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Stefan Popiel...Chess Master


Stefan Popiel was born in 1907 and grew up in the city of Lviv in former eastern Poland. In 1931, he earned a masters degree in French and Latin language and literature from the University in Lviv. He also acted Archbishop Andrew Sheptitsky’s personal secretary until 1944.

Stefan was the nephew of an early master, Ignatz von Popiel, and took a liking to chess at an early age; he played in his first tournament at age 12. He went on to became the best chess player in the region and is now regarded as one of the important masters of pre-World War II Europe.

In 1939, Poland suffered a major defeat and was divided between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Popiel moved to Cracow, where he later published his handbook Introduction to Chess. As World War II progressed, however, Stefan and his relatives were forced to flee to the West. Some were arrested, but others escaped.

Popiel was one of the lucky ones. In 1944, he made it to Paris, where he found work operating a dress shop. He also kept playing chess, and between 1946 and 1955, he took part in eighteen international chess tournaments in Western Europe and took first place in all but four of them.

In 1956, Popiel was authorized to migrate to the U.S. By now, he could speak Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, French, German, Greek, Latin and English. At one point, he was making a living as a translator for the U.S. and Russia.

Popiel and his wife, Valentina Szapowa, landed in Detroit, Michigan, where Stefan taught school. The couple had two young children, and the move was not without problems. But Popiel was soon carving out a fresh reputation, now as an American master, winning the Michigan state championships of 1957, ‘58 and ‘59. He also won the North Central Open in Wisconsin in ‘57, where his competitor Bobby Fisher took 6th place. It was the last time Fisher ever lost in the U.S.

Around 1960, the Popiels made their next and final move – this time to Fargo, where Stefan became a professor of French language and literature at NDSU. He continued to enter tournaments, which improved the family’s financial circumstances, and he became five-time North Dakota champion. He also captured the top position in Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

A Polish scholar, Kazimierz Krawiarz, came to NDSU in 1981 to conduct scientific research, and he happened to strike up a friendship with Popiel, who was now 76. Krawiarz said that Popiel got up every morning at 6 a.m., and other than taking time for meals and a daily nap, he worked every day until 7 p.m. Krawiarz also said Popiel was modest and didn’t like to waste money; he refused to learn how to drive, because he thought cars dominated American life.

“Sheptitsky’s former secretary was very friendly and witty,” he said. “With his gray-hair, he resembled Einstein in some way. He even developed a habit of joking about (it). When someone told Popiel that he looked like Einstein, he wittily answered, not Einstein but Zweistein.”

Popiel died at age 81 and is buried in Fargo. But his childhood town hasn’t forgotten him. In 1996, the now Ukranian city of Lviv hosted their first International Chess Tournament in memory of Stefan Popiel. Five years ago on this date, they had just begun another 10-day tournament in his honor.

(Alternate spellings: Stepan, Stephen, Popel)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm