The Story of the Polgár Sisters
Posted by Greg MacDonald on
…”Any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialize at six.” Lásló Polgár
In 1965, Lásló Polgár wrote a series of courtship letters to his intended wife Klara. His letters were not filled with romance and flowery poetry. Instead, Polgár outlined his college studies of the biographies of hundreds of great intellectuals, and an experiment that he wished to conduct ... An experiment for which his (their) future children would be the subjects. He had already published a book; Bring Up Genius, in which he documented his belief that any healthy child could become a prodigy.
Polgár’s proposals (of marriage and for an experiment to be conducted upon their children) were accepted by Klara, and they were married. In 1969, their first daughter, Susan, was born. They had two more daughters in the years that followed: Sophia (born in 1974) and Judit (born in 1976).
When Susan was four years old, she found a chess set in a cabinet in the Polgár home. Her mother (who didn’t know anything about the game) was delighted to find Susan playing with the figurines, and Klara promised Susan that Lásló would teach her the game when he got home.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Six months later, Susan toddled into Budapest’s chess club, a smoke-filled place filled with the noise of chess pieces being smacked down onto chessboards and of wagers being laid on the outcomes of matches. A regular club member laughed when he was asked to play little Susan, but his smile faded as, soon after, Susan (who was the victor) reached across the board and solemnly shook his hand.
Not long after that event, Susan crushed the city’s under-eleven girl’s chess tournament with a perfect score.
As soon as they were old enough, Susan’s sisters learned this game that fascinated their older sister, and a love of chess came to dominate the lives of all three girls. They practiced chess constantly. Bookshelves were lined with books about chess, and the living room was filled with the girls’ growing collection of chess tournament trophies. The girls had some young friends in the area, but they still spent much of their time playing chess with each other, and training with elderly grandmasters.
“I had an inner drive. I think that is the difference between the very good and the best” Susan once said of her childhood.
Lásló once found Sophia in the bathroom, in the middle of the night. She had a chessboard and its pieces in her lap. “Sophia, leave the pieces alone!” he said, to which she replied, “Daddy, they won’t leave me alone!”
The outcome of the girl’s fascination with chess, and their parents’ support of this interest, is nothing short of astonishing:
Susan Polgár – Born 4/19/1969
- At the age of 15 became the top-ranked female player in the world. She remained in the top 3 for 23 years.
- Was the first woman to break the gender barrier, qualifying for 1986 Men’s World Chess Championship.
- Women’s World Chess Champion 1996-1999.
- Won World Blitz and Rapid Championships in 1992.
Sophia Polgár – Born 11/2/1974
- Holds International Master and Women’s Grandmaster Titles.
- At the age of 14 she achieved one of the highest performance ratings in chess history, beating several strong Grandmasters in what came to be called “The Sack of Rome”. (Yes ... A “barbarian”, disguised as a young teenage girl, invaded a chess tournament in Rome, stunning the chess world with one of the strongest chess performances in chess history.)
Judit Polgár – Born 7/23/76
- Chess Grandmaster (earned at 15 years, 4 months, breaking Bobby Fischer’s record as youngest player to have done so.)
- Considered the strongest female chess player of all time.
- The only woman to earn a 2700+ rating.
- Ranked #8 in world in 2005 – The highest ever ranking for a woman.
- Has has defeated 11 current or former world Champions. She is the only woman to have defeated a World #1 Chess Player.
... So why am I telling this story?
It is because the story of the Polgár sisters illustrates the power of Montessori principles and practices in action, but in this case all carried out by adults who (to my knowledge) had no knowledge of Maria Montessori’s work. Some of the Montessori principles and practices employed by Lásló and Klara included:
- The girls chose to play chess - No one made them play.
- They began their life-long romance with chess when they were in the First Plane of Development.
- Their parents prepared an environment that supported their interest, “following” their children.
- Lásló Polgár provided the key lessons that his daughters needed, but then he left them in freedom, to work at their own pace, and for as long as they wished to do so.
It was not, of course, “work” for the girls. It was fun! It was a game! As Judit said:"In the beginning it was a game ... Later, chess for me became a sport, an art, a science, everything together. I was very focused on chess, and happy with that world.”
And to critics who accused Lásló of imposing chess upon his daughters, and regimenting their time, Ellen Winner (a Boston College Psychologist) responded: "You can force your kids to work harder, but you can't get them to have that level of passion. The sisters could have just as easily rebelled against Lásló.”
Blindfolded speed chess, it should be added, was the invention of the three girls, who often sat on the floor, playing blindfolded blitz chess games that lasted only minutes.
The girls were homeschooled by their parents (after a battle with Hungarian authorities for permission to do this), and their days were not totally devoted to chess. The girls went swimming, they learned several languages, they played ping-pong, and telling jokes to one another was also a daily pastime.
When we attempt to share our passion for Montessori, and when we report its outcomes, some people new to Montessori have difficulty accepting what we say. After all, we’re “invested” in the “system”. We’re “converts”, and so maybe we’re exaggerating a little. Maybe we’re seeing everything with rose-colored glasses.
The story of the Polgár sisters is an example of Montessori principles and practices in action, implemented by people who had no knowledge of Montessori, and in an arena that contained no Montessori pedagogical apparatus.
Yet the principles and practices yielded remarkable results!
This can be much easier for newcomers to Montessori to accept: "Hmm ... So these ideas worked for those three little girls, for chess ... And this "Montessori" system just applies the same ideas to learning in other fields. That sounds reasonable to me."
What we show them in our Montessori prepared environments can speak much more powerfully as a result.
© Greg MacDonald 2020
Image Credit: By R. Cottrell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28504030