Who was the Sicilian?

Who was the Sicilian?

Feb 12, 2010, 12:34 AM |

Everyone knows that the Ruy Lopez Opening is named after a Spanish priest; and that the Giuoco Piano is named after a reclusive Italian monk, as I revealed to the world in a previous blog.  But not everyone knows that the Sicilian Opening draws its name from yet another priest, a 17th-century Italian named Pietro Carrera from Militello, Sicily.

It was the English player/writer Sarratt who dubbed this opening the Sicilian, honoring Carrera who, in 1617, published Il Gioco degli Scacchi (The Game of Chess) in which 1. e4  c5 first appeared in print. 

Carrera only approved of four opening moves for White. He rather dogmatically stated in chapter 1 of Book 2 that there are “four methods of beginning the game; the first is, to play e4; the second d4; the third f4; and the fourth c4; any other opening is not deserving of commendation.” [algebraic notation supplied for clarity]

Italian Cover Page

Most of Carrera’s book was translated into English in 1822 by W. Lewis, but he did not translate a chapter on the origins of chess, nor did he translate the portion of the book in which Carrera describes a chess variant.  Some references to Carrera’s variant refer to it as a game played on a 10x8 board with two extra pieces placed between the rooks and knights.  One of these extra pieces is called the Champion and combines the moves of the rook and knight.  The other extra piece is called the Centaur, and it combines the moves of the bishop and knight.  The photo at the top illustrates these pieces.

You can actually play this chess variant against a computer if you click here.

However, in Lewis’ introduction to his translation he does not refer to an 80-square board, but to a 96-square board.  Since the Oxford Companion to Chess also refers to Carrera’s variant as using a 96-square board, either the sources that cite Carrera’s variant as using an 80-square board are wrong, or else Carrera invented more than one chess variant.

Carrera himself was wrong about one thing in his book. He believed that chess was invented by a character from Greek mythology around 1100 BC.  Although the chapter on history was not translated, Carrera’s descriptions of various chess players appear in a separate chapter at the end of his book.  In this chapter, he wrote “Palamedes, son of Nauplius, King of the Island of Eubea, now called Negroponte, inventor of the Game of Chess, used to play with Thersites, in presence of Ajax”. 

English Cover Page

Carrera also wrote other interesting things in his text.  For example, “The word Gambit is a term used in wrestling, when one party, by a sudden attack trips up his adversary.” And in a short chapter on blindfold play he wrote that “It is not necessary to be very skillful in order to play without seeing the board, for common players succeed in it.”  Indeed, Carrera was correct in this observation, as I described in an earlier blog on blindfold chess. 

There is a long list of puzzles included in the text, some of which were originals by Carerra.  For example, in the following diagram White can simply mate with Qg8, but the challenge is not to find the quickest mate.  It is to mate while adhering to the following rather intricate constraints on the solution:

“White to win in thirteen moves with a Pawn, checking on the tenth, eleventh and twelfth moves with the other Pawns, and not to move the King.  N.B. Black’s Pawn is not allowed to become any Piece but a Queen.”



While he has been described as not among the strongest of players, Carrera must have been a fierce competitor, judging from the advice he gave to chess players on how to prepare for a match: “He must abstain some days from meat to clear his brain as also to let blood, he should take both purgatives and emetics to drive the humours from his body, and he must above all be sure to confess his sins and receive spiritual absolution just before sitting down to play in order to counteract the demoniacal influence of magic spells.”

That is a man who took his chess seriously, indeed. 

Serious about chess