Growing up in Hungary as a chess prodigy in a poor family, Susan Polgar wanted to challenge herself physically but lacked the resources for organized workouts at a gym.
So, she ran in the streets of Budapest for exercise. She later joined a table tennis club and eventually took up swimming and tennis. Ultimately, Polgar realized the athletic endeavor she chose wasn’t as important as the impact it had on her performance in chess tournaments.
She felt more confident and had more endurance at the end of long matches. Her mind was sharper.
Polgar was one of the first female chess players to incorporate a fitness regimen into her training. She now does the same as the chess coach at Webster University, which begins its bid for a fifth consecutive national championship Tuesday at the PanAm Intercollegiate Chess Championships in New Orleans.
“Often you have to play two games on the same day, for multiple days,” she said. “You have to sit and concentrate for eight, 10, 12 hours a day — sometimes even longer. It’s very demanding on the body and the mind. I was probably one of the first women who made it an important part of my preparation. That was one of my competitive advantages.”
She has tried to make it an advantage for Webster. The school will send four teams to New Orleans for competition that will determine the four schools to play for the national title in the spring. Webster is attempting to become the first program to win five consecutive years.
The 20 or so players who will make the trip consider themselves athletes in their own right, even though they spend most of their time in a chair, hovering over a chessboards for hours on end.
“A person who doesn’t do sports doesn’t have confidence,” said grandmaster Vasif Durarbayli, who is from Azerbaijan. “When you walk in, you feel you’re the best guy there. But when I don’t do anything, I feel I want to sleep all day. Especially during a tournament, if you don’t do sports you wouldn’t do well. We have a lot of pressure. When you’re the best, every team wants to beat you, so you have to be ready in every aspect.”
When the team had a sponsorship with a local CrossFit gym, Durarbayli was considered the best conditioned individual on the team, earning the title of “Mr. CrossFit.” When that arrangement ended, players were left to find their own forms of exercise again.
Polgar asks that they dedicate five to 10 hours each week to a fitness activity, especially in the weeks and months approaching major events. Although she doesn’t monitor activity, players say they happily use spare time to work out in the university gym, run outdoors or play soccer, basketball and tennis.
“In tennis, psychology and the brain are important as well as the physical aspect,” Polgar said. “In tennis, it’s maybe 80 or 90 percent physical, but there is an importance to being smart on the court. In chess, it’s 80 to 90 percent skill, but the 10 to 20 percent of fitness is also important. The balance is just different.”
Polgar’s approach has worked. As a player, she won four women’s world championships and is a five-time Olympics champion with 10 overall medals. As a college coach, she has won the last six national titles, capturing two at Texas Tech before making the move to Webster University.
The investment in chess at some schools is rising to match that of some Division I sports, and Polgar wants every advantage to remain at the forefront.
For nearly two weeks leading to this week’s event, the players practiced chess for six to seven hours a day. Many then spent several nights after the chess practices playing basketball in the university gym for two hours.
Le Quang Liem, who is from Vietnam, also spent additional time studying chess at home as the tournament approached.
“I try to do as much as I can during the school year,” he said of his workouts. “She really encourages us to do it. She’s not there to check every day, but we really enjoy doing it. We think it’s important. I’ve done more since I’ve come to the U.S. It’s really helpful in the way that it keeps my mind sharp, and I don’t feel tired during long tournaments.”
Durarbayli organized a soccer club on campus and the group plays twice a week. The team has had the opportunity to play with world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, who is well-known for his fitness approach to the game and his love of soccer.
More recently, Durarbayli has added Zumba, a dance fitness program, to his workout repertoire.
“Since I was 7, I’ve done all kinds of sports,” he said. “I love it all, except fighting. We are peaceful people. We don’t fight.”
But he and Webster University players from 10 countries are well-versed at the mental battle of chess. If they aren’t used to the fitness aspect of training, Polgar makes sure they understand quickly what is involved.
“There are always one or two who are not so eager,” she said. “But if they are part of the team, it’s not optional. It’s part of the deal.”