Judit and Holofernes

In a male dominated game it was an 15-year-old girl who became the youngest ever grandmaster. She is now chess’s finest female player

Chess Eastern Europe

There are more books on chess than about any other game; indeed, I would not be surprised if there are more produced than on all other games combined. So any chessplayer, unless he has enormous amounts of both time and money, must be highly selective in his purchases. Sometimes, however, a book comes along which every chess enthusiast will want  to buy. Among that select handful must surely be the first to be written by Judit Polgar, just published by Quality Chess. (www.qualitychess.co.uk)

It is called How I Beat Fischer’s Record — a reference to the extraordinary fact that in 1992, at the age of 15 years and five months, this Hungarian Jewish girl beat Bobby Fischer’s record as the youngest person ever to qualify as a grandmaster, a record which had lasted 34 years. It was probably inevitable that Fischer’s benchmark would eventually be overhauled; but no one could have predicted it would be a girl who did it. In chess, the female really is the weaker sex — or at least was, until Judit Polgar came along.

In fact, 20 years after that remarkable breakthrough, she remains the only woman to have broken into the chess elite. Now 36, she is ranked 40th; but in 2005, when her playing strength was at its peak, she was eighth in the world rankings. There is no doubt that becoming a conscientious mother of two has taken a fraction of the edge out of her game — and at this level, it’s all about the tiniest margins — but it remains the case that Judit is one of the greatest talents ever to have graced the chessboard.

The exciting news for chess enthusiasts in this country is that next month Polgar will make her first appearance in a UK tournament for 20 years. And what a tournament: in the London Chess Classic, beginning on December 8, Judit will not only be taking on Britain’s best men, but also the reigning world champion Vishwanathan Anand, the world’s number one ranked player Magnus Carlsen, the world number two Levon Aronian, and the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik (for ticket details, visit www.londonchessclassic.com).

One thing is certain: Judit will not be the tiniest bit overawed. The hallmark of her game is full-on aggression: attack, attack, attack. Indeed it may be this which has stopped her attaining even greater heights as a player. The modern world champions, with the exception of the pyrotechnic genius Mikhail Tal, have all possessed the ability to be boring, when necessary. Interestingly, in her book Polgar quotes with approval the late Russian world champion, Vasily Smyslov, describing her as “Tal in a skirt”.

The other good news is that Polgar has declared that this book is to be the first of a trilogy — How I Beat Fischer’s Record only takes us up to 1991-and she is already working on the next two volumes. In this first instalment there are more than 100 of her games, from the age of eight onwards, analysed in enormous detail. That detail is a reflection of Polgar’s astonishing powers of calculation, instilled in her by an extraordinarily dedicated father, Laszlo, who had determined before her birth that her education would be principally focused on chess, something he had already carried out with her two older sisters, Susan and Sofia.

Perhaps many amateurs will find Judit’s analysis of her games too deep to follow. Although Judit works very hard to champion the game she loves, I suspect she doesn’t always see that what comes as naturally as breathing to her is devilishly difficult for the rest of us. On the other hand, what players of all ages and strengths will relish is her very frank descriptions of the mischievous thrill she would get when tricking much older, normally male, players. Thus, after one of them fell for a lethal Polgar tactic, she writes, “Oops. My opponent’s face turned red instantly.” There is even a photograph of the two players after this game, with the grandmaster in question looking as if he had just swallowed a wasp. Describing another grandmaster falling headlong into one of her fiendish traps, Polgar recalls: “After playing this move, for a moment I feared that my opponent would have a heart attack, so strong was his shock.” 

Here is Judit Polgar’s first — shocking — victory against a grandmaster, the Russian Lev Gutman, back in 1987. It is an astonishing game by any standards, but that the player of the white pieces was an 11-year-old is something I still find almost unfathomable. The notes are taken from Polgar’s autobiographical recollections, 25 years on. 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Be2 Be7 7.f4 a6 8.f4 a6 9.Be3 Qc7 10.a4 Nc6 11.Qe1 Nd7 12.Qg3 Bf6 13.Rad1 Rb8 14.Nxc6!? (As a kid, I could not resist the temptation of the sacrificial attack initiated with this move)…bxc6 15.e5! (Clearing the e4 square for my knight and opening the d- and f- files for my rooks)…dxe5 16.Ne4! (Threatening Rxd7 followed by Nxf6+)…Be7 17.f5 exf5 18.Bh6 g6 19.Rxf5! (You can imagine my excitement at this stage: this was my fifth attacking move in a row!)…Rb4! 20.Bd3 f6 21.Rdf1 Rxe4 22.Bxf8 Kxf8 (Black wins material, but his King is exposed) 23.Bxe4 gxf5 24.Bxf5 Nb6 (I am sure Gutman considered my next move impossible) 25.Bxh7! Be6 (It would have been dangerous for Black to accept the implied Bishop sacrifice. After 25…Bc5+ 26.Kh1 Qxh7 27.Rxf6+ Ke8 28.Qxe5+ Qe7 29.Qxe7+ Kxe7 30.Rxc6 I concluded that White has good winning chances. Black’s pieces are hanging) 26.Be4 (I had a feeling that somewhere around this moment Gutman lost his confidence, realising that the girl sitting in front of him would keep creating problems)…Nd5 27.Qh4 Nf4 29.Qh8+ Bg8 30.Rd1! (After he weakened the defence of the d7 square I immediately spotted the possibility of invading his position with Bf5 followed by Rd7)…Ne6? (Black should have aimed for counterplay with 29…Qb6+ 30.Kh1 Qf2!) 30.Kh1! (Threatening Bh7 without needing to fear Bc5+)…Bd8 31.Bf5 Nd4 32.Bh3! Qf7 33.c3 Qb3 34.Qh6+ Ke7 35.Rf1! Ne6 36.Qxf6+ Kd6 37.Bxe6!… and Gutman resigned, since after 37…Bxf6 38.Bxb3 Bxb3 39.Rxf6+ the ending is a trivial win for his young opponent. Amazing.