In summary, her father, Laszlo Polgar, was a noted psychologist in Hungary, and he had a theory that any child could become a genius with proper training, and he decided to use his own children as guinea pigs to prove his theory.
From the age of four, he began training Susan to be a chess champion, and he quit his job and made training Susan, and his other two daughters born later, his life work. They were homeschooled so they could spend forty to fifty hours a week practicing chess instead of wasting their time doing more mundane schoolwork. He had several grandmasters tutoring them on a daily basis.
It’s interesting to ponder what this experiment proves and what it doesn’t prove.
It does demonstrate that a big part of chess is merely being trained to be a chess player. Two of his three daughters were ranked as the world’s best women chess players. To this extent, I don’t think that the girls accomplished that much. To me, learning Japanese seems incredibly hard, yet every Japanese kid learns to do it pretty easily. Playing grandmaster level chess may be like learning Japanese, it’s easy to do if you start when you’re at pre-school age. The real chess champions are not the Polgar girls, but rather their dad.
Many say this experiment proves that girls can play chess as well as boys. I don’t think so. Despite the fact that these three girls were trained intensively in chess like no other humans before them in the history of the planet, only one was able to become a top 100 chess player when compared to men. (Judit Polgar, Susan's younger sister, is the only woman in the FIDE top 100 list.) One can only wonder the results if Laszlo Polgar had boys instead of girls. Or the results if his children were natural chess prodigies instead of just regular above-average IQ children trained to be super-chess players.
This story does demonstrate that chess is one of many activities where, in order to be great, you have to start really young and be trained intensively. The same applies to several sports, musical talents, etc. By the time a person is old enough to decide for himself that he wants to become great at something, it’s probably too late.
Does it matter that the Polgars were deprived of a “normal” childhood? All children think their own circumstances are normal because they have nothing to compare them to.
Parents who want their kids to be great at something need to start training them at the age of four. Greatness at squash will probably be better for getting them into Harvard (demonstrating that even a physical sport that no one has ever heard of is more prestigious than the most prestigious of all mental games). But if your kid is unathletic, chess is certainly an option.
Wow, check out this article about Gata Kamsky (thanks James for mentioning it in the comments).
''Gata didn't become interested in chess,'' Rustam said pridefully. ''At 8 years old, I made him play. I am the person that deserves the credit for my son being a champion. It is not Gata's doing. Any child can become a world champion. He has to work a lot and someone has to work with him. The coach has to put his soul into it. To give up his social life. Not watch television, no theater, no beach. The coach must completely forget about himself. There are few people like that.''
[Gata achieved the rank of #3 in the world before he quit the game. Was he a natural chess talent? Or not?]
Fred Waitzkin, the author of the article, did have a son who was a natural chess talent, but being a guilt-ridden Manhattan liberal, he didn't have what it takes to turn him into a top player.