Karol Józef Wojtyla, 1920–2005

by ChessBase
4/8/2005 – As we write, one of the largest gatherings in human history is taking place in the city of Rome, where over four million devotees have assembled to bid farewell to Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2nd. In his youth the Polish head of the Catholic church was a polyglot athlete, actor, playwright, and, some believe, an avid chess player.

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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.

Pope 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 in 1522.

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 of humour."

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".


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