How Judit Polgar recreated her early training with a group of chess players - Hindustan Times
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How Judit Polgar recreated her early training with a group of Indian female chess players

By, Bengaluru
Feb 15, 2024 08:57 PM IST

The Hungarian Grandmaster wanted to familiarise the players with the work ethic required to break into the game's upper echelons.

For two weeks, seven Indian female chess players did something they had never done before. They trained eight hours daily with the greatest female chess player in history. Former world No. 8 Judit Polgar designed a rigorous schedule in January with no rest days to push the mix of emerging, promising and seasoned Indian players – Vantika Agrawal, Savitha Shri B, Tania Sachdev, Sarayu Velpula, Rakshitta Ravi, Priyanka Nutakki and Sahithi Varshini – to the bounds of their mental fortitude. The Hungarian Grandmaster wanted to familiarise the players with the work ethic required to break into the game's upper echelons.

Former world No. 8 Judit Polgar designed a rigorous schedule in January with no rest days
Former world No. 8 Judit Polgar designed a rigorous schedule in January with no rest days

“They were not sure if they would be able to endure such a tough schedule at first,” Polgar told Hindustan Times, “I wanted to push them and show them how working for two weeks without a rest day can feel, where you come back and train every day when you are already a little tired. Working with the Indian girls felt a lot like my younger years when I trained for days in a row. The atmosphere of the sessions too was similar, like it was with my trainers. I wanted it that way.”

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Judit was in India as FIDE launched a torch relay to mark its 100th anniversary. The relay began in New Delhi on February 14 and will end in Judit’s home city, Budapest, Hungary where the Chess Olympiad will take place later this year.

Growing up, Judit along with her sisters – Susan and Sofia were initiated into chess by their father. Laszlo Polgar believed that talent could be created and nurtured at home and he chose chess as the medium of experiment for his daughters. Stellar results followed. Susan became Grandmaster and women’s world no 1 at 15, Sofia touched a performance rating of 2879 in a single tournament at 14 and Judit, the youngest of three siblings featured among the world’s top 10 Grandmasters for over a decade.

Judit sat down with the Indian players for tactical and calculation exercises, lessons on time management, psychology sessions and one-on-one interactions at her foundation’s educational centre in Budapest. They bonded over problem-solving, and Indian food (Judit even cooked them a meal on one of the days). Spent after day-long sessions, the players often retired to their hotel rooms at night with a position - one that Judit assigned them to solve to 'unwind' - playing on their minds.

The idea of running a camp for Indian female chess players sponsored by the Hyderabad-based Pravaha Foundation was first proposed to Judit in the summer of last year. The original plan was for the Hungarian to travel to India but to accommodate her packed schedule, it was tweaked for players to travel to Budapest instead. While the players came to terms with a punishing schedule, it was also Judit’s first experience of working with female players over a long camp.

The group with ELOs ranging from 2200-2400+ had International Masters, Woman Grandmasters and a Fide Master in its ranks. Judit was impressed with the tactical vision of the bunch and was glad that their goals mirrored her thoughts. “I liked that they were talking about getting to a Grandmaster or International Master title, rather than women’s titles,” Judit, who touched a peak career rating of 2735 and is the only woman to have won a game against a world No 1, said.

Judit ran the group through some of her best games and shared her path to decision-making at critical moments on the board. This, along with her work ethic, had a huge perhaps even transformative impact on the players.

“What stayed with me was how whenever she had a winning position, she’d try to win it in the fastest and simplest way possible rather than playing on longer thinking that a win would come eventually,” said Vantika, “She was tactically alert and rarely missed in such situations. The kind of work and hours she put into chess as a young player even when everyone around her felt it was too much, was incredible.”

Judit was curious about the experiences of the current bunch when playing against the opposite gender. “Some players spoke of how they feel boys agree to a draw in equal positions more easily when playing against each other but play on for longer against female players which might eventually lead to blunders,” said Vantika. “Judit’s advice was to keep our head in the game and not let external aspects mess with our focus.”

Judit believes more Indian female players are on their path to becoming Grandmasters. Right now, of its 84 Grandmasters, only three are women. “There is a huge rivalry in the Indian chess scene since many boys and girls are playing well. I understand the pressure. I liked that the girls I worked with have big aims for open events and are not looking at them as just practice,” she said, “Training together with boys makes a big difference. It can be a great push. We have seen it in the case of China’s female players and also in India, Vaishali is an example.”

The Candidates is still over a month and a half away and Judit finds the contest in the open section particularly exciting. Three Indians – R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh and Vidit Gujrathi – feature in the eight-man line-up. “I’ll be curious to see if Nepomniachtchi can do it a third time. With so many youngsters in the mix, pretty much anyone can win it.”

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