The Sack of Rome
Section: Historical Rewinds
According to Wikipedia, Rome has been sacked eight times by the Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, and lastly by Sophia Polgar in 1989 at the age of fourteen. Armed with nothing more than a cute teddy bear, Sophia’s “Sack of Rome” as it is known in chess circles was the first time in history any chess player achieved a 2900 performance rating for a single tournament.
At the last minute, a grandmaster dropped out of the prestigious ‘Magistrale di Roma’ tournament in 1989 and the organizers decided to invite the child prodigy Sophia Polgar. The tournament featured three grandmasters who ranked 43rd, 48th and 69th in the world. Sophia, at age 14, would face nine strong adult men during this tournament and some feared it might discourage her to play against such strong competition.
As it turned out, it was Sophia’s opponents who became discouraged. She beat them all! After defeating her first eight opponents, Sophia in a won position and having already won the tournament outright offered what is referred to in chess as a pity draw to her final grandmaster opponent.
In Sophia’s own words, she tells what happened next " Most chess magazines worldwide had my photo on the front page with such titles as “The Sack of Rome” or “Miracle in Rome”. I was only a fourteen year-old little girl upon arrival in Rome with a rating below 2300 (a non-master rating). Many of my opponents were respected grandmasters, three or four times my age."
It seems that many people have never heard of Sophia’s feat but most know of Bobby’s Fischer’s exploits. How does this feat compare with Bobby Fischer’s much heralded 21-game winning streak. Fischer’s winning streak has typically been reported as the longest in history when in fact it is the second longest in history. The first official world champion. Wilhelm Steinitz had a 25-game winning streak that ended in 1882. Technically Fischer’s winning streak didn’t set a record. The Sack of Rome, is a record that no man in a completely male dominated game had ever achieved.
During the tournament an exhibition match was held between the second highest rated chess player in the world (Victor Korchnoi) and one of the grandmasters playing in the tournament. Sophia watched the game in the audience. Korchonoi could tell by the expression on her face that she believed he had made a mistake and was lost. Korchnoi looked back at the chess board and realized that Sophia was correct. At this point, he asked that Sophia be escorted out of the audience before his opponent noticed her expression. Years later, Korchnoi challenged her to a game of speed chess and lost.
Sophia’s early success must have been a little bit discouraging to Sohpia’s younger sister who also wanted to be a great chess player. But don’t feel too bad for her. Judit now holds the record for the highest chess rating for a 12, 13 and 14 year old. She is also considered one of the top fifty greatest players of all time. For many years, she was one of the top ten players in the world before a recent semi-retirement in order to spend more time with her family. She is considered the strongest woman player of all time(see Chessmetrics.com). When Garry Kasparov, who is considered one the greatest world champions, was asked to comment on Judit’s feminine playing style, he said, "if to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in chess, it would mean relentless aggression. Judit is one of only a few players to have defeated Kasparov in an individual game. When asked, Judit and her older sister Susan are in agreement that Sophia is the most talented of the three grandmaster sisters. They have spoken in awe of her creativity and brilliance at the chess board.
Fortunately for her grandmaster opponents, Sophia has retired from chess and now only teaches chess and pursues art in Toronto. Her art and more about her incredible achievement can be found here. Her article on her website about Bobby Fischer, is exceptionally insightful.