NEW YORK -- In the rarified competition of world-class chess, where ego is king and the stress of international tournament and championship play is often crushing, the dominant players have always been men, usually men of some maturity. Of the world's approximately 350 top-ranked grandmasters, only a few are women.
Moreover, it has long seemed unlikely that anyone would ever surpass the achievement of the great American chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, who joined the ranks of the grandmasters in 1958 at the age of 15.
But these notions have been shattered by a teen-age Hungarian girl -- some call her modest and soft-spoken, but many opponents know her as a ferocious tiger over the board -- who after years of steady progress began breathing down the necks of the top men and now has broken the barrier of one of the world's most exclusive clubs: she has earned the rank of grandmaster at 15 years, 5 months, one month younger than Mr. Fischer when he did it 34 years ago.
The record was swept aside at a tournament in Budapest in December by Judit Polgar, the youngest of three fabulous chess-playing sisters. Now the youngest person -- and only the fourth woman -- ever to hold the coveted grandmaster rank, she has been compared by experts to history's supreme chess prodigies: Paul Morphy, Jose Raul Capablanca and Samuel Reshevsky.
And while the present world champion, Gary Kasparov of Russia, has repeatedly belittled women as incompetent in top-flight chess and, like many in the often male-chauvinist world of chess, has predicted that no woman would ever be world champion, others are not so sure anymore.
"She has achieved a tremendous feat and joined an elite club," Maxim Dlugy, a grandmaster who is president of the U.S. Chess Federation, said. "And she's done it at this really young age. She has the chance of maturing and becoming a really strong player -- and of trying for the world championship someday."
Joel Benjamin, a grandmaster who lives in New York, agreed. "I think it's possible that she will play for the world championship," he said. "Women who set their sights on the women's championship have no chance to win the overall championship because they play weaker competition and set their sights too low. If she sets her sights high enough, then it's going to be possible."
The next world championship is to be held in Los Angeles in the fall of 1993, and with candidates matches in the triennial event already well along -- the field of challengers to Mr. Kasparov's reign is down to four -- Ms. Polgar is out of the next round and is years away from any real chance for the title.
But experts say her youthful achievements and careful training, her cool creativity over the board and her overpowering will to win have placed her in the realm of the small number of grandmasters who could rise to the level of play necessary to dominate the game someday.
And even Ms. Polgar's achievement of the International Chess Federation's grandmaster rank has impressed many. "It's the most glamorous development in chess since Fischer," said Robert Byrne, a grandmaster who is chess columnist for the New York Times.
Mr. Byrne noted that Ms. Polgar had won the coveted rating at the Super Championship of Hungary in Budapest in late December. She did so by finishing with a high standing in competition that included some of the world's top-rated players.
The grandmaster title is normally achieved by three strong finishes in separate tournaments against players of grandmaster or international-master ranking. Ms. Polgar, who completed two of her required grandmaster norms in recent years, almost achieved the title in a tournament in Germany last May, but drew rather than defeating her last opponent and fell just short.
In international chess competition, Ms. Polgar has a rating of 2550, which puts her on a level with very strong grandmasters. Mr. Kasparov has the world's highest rating, 2770. The average rating among grandmasters is about 2465, and most players in the world would not rate above 1500.
The three other female grandmasters are Ms. Polgar's 22-year-old sister, Szuzsa, and Nona Gaprin--vili and Maya Chiburdanidze, both of Russia.
Under the tutoring of her father, Lazlow, Judit Polgar has been playing chess since she was 5, having learned the moves by watching her older sisters play. Szuzsa now has a rating of 2535, and Zsofia, 17, has a rating of 2425.
Chess experts say Mr. Polgar developed Judit cautiously, keeping her away from strong tournaments when she was very young and inexperienced to avoid the psychological effects of too many defeats, then carefully choosing tournaments that would challenge her abilities but also present chances for victory. Smart coaches in tennis do the same thing.
Instead of having to attend school, she was permitted to study at home with her parents, both teachers, and by the age of 10 she had played in tournaments all over the world, with startling results. A small, serious-looking girl, she was nevertheless an intimidating presence over the chess board. "She is really a nice girl, the whole family is nice," said Mr. Dlugy, the head of the U.S. Chess Federation. "But imagine the psychological effects of playing against a little girl -- or losing to a kid. You can't win really. If you win, what have you proved? And if you lose, oh boy . . ."