Columns | August 05, 2009 16:03

A Sicilian Tale

EtnaAs the cockpit announces that we're about to land at the airport of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, I'm thinking of the Sicilian Defense. There’s no chess opening more beautiful, more difficult, more sinister than the Sicilian. Who is attacking whom? Who is first? Who is right? Nobody knows, not even the best chess players in the world. Who invents such a thing?

As I drive onto the highway in the direction of Palermo in my rented Lancia Delta, carefully adjusting myself to the Sicilian traffic rules, I realize with a shock of recognition and disappointment that my preparation for this trip has been lousy again: why haven’t I looked up beforehand where to go to find out something of the history of the Sicilian opening?

After arriving in my hotel in the coastal town of Cefalù, before even unpacking my suitcase or taking a plunge into the sea, I search the internet for articles on the history of the Sicilian opening. I learn that it was analysed in 1594 for the first time by the Italian Giulio Polerio, also known as Polerio Lancianese, in his manuscript Trattato degli scacchi dell'Abruzzese. About twenty years before, Polerio had traveled to Madrid together with his teacher, Leonardo di Bona, where Leonardo was invited by the Spanish king Philip II to play a match against the great Spanish chess player Ruy Lopez.

Also present at this occasion was Paolo Boi, a legendary figure and the best player of the island of Sicily. Boi was born in 1528 in the Eastern-Sicilian port city Syracuse. As I’m reading the screen, a crazy theory creeps into my mind. Did Polerio and Boi analyze the Sicilian opening for the first time in Madrid? Perhaps the Sicilian opening was suggested by Boi, and the opening thus somehow got its name? On the many websites I check, there’s nothing about this possibility, but I’m so intrigued by the idea that I can’t sleep that night. I’m determined to see whether my theory holds. Oh, to discover something important and be the first to tell the world about it!

The next morning, on a deadly quiet autostrada, I drive straight through the green hills of the Sicilian inlands to the marine city of Catania, at the Ionian coast. From there it’s another hour to Siracusa, as Boi’s birthplace Syracuse is now called. I find a room in a modern hotel close to the historical island of Ortygia, the old Syracuse, at the Lungomare di Levante, where from my window I can see the wild waves crash against the Norman fortifications.

As I’m walking through the narrow streets (fortunately offering some shadow against the burning Mediterranean sun) of the Jewish quarter near my hotel, where cars are not allowed, I try to imagine how Paolo Boi lived here, as a chess addict avant la lettre. Did these small alleys remind him of the narrow paths in chess? What ancient buildings inspired him? The little streets lead me to a large square, the Piazza del Duomo, where a huge cathedral awaits me – tourist – with its big golden doors wide open.

Syracuse_street

A typical, narrow Siracusa street | © A. Moll

The duomo was built on the foundations of an ancient Greek temple, and inside the cathedral you can still clearly see the original Doric columns from the 5th century B.C. I get a vague feeling of estrangement. When I’m outside again, I see a man sitting on a small rug. He’s selling used books. I ask him whether he speaks English, and to my surprise he answers me happily, fluently and with an unmistakable Bostonian accent that he does: he’s a former Harvard student.

He explains the cathedral’s history and the piazza to me, and when I tell him that I’ve orginially come to Sicily to climbe Mt. Etna, but have driven to Siracusa only because of Paolo Boi, the great Sicilian chess player from the 16th century, his eyes start to glow. Do I not know the legend, the legend of Paolo Boi and the Devil? I take a sip of my agua natural as the book salesman begins his tale.

Boi p;aying the Devil

Paulo Boi and the Devil (V. Barthe, 1936)

“In 1570, when the deeply religious Boi lived in Calabria, one day he met a very beautiful lady who to his amazement claimed to be able to play chess. They set up a board and start to play. Boi soon realizes that the lady has spoken the truth: she’s playing exceptionally strong. Nevertheless, Boi obtains a winning position, and after some time he announces mate in two.”

Suddenly the man interrupts his story. “I have to go,” he says hurriedly. “My wife awaits me for dinner.”

“But how does the story end?” I object. “What happens to Boi and the beautiful lady?”

“You’re going to climb the Etna, aren’t you?” he asks. I say that I’m going there tomorrow.

“If you take the cable car from Rifugio Sapienza, when you’re at the station of Funivia dell’Etna, ask for Luigi,” says the man as he puts the rug and his books in a large bag. “Luigi is a tour guide on the Etna and a strong chess player. He’s a friend of mine, and he too knows the story of Boi and the Devil. I have to go now, good luck!”

The next morning I awake early, and although I would have liked to see the archeological park Neapolis, with its Teatro Greco where Aeschylus’ tragedies were first performed in his presence, I decide to get into my car right away and head for Catania again, on the way to the Etna. In the afternoon, I find a hotel in the village of Zafferanea at the foot of the Volcanic area.

At night, I dream a variation of many a chess players's childhood fantasy: I'm at the Corus Chess tournament, not playing but presenting my discovery about the origin of the Sicilian opening during a lecture. Topalov, Anand, Kramnik and Carlsen – all listening breathlessly. In the morning, I drive along the more and more barren and blackened environment towards Rifugio Sapienza, at the slope of the huge mountain.

Etna

Etna, Sicily | © A. Moll

From the cable car I can clearly see just how vast and enormous the lava plains of Mt. Etna are. At the cable station, over 2500m above sea level, I ask for Luigi. My fear that Luigi might not work this day turns out to be unfounded: the girl behind the desk tells me he’ll be back in half an hour for his next excursion. Luigi is a young, well built man who doesn’t look like a chess player at all. Tanned skin, stubble, modern ski sunglasses. I’m having second thoughts again, but I get up and introduce myself as I tell him about the book salesman in Siracusa. Luigi starts to grin. Yes, he knows Guiseppe allright! Always telling stories … now what did he tell you this time?

I tell him about the unfinished story of Paolo Boi and the Devil. Luigi’s smile grows so big it almost disappears. Yes, he knows that story, and he will be happy to tell me. We step into a white jeep which brings us to right under the smoking top of the mountain. When I get out, the ground beneath me is all black. Around me I see nothing but black, smoking dark lava stone and a few white patches of frozen snow. The last eruption is from just a few years ago, Luigi tells me and the rest of the group of tourists, and he points at a log cabin that has been covered with a thick layer of lava. When we start to climb the most recent crater, Luigi tells me what happened to Boi as he was about to announce mate in two.

“At the moment Boi closes his mouth again, he sees that his white queen, with which he wanted to deliver the mate, is slowing changing into a black queen. ‘Ah, Paolo,’ says the beautiful lady, ‘you won’t win the game, as I am now the one with a queen, and you have none!’ But as she’s saying this, Boi realizes he can still deliver the mate. The lady sees it, too, and all of a sudden, she is gone. Then he understands that he has been playing against the Devil himself.”

I look into the crater and see a sort of fog curl up from beneath. And suddenly, I understand everything. Boi didn’t invent the Sicilian himself – it was the Devil who’s played it against him! How could he not have? With his first move, Black allows White to develop his pieces quickly, to set himself up aggressively and make plans for quick attack, looking for cheap success – but White pays a high price: a pawn minority in the centre. Only the Devil could make a contract in which White must sacrifice a central pawn in order to gain quick, fleeting success – but where in the long term Black has the best conditions. A phenomenal discovery, here at the top of the Etna!

Etna

Etna, southeast crater | © A. Moll

Then doubt strikes again. Who’s going to believe me, when I announce my discovery during Corus? People will mock me, and rightly so! A ridiculous hypothesis, based on nothing but supernatural events. A silly story from the Middle Ages. This man’s a lunatic; remove him!

Suddenly, I don’t see Luigi anywhere. The group of tourists and the white jeep are gone as well. In the distance I see the craters of previous eruptions, all somehow pointing in my direction, as if I’m right on the fracture path of the volcano. All I see is smoke and a sea of black lava stone until the horizon.

(The story of Paolo Boi and the Devil was recounted in the magazine Les Cahiers de l'Echiquier Français, November 1936.)


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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll

Chess.com

Comments

Michel83's picture

Thanks Arne, I enjoyed this column very much. Nice writing too.
I wonder if in the blackness of the volcano you played some chess against the Devil too...and whether you played the Sicilian.

David's picture

To honor the defense here's what I chose for my vanity plate, you can use the pics if you want:

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=34954739&l=6f8f1a10eb&id=12804989

Castro's picture

Very nice story, Arne. Very onyric... Late GrandMaster Hugo Pratt would have certainly liked to draw and paint it.

My chess intuition tells me that the Sicilian is the "best" defense against e4.
At least in practical human terms, and at least for the the majority of the players.
Maybe that's why I can't play it myself.
(In fact it has also to do with the less mystical thing called "too much theory for me to cope with") :-)
Beautiful it is, no doubt about it!

Now, chances are it merely got it's name (in continental "Italy", Iberian Peninsula or France) because some famous sicilian(s) --- maybe Paolo Boi first --- used to play it. It's "birth" could have been elsewhere, something like the Scandinavian defense or the English opening. It can even be remniscent of the ancient game, and/or of arab origin (which anyway could always put Sicilia on the way, but also Spain and Portugal just to name these).
In fact it wouldn't be amazing that it was indeed named "sicilian defence" in the Spain after Paolo and Leonardo's visit, because maybe they played it sometimes. But who knows?
(By the way, wasn't Leonardo called "da Cutri"?)
That's the problem of speculating. We can go non-stop, it's a devilish game :-)

Jens Kristiansen's picture

...and then I just took a stroll at the Google Books, which I have not done for some time. There you can find PDF-files with inscanned copies of books by both Sarratt and Lewis - as far I could see, unfortunately not the book by Carrera, but maybe I missed something.
Go ahead for your self! There is in fact a lot of the very old, classic books on chess to download/read from this site - and more seems to be coming all the time.

Jens Kristiansen's picture

Just read this piece with pleasure. And there is indeed something vulcanic, erruptive, not to say devilish, about the sicilian openning.
But - sorry to spoil the fun - according to the chess schollars the phrase "sicilian openning" stems from the 1800-century english chess writer/player Sarrat, who should have been inspired in his baptizing from the 15-1600-century sicilian writer/player Carrera. But some sources also mentions that this Carrera should have met the ageing Boi. So who knows?
By the way: This openning was very lowly regarded by the strongest player´s until the midth-20-century. It could be that its rather strange name just hang on for more than a century because no one employed it seriously.
And if any of the great´s due to fairness should have his name connected to it, then we should call it "Labourdonnais-openning" - but who can spell that correctly? (Quite likely not me :)).

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks for your nice words, Jens. Which 'chess scholars' are you refering to precisely? I'd be interested to know. And yes, Don Pietro Carrera met Paolo Boi when he was an old man. It would be interesting to read what he wrote about him in his book Il Gioco degli Scacchi, but unfortunately, I cannot read Italian :-)

Jens Kristiansen's picture

Well, Arne, at least you can read about these matters in "The Oxford Companion to Chess" by David Hooper and Ken Whyld - som "chess chollars", you may say! But you can also find the story about the back ground of the phrase "The Sicilian Openning" in many other books.
And then there is the Wikipedia-articles on chess in english, which are usually excellent (I wonder who writes them?)
And now I just read in "The Oxford Companion" that Carreras book in question was (for "the greater part") translated into english by Lewis in 1822. So now, Arne: If you are very eager to read it, go for a hunt on the market for antiquarian chess books!

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