Review: Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1 - How I Beat Fischer’s Record
When I first heard that Judit Polgar had published a new book in which she analyzes her early chess games (until 1991), I was more than just intrigued: I was thrilled.
Judit Polgar’s genius was at the heart of my early interest for chess, culminating in her visits to Amsterdam, in 1989 and 1990, to the OHRA chess tournaments, where she was hailed as a prodigy and appeared on national television many times. I must confess that not only did I find Polgar’s games very inspiring – at the time I also had something of a crush on her.
When I finally received Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1 - How I Beat Fischer’s Record, published by Quality Chess, I immediately looked for games from those two tournaments, and was delighted to find out that she actually devotes an entire chapter to the 1989 Amsterdam tournament: in fact, it is a “tournament diary” in which Polgar describes both games and personal experiences from that tumultuous period. I couldn’t be happier.
Before moving on the contents of the book, allow me to spend a few words on that somewhat odd title. This book is not about beating Fischer’s record at all - and thank God for that! It’s become something of a tradition for strong female chess players to allude to the fact that they became Grandmaster before Fischer did, but Polgar (and Quality Chess) seem to have just tugged it in mostly for commercial reasons.
In fact, it’s not even easy to find out what Polgar writes about beating the 11th World Champion’s record as the chapters in the book are not ordered chronologically, but are based on chess themes such as ‘Mating Net’, ‘Pawn Play’ and ‘Piece Domination’. (Polgar does from time to time mention being motivated by the prospect of beating the record – the game that clinched it, against Tibor Tolnai, at the Hungarian Super Championship in 1991, is analyzed in the chapter ‘Decisive Games’.)
In the Preface, Polgar describes that she
started flirting with the idea of publishing a collection of my best games a long time ago.
However, the critical moment in the book’s birth came only in 2009, when she was playing Boris Gelfand in the World Cup:
I lost the first match game with Black, and during my preparations for the second one, I found myself with no clue about how to break down his favorite Petroff Defence. I decided to improvise with the Bishop’s Opening, and in the early middle game started a sacrificial attack in the best spirit of the King’s Gambit, my favorite opening as a kid. (…) It felt like for a moment the Judit from 1988, who many (including myself) had forgotten, had come back to deliver her trademark brilliancies. With this nostalgic feeling, I decided that the time had finally come to write my book, in which the little girl from the past would play an important role.
The book’s structure turns out to be the perfect platform to present these brilliancies, such as this one:
Jonathan Tisdall - Judit Polgar
This rook will play an important part in the final sequence. First, it cuts off the white king along the third rank. And as we will see, it gives up the control of the back rank only temporarily.
Ouch! After 34.Rxa4 Rxa4+ the king is forced to step back with 35.Kb1 when 35…Rh1+ closes the deadly net around His Majesty. The rook manoeuvre …Rh1-h3-h1 and my piece coordination in the final part of the game are unusual, making this example instructive and, I hope, quite enjoyable. 0-1
In those days, it almost seemed as if Polgar simply had luck on her side all the time, and in fact many people said so aloud, such as after the following game (against a former club-member of mine), which I happened to be witnessing in the tournament hall:
Rob Bertholee - Judit Polgar
and White soon had to resign.
I vividly remember discussing this ‘incident’ with some strong Dutch players afterwards. They all agreed that Polgar had been just lucky (‘again’) and that probably her opponents simply underestimated her (‘still’).
Sofia Polgar vs Judit Polgar, OHRA (Amsterdam) 1990 | Photo © Arne Moll
To me this sounded a bit too convenient, and fortunately – although I couldn’t prove this back then – Polgar’s own version of the fragment turns out to be rather more sophisticated and interesting. Let’s pick up the game fragment just one move earlier:
I knew that my winning chances were not very high, despite my extra pawn. White’s kingside space advantage would offer him strong counterplay should I bring out my king to support the passed pawn. When the next move was played, I thought that there may still be some way to trick my opponent.
This is not a mistake, but keeping the tension is hardly a good idea, especially since he only had two minutes to reach move 40. I believe that Bertholee was convinced he could control the position completely. After 34.axb4 Rxb4 35.Ra5 Rb7 my position would be too passive to hope for a win. My opponent probably thought that after 34.Ra5 bxa3 35.Rxa7 his rook would be even more active, but he failed to notice that I can keep things messy.
Played this after only one minute of thinking, without displaying any shadow of excitement, despite having planned the trick already. This way, I avoided raising any suspicions in my opponent.
Bertholee probably trusted that the passed pawns would be exchanged with an inevitable draw. When the opponent has such an advanced pawn, one should check things twice, though. Of course it is psychologically very difficult to admit that you have started using the wrong plan, but this is something a chess player has to deal with all the time – keeping a self-critical approach and the sense of danger alive. It is always better to cancel a bad plan in time rather than blindly follow it. (…)
This fragment also shows another disproves another prejudice about Judit Polgar: that she’s only ‘really’ good in the middle game. Actually, it’s in the endgame where young Polgar’s play is especially impressive. The following fragment is from the chapter ‘Attacking without Queens’:
Miguel Illescas Cordoba - Judit Polgar
This trick starts a forcing sequence that leads directly to a decisive advantage. We can note that b3 is the worst possible square for the rook along the third rank, as it prevents b2-b3. Ironically, my bishop joins the action just after its counterpart has been cut off!
It may seem that there is still some hope for White, since the b7-pawn is hanging. My next move destroys this illusion.
A spectacular pawn break, leading to the activation of my rooks.
34.exd5 Rcxc4 35.Rxc4 Rxc4 36.Rc3 Rd4 37.Rc1 White is just in time to defend his back rank, but his position remains desperately passive. (…)
Polgar herself explains that she started studying endgames around the age of eight and was greatly influenced by Pal Benko, who
had a perfect technique of composing studies so that they would seem to have been picked up from a practical game. I found most of his studies unsolvable, but also purely beautiful.
Although there are many great endgames in Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1 - How I Beat Fischer’s Record, it’s inevitable that the greatest games involve spectacular tactics and sacrifices that so characterized young Judit. This is something that was no doubt stimulated by the way her parents trained their daughters when they were little.
One of the first times the general public could learn in detail about Laszo Polgar’s now-famous method was in 1990, when the Dutch journalist Ed van Eeden wrote The Polgar Sisters, or: The Creation of Three Chess Prodigies. (I bought the book immediately after it was published and was fortunate enough to obtain a copy signed by all three sisters.)
In Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1 - How I Beat Fischer’s Record Polgar does of course mention her training education at some length, and the fact that she insists on calling it a
roadmap for everyone who ever wanted to better themselves in the game of chess
is a sign of her father’s influence in this respect, but the bulk of the book is – fortunately – filled with games, not training exercises.
Judit Polgar - Lev Gutman
As a kid, I could not resist the temptation of the sacrificial attack initiated with this move. The way I see it now, my last move is slightly illogical, since it opens the b-file for the rook, partially justifying Gutman’s opening experiment. From a practical point of view, it is entirely justified though, since it leads to positions in which I felt very much at home. (…)
Clearing the e4-square for my knight and opening the d- and f-files for my rooks.
Threatening Rxd7 followed by Nxf6+.
With so many weaknesses on the dark squares, Black has to keep his bishop.
The last sequence of moves is typical for the Penrose Attack in the Benoni. I do not have a dangerous d-pawn, like in the Benoni, but controlling the d-file is an equally important positional factor. (…)
17…exf5 18.Bh6 g6 19.Rxf5!
You can imagine my excitement at this stage of the game: this was my fifth attacking move in a row! I rightly avoided 19.Bxf8? Kxf8! Which would leave Black with a threatening mass of pawns and more than enough compensation for the exchange. (…)
This fragment shows not only great attacking chess (from both sides by the way: Gutman doesn’t go down without putting up a tremendous fight!) but is also interesting because it shows a human side of Polgar that was rather unknown at the time. In fact, she was (and, I suppose, still is) known for her ‘ice cold’ stare and her poker face in both favorable and difficult circumstances.
Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1 - How I Beat Fischer’s Record corrects that image: Polgar comes across as a friendly and, at first, somewhat naïve chess prodigy without trace of arrogance or haughtiness in her. The ‘Memorable Games’ chapter in particular is interesting from a psychological perspective. The ‘Amsterdam 1989 OHRA Tournment Diary’ is, apart from the extensive game analysis, mostly about the growing interest of the Dutch media and is probably more interesting for non-Dutch readers than for those who witnessed the ‘Polgarmania’ first hand.
It will be interesting to see the second part of the series (From GM to Top 10): Polgar’s games are of an even higher quality in this period whilst not diminishing in enterainment value. In my opinion, this project in three parts is definitely one of this year’s highlights.
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