The Girl Who Did ‘The Sack of Rome’

The chess games of Zsofia Polgar

I know a lot of you don’t play chess, but stick with me: this is a very cool story.

In 1989 there was still a Soviet Union and for all we knew, it would always be. It was the Russian bear, the colossus. The Evil Empire, in President Ronald Reagan’s words. The boogieman of my own childhood. Remember “duck and cover”? That was in case the Soviets bombed us.

Part of the Soviets’ veneer of invincibility was the Soviet chess establishment. American Bobby Fischer gave them a nasty shock in 1972, with the Cold War still raging, when he took the world title from Boris Spassky, but by and by the Soviets reasserted their dominance in world chess. Chess in the Soviet Union was a government project; they sought to use it to “prove” the superiority of communism.

That year, 1989, there was an open chess tournament in Rome. The Soviets were expected to sweep it.

Enter Zsofia Polgar, age 14, from Hungary. Her eldest sister, Zsusa, was women’s world champion in 1986. Her younger sister, Judit, was the world’s top women’s chess player for 26 years in a row. But as you know, the middle child is sometimes overlooked.

In one of the most shocking sports upsets of all time, the teenaged Zsofia mowed down all the top Russian Grand Masters and won the tournament, earning the highest rating ever achieved in an open tournament in chess history ( Her achievement went down in history as “The Sack of Rome.”

Two years later, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. It ceased to exist. The world’s most feared political and military power was no more.

We can only speculate as to how much Zsofia’s Sack of Rome damaged the Soviet Union. It wasn’t like they published papers about how demoralized they were. But it is a fact that this girl, this 14-year-old from Hungary, went up against the government-sponsored, government-directed Soviet chess establishment… and wiped up the floor with them. It’s difficult not to see in this a portent of things to come–and surely a sign that Soviet invincibility was nothing but a hollow shell.

Not bad for a middle child!

4 comments on “The Girl Who Did ‘The Sack of Rome’

  1. Great true story, Lee. I looked Zsofia up. She is Jewish and ended up marrying an Israeli Chess Grandmaster – who knew? I guess chess masters are like athletes, they hit a peak and then decline in prowess. What do you think?

    1. There are notable exceptions.
      World chess very stupidly never gave Judit Polgar a shot at the world championship. It would’ve given chess a fantastic shot in the arm. She did beat each of the world’s top masters and champions at least once during her career–so who knows how she might’ve fared in a championship match.

      As for Zsofia–after The Sack of Rome, what could she possibly do for an encore?

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