in nursery school, sheís making a return to chess, acting as an ambassador of the game, teaching, writing, and playing top board for the U.S.A. womenís team in the 2004 Chess Olympiad.
Though Queens is "totally different" from Budapest, Polgar said she appreciates being able to find Hungarian salami and paprika at the local grocery store. "By now I consider this area my home. I feel just as comfortable in Rego Park and Forest Hills."
That evening, Joseph Tolen of Forest Hills brought Anna, his 4-year-old daughter, to the chess center for the first time.
"No one in the family plays chess," he said. "I believe people who play chess are more successful. They have a strategy towards life. It opens their mind more."
Tolen, a Russian-born Israeli, said that with his 12-year-old son also in the class, he was considering signing up the whole family.
He described how Anna noticed people playing chess in MacDonald Park one day and dragged him there to watch for hours.
"Usually little kids donít have patience to sit for a long time, but I believe she will love it," Tolen said. "I believe it takes a very smart person to be a good chess player."
Already reading second grade books, Anna is very advanced for a preschooler and sometimes gets bored at school. Her father thinks the solution, instead of jumping grades, is chess. "She likes to hang out with seven-year-olds. I think chess will let her be with other smart kids."
He added, "Itís a challenging game. It will challenge her and give her something to be excited about."
Research proves that playing chess improves analytical thinking skills, Polgar said, adding that several states have already approved the game as an academic subject. "About 200,000 children learn chess in an organized form in the Tri-State area. New Jersey is one of states that has approved chess for the curriculum. Many other states are in the process of getting it into the curriculum."
Polgarís chess center, located at 97-09 64th Rd., is open Monday through Friday from 6 to 10:30 p.m., Saturdays from 1 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. For more information, log on to www.polgarchess.com.