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‘I’m Still Around’: Susan Polgar Is Leaving Webster, But She Can’t Quit Chess (Or St. Louis)

052421_PaulTruong_SusanPolgar.jpg Susan Polgar
Paul Truong
Webster University
Susan Polgar retires later this month after nine years coaching Webster University's chess team.

For nine years, Susan Polgar led Webster University’s chess team — and for that entire time, the team was a force. Polgar and her husband, assistant coach Paul Truong, led Webster to seven consecutive wins in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, with an eighth first-place finish for good measure. Webster also won five straight Final Four national chess championships during Polgar’s time at the helm.

Polgar will retire on May 31. She explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that she fell down a flight of stairs last fall and found the injuries distracting enough for her to seek out a replacement.

“If I do something, I like to do it 110%,” Polgar said. “I felt that since I’m unable to give my all to the university and the students, it’s best to look for another coach who can continue the success and give his all to the students.”

When her former student Liem Quang Le agreed to take the helm, Polgar knew she was making the right decision. “If I wouldn’t have found him or he wouldn’t have agreed, I might have had second thoughts, but this way I feel good about it,” she said.

Polgar plans to become director emeritus of Webster’s Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, also known as SPICE. While she is moving to Florida, she plans to keep her place in St. Louis, noting that one son is still a Webster student and another, who graduated this year, is just beginning work on his MBA.

“I’m still around,” she said. “I just won’t be full time in St. Louis.”

Did she accomplish everything she set out to do at Webster? “Well, you can always do better,” Polgar said, then laughed ruefully. “But with that said, our students at the program at Webster have more national and world titles in the past nine years than at all the other universities with chess programs combined. We’ve been ranked No. 1 nine years straight, every day, every month, every year. So, overall, of course I’m very content and very proud.

“Let’s say nine years ago I would have been told, ‘OK, you can take this record.’ You know, I would have signed on it.”

Susan Polgar discusses sexism, nature vs. nurture, and coaching
Listen to her conversation on St. Louis on the Air

Polgar has spent her life shattering barriers in the chess world. At 15, she was already the top-ranked woman in the world — but had to fight to compete in elite men’s tournaments. In 1991, she became the first woman in chess history to earn the title of grandmaster by norms and rating.

She said the playing field for women has improved, but “there is still a need for further change.”

She said: “When I was growing up as a young teenager, a young woman, I was typically the only woman in most of my competitions or visits to chess clubs. ... And unfortunately our society was not very kind, in a way. They looked at those women, myself and others in those situations as well: ‘Oh, maybe this is an opportunity to get a date.’ And that was obviously not the reason I went to the chess club for. It was a very unnatural and unpleasant situation at times. Some of the guys did not take rejection well, and I got into some dangerous situations a few times.”

Polgar said she was fortunate to have been raised with the idea that she could do anything she set out to do: “As long as you work hard, as long as you try your best, why couldn’t you do just as well as the men?”

“I believed that, because I agreed,” she said.

But even after shattering key glass ceilings as a player, Polgar found herself having to prove herself all over when she became a coach. Before coming to Webster, at Texas Tech, she became the first female coach to lead a men’s Division I team to a national title.

She said: “Even now, after all the success we had with Texas Tech and Webster University, still, when my announcement of my retirement was made a month or two back, none of the other coaches wrote, ‘Congratulations on your retirement.’ Perhaps they are celebrating: ‘Oh, she’s finally retired; we have a better chance to win.’”

As a coach, Polgar credited her success to a “holistic approach,” noting that she treated her students as family.

“I tried to understand where they were coming from, and didn’t have a one-size-fits-all method, but tried to optimize the training to each and every student,” she said. “They come from very different backgrounds in many ways, culturally and even in their chess education. They have different needs and what they need to improve or need help with, and I was trying to find that individual tone with each and every student.”

She compared it to being a parent: “Just because I can use an approach with my older son, it doesn't necessarily mean I can use the same with the younger. I always try to understand them, and be fair with them, and have their best interests at heart.”

Polgar and her two sisters famously became chess prodigies in their native Hungary after their father set out to prove that genius was made, not born. Polgar said she continues to believe his thesis — not just in chess, but in most fields of achievement.

“I think he was definitely right about that,” she said, “that it’s primarily all about hard work that’s being put in, and providing positive circumstances for the children. It’s obviously a lot of sacrifice. It requires a lot of patience and endurance and perseverance, both from the part of the parents and coaches side as well as from the child or student. That’s where unfortunately most people don’t reach their optimal potential.”

She noted that her father’s experiment took 15 years to see world-championship results. “In a lot of cases, either the parent or the children give up, for just giving up because they don’t believe in it anymore or simply the circumstances don’t allow it. In many cases, life happens.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.