Laszlo Polgar, father of the three sensational chess-playing sisters, Zsuzsa, Judit, Zsofia, is portrayed by his detractors as a Dr. Frankenstein. His admirers say he is a Houdini, writes Peter Maas in the Washington Post.
Polgar, who has proven his point that grandmasters can be trained and that they can just as easily be women as men, now wants to break the racial barriers in the virtually all-white chess world. He says that he and his wife, Klara, will adopt a black infant from the Third World and train the child, like his daughters, to become a chess genius."He has ideas in his head that he wants to achieve whether they are right or wrong," says Zoltan Ribli, 40, a grandmaster and former tutor to the Polgar girls.
"He does not like it when other people contradict him. He thinks it is a personal attack," says Ribli, who lost to Judit a few months ago, has fallen afoul of Polgar for saying Judit is not good enough to become world champion. "If Polgar is feeling gentle, he says my statements have no value," says Ribli with a smile.
It can be difficult to find out what Laszlo Polgar thinks about his critics, or what his daughters think about their success. That is because he often demands several thousand dollars for interviews. He asked for $2,000 from the Washington Post, explaining that this would buy two hours not only with him but also his daughters. The Post, which does not pay for interviews, declined.
A week later, Polgar agreed to a free interview, though only with he
"Our profession is not to be interviewees but to play chess," he said. "If journalists were fairer and took less of the children's time, today they would be playing (chess) several categories higher."
The Polgars live in a modest apartment in the heart of Budapest. Their narrow living room is cluttered with chess books, and an entire wall is lined with sketches of chess scenes from centuries ago.
Polgar, 45, sits in a worn lounge chair, a short, compact man with bristling beard. His thoughts and moods shift quickly.
Polgar, who has published a book titled, "Educate a Genius!" does not disagree with accusations that he is experimenting with his own children. That's precisely the point, he says.
"A genius is not born but is educated and trained. When a child is born healthy, it is a potential genius," Polgar said.
Even before marrying, Polgar knew he would try such an experiment. In 1965, he met Klara, a fellow teacher who was to become his wife. Klara did not live in Budapest at the time, and she recalls in the book that they sent letters to each other "not about love but about the pedagogical experiment."
Their first child was Zsuzsa, and though they knew they would "specialize" her, they could not decide what the discipline should be. Mathematics? Business? Languages?
The question was answered when toddler Zsuzsa opened a drawer one day and found a chessboard. She asked her father to show her how to play.
A few years later, Zsofia and Judit were born, and almost as soon as they could walk they became curious about what was going on in the closed room where their older sister was receiving intensive instruction.
According to the Polgar book, the younger girls wanted to go inside and see, but their father said they could do so only if they also studied chess. Zsofia and Judit eagerly agreed. By the age of 5, Judit was beating her father.
But troubles emerged. The Hungarian Chess Federation wanted the girls to play other women, which their father opposed. Laszlo Polgar argued that his girls could become the best only by playing the best, which meant men.
The dispute with the communist-controlled Chess Federation became bitter, and in 1981 Laszlo Polgar quit the Communist Party. Citing a threat to something called "public order," the communist government refused to allow his family to travel to tournaments until 1988.
That year, Polgar agreed that his daughters would play for Hungary in the Women's Chess Olympiad in Salonika, Greece. The women's Olympiad, a major international chess tournament held every two years, had been dominated until then by the Soviet Union.
Each country is represented by four players, and Hungary's squad included the three Polgar sisters. Judit was 12 years old. For the first time, Hungary beat the Soviets and won the Olympiad, a feat that thrilled their homeland and shocked the chess world.
They were on the map, and had no more trouble getting money and visas, and travelling.
The chess-playing Polgar sisters - Zsuzsa, Zsofia and Judit - regularly beat male grandmasters who are twice their age, and this can be unsettling for the victim.
Some men don't think women should play in the same league with them, and others, while believing there should be no separation, nonetheless have trouble adjusting to looking across the board at a woman or, in the case of Judit, a girl barely into her teens.
Pal Benko, the American grandmaster who used to train the girls intensively and still does on an occasional basis, recalls with a laugh that he suffered a mild bout of nerves when he played Judit in a tournament.
"It's a no-win situation," said Benko, 63. "It's nothing special if you win, but if you lose it's a shame - other players may make jokes about it."
Things did not go well for him during a recent match. He was nervous and blundered in the opening but improved as the game wore on. He offered a draw but Judit, known as a combative player, refused.
The game continued for hours, and then Judit offered a draw. This time Benko refused. Midnight neared and Benko began feeling ridiculous.
"This was a small kid. I felt like I was torturing her." They agreed on a draw.