By the early hours of this Friday morning about four million pilgrims had
crossed Italy's borders and congregated in Rome, a city that has 2.5 million
inhabitants. Airspace has been closed, the Army has positioned anti-aircraft
batteries around the city, cars have been banned from the city centre, and
schools and public offices are closed for the day. It is also the largest gathering
of world leaders ever and one of the largest congregations of mourners in history.
John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyla in southern Poland on May 18, 1920,
ruled Vatican City and led the Roman Catholic Church for over 26 years, from
October 16, 1978 until his death on Saturday. He was the first non-Italian
to serve in office since the Dutch-German Pope Adrian VI assumed the papacy
At the age of 18 Karol Józef enrolled in the University of Kraków to study
philology, Polish language and literature, Russian and Old Church Slavonic.
During his lifetime he mastered ten languages, including Italian, French, Spanish,
Portuguese, German, Ukrainian and English. Intensely interested in acting,
he performed for an experimental theater troupe during his university days.
It is from this and the following period that the story has arisen that Karol
Wojtyla was a chess enthusiast – an avid over-the-board player and a composer
of chess problems and puzzles. In fact we have received a large number of letters
since his passing, chiding us for not publishing a report on the subject.
Unfortunately all of our research has failed to bring up credible evidence
that the pope was a serious chess player, in spite of the imminent (and eminent)
plausibility of the notion. The legend probably emanates from an entry in the
third volume of the Quarterly for Chess History, which contains a
game allegedly played by Karol Wojtyla in 1946.
The myth was perpetuated by a column published by GM Larry Evans on December
3, 1994, in the Washington Post, and quoted in countless chess publications.
Evans provided the following chess problem:
Mate in two moves – solution: 1.Qa7!
In the accompanying text Evans wrote: "Karol Wojtyla, an avid player now better
known as Pope John Paul II, composed today's study. In this game, after errors
from both sides, Wojtyla defeats the wife of the ambassador of the Malta Knight
during her visit to Poland in 1946." The moves given are 1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6
3.Bg5 Nbd7 4.Nf3 e6 5.e4?! h6 6.Bh4 g5 7.Bg3 Nxe4 etc. The opponent of the
future pope was a lady named Wanda Zartobliwy.
Chess researcher Tomasz Lissowski took up the matter from there. His suspicions
were aroused amongst other things by the name Zartobliwy, which translates
to "facetious" and sounded like a coded message that the game was a joke. Lissowski
contacted a co-seminarian of Karol Wojtyla, a Krakow priest, Mieczyslaw Malinski,
who recalled that during their Krakow Seminary days young Karol like most other
young people played chess, but not to the extent that it would distract him
from his spiritual studies. Malinski knew nothing about chess problem composition
by the pope.
Some time later Lissowski met with Jerzy Gizycki, the author of the Z
szachami przez wieki i kraje, (Through Countries and Centuries with Chess),
and was able to uncover probably the entire historical background to the "games
and chess problems by Karol Wojtyla". The hoax was perpetrated soon after
the election of the Polish cardinal in October 1978 by some joking chess lover,
who decided to outwit the editors of the French chess journal Europe Echecs.
In a letter by Pawel Zartobliwy from Malta and Michal Rodzaj from Portugal
("old, good friends of Karola Wojtyla from his student days"), he submitted
to the editor the record of the game Wanda Zartobliwy vs Karol Wojtyla (Cracow
1946), together with three problems, two-movers and three-movers. Two of them
were allegedly published in the "RSK" – a weekly for Krakow students.
The editors of Europe Echecs, believing the truth of the story, published
the game and problems in the January 1979 issue. A little later the same author
made one more effort. This time he pretended to be the Holy Father himself
(!) and, on faked stationary of the Holy See, he sent a personal letter to
the editor of Europe Echecs, enclosed another problem, "not published until
now". This again failed to arouse any suspicion in the editorial office and
the problem was published in the April 1979 issue of the magazine.
Lissowski also wrote a letter to the Holy Father and handed it to the papal
nunciature in Warsaw. "I was sure that no reply might be expected, writes Lissowski.
"Moreover, I was very angry for my simple-mindedness which caused the undiplomatic
and injudicious sending. It was a surprise then, when in the early 1995 a letter
from Rome reached the seat of the Polish Chess Union. The letter contained
a picture postcard, a fine print of a Madonna from the Vatican collection,
and on it, in the Holy Father's own hand (in a fine handwriting) a short reply
in Latin and Polish was written, showing the Pope's understanding and sense
The first three lines in Latin say: "Filius datus est nobis, Princeps pacis",
with the source given, Isaiah chapter 9, verse 6: "parvulus enim natus
est nobis filius datus est nobis et factus est principatus super umerum eius
et vocabitur nomen eius Admirabilis consiliarius Deus fortis Pater futuri saeculi
Princeps pacis." In the King
James translation that is: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a
son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall
be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The
Prince of Peace." The lines used by the pope are common Christmas greetings.
"Venite adoremus!" means "All come and adore him!" and occurs in the hymn
Adeste Fideles. The Polish part of the message says "Greetings and God's Blessing".