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 / 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.
The 14 players consisted of a Frenchman, a Bulgarian, an Uzbek, three Ukrainians, an American, a Hungarian, three Russians, an Israeli and two Armenians, including Aronian. The arbiter was Belgian, and the guest of honour—a chess legend called Svetozar Gligoric, a deaf, frail and octogenarian GM who padded around in a tracksuit—was Serbian. The sanatorium, a vast grey stone edifice, was once frequented by senior communist apparatchiks, who came for the hot springs. Like much of Armenia, it is stuck between the Soviet era and modernisation. The rooms have been upgraded, but the menu hasn’t. Every day there was pork, creamy mashed potato and buckets of buckwheat. To cater to the guests’ medical requirements, a phalanx of doctors in navy-blue tunics was on hand. One room was dedicated to gastroscopy, another housed the proctologist. The ominously titled “treating doctor” had a separate area which I dared not enter.
The players were mostly in their twenties, with a few in their thirties and one or two “old men” who had turned 40. They were civil to each other but close friendships are tricky. As top grandmasters, their lives are intertwined; they compete in the same tournaments across the globe. Between games the players ran into each other in the dining hall, by the pool or in the sauna. But most ate alone, or huddled with their second—a kind of coach-cum-sparring partner who helps them prepare. At 3pm each day, the clocks were started: ahead lay up to six-and-a-half hours of exhausting intellectual combat.
It’s nervy stuff, not least because this was a crucial contest, the fifth of six tournaments that constitute the grand prix. Aronian won two of the previous tournaments, and if he came first or second here he would win the grand prix. There was a cash prize, but more importantly the winner would claim a spot in a knockout round of just eight players, leading to the chance to take on the world champion, currently India’s Viswanathan Anand. So Aronian stood within 13 games of a shot at the ultimate prize in chess.
With the games in progress, I headed outside the sanatorium and, in the thin mountain air, listened to groups of boys and old men passionately debate the moves. They offered me 64 different explanations for why Armenians are world-beaters at chess. Armenia’s heritage as a cog in the Soviet chess machine plays a part, although that alone can’t explain why it outstrips other former eastern bloc nations. Some of them emphasised education—Armenian literacy rates are higher than in the US or Britain. A few others pointed to Armenia’s tradition of creativity in many fields, including music and painting. Armenia is poor and chess is cheap, one man told me. Then—and this is a favourite rationalisation—there’s the individualistic nature of the game. Armenians take perverse gratification in their incompetence at team games. (Weight-lifting is the only other sport at which Armenia excels.) The British ambassador, whom I later met in Yerevan, pressed a more physical, less abstract explanation upon me. Armenia is so mountainous that there’s no room for football pitches and athletics fields—but chess needs only space for a small board.
Yet to truly understand Armenia’s success requires a deeper look into the country’s past, and in particular one moment, a generation ago, in which this most highbrow game first began to embody the spirit of a subjugated people.
There have been two Tigran the Greats in Armenia’s history. The first Tigran the Great, an Armenian king born in 140BC, was an aggressive risk-taker and a tactical wizard. He launched ambitious military offensives and under his rule Armenia briefly became the most powerful state east of Rome. According to Niccolo Machiavelli, an overreliance on cavalry was his undoing: his knights were so burdened with armour that when they fell off their horses they could barely rise again to fight.
Two millennia later came the second Tigran the Great, Tigran Petrosian (1929-84). Also known as “Iron Tigran,” he has a prominent position in the chess pantheon and was world champion for six years from 1963. In 1972, when the mercurial American Bobby Fischer was trouncing his opponents en route to his legendary world championship match against Boris Spassky, Petrosian was the only man to win a game against him, although he too succumbed after. Fischer said he could sense the exact moment that Petrosian’s ego crumbled.
The Jermuk tournament in which Aronian was competing was named after Iron Tigran. Petrosian is an unlikely national hero: he was born not in Armenia, but in Tbilisi, capital of neighbouring Georgia. He was, however, ethnically Armenian, and as he rose in prominence Armenians adopted him as their own. To most western observers he was just another Soviet from a Kremlin-run conveyor belt that, since Stalin, had promoted the game to demonstrate communist superiority over the west. But to Armenians he was one of them. For many, national identity meant more than communist ideology; for others it was a weapon to be wielded against this ideology. In any event, chess and national pride became fused in 1963, as Petrosian took on the Russian Mikhail Botvinnik.
The match took place in Moscow, but crowds gathered in Yerevan’s central square where a giant board had been set up. The moves were relayed by telex and discussed by the throng as if they were war communiqués. The aficionados knew what sort of chess to expect. Grandmasters, just like artists and musicians, have an instantly recognisable style. “Levon” means “lion” in Armenian and Aronian’s chess is appropriately bold and adventurous. But Tigran means “tiger” in Russian and it would be hard to imagine a more unsuitable fit with Petrosian’s defensive play. He avoided risk and aimed to pre-empt any attack, plug any weakness. He would often lull opponents into overreaching and then exploit the smallest advantage. Bobby Fischer said Petrosian could “smell” danger 20 moves in advance. Yet for all its caution, his play was lethally effective. Aram Hajian, an Armenian-American who works with the Armenian chess academy, says that just as every American of a certain age can recall where they were when Kennedy was shot, so every Armenian can remember where they were when Petrosian vanquished Botvinnik in that same year, 1963. The Armenian won by a convincing 12.5-9.5: Botvinnik’s stamina flagged as his opponent masterfully shuffled and reshuffled his pieces.
Chess became the nation’s favourite pastime soon afterwards. Even the colours became fashionable: photographs of the time show women dressed in black-and-white shoes and dresses. A statue of Petrosian, with his victor’s wreath, would later be erected outside Yerevan’s magnificent four-storey chess club. One amateur player, also called Petrosian, had a dream after his namesake’s victory that if he had a son he should also call him Tigran. And this younger, unrelated Tigran Petrosian became a member of Armenia’s recent gold-medal winning chess team. Indeed, as Iron Tigran became famous, and especially after 1963, “Tigrans” proliferated. The current prime minister is a Tigran, as is his finance minister. A decade ago filmmaker Tigran Xmalian made Black & White, a film that uses chess as an allegory for Armenian 20th century politics. It contains footage of Petrosian—an unassuming looking chap with thick, slicked black hair—hunched over the board in positions of concentration: hands flat over his ears, cupping his cheeks with his palms, stroking his jaw. Before one game a man rushes forward and throws some soil beneath Petrosian’s feet—Armenian soil. For once, says Tigran Xmalian, we Armenians were celebrating, not crying.
Petrosian’s triumph led to an outpouring of nationalism and affected the way that Armenians related both to their Russian neighbours and to the darkest episode in their history. That episode began on 24th April 1915, when Armenian leaders were rounded up and murdered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was the start of what the Armenians call their genocide. Many Turks dismiss the term, maintaining that the killings are inflated in number and were never official policy. But most reputable historians disagree. Caucasus specialist Tom de Waal dislikes the semantic quibbling: “For me it’s enough to say that in 1915 there were lots of Armenians in eastern Anatolia. Several years later there were none.” Up to 1.5m people were butchered in their homes or died as they were deported. But it was only in 1965 that the Kremlin, facing large public demonstrations in Yerevan, finally authorised the construction of a national memorial. Today this bleak complex, consisting of a dozen tapered concrete slabs symbolising each devastated province, stands in the peaceful hills overshadowing Yerevan.
During the final years of Ottoman rule there was much talk about a solution to “the Armenian question.” The Ottoman Turks thought the Armenians were money-grubbers. They were accused of being enemies within. Under communism, Armenians were known for their business acumen and the nation provided many of the Soviet Union’s best engineers, mathematicians and scientists. “Armenians were the brainy boys with glasses in the front of the class,” says de Waal.
These, of course, are stereotypes usually attributed to another minority. The parallels between Jews and Armenians are striking. Both have well-knit diasporas—there are more than three times as many ethnic Armenians living outside the country as inside and remittances are key to sustaining the economy. Both have strong lobby groups in Washington. Both take inordinate pride in the achievements of their ethnic group—singer Cher and tennis player Andre Agassi are two Americans that Armenians claim as their own. Both have histories marked by identity-shaping tragedies. And both Israel and Armenia are small nations and chess giants.
Further, Armenia’s regional politics often look as intractable as Israel’s. Armenia has a closed border with Turkey and with Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan. The borders were closed because of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan overwhelmingly populated by Armenians and over which the two nations fought a war in the early 1990s.
Modern Armenia had only a brief period of independence at the end of the first world war before being absorbed into the Soviet Union. Since its rebirth in 1991, says Aram Hajian, it has been in search of an identity. “Armenia is an ancient nation but it is newly reborn. Many people know it’s the first nation to adopt Christianity, 1,700 years ago, but in more modern times it’s not clear how Armenia wishes to present itself to the world. And presenting itself as the king of the intellectual game is not such a bad image to portray.” There will be an added piquancy to the 2012 chess Olympiad, to be held in Istanbul. If Armenia takes part it should thrash its oldest adversary, as Turkey has only two grandmasters.
The long-time world champion and now political activist Garry Kasparov was born Garry Weinstein, but his mother was Armenian. Levon Aronian has an Armenian mother and a Jewish father too. With those genes, he said mischievously during a break in the competition, “my genius was guaranteed.” He was eating supper in the dingy dungeon dining hall along with Arianne Caoili, a rare female player who accompanied Aronian to the tournament. “But you have two advantages over Kasparov,” said Caoili. “You speak better English, and your back is less hairy.” Three years ago, when Armenia won the gold medal at the chess Olympiad for the first time, Caoili briefly and inadvertently helped propel the game into the mainstream news. The brainy, beautiful Filipino-Australian, a master-strength player, was dancing with Aronian when an English GM, Danny Gormally, became jealous and punched him. Another Armenian took umbrage at this assault on his nation’s idol and later thumped Gormally back. Typically, Aronian proved the more astute tactician; he and Caoili are now together.
It was an incongruous episode—fisticuffs are rare in professional chess, where revenge is exacted slowly, often agonisingly, over the board. But it is perhaps not so incomprehensible when set in the stressful context of competition chess.
The players have their tics and idiosyncrasies. When playing white, GM Ernesto Inarkiev sits hunched over the board for several minutes before making his first move, even though he must know what he’s going to play. This may be gamesmanship, or a much-needed period to ease himself into combat. His fellow Russian Evgeny Alekseev is marked by his poor dress: while most wear suits and open-neck shirts, Alekseev looks like a teenager dragged from bed. The Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk most conforms to the caricature of the mad chess genius, with messed-up hair and a habit of staring longer at the ceiling than the board. Everyone has an Ivanchuk story. One is about a brilliant novelty he once rolled out in a match. “How did you conjure that up?” he was asked. “It occurred to me on my wedding day,” he said. He is regarded with a certain awe by his fellows as someone who has achieved a kind of transcendental unity with the game; doing nothing else, thinking about nothing else. He says that a chess player struggles for a perfect game as the artist strives for a faultless painting. After ten days at the Jermuk competition, he still couldn’t remember where the bathroom was and kept opening the wrong door.
Back at the contest, it was round ten. Aronian had lost two games and was hovering above the middle of the pack of 14. He desperately needed a win. His opponent was the second seed and another world top-ten player, the Russian Dmitry Jakovenko. Aronian claimed to feel pressure but didn’t show it; he was preternaturally calm. He began with pawn to c4 (an opening known as “the English”). A quiet start evolved into a crowded middle game. Move 18 was the turning point when, after an apparently simple move, pawn to e5, several of his until-then dormant pieces sprang into action. Then he tightened his grip, forcing Jakovenko’s king on a wild flight from one side of the board to the other, only to be finally, humiliatingly, cornered. Outside the sanatorium, where big boards were erected for the spectators and the pieces were moved by girls with long poles, the crowd erupted into applause.
At the post-match press conferences some grandmasters were fidgety, still racked with the tension of the game just completed. Not Aronian. He stroked his chin and delivered his post-mortems in soft cadences, with an air of detachment, as if he’d just had a refreshing stroll in the park.
Among the spectators, Aronian was compared to international celebrities. “He’s our David Beckham,” said one elderly, leather-faced man as the sun glinted off his bald head. Aronian is always in demand for autographs and always obliges. And chess has made him rich—if not in Beckham’s league.
Armenia is one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union. After a few years of double-digit growth, when it was briefly dubbed “the Caucasian tiger,” its economy,
dependent on global metal prices, imploded. In the west, a chess player ranked, say, 200th in the world, would struggle financially. But in Armenia a GM can earn $40-$70,000 a year in prizes and appearance fees. What’s more, grandmasters who remain in Armenia (Aronian now lives in Germany) are guaranteed a salary by the state of roughly the average wage.
A sophisticated structure is in place to develop the next generation of Aronians. Down the road from the match venue is a classroom where the country’s best juniors are brought to train. There’s a boy who won the European under-10s, another who was under-12 world champion. In fact, all the children have won medals in national or international competitions. In the afternoon they watch the grandmaster games. In the morning, after physical exercise, there are four or five hours of chess coaching: three-minute blitz games, opening theory, endgame technique and sessions on tactics. To inspire them, the floor is made up of 64 black-and-white squares.
Overseeing all of this is Serzh Sargsyan, a man with two presidencies to his name. He is head of Armenia’s Chess Federation and, when not embroiled in chess responsibilities, he is the president of Armenia itself. Silver-haired and with twinkly eyes, he has a machine-gun cackle and a sinister CV. (His background is in the security services.) Next year he plans to make chess part of the national curriculum, dismissing criticism that the money could be better spent on infrastructure or hospitals. “With this money we could build 1km of road,” he said. “What’s better, to build this road, or to have tens of thousands of children playing chess? Chess trains the mind. Kids who play chess are more organised, more disciplined, more honest.” He believes that chess has helped put Armenia on the map and that it can become the centre of the country’s international brand. “We don’t want the world to recognise Armenia just by the genocide and the earthquake.”
On the final day, after his slow start, Aronian needed other games to go his way even if he won. He took his place at the board as the photographers clicked away. Then the players were left alone. There is a loneliness to chess played at the highest levels. It goes deeper than the mechanics of competition, the sitting in silence for hours. These men are part computer, part artist. Show them a particular distribution of pieces for a split-second and they can memorise the configuration and reproduce it at will. Most have exceptional memories. Many are musical; in this tournament Aronian listened to Bach before each game. They all have language skills—conversation glides from Russian to English to German. But, said Aronian, what they create can be grasped by very few. In that sense, it differs from music or football. We may not be able to compose like Mozart but we can enjoy his compositions. We may not be able to bend it like Beckham, but we can marvel at his striking of the ball. “To understand the beauty of the games played at our level,” Aronian said, “you have to be rated 2,200 or higher.” In Britain, only a couple of hundred people are at that level. Aronian made this point with regret rather than arrogance.
Whether or not they can fully comprehend it, hundreds of thousands of fans around the world followed the final game. The boards were hooked up to sensors and moves were online as they were made. Armenians could track the tournament via their television news.
Those watching were not disappointed. Aronian ground out a victory, turning a nano-advantage into a strong lead, and then into an unstoppable force. His opponent, playing black, had been fixed with a weak pawn structure by move 12, but it was another 24 moves before an embattled pawn fell and a further 20 before it was clear that Aronian’s pawns were sweeping down the board and black capitulated. The win gave him second place in the tournament and victory in the grand prix. The world title is now in his sights.
Armenian nabobs were in attendance at the night-time award ceremony. The entire town turned out for the speeches, music and fireworks. The president handed Aronian the keys to an apartment in Yerevan—a none-too-subtle plea for the star to return to his homeland. But Aronian and Caoili were heading back to Germany, the weight of the nation’s expectations still upon him. The young genius appeared typically unfazed. “I’m a chess player first, an Armenian second,” he said.
That is unlikely to affect his countrymen’s passion for Aronian, or for chess. As Tigran Xmalian told me, Armenians love the game because they’ve been attacked, invaded and oppressed by so many empires over two millennia. Chess offers salvation, “because every pawn can become a queen.”