By Dewain Barber
May 21, 2015
As our plane prepared to land in Sicily, I knew we would be in for some walking. The European experience of walking on cobblestones was not lost in this beautiful location. I have walked on many cobblestone streets in my travels, but I was not prepared for these streets because Sicily is very mountainous. So, where would I find my game of chess? Would it be at a sidewalk cafe, in a store filled with many souvenirs or some other location that would create the momentum for a brief moment or two with Cassia?
We met our guide, Marina, and found out that she was a true Sicilian. She was born and raised in Palermo, which is located on the western side of the island so we knew we were going to have a real local experience and not just see the tourist traps that many groups visit. One of our excursions was to visit Corleone, home of the Godfather. While we were there we visited an art museum where we learned about the history of the Sicilian mob. We also went to a restaurant where we had a cooking class.
I helped make Bruschetta (grilled French bread rubbed with garlic and topped with chopped tomatoes and olive oil) and fried eggplant while my wife, Susan worked on pizza dough.
We started out on the eastern side of the island staying in the resort town of Taormina which gave us a view of Mt. Etna. At one time this town and the surrounding areas were occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French before finally becoming part of Italy. We saw the ruins of many Greek amphitheaters and temples on our journey.
As we walked through the old part of the city, I carried my chess set with me to see if I could get a game with one of the locals. After our excursion, we headed back to the hotel in Taormina, we stopped for some pizza at the Ristorante Gambero Rosso, located in a narrow passageway. I asked the waiter if I could have two tables, one for our dining pleasure and one for my chess set. We displayed the set and put out a sign that said, “Open for a game.” We had several people look and some of our tour group actually stopped to have dinner, but there were no takers. As I was finishing dinner, I thought maybe a member of the restaurant staff might like to learn the game. As it turned out, there was a brave young man, Slah, who volunteered to sit down. He did not know much about the game, so I made a few moves and explained some of the basic ideas.
After five days in Eastern Sicily, we drove west to see our last location, Palermo. As I have done in the past, I asked Marina if she knew of anyone who played chess. She asked if I was looking for a club or a casual game at a coffee house. I replied, “I just want to play chess with one of the local citizens for an hour.”
She responded, “I think I may have two young people who will be interested.” She commented further that her son, Enrico, and his friend, Leonardo, were both chess players and she would see if they could come to the hotel on the afternoon of the following day where I could meet them. Both enjoyed playing chess. Leonardo had played in a local tournament just a few days before.
I arrived in the lobby of the hotel and set up the club special set that I had brought from home. Just then Enrico and Leonardo showed up with Leonardo’s mother, Isabelle, guiding them to the table where I was sitting. I stood and shook hands with everyone and tried my few words of Italian as a greeting. I had decided in advance that I would have them start a game and then I would review their moves and make suggestions for improvements like playing to the center, developing pieces and castling. They both enjoyed the opportunity to meet and both of them spoke enough English so that we could communicate.
When we concluded our lesson, I then moved forward to one of two other items I had on my mind before I even departed for my trip. I wanted to play, and in this situation teach about the Sicilian Defense (Il gioco siciliano, 1594) in Sicily. The Sicilian Defense was first mentioned in a 1594 manuscript written by Giulio Polerio. I explained to Enrico and Leonardo that in America the Sicilian Defense was very popular and that 17% of the Grandmasters and 25% of all rated games use this opening. They did not know that Sicily was so famous in chess. We studied one idea of the opening and I hoped that they would explore other Sicilian variations.
Finally, I decided that the standard chess set that I brought from Anaheim, CA to Palermo, Sicily, a distance of 6,610 miles, would be given to Enrico, and Leonardo would receive the checkbook magnetic. Leonardo commented, “I hope one day that I will have a chance to play you in America.”
I replied, “I look forward to that game, and you are welcome any time.” The world is indeed a small place when you can enjoy meeting people from everywhere.