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A Chess Queen

The largest chess school in Queens - by all accounts, the

only chess school in Queens - is on the ground floor of an apartment building

off a gridlocked stretch of asphalt in Forest Hills, next to a Middle Eastern

bodega and a video store. It is called the Polgar Chess Center, and, according

to the sign outside, it is the Home of the Four-Time Women's World Champion

and the Five-Time Olympic Champion, which could be construed as

ever-so-slightly hyperbolic, since: A) Susan Polgar does not actually live

here, and B) Chess is not actually an Olympic sport.

This last is not Susan Polgar's fault. No one would like to see chess

sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee more than Polgar, who may be

the closest thing chess has to a P.T. Barnum or a Bill Veeck. Until then, her

claims remain technically true, since Polgar has indeed won five medals as a

participant in the Olympics of chess, an event that just happens to be entirely

separate from the "mainstream" Olympics, if only because a large segment of

the world population considers chess a sport in the way it considers

competitive trigonometry a sport.

Susan Polgar would like to change that, as well. There are many things she

would like to alter about the game she grew up immersed in, from the way it is

perceived to the way it is marketed to the way it has historically tended to

marginalize female competitors. She is a compact woman full of outsized ideas.

Here is one: A reality television show centered on chess. Here is another:

Speed chess tournaments on, say, ESPN2. And another: A traveling chess league,

similar to the professional tours in golf or tennis.

These are just a sampling of Polgar's brainstorms for spreading the gospel

of chess in America, something that hasn't happened on a grand scale since a

boy from Brooklyn named Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in 1972 for the

world championship, landing Fischer on the cover of several major magazines

before he vanished from public life and emerged two decades later as a paranoid

anti-Semite.

The 36-year-old Polgar was born in Hungary and came to New York with her

then-husband in 1994. She started her school in 1997. It didn't take her long

to discern certain fundamental tenets of American culture.

"In America, people want action," she said in her accented English. "And

they want it now. But chess, if it's promoted in the right way, can be

exciting."

She is not the first person to express these sentiments, of course,

although, in a game whose top players are still overwhelmingly male, she is the

first woman to so persistently present such a grandiose public vision. The

hard part is getting anyone - most notably, potential sponsors - to pay

attention. "It's going to be very tough," said Hikaru Nakamura, 17, the

defending U.S. champion. "I'm not very optimistic about the chances of chess

becoming popular [as a spectator sport] in the United States. We would need

major corporations to start sponsoring some chess players or tournaments."

Beyond this obvious hurdle, there is a small but determined segment of

chess players complaining that Polgar has overstated her accomplishments (her

four world championships include titles in team and speed events, for

instance), that she is "a shameless self-promoter - at least on par with the

biggest braggarts of all," according to one poster on the Web blog Chess Ninja.

Faced with such critics, Polgar acknowledges "doubters" but says she's

determined to press on with her plans.

But what if Polgar is right? What if youth chess can someday reach the

popularity level of, say, youth soccer?

"I think it could be a big boom," she said. "And I think it could last for

many years."

Bred for the sport

It could be argued that Polgar is the ideal spokeswoman for the game,

having been raised in what is generally considered the chess equivalent of

tennis' Williams family. Her father, Laszlo, a psychologist, "was determined to

turn his children into geniuses, a project he planned before they were born,"

according to a history of women in the sport written by a grandmaster named

Jennifer Shahade. Susan (given name Zsuzsa but since Anglicized to ease in

pronunciation) and her sisters, Judit and Sofia, were home-schooled. As

children, they often studied chess for six hours a day.

By the time she was 12, Susan was the best female chess player in Hungary,

having claimed a master's title at the age of 10. By the time she was 15, in

1984, she was the top-rated female chess player in the world. She was the first

woman to challenge gender barriers at chess tournaments; in 1991, she became

the first female to earn a "grandmaster" title. At home, with the help of her

Ukrainian mother, Klara, a foreign language teacher, she learned to speak

seven languages fluently, including Esperanto. She did not miss school, and if

you want to know the truth, she says, she did not really miss not having a

childhood.

"Every child wants to be bigger than she is," Polgar said. "I was quite

happy to have more grown-up subjects to be talking about, and listening to,

rather than just playing in the sand and playing with dolls."

For an extended period of time, chess was all Polgar had. But in 1999, she

bore the first of her two children, both boys, and her vigor began to wane for

competing and for spending long hours away from her Forest Hills home, in hotel

rooms studying obscure gambits.

Now, she has become both teacher and traveling exhibitor, setting up youth

tournaments targeted especially at school-age girls and giving interviews and

pitching idea after idea after idea to whomever will listen. And her sister

Judit, who remains in Hungary, is now the No. 1-ranked woman in the world and

the only female among the international list of top-rated players. Judit

largely shuns publicity and considers celebrity a distraction, even as her

sister sells T-shirts at her chess school with her own photo silk-screened on

the front.

Learning from the master

One recent evening at the Polgar Chess Center, shortly after the school's

founder and proprietor returned from playing an exhibition in Kansas against

former world champion Anatoly Karpov (with Mikhail Gorbachev looking on), she

delivered a lesson to five pupils who sat around a quartet of long tables and

watched as Polgar adjusted the pieces of an oversized demonstration board. The

entire center is the size of a small restaurant. A poster from the World Chess

Hall of Fame in Miami hangs on one wall, and as Polgar spoke, with her back to

the front door, the traffic shushed along in fits and starts on Queens

Boulevard.

One of Polgar's students was a dark-haired man with an Eastern European

accent who could not help but talk to himself while contemplating solutions to

the problems Polgar laid out. "I think I know this one," the man kept saying,

but it turned out he didn't know. It turned out he was wrong virtually every

time.

"Chess is a thinking game," Polgar reminded him. "You have to calculate.

You cannot just go on your intuition."

"A lot of thinking," the man said. "A lot of thinking."

In a sense, this is the paradox Polgar and others who try to promote chess

are fighting: It cannot be viewed like, say, a spelling bee or a dog show -

fringe pursuits that recently have found widespread audiences in the vast

Siberia known as cable television. Chess cannot be picked up in five minutes

while sitting on a La-Z-Boy and eating a bowl of Bugles. It is not nearly as

simple as hot dog-eating contests or Texas Hold'em, a craze so widespread (and

potentially lucrative) that it has lured many of the top chess players in

America to its ranks, in an attempt to supplement their incomes.

But Polgar's solutions to this problem are simple, and so inherently

American.

First: Make it faster. Make it look like the speed (or "blitz") games in

Washington Square Park, where pieces fly about the board, as they did in

"Searching for Bobby Fischer," the 1993 film that briefly propelled chess into

Hollywood prominence. (The Harry Potter films, in which chess plays a major

role, also have had an effect on U.S. Chess Federation youth memberships, which

have increased to 46,000).

"It cannot be seven-hour games where two people just sit there and think,"

Polgar said. "I'm thinking five minutes a side. Get a good commentator. To see

the quickness of the game, the time running down - that's exciting."

Second: Make it bigger. Which is why, last summer, at a shopping mall in

Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in an environment that could not possibly be more

quintessentially American, Polgar broke a world record by facing 326 opponents

at once. There stood Polgar, in a white jacket and a pair of running shoes,

shuttling among rows of chess tables that stretched from Sears to

Bloomingdale's. She was on her feet for 17 hours and, according to one online

account, for 14,361 steps, or 9.1 miles.

In all, Polgar played 1,131 consecutive games, another record. She won

1,112, drew 16, and lost three. As publicity for chess as spectacle, the event

was a moderate success, with articles appearing in several major newspapers

and on the local news stations.

Some chess fanatics dismissed it as Polgar's latest attempt at

self-promotion; one columnist on the Web site Chessville wrote a column

headlined "Why I am sick and tired of reading about Susan Polgar," which

actually was meant to come to Polgar's defense.

"I ask myself all sorts of questions about my resentment," wrote Phil

Innes, a longtime observer and promoter of the game. "'Is it because I don't

like chess promotions?' and 'Am I jealous?' and 'Do I somehow, as a secret

factor kept from my conscious self, not want to see chess promoted?' and 'Is it

because she is female?' or 'because she is not born here' ... And I answer to

all these questions: 'No.'

"It is because she seems to be the only person doing it."

A chess missionary

"I would say she's sincere in what she's doing," said Tom Braunlich, who

paid Polgar a $1,000 appearance fee to play in exhibition against Nakamura at a

tournament in Virginia Beach in February 2005. "Every chess player is

egotistical to some extent. But I don't get that with her. She's just on a

mission."

She is not entirely alone in this mission. On the scholastic level, a

nonprofit called Chess-in-the-Schools has started programs at elementary and

middle schools in a number of underprivileged New York City neighborhoods. And

recently, Greg Shahade, brother of author Jennifer, as well as a grandmaster

and U.S. Chess Federation board member, formed something called the U.S. Chess

League, a head-to-head cluster of eight teams from eight cities, including the

New York Knights, Philadelphia Masterminds and San Francisco Mechanics.

"I've talked to so many people about movies or television shows based on

chess," said Jennifer Shahade. "It's all in the works, but until something

happens, until we can find sponsors, it doesn't really mean anything."

Because the U.S. Chess League has minimal financial backing (Greg Shahade,

like a few other chess players, currently makes his living playing poker on the

Internet), the games are played online, which is where much of the competitive

chess world has turned in the modern age. It's hard enough to promote a chess

match, and even harder when it is being played through a broadband connection.

But Susan Polgar, working from her modest outpost in Queens, still believes

her sport can succeed in other mediums, that there is a place waiting for

chess alongside tennis and golf and all the other leisure-time pursuits that

have made their way onto one of the 700 channels that define the great American

zeitgeist.

"There are always some doubters," she said. "I cannot really stop my plans

because there are some obstacles. I have to believe in what I am doing."

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