March 4, 2016

When The Prodigal Son of Chess Met the Newest Chess Prodigy


[my_caption id=\image_6483\ align=\alignCenter\ width=\506\ caption=\Photographer unknown Bobby Fischer Playing Chess with Susan Polgar c 1992-1993 4 x 6 in. Photograph Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame\]\bobby-fischer-playing-chess-with-susan-polgar-1vz\[/my_caption]

by Brian McCulloch

The World Chess Hall of Fame’s (WCHOF) newest exhibit Her Turn: Revolutionary Women of Chess pays close attention to the Polgar sisters whose accomplishments are nothing short of impressive. Born in Hungary and raised by their father to be chess prodigies, the sisters stormed the chess world in the 1980s and ‘90s. Susan, the oldest of the three sisters, is the winner of four World Championships (Under 16, Blitz, Rapid, Classical), is the first woman to achieve the title of Grandmaster in tournament play, and is also the first woman to qualify for the World Championship Cycle (previously referred to as the Men’s World Championship Cycle). In 2003 she was the recipient of the Grandmaster of the Year Award, and has coached the #1 collegiate chess team at Webster University since 2012. Of all the awards, medals, and trophies in Her Turn that commemorate these feats, it is an intriguing photograph that holds a particularly potent sense of historical importance.

The photograph in question is not memorable for its artistic merit, but for the moment it captured. The photograph, in profile, shows an older gentleman sitting across a chessboard from a young woman. The snapshot is seemingly mundane until it is discovered that the young woman on the right is Susan Polgar, and the older gentleman across from her is none other than the late great American Grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

In 1992 Bobby Fischer went to Yugoslavia for a rematch against Boris Spassky, whom he beat in 1972 to become the World Champion. At the time, Yugoslavia was in the throes of a political upheaval. President George H.W. Bush enacted an executive order that implemented United Nations sanctions against engaging in economic activities with Yugoslavia. The U.S. Department of Treasury warned Fischer that his presence at the tournament was illegal, and if he attended he would not be allowed re-entry into the U.S. Fischer responded by bringing a copy of the order to the tournament’s first press conference and spitting on it. No longer welcomed in America he spent time in countries including the Philippines, Japan, and Hungary. It was while in Hungary that this photograph was taken. In it, the two brilliant chess minds are playing Fischer Random Chess, otherwise known as Chess960. In this variant, the pieces on the back rank are placed randomly but must abide by two rules: The king must have a rook on either side of it, and bishops must be placed on squares of opposing color. The idea is that memorization of openings and techniques would be tossed aside, and one would have to rely on their creativity alone to win.

The meeting between Susan and Bobby was not by happenstance. Although Bobby was living in obscurity, he still followed the chess world closely. He was well aware of the Polgar sisters and in May of 1993 the Polgar’s traveled to the small Yugoslavian town of Kanjiza where Fischer was residing. Susan, who was in Peru at the time, was unable to attend the meeting. She and Bobby were both disappointed by this, so a second meeting was arranged. The Polgars and Fischer became friends and they encouraged him to move to Budapest, which he eventually did. It was in that city the friendship between them flourished. While Fischer was living in Hungary Susan helped him develop chess960. The snapshot of the two at the table is the only known photo of Bobby Fischer playing his own variant.

To learn more about the Polgar sisters and other influential women in chess history be sure to visit the WCHOF’s newest exhibit Her Turn: Revolutionary Women of Chess, which runs through September 4, 2016. The exhibit, which features a remarkable array of historical artifacts, was made possible by many generous lenders, including 1996 Women’s World Chess Champion Susan Polgar.