A CHECKERED HISTORY: WHY ARMENIA DOMINATES THE CHESS WORLD
New Statesman, UK
May 21 2014
Amid calls for the UK to embrace chess as an academic subject, chess
enthusiasts look to Armenia, the Caucasian state that improbably
dominates the chess world.
by Anoosh Chakelian
Last month, the former president of education union the Association
of Teachers and Lecturers Hank Roberts said Britain should make chess
compulsory in all state primary schools. He wants children to learn
a game that is so much more than "kings, queens, rooks etc".
He complained that the UK was behind many other European countries
in failing to recognise the game as a sport. But the only country
in the world to have compulsory chess lessons is Armenia: a small,
post-Soviet state landlocked in the Caucasus.
Armenia is not a natural leader on the global stage. Its tensions
with neighbouring Turkey are ever-present from the memory of its past
turmoil with the Ottomans during the First World War, and on the other
side, it remains at war with Azerbaijan. Aside from its modern-day
mouthpiece, the Kardashians - a somewhat double-edged nail-file -
it has a tough time having its voice heard in the Caucasus, let alone
Armenia is ranked as a lower middle income country by the World Bank.
It has an average life expectancy of 74 and its poverty rate as a
percentage of the population is 32.4 per cent. Its literacy rate is
at 99.6 per cent and in 2011, it brought in compulsory chess lessons
at primary school age. It is the only country to have done so.
For a country so hopelessly unable to master the world's geo-political
realities, it is a cradle of strategy, precision and expert
outmanoeuvring. It soars ahead in its aptitude at chess.
"Of the bits I've seen of the Armenian model, I was impressed with how
incredibly good their children were at visualising things," remarks
the Telegraph's chess columnist and head of charity Chess in Schools
and Communities Malcolm Pein. "I saw, I think it was a class of what
we call here Year Fours, who could literally move pieces around in
their head along a chessboard. A lot of children can do that, but
they were incredibly good at it."
Through his campaigning for chess in schools, Pein is aiming for every
child in the UK to have 30 hours of chess lessons in their six years
of primary school. He's not working towards a compulsory programme,
which is somewhat easier to organise in a state with a population of
three million than in the UK, but praises Armenia's scheme:
"What the Armenians have done is demonstrate organisationally how it's
possible to teach chess to an entire country," he says. "Admittedly
it's a small country, but they did it in a very, very systematic way.
They got together I think about 300 people and taught them how to
teach chess... that's the main constraint to getting it out there,
that not that many people know how to teach it."
Armenia triumphed in the most recent Chess Olympiad - a particularly
joyous checkmate for the country, as the contest was held in Istanbul.
It often beats the globally mightier chess superpowers like Russia,
China, the US and Ukraine. It also claimed the crown (or, indeed, the
king) in 2006 and 2008 - which is two in a row; the Chess Olympiad
is bi-annual. It has one of the highest numbers of grandmasters per
capita in the world.
The country's obsession with chess transcends all age groups. You
can see this in a 2009 BBC World Service report titled 'Armenia: the
cleverest nation on earth', which notes "four generations" turning
out to watch its champion Levon Aronian play a match in the Armenian
mountains. It describes "young kids aged five, six, seven years old
and grizzled old men in sunglasses."
Dr Armen Sarkissian, the Armenian ambassador to the UK and briefly
Armenian prime minister in the Nineties, gives his experience of the
game's universal appeal there:
"I have a granddaughter who is two, and one of the toys she has is a
chessboard. It helps so much with concentration, discipline, ability
of tactics and strategy. It's very important.
"I was a child when my father taught me - I was very good at chess. I
used to beat very old people, who'd get annoyed that a child was
beating them... When I was really young, I remember we had a neighbour,
a retired gentleman, who I played chess with, and running between
being fed and making my next move."
As a result of the game's popularity, their chess players are revered
as celebrities. Their current top player, the tousled and be-stubbled
Aronian, is also a bit of a heartthrob. Teenagers want to have photos
taken with him, and he's been likened to Armenia's David Beckham.
When grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, World Chess Champion from 1963-69,
took the title for the first time, there were spontaneous celebrations
throughout Armenia and he became a national hero.
"The whole nation was behind it," recalls Sarkissian. "There was a huge
chessboard showing the game in Opera Square in Yerevan [the capital],
and tens of thousands of people were watching it. Everyone watched
it. It was a national victory.
"There were not many ways of displaying your national pride in the
Soviet Union, but for an Armenian guy to win, there was huge pride
for the whole nation. People on the streets were singing, dancing. It
was natural, not organised by the state."
Although Armenia became a hothouse for producing chess champions under
the Soviet Union - eager to have its talented comrades triumph over
the West in all endeavours - it has a historical love of chess that
goes way back to the Middle Ages.
"It's an old game that was popular in Armenia for centuries," notes
Sarkissian, "then it became very, very popular during the Soviet era -
sixties, seventies, eighties and further."
Indeed, Garry Kasparov, formerly a Soviet grandmaster, and considered
by many as the world's best ever chess player, is of Armenian
heritage. His surname was originally Gasparyan - which has the classic
common ending of an Armenian name, which usually end in "ian" or "yan".
Top Armenian players, now breaking the pattern for Russian victory
on the checkerboard, honed their skills under Soviet rule - a regime
which, among aggressive industrial advancement and paranoid atomisation
of society, decided that it would quite like its loyal comrades to
move little wooden pieces across a board patterned like a Seventies
tablecloth in an adroit manner (take that, you capitalist pigs!).
"I'm proud of Armenia," concludes Sarkissian. "I hope that one day
I'll be proud of Armenia on other sectors as well! I want Armenia to
be as prominent in economy, industrial growth, culture and others as
it is in chess. It needs a lot of hard work, devotion and love."
It is oddly pleasing that a nation so unfortunately located on the
Caucasian chessboard of socio-religious turmoil excels at a game
reliant on superior positioning.
But perhaps this is why it is a pastime so relished by the country's
population. Having been relegated for so long to being a pawn in the
game of empires from the Ottomans to the Soviets, there must be some
satisfaction in finally capturing the king.