- December 10, 2010
Mayor Erik Arroyo likes to play chess.
That’s been true of when he was a young boy after receiving his first chess set — he thinks his father gave it to him, but he’s unsure — to when he was a lawyer working in Sarasota and playing daylong chess matches with fellow lawyers and judges, moving pieces between cases.
He has a chess set now as mayor in City Hall, he has one in his car and he has one at home. He also takes the time to play online chess with players across world. It's a connection he clearly enjoys.
“It’s a beautiful way to connect with people all over the world,” Arroyo said. “It’s an ancient tradition that we all have managed to pass down.”
He feels like he’s good enough — he has his favorite strategies like the English Opening, the Stonewall Attack or the Sicilian Defense depending on if he’s playing black or white — but that self evaluation took a hit the first time he entered a competition at the Manasota Chess Center.
“I thought I was advanced,” Arroyo said. “I got here, and I got crushed. I won maybe one match out of eight.”
All the same, Arroyo recently found himself back at the chess center for a different kind of competition — one that promoted goodwill and camaraderie between Sarasota and the city of Tel Mond in Israel.
Arroyo and five other players of varying backgrounds and skill sets competed against a chess team in Tel Mond during an online chess match to foster unity and friendship on May 28.
The event was a partnership between Manasota Chess Center and Sister Cities Association of Sarasota, an organization that promotes goodwill between Sarasota and international cities it's partnered with.
Arroyo teamed up with several other players, including a Chess National Master, and they each had two matches playing against their opponents in Israel. The players on both sides were picked to be at similar skill levels. Sarasota's side included Manasota Chess Center Executive Director Nicholas Lewis, chess national master Scott Ramer, Scholastic participants Rui Jiang and Ellie Levy — both of whom have studied chess at the center — and longtime chess player Donnally Miller.
Many of the players turned out for the thrill of competition, but the day’s contest meant more to Sister Cities President Miriam Kramer. The organization's leader sees it as a way to connect Sarasota to the rest of the world through good actions, something akin to an idealistic boost for dark times.
“It might sound dry on the surface, but it really isn’t,” Kramer said. “Our players are meeting people (during) their remarks, it’s an idealistic vision. Our whole (mission) is creating peaceful relationships with our cities around the world.”
Sisters Cities had hosted chess matches against connected cities at local libraries and schools before the pandemic, but that was before Sarasota had its own established chess center. Once it was clear the Manasota Chess Center was up and operational, wheels began turning in Kramer’s head.
“We’ve done chess matches before but didn’t have a chess center then,” Kramer said. “It just opened a year ago and it’s wonderful. I reached out as soon as I knew they existed.”
Sister Cities and the chess organization quickly planned a chess competition against one of Sarasota’s Sister Cities — the city of Vladimir, Russia. Their game was scheduled just a few days after what was revealed to be an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The relationship between the two cities was suspended, and the event was quickly canceled.
Lewis and Kramer were still eager to have a game and turned to the city of Tel Mond in Israel. Fortunately, much of the technical setup and planning could be quickly applied to the new contest.
“I was trying to do something we could do across the ocean that was low cost and promoted friendship,” Kramer said. “We have a strong chess tradition, they have strong chess in Tel Mond.”
Arroyo received an invitation to join the team after Kramer learned he was a chess fan himself. He felt he held his own during his two matches and walked away with a win.
There’s philosophical value in chess to Arroyo as well. He feels playing the game can make you understand the importance of gradual wins and the effects they can have when added together.
"It unites us and teaches a younger generation that, like in chess, you find value in small incremental wins," Arroyo said. "Those can add up to a big victory later on. Even small activities like this tournament can add to a larger bond with our sister city.”
Lewis was less fortunate. The center’s executive director gave it his all during his two matches but walked away with two losses. He felt like he had a shot against his opponent but didn't make the moves needed to win.
“I go back to fundamentals, try to play good moves,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter if the other person is better than you, you’re playing the board. You just have to make the best moves."
By the day's end, Tel Mond beat Sarasota 9 to 3.
Still, it was hard for Lewis to look at the day itself as any kind of loss. Finally having the Sarasota team together and competing was a victory in and of itself.
With any luck, Kramer and Lewis plan to host new competitions against cities going forward.
“(Sister Cities) has plenty of relationships with different cities,” Lewis said. “Hopefully we can play all of them.”