Monday, January 12, 2015

NYJFF ’15: The Polgar Variant

Grandmaster Judit Polgár was like a female analog of Gary Kasparov. She had an aggressive attack on the chessboard and her Hungarian Jewish family had its share of trouble with the Communist regime. However, she also had two sisters who were nearly as good as she was. Yossi Aviram chronicles the Polgár Sisters’ unique training and unprecedented success in the male-dominated chess world in The Polgar Variánt, which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

László Polgár resolved to home-school his three daughters at a time when the Hungarian government rather frowned on such anti-socialist behavior. Undeterred, he was convinced he could train Susan (or Zsuzsa), Sofia, and Judit to be geniuses in a predetermined field. He chose chess, because of its prestige within the Soviet Bloc. To an extent, it worked. All three sisters racked up impressive victories in international women’s tournaments, but they wanted to compete against men in more highly esteemed competitions. The Hungarian chess authority did not just disagree with their ambitions, they put their careers on hold for several years.

Clearly, as the oldest, Susan Polgár paid the highest price. However, by the time their ban was lifted, Judit Polgár was poised to explode on the chess scene. So did their chess careers provide full satisfaction and vindication for their father? Probably in large measure yes, but maybe not entirely so. After all, their lives would become complicated, despite their sheltered early years.

Even though the narration is a bit severe, Variant provides a fascinating look inside the exclusive world of competitive chess. Notably, all the relevant Polgárs participated in Aviram’s film, including the three sisters, their father, and endlessly supportive mother Klára, who at one time was fired from her school teacher position, under suspicious circumstances.

Happily, it seems all three Polgár Sisters have more important things in their lives than chess, thoroughly contradicting the stereotype of the socially under-developed, myopic chess master. Still, Aviram is perhaps a bit unfair to Gary Kasparov, who was admittedly somewhat chauvinistic when the Polgárs first crashed the men’s tournaments, but subsequently revised his opinions. This seems particularly unfortunate, given his role as the leading advocate of human rights and democratic reform in Russia today (his Twitter feed is a must follow for anyone interested in the contemporary state of organized chess and Russian politics).

Regardless, Aviram tells the sisters’ story with authority and economy, conveying a vividly drab sense of Kádár-era Hungary and the neurotic tension of competitive chess. Recommended rather highly, The Polgár Variant screens this Thursday night (1/15) and next Thursday afternoon (1/22) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2015 NYJFF.