by Ian Rogers
Elizabeta Polihroniade (cover and above with GM Ian Rogers), who died last month aged 80 after a long illness, was Romania’s most well known chessplayer, one who survived the hard years under dictator Ceausescu only to discover that life was almost as tough in the post-communist era when she found herself battling corruption.
Polihroniade completed a degree in Journalism, later saying “I realised that to play chess, the only profession I could do was press related.” Polihroniade started work at Romanian Radio and Television in 1955, turning seriously to chess five years later.
Polihroniade rose to be the second best female player in Romania, taking over board one when her great rival Alexandra Nikolau (later Van der Mije), who was ranked as high as world number three, fell foul of the authorities. In 1973, when Nikolau defected to the Netherlands after a Wijk aan Zee tournament, Polihroniade became Romania’s number one and eventually represented Romania in 10 Chess Olympiads.
However it was Polihroniade’s television show ‘Chess in 15 minutes’ that turned her into a household name. By the 1970s, a period when television transmissions in Romania were sometimes limited to a few hours a day, Polihroniade had secured a regular Saturday show which introduced chess to the masses in Romania.
An avid promoter of chess, Polihroniade also edited the national magazine Gambit, wrote four books about the game, and organised schools competitions, becoming a leading arbiter once her playing career was winding down. She is said to have taught dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to play chess, and he later supported training and travel for Romanian teams – so long as they were winning medals. Polihroniade won plenty, including two gold (both individual, five silver (1 individual, 4 team) and 2 bronze (both team) medals at Chess Olympiads.
Her celebrity opening many doors, Polihroniade competed around the world, including at Australian Opens in 1987 (where she beat Australian Olympian Chris Depasquale and drew with me) and 1992 (where her draw with Peter Leko cruelled the Hungarian prodigy’s chances for victory).
Over many years Polihroniade enjoyed a long friendship with Adelaide’s Evelyn Koshnitsky, Polihroniade promoting Koshnitsky’s 1980s magazine, AWCL Bulletin, the only one devoted to women’s chess at the time.
At one Olympiad, which my fallible memory pegs as Thessaloniki 1988, Polihroniade approached the Australian team and explained that with her Romanian television film crew she was making an hour-long video of the Olympiad. If the Australians agreed to pay $50 they would receive a copy of the video cassette and would be permitted to copy it amongst the team. In addition, the cameramen would make sure there were plenty of shots of the Australian team.
The video cassette was delivered as agreed at the end of the Olympiad, but it was surprising to see that not one Australian appeared in the programme. The mystery was solved when it was realised that there were dozens of close-ups of the Austrian team throughout the video! (Admittedly, even if you are an Austrian, Stephen’s Fry’s documentary for the BBC about the 1988 Olympiad is probably of greater interest.)
Polihroniade’s multiple trips abroad fuelled rumours that she was part of the feared Securitate, the Romanian regime’s secret police and indeed her great rival from the late 1960s van der Mije maintained that Polihroniade was a Colonel in the organisation.
However others such as Lubomir Ljubojevic are doubtful that she was Securitate; “She was very well connected to power, that is true. But she always seemed like a normal person, mixing well socially, on the many times she visited Belgrade.”
“I’m not involved in politics,” Polihroniade answered in 2012 when quizzed about her political motivations. “I spent my whole life playing chess and working for the television station.”
Likely Polihroniade was simply trusted by the regime; for a country which had a very poor international image it was useful to have a popular and friendly celebrity as a roving ambassador. Indeed, the tributes following her death showed that Polihroniade had been the perfect ambassador, described by Sergey Karjakin as “one of the kindest people I have ever met”.
After the Berlin Wall fell, Polihroniade stayed a major figure in the Romanian Chess Federation, with her biggest test, politically and personally, coming at the start of the millenium.
In 2001 Romanian chess was facing a crisis when businessman Alexandru Crisan rigged a series of tournaments which gave him the Grandmaster title and a world ranking in the top 50.
When Polihroniade and the top Romanian player Andrei Istratescu complained to the world body FIDE, Crisan took over the Romanian Chess Federation, suspended Polihroniade and Istratescu, and began billion lei defamation lawsuits against them.
After forcing Crisan to play a high level tournament in Slovenia (where he bombed) FIDE’s qualifications body stripped Crisan of his GM title but, before implementation, a phone call from a politician friend of Crisan to FIDE President Iljumzhinov saw the title restored and the ranking (after his catastrophic result in Slovenia) adjusted to just below 2600, conveniently just outside the top 100.
Polihroniade confessed that she expected to be bankrupted by Crisan’s lawsuits and political influence but in 2002 she started turning the tide legally and Crisan came under the spotlight. Even so, it was not until 2010 that Crisan was finally jailed for four years for (non chess related) corruption. (It took even longer – until 2015 – for FIDE to remove his GM title and revise his rating down to 2132.)
Polihroniade continued to be a regular fixture at Chess Olympiads and European events as a senior arbiter though her arbiting skills deteriorated seriously in her later years.
In 2007 she began organising the Kings tournament, both in Medias and Bucharest, which for a few years was one of the world’s strongest events. Polihroniade had been planning a super-strong 10th edition of the Kings tournament in 2007 when illness intervened.
Tributes since her death have been extensive, with the Romanian President, Klaus Johannis, posthumously awarding her a knighthood in the National Order of Merit.
Above: Polihroniade with Elizbar Ubilava and Ignatius Leong