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This story is from Chess Grandmasters, an episode of The Conversation produced by Sarah Crawley and presented by Kim Chakanetsa. To listen to more episodes of The Conversation on the BBC World Service, please click here. Adapted by Helene Schumacher.

Hungarian Judit Polgar is the strongest female chess player of all time.

A child prodigy, she broke Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest grandmaster aged 15. She went on to beat the world number one, Garry Kasparov, after he had said women shouldn't play chess. She remains the only woman ever to place in the top 10 players in the world, despite retiring four years ago.

Hou Yifan, from China, is widely considered the best female chess player today. She has been the women's world chess champion four times, the youngest ever to win the title, as well as the youngest female player ever to qualify for the title of grandmaster.

Both women share some similar traits: incredible dedication and resilience, an unshakable mindset, endless practice and a healthy dose of natural skill. These traits themselves are likely to lead someone to success in their field. But are there other factors that have also driven these women’s accomplishments?

Hou opens a chess tournament at a subway station in Mexico City in 2017 (Credit: Getty Images)

Encouraged as a child

Both agree that parental support is essential; they were encouraged by their families from a very early age.

Chess was especially a family affair for Polgar, as her older sisters competed too – the Hungarian says that by the time she was born, her parents were convinced that she would become a chess champion.

Polgar’s family didn’t believe her gender precluded her from reaching the highest levels in chess. Her parents, she says, “really believed that a girl can achieve the same result as any talented boy”.

Hou started to play when she was five just years old. Her mother taught her the basics and by age eight she was playing practically all day. She experienced her first international success aged nine. She believes performance in early tournaments can “more or less” decide one’s future career.

In contrast to Polgar, Hou explains that initially her mother wanted her to learn “something more elegant and suitable for girls like dancing, while my father preferred me to learn chess because it's considered an international sport”.

Levelling the playing field

While few young girls entered tournaments in China at the time, Hou competed in mixed tournaments from an early age. She observes that “during my whole chess career, I didn't really notice that the girls could be treated completely different.” Hou says that while there are more female participants than decades ago, there is still potential to encourage more girls to start playing chess and competing.

But gender in chess is not straightforward. How, for example, do Polgar and Hou feel about female-only competitions?

Polgar decided very early not to play in women’s tournaments, because she wanted to play the best, and they were men. She could develop her skills by playing against men and continually pushed herself by playing harder and harder opponents: “If you put your goals higher, then you reach higher as well.”

Twelve-year-old Polgar during a France-Hungary game in 1989 (Credit: Getty Images)

Sometimes the frustrations of chess’s gender imbalance can prompt dramatic statements. In a 2017 mixed tournament in Gibraltar, Hou resigned her final-round match after only five moves after being paired against only women in seven of nine rounds, despite a 4:1 ratio of male to female players. Organisers said computers drew the matches so it was just bad luck.

Aside from Polgar and Hou, no other female players have been in the top 100. Polgar says, “This is a very serious issue and everybody's trying to get an explanation, even women chess players themselves.” The reasons why are complex and varied.

One, Polgar says, is the expectation and the labels society puts on girls – it doesn't necessarily come to parents' or teachers’ minds that their daughters or female students should become chess players. “When you're a kid, as a girl, they look at you in a different way: ‘You're so cute, you have beautiful hair’.” She doesn't agree that boys are more competitive, nor that young girls should naturally gravitate towards ‘feminine’ pursuits such as ballet.

’You’re an exception’

So how does a female chess player keep motivated when faced with male counterparts who dismiss them as less skilled? Polgar doesn't take it personally. “The problem is that looking at statistics, they do have a point.” Her results, however, speak for themselves. She has beaten English grandmaster Nigel Short several few times and he always said, “Judit, you're an exception.”

Polgar says that male opponents have often underestimated her because she’s a woman. She remembers the first time she won against a grandmaster, aged 11 – he “couldn’t handle the situation”, she says.

Listen to the clip above for Polgar’s retelling of her first win over a grandmaster.

But when she was 20 years old, one of Polgar’s biggest – though rather understated – compliments came from former world champion Viswanathan Anand. When asked what he thought of Polgar: “'Well, nothing, she's just one of the competitors, she's one of us.” This acceptance of equality as a player was not easily granted. “I had to prove myself and compete for decades to really gain the respect of the other players,” Polgar says.

What do Polgar and Hou think is the solution? Hou says there should be more opportunities for professional girl players to compete, and more girls should be encouraged to play in mixed tournaments.

Some even moot doing away with women-only competitions altogether and holding only mixed-sex tournaments. Hou doesn't think it's a good idea – she thinks women-only tournaments are needed to encourage and motivate players, so they can win medals and become champions. For Polgar, abolishing women-only tournaments is a very sensitive question. She explains that it’s hard to switch because the skill level in open tournaments is much higher.

Both women are now exploring life beyond competitive chess. Polgar retired in 2014 but is committed to promoting chess “off the board and on the board”. Hou is soon to pursue a masters degree at Oxford University. But Polgar and Hou remain inspirational role models of what determined young girls can achieve – and with their accomplishments, they might just have made reaching the heights of competitive chess a little bit easier.

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