Armenia excels at chess. Its top player now has a shot at becoming world champion. How did this tiny country become a giant at the game?by David Edmonds / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Grandmaster Levon Aronian: the popularity of the game in Armenia has made him into the country’s David Beckham
View more images from the Armenia chess championships taken by Magnum photographer, Stuart Franklin, who took the iconic images of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square
Levon Aronian likes to sleep late. But at 11am on a weekday in August this year, his dreams were disturbed by what sounded like people chanting his name. In a semi-conscious state he got up, looked out of the window and saw a large group of people outside where he was staying. “You must win for Armenia!” shouted the crowd. They were there because in his native country, Levon Aronian is a megastar. He is 27 years old, charming, handsome, wealthy and the best in his nation at chess. And his countrymen take chess very seriously. The patriotic zeal focused on him during the August tournament was more intense than usual. If Aronian did well, he might one day become world champion.
Armenia is a tiny, poor country in the Caucasus, with a population of just over 3m. It has a long history of bloodshed and oppression; when it appears in the news it is usually because of its entanglement in some labyrinthine regional feud. And it excels at the ancient, cerebral game of chess. In the international Chess Olympiad, held every two years, Armenia took bronze in 2002 and 2004, then gold in 2006 and 2008, eclipsing traditional powerhouses such as Russia, the US, Germany and England. National celebrations followed the most recent victory, along with a set of commemorative stamps. Armenia has 27 grandmasters (GMs), the elite rank awarded to around 1,200 of the world’s best players. With more grandmasters than China and many more per capita than Russia, this little nation is a chess superpower. But why?
This summer I visited Jermuk to try to find out. Jermuk is a resort town 100 miles from the capital, Yerevan, and for two weeks in August its largest sanatorium was home to 14 of the world’s most brilliant men. They were there for a tournament organised by FIDE, the world chess federation.