Wednesday 22nd June, 2005


Double Rooks by Carl Jacobs

Chess in The Vatican - Was Pope John Paul one of the game’s devotees?

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Double Rooks with Carl Jacobs

Was John Paul II one of the Popes who dabbled in the royal game? Rumours that he found some relaxation over the chessboard amidst his heavy Vatican duties circulated in high church places, but open evidence for this seemed somewhat unreliable, however fascinating.

The first inkling turned out to be a hoax. It took the form of a letter, apparently signed by Joannes Paulus P.P. 11, published in March 1987 by the Problemist, a Polish publication devoted to chess problems. The writer, who said he happened “to compose some problems from time to time” as “a kind of healthy relaxation” applied for an annual subscription and offered the magazine three of his unpublished problems.

“If you are interested, please be kind enough when they are published to sign them Karol Wojtyla instead of John Paul II,” the letter requested. Naturally, the publishers became quite excited as the request seemed to confirm stories about the chess playing skill of the head of the Catholic Church who, it was recalled, had been a football goalie in his younger years. Alas, a phone call by the Problemist revealed that the whole thing was a fraud executed by a certain frenchman on Vatical City notepaper.

In 1992, however, somewhat more substantial evidence emerged in an interview with grandmaster Miguel Najdorf, a fellow Pole, who swore to the magazine “New in Chess” that the Pope not only did play the game but had actually published a book of problems.

Another clue came subsequently from Countrywide Computers who were asked by an Italian customer to supply a Mephisto Almeria to a Signor X in Vatican City. When the company queried the lack of precise postal information, their Italian contact appeared amused, pointing out that anyone going to the Vatican and asking for Signor X would experience no delivery problems whatever, the implication being that X was very close to Il Papa. Countrywide said their suspicions were confirmed by subsequent conversations; they claimed to be 99 percent sure that the Mephisto computer was destined for the man at the top.

It is a matter of historical record, however, that four previous Popes, Leo X, Leo XIII, Innocent III and Gregory VI enjoyed the avocation of chess. The strongest among them was Leo XIII, who was enthroned at the Vatican in 1878. One of his brilliancies, played when he was just plain Cardinal Pecci is printed as a sidebar on this page.

Throughout its history, several religious personalities - as well as the famous and infamous in every field of activity - have indulged in the game with varying degrees of skill and seriousness. St Theresa of Avila became the patron saint of chess players as a result of her devotion to it. A Spanish priest, Ruy Lopez, made himself one of the game’s immortals by devising a variation in the King’s pawn opening that is still quite popular. It is recorded that the church made Fr Lopez a bishop, but chess also had its compensations — a pension from Philip II of Spain, plus a gold rook on a gold chain, an annual stipend of 2,000 gold coins from an Italian duke and income from one of history’s most successful chess books.

There are stories that St Francis Xavier saved a soldier’s life by teaching him to play chess; Thomas a Becket jousted with Henry II over the chessboard before things turned nasty between them; Martin Luther dreamed of owning an ornate gold and silver chess set; Sir Thomas More said chess would be played in his Utopia; Archbishop Cranmer enjoyed the game every day after dinner; Cardinal Wolsey had a cake made in the shape of a chessboard for the visiting French ambassador; British envoy Terry Waite used chess to help relieve the tension and torture of his four years in captivity in Lebanon and even evangelist Billy Graham found the game occasionally relaxing.

On the other hand, not all religious personalities have regarded the royal game in a positive light. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1291 described it as “a heinous vice” and, during the Inquisition, Savonarola threatened the inhabitants of Florence with eternal damnation if they were caught playing.

Trinidad and Tobago chess players, however, had quite a pleasant encounter in the early 70s with a religious figure who also happened to be a prominent international grandmaster. Fr William Lombardy, a Catholic priest who was twice US Open Champion, came to Trinidad on the invitation of the TT Manufacturers Association and played unbeaten in three simultaneous exhibitions, conceding just three draws to Rudy Mohipp, Clayton Gomez and Hermes Mentor.

Fr Lombardy was the first American to win the World Junior Championship in 1957 and the first Catholic priest since Ruy Lopez to become a grandmaster. He was also Bobby Fischer’s second in his match against Boris Spassky. However, his visit to Trinidad served to lift the appreciation of local players for the game as much by his gentle and gentlemanly demeanour as by his impressive achievements in the chess arena.

The standard of the royal game in TT is gradually improving as seen by the number of players who have achieved the status of FIDE master. Still our performance in the annual Olympiads has been far from encouraging and we are yet to produce a player of international master class. Clearly we need not only more visits by foreign experts, not necessarily as eminent as Fr Lombardy, but also more frequent competition against regional and international masters.

In my view, our society can only benefit from the promotion of chess as a constructive social activity, particularly among our young people who are now beset by a legion of negative and destructive allurements.


Fr Guila-Joachim v Cardinal Pecci:

1) e4 e5; 2) Nf3 Nc6; 3) Bc4 Bc5; 4) c3 Nf6; 5) d4 exd4; 6) e5 d5; 7) exf6 dxc4; 8) Qe2 Be6; 9) fxg7 Rg8; 10) cxd Nxd4; 11) Nxd4 Bxd4; 12) Qh5 Qf6; 13) OO Rg7; 14) Qb5 c6; 15)Qb7 Rxg2; 16) Kxg2 Qg6; 17) Kh1 Bd5; 18) f3 Bxf3; 19) Rxf3 Qg1 mate.

STARTING today, the Double Rooks column will carry a series of games considered among the best ever played. Here is the encounter between Anderssen (white) and Kieseritzky (black) played in London in 1851, a King’s Gambit which has come to be known as “The Immortal Game.”

1)e4 e5; 2) f4 exf4; 3) Bc4 Qh4; 4) Kf1 b5; 5) Bxb5 Nf6; 6) Nf3 Qh6; 7) d3 Nh5; 8) Nh4 Qg5; 9) Nf5 c6; 10) Rg1 cxb5; 11) g4 Nf6; 12) h4 Qg6; 13) h5 Qg5; 14)Qf3 Ng8; 15) Bxf4 Qf6; 16) Nc3 Bc5 17) Nd5 Qxb2; 18) Bd6 Qxa1; 19) Ke2 Bg1; 20) e5 Na6; 21) Nxg7 Kd8; 22) Qf6 Nxf6 23) Be7 mate.

Here is Anderssen’s other legendary masterpiece, known as “The Evergreen Game”, played in Berlin in 1852. White’s 19th move was described by Lasker as one of the most subtle on record. Anderssen played white against Dufresne.

1) e4 e5; 2) Nf3 Nc6; 3) Bc4 Bc5; 4) b4 Bxb4; 5) c3 Ba5; 6) d4 exd4; 7) 00 d3; 8) Qb3 Qf6; 9) e5 Qg6; 19) Re1 Nge7; 11) Ba3 b5; 12) Qxb5 Rb8; 13) Qa4 Bb6; 14) Nbd2 Bb7; 15) Ne4 QF5; 16) BXd3 Qh5; 17) Nf6 gxf6; 18) Exf6 Rg8; 19)Rad1 Qxf3; 20) Rxe7 Nxe7; 21) Qxd7 Kxd7; 22) Bf5 Ke8; 23) Bd7 Kf8; 24) Bxe7 mate.



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