The Panellinion cafe on the corner of Mavromichali and Solonos streets in the central Athenian district of Exarchia is an unassuming kind of place, much like any other neighborhood watering hole that serves Greek coffee mostly to local seniors reading their newspapers and clacking their strings of beads. It doesn't have an espresso machine or music, yet it does draw a younger clientele too. Almost all of the cafe's patrons share a passion for chess. Boards are laid out on most tables and many of the regulars are players, some more experienced than others.
While other coffee shops and bars spent the first half of the summer screening World Cup matches from Brazil, talk at the Panellinion these days revolves around the 41st Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway, which runs through August 15.
Five men and five women are representing Greece at the international tournament, among them a teenager, Stavroula Tsolakidou, from Kavala in northern Greece, who won the world title in the girls under-14 category in the United Arab Emirates last year. Some may argue that chess, the ultimate game of logic, is not well suited to the Greek temperament, yet the success of local players tells a different story.
There are some 200 active chess clubs in Greece and around 30,000 registered players. In fact, the country ranks 25th in the world in the men's category and 28th in the women's, boasting 12 grandmasters and 17 international masters among the men, as well as three female grandmasters and six female international masters, explains Tania Karali, a member of the board of the Hellenic Chess Federation and an arbiter.
“This is what it's about. We sit high in the international rankings because of our talent and despite the fact that the sport is almost entirely overlooked by the state,” player Vassilis Paraskevaidis, a regular at the Panellinion cafe, tells Kathimerini. “It is characteristic of our general attitude: We make an enormous effort and often outdo ourselves, but we lack method. This is something we need as a country in the current circumstances – using absolute logic.
“Chess helps develop a rational character and way of thinking, something that is necessary for every citizen of a modern state,” adds Paraskevaidis. “It is like life; it rewards hard work and method, and punishes thoughtless acts and mistakes. If the powers that be had any understanding of the character-building qualities of chess, the state would have done more to help the game develop.”
According to the vice president of the chess federation, Stathis Efstathopoulos, state support for the sport has been slashed from 850,000 euros per year to 150,000 euros – barely enough to cover operational costs. Some of the expense involved in sending players to tournaments abroad is covered by private sponsorships, while the players often have to pay their own way.