This month, Judit Sztaray celebrates her one-year anniversary as general manager of youth outreach and events for the world-renowned Mechanic’s Institute Chess Room. A former science researcher with a Ph.D. in chemistry and the 2017 recipient of the U.S. Chess Federation Organizer of the Year award, Judit grew up playing chess in her native Hungary, where she also honed her skills in Eastern European baking.
We Zoom-conferenced with Judit in the Stockton home she shares with her chemistry-professor husband and three school-aged daughters. Judit had just wrapped up a successful first day of the MI virtual chess camp, a project that she organized.
When did you start playing chess?
In Hungary, everyone knows how to play chess. It’s in the air. I learned when I was young. But I was never a competitive player. I am regularly playing. I know how to checkmate. But I play just for fun.
Is it common in Hungary for women to be involved in chess, or is it still weighted toward men?
Hungary is not particularly ahead in terms of female chess players. Probably the percentages are about the same in every country. But we have the advantage of the Polgar sisters—they are very famous. Three girls, like my family. They grew up during Communism, just like I did. Susan, the oldest, is the first female grandmaster in the world. She and I talk quite often; I volunteer for her chess nonprofit. But all three Polgar sisters became grandmasters, the highest level of chess title you can get.
They were homeschooled, which was really, really rare in those days. Their father proved that with enough dedication and hard work and repeating practice, you can be a genius in anything. What we call genius—you don’t have to be born with it. You just have to work really hard.
Before chess, you were in chemistry, is that right?
I have a Ph.D in mass spectrometry, detecting molecules in various matters. I worked in clinical chemistry, where you detect molecules in your system that indicate cancer or other diseases. It took me a good six, seven years to earn my Ph.D. because I was following my husband around the world to wherever he successfully got a job. Hungary, North Carolina, Hungary again, Stockton.
I worked in research for 15 years, was a stay-at-home mom before I got my U.S. work permit, and then I was a data scientist for two years at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
And then how did you transition to a career in chess?
While I was at the University of the Pacific, I started volunteering at Bay Area Chess and the past executive director asked me several times if I wanted to join. The last time he asked, I said okay, yes, I’m ready. And then for five years I was the executive director of that organization.
In your mind, is there a connection between chemistry and chess?
I would say a connection with chemistry, not too much. But math and chess, definitely. The probabilities, the logic, the calculations. You’re evaluating scenarios, evaluating outcomes. There’s a probability of accuracy, which has become important nowadays with online chess, fighting against cheaters, how you can prove mathematically that it’s impossible to have beaten someone.
So how’s it going in the MI Chess Room?
It gives me a lot of pride to work for this organization. I don’t think people realize how unique Mechanics’ is. It’s the oldest [continuously operating chess club in the U.S.], and we are open every day. You can come and play chess anytime. And the fact that it is built into the charter of the Institute gives a lot of confidence that this will live on. In fifty years, the chess club will still be here. So people should cherish the background and history.
What’s great about your job?
I like kids, I like classes. But event management is my favorite part. I’m a customer-service oriented person. And it’s a rewarding feeling, putting something together that works. For example, this past weekend, we had our first online tournament that was open for anyone, and we awarded prize money. We had eight grandmasters playing! That’s huge. And we just got back the result that no one was cheating. Oh my God, we pulled it off. This is a very good achievement, I would say.
I also love working with passionate people like Abel Talamantez, the Chess Room director, or local legends like FIDE Master Paul Whitehead. [FIDE is a French acronym for the international chess federation.]
So having all the Chess Room activities online, because of the pandemic, is working out well?
Yes. We are leading in online right now, big time. We started it really fast [after the shelter-in-place order] and a lot of our regular club players transitioned to online. We have tournaments every single day now online. We have 30 to 40 players each Tuesday and Friday night. It’s great to virtually connect with them regularly.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
I love to sing. We ride bikes a lot. We’re all excited about any chess-related stuff. And we like to bake. I teach my girls how to do those sweets that I learned from my parents and grandparents. People are so afraid of poppy seeds. But we grind them, we smoosh them, and make delicious sweets using them. We don’t make it too sweet, we don’t make a lot of sugary icing.
What about reading?
I don’t have too much time to read. But my favorite author is Jane Austen. And I always enjoy bringing my girls to the library and feeding their souls with love for books. I want to make them feel at home there.
What haven’t I asked about that you’d like people to know?
I'm a very open and direct person, and I value communication more than anything. I always say, let’s talk. Don’t rely on email, don’t rely on Facebook. Have an interaction. That’s how your enthusiasm can shine through, and others can feel it. Enthusiasm is one of the most important things in life. That’s my motto.
For a listing of MI’s camps, classes, clubs, and tournaments for kids, click here.
For the MI chess calendar, click here.