Considered the greatest and the strongest woman chess player, Judit Polgar breached the male bastion spread over 64 squares like no other. After breaking into the top-100 list at 12, she went on to break Bobby Fischer’s record to become the world’s youngest Grandmaster at 14.
Part of the famous Polgar sisters from Hungary, Judit dominated the women players of her time and moved on. She scored over some of the greatest names - Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Kramnik, Boris Spassky, Veselin Topalov and a young Magnus Carlsen - across time formats. She remains the only woman to gate-crash into the elite top-10 rankings by being No. 8 in 2004.
Today, at 46, Judit enjoys commentating on events involving not only the world’s elite but also on the online Challengers Chess Tour meant for the upcoming talents. Last year, Judit and former World champion Vladimir Kramnik coached online a number of youngsters that included D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa and Raunak Sadhwani.
After 32 years, Judit returns to India. This time, as a commentator for the Chess Olympiad, beginning on July 28. Sportstar caught up with Judit, and this all-time great was as forthright as ever in dealing with the topical talking-points.
Excerpts from the interview:
Judit, how do you see the decision of Magnus not to defend his World title? As a consequence, do you visualise any changes in the format?
Well, it’s very difficult to say what is going to be the consequences of his decision of not defending the title. We’ve seen a similar thing before, with Bobby Fischer, nearly 50 years ago. But there’s a huge difference. Fischer gave up on chess, he just quit the game itself and went into a “shelter”. With Magnus, this is absolutely not the case. He still loves the game. I think he’s very motivated to reach 2900 in rating points.
And at the same time, from a human point of view, I understand completely because to defend the World Championship title, it should be really very energy-consuming. And the cycles are only two years, which means that you barely have time to get a relief, if he would be ready to play and defend his title.
It means that from now on - after the Candidates finished - he knew who would be his opponent, it would be at the back of his mind continuously. To play a World Championship match at the highest level, you go into the smallest details, what really counts. So it has to be in your brain continuously, whether very concretely you’re preparing for the chess openings, how to develop and so on and so forth. Or just the general feeling somehow, how (Ian) Nepomniachtchi will be changing his strategy, his personality, how he can implement his understanding and experience, and so on and so forth. What kind of team does he have? So it’s very complicated. It would mean that another half-a-year or one year would be about really having the mindset on the next World Championship match. And Magnus is 30 years old, he thinks that he loves the game. He’s by far the No. 1. So why should he play?
I also think last year’s World Championship match was not the last for Magnus. One way or the other, I think, in four years or whatever number of years, we are going to be seeing him playing an official or unofficial but some kind of matchup with the second best player in the world.
Do you think the current way of finding the challenger, following the time-tested Candidates tournament, is the best one?
I don’t know if it’s the best way to do it because you have to take into account many, many different aspects and what are the consequences of it. But it seems to be a pretty interesting format because I think the world was watching the Candidates, and normally the World champion follows it very closely to know who is going to be the challenger. Right? And I think the tournament itself had extremely interesting people, the players were very diverse. Also, they were very open in their preparation, they had great fighting spirit. So I think it was a great show and great event (the Candidates) to have the World Championship the way it is.
I think, one of the reasons why Magnus did not want to defend his title, was because he thought that it’s about time to make some changes to make it a little bit more energetic, the World Championship match somehow, in a way. I don’t know exactly what is the best form of that. But it was very clear in 2016, and the 2018 match, that if there are all-draw games, it means that there should be a change in format.
So during two weeks, you have... draw, draw, draw, draw, draw. And then one afternoon in the playoff, you decide the World Championship title. So I think something has to be changing that, there is some interesting shift, during every four games to play a rapid game or two, or I don’t know, but something to make it more interesting, more dynamic not only for the audience themselves, but also to loosen it up and confuse the players a little bit.
For example, during the match, they play two games of classical, then they play two games of rapid, then a blitz, I don’t know exactly how to do it, but somehow to bring them out of their comfort zone and to make their mindset different. It’s not that you know, I’m strong, I don’t allow anybody to touch me. So in some ways, I think there is a need. When the last World Championship match was taking place in Dubai between Nepo and Magnus, after Round 5, we were talking about…, ‘Okay, finally, finally, this match will bring us all draws, and it will bring us huge changes’. And then there was Game 6! It was so exciting and extraordinary that after that everybody forgot that we have to make changes to the format. I was highlighting this in my commentary then that unfortunately, this Game 6 was so interesting that probably people will forget to change it.
From my perspective, and of course, probably not everybody agrees with me, that the format should include rapid, because I think it would be a good idea to merge it. As a result, they have to show the different skills because it makes it more difficult for the players when they have to switch. I mean, if you’re a runner, you have a different strategy for marathons, you have a different strategy for sprints. Right? But I think, in chess, as we’ve seen for example, Magnus Carlsen was the World Champion, a triple World Champion in classical, rapid and blitz. So in chess, it’s a little different and that’s the reason why I think it would make a lot of sense to follow a different point-system. That the (points for) rapid and blitz are not worth the same as the classical. But it can make a twist on it as much as it makes the mindset a little bit unbalanced. And that you have to be counting…’Okay, there I have my opportunities, my chances and if I win a blitz and two rapid it equals one classical.’ So maybe that can be an idea.
But of course, it has to be worked out and thought out very well. The challenge is, how it can be done keeping the seriousness, the tradition, on one hand, at the same time making it refreshing and more motivational for the players, for the World Champion as well, while keeping the audience even more interested about it.
Coming to the Olympiad, how do you see India doing in this edition? Like many, Viswanathan Anand is rooting for our young India B team to cause a few upsets. Judit, you have worked with some of these boys.
I understand… Vishy’s attitude towards the team, because he also has his Academy (Westbridge Anand Chess Academy) the kids (D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin and Raunak Sadhwani) are part of that. So it’s his influence and his mentorship. Obviously, you have India A with some of these guys like Hari and Vidit who have performed already and showed that they know. India B, obviously, will bring some surprises. Maybe some people will not be surprised because they know how good they are. I don’t know whether they will catch a medal because somehow it would be too optimistic. But I definitely think that they can easily be in the top-10 because they are extremely motivated. For sure, they are going to be enjoying it a lot, showing their strengths and their teeth and how they can bite.
For me, it was great to work with them, even though I didn’t have too much time. But I was following them there (on the Challengers’ Chess Tour) and also after that a bit. They are extremely passionate, very talented, they really focus only on chess. So that’s their life, which means a lot. It will, of course, also show in the results.
This strong-looking India B is seeded 11th and some overseas experts are expecting this team to be among the medals. How much do you think seeding matters in a team event?
Well, seeding means a lot but it’s just the direction so that people can understand who is standing where right now. Of course, with the team of youngsters of India, it does not really matter that much, because you know that with youngsters, one day passes and they jump huge. So you don’t necessarily see the real strength of their play.
The USA is clearly, by far, the favourite. That can be a big problem for them because they can be under pressure as everybody, including those in the US, expects them to win the gold. With China and Russia not participating, there is a vacant second and third place for countries who may not have even thought about that. For example, Norway. Of course, Magnus will be extremely inspired and challenged by this and think how he can lead his team to catch a medal. So it will be very interesting.
Of course, India is always there and has everything in order to get a medal. But it’s a long event. It has 11 rounds. In India, of course not for Indians, it can also be challenging for many, the weather, the food, the circumstances. But chess players are known for that, that they are probably the people who can adjust themselves the best to different circumstances. And, of course, the last three rounds (are crucial). So if you’re very close to the top-five, until the last three rounds, that’s where you have to hit the high gear and hang on.
How do you see the competition in the women section?
Of course, India is the great favourite. I’m not sure we can say that they are the greatest favourites, as much as the USA in the Open section. But obviously they are taking it extremely seriously. They are extremely motivated to play at home. Great opportunity to show how they can perform. With (mother-to-be) Harika, of course, for her probably it’s an exceptionally unique opportunity and experience. But I think it will probably be a very nice experience for her.
Ukraine, obviously, are extremely motivated to show that they want to win the gold medal due to the political situation in the world. If China and Russia were to play, then it would be Russia, China and India while the others can have a party.