Stefan Popiel was born in 1907 and grew up in Poland. He was the nephew of an early chess master, Ignatz von Popiel, and he 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.
Defeated by Germany in 1939, Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Popiel moved to Cracow, where published a handbook Introduction to Chess. As World War II progressed, however, Stefan and his relatives were forced to flee. 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 tournaments 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 Russian governments.
Popiel and his wife eventually moved to 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 competitor Bobby Fisher took 6th. 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 culture 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.
Popiel was known to rise by 6 a.m. every morning, and other than taking time for meals and a daily nap, he worked until 7 p.m. He was modest and didn’t like to waste money; he refused to learn how to drive, because he thought cars dominated American life. And by age 76, with gray hair, he was thought to resemble Einstein.
Popiel died in 1987 at age 81, and is buried in Fargo.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm