The first time Gregory Kaidanov met the girl who would become the strongest female player in the history of chess, he was a 20-year-old chess master and Judit Polgar was a 6-year-old prodigy who on a trip to Moscow with her parents.
They were already two players the chess world would keep its eyes on for decades to come. What the chess world keeps its eyes on apparently sometimes slips right past the rest of us. Many years later, the two crossed paths again in a suite at the Hilton Head Marriot Resort and Spa for a no-frills match in front of a small crowd that might not look like much to the average outsider.
But the match between Polgar, considered by far the best female player in chess history, and Kaidanov, one of the top chess teachers in the country who was formerly ranked in the top 20 players in the world, drew the attention of nearly the entire chess community.
For chess devotees, it was a momentous occasion. In writing a preview of the meeting, the United States Chess Federation compared it to the 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, though with less gender-issue-fueled indignation. The players spent four days in the suite playing a game a day, for a $16,000 prize fund on Feb. 22-25.
The match was broadcast online to an international audience of tens of thousands. Webcasting matches is becoming more prominent in the chess community, but this meet drew particularly potent attention due to both the players involved and the style of play. They agreed to open each game with a move known as the Sicilian, a technical move that has the black player fighting for the center of the board.
“Many chess events draw lots of spectators but we decided to do this a little bit differently, to make the emphasis on the Internet,” Kaidanov said. “Only four or five people were in attendance, but there were thousands and thousands watching on Internet.”
Local business consultant and chess enthusiast Jeff Smith set up the match and put up the prize fund. Smith wanted to host not just a competitive match, but one that highlighted a particular style of play, making the game more interesting for spectators. Smith, who declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he wanted to keep the attention on the players, reached out to Kadainov and then Polgar to play chess in a way that would be interesting for amateur players to watch, which is how they settled on the Sicilian method.
Knowing how both players are going to start each match might seem easy at first, Kaidanov said, but it actually adds a layer of difficulty because both opponents know that the other has prepared for the opening moves.
“It was a very unique match, it was never played before with those kind of rules and those kinds of settings,” Kaidanov said. “It was a huge success.”
The players tied 2-2 in the original four games. Polgar finally broke the draw after a tiebreaker game, walking away with the overall victory.
Polgar’s dominance of the game is undoubted in the chess world. She has been the world’s best female player for more than 20 years, and once ranked as the eighth overall player in the world, when the next closest women player wasn’t even in the top 100. She even defeated chess legend Garry Kasparov in a 2002 match.
Kaidanov, originally from the Ukraine, visited the island from his home in Lexington, Ky., for the match. Polgar came from her home in Budapest, Hungary. She has a sister who lives in the United States. Of her three sisters, all became grandmaster chess players, but Judit Polgar stood out as the best.
“She's huge celebrity the best woman to ever play chess,” Kaidanov said. “This is just huge, she's admired all around the world.”