Life Lessons

First female chess grandmaster inspires young girls

Chess is often referred to as the greatest board game of all time. This classic game of strategy is beloved by players of all ages. But the world of chess has had its share of controversy, including gender barriers that have limited female representation in tournaments around the world. But there is one master player who broke all those barriers and is now doing what she can to keep those doors open for young girls who love the game.

Susan Polgar has been proving people wrong her whole life.

"I would hear from everybody that 'oh chess is not for girls. Chess is too difficult for girls,'" Polgar said.

She started playing at age 4 in her native Hungary. Six months later, she won a tournament playing kids three times her age.

"Eventually, I mostly played adults and I mostly played against men," Polgar said.

When she set her sights on becoming a chess grandmaster, she was dismissed.

"It became kind of a mission to prove that just because no woman made it to grandmaster yet, it doesn't mean it's not possible," Polgar explained.

At age 21, she made history. She became the first female chess grandmaster in the world. She now runs the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Webster University.

"I played my first national championship when I was 7," said Luisa Mercado.

"It was kind of very strange for a little girl to go for chess. They would be very surprised that a young girl was playing chess with older men," said Thalia Cervantes.

Polgar hosts an annual chess tournament for female players under age 19. The grand prize? A full scholarship to Webster. Mercado won it five years ago. She graduated in May, a first for the family she left behind in Colombia.

"I am the first one who really left the country to study somewhere else," Mercado said.

Cervantes is from Cuba. She won the tournament at just 12 years old. 

"That was very unusual," Cervantes said.

When she graduates high school, she has a full ride at Webster waiting for her.

"It's very, very helpful, because starting over in a new country is not always easy," said Cervantes.

Polgar says chess teaches girls lifelong lessons.

"It's about time management. It's about planning ahead. It's about taking into consideration your opponent's ideas and moves," Polgar said.

Her mission now is simply to create more opportunity for young women who love the game. 

The tournament is held every year at Polgar's Institute for Chess Excellence in St. Louis and it's for girls only. No matter what the age is of the young girl who wins, the winner will secure a future spot on Webster's chess team, which is the number one ranked division one collegiate chess team in the U.S.


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