Having won two World Chess Olympiads in 2006 and 2008, tiny Armenia has every reason to proudly claim the title of World Chess Superpower, beating Russia, U.S., China, India…
“As its national team prepares for the international Chess Olympiadthis September in the Russian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, the chess-mad country is in the kind of frenzy of anticipation that most countries reserve for the football World Cup,” AFP writes in an excellent feature on chess in Armenia.
“Armenians have been playing chess for centuries, since its earlier form chatrang was introduced when the region was part of Sassanid Persia. But players and fans here said that this alone did not explain the country’s passion for the game.
The key to understanding why Armenians both love and excel at chess, they said, is a 1963 world championship match featuring the country’s most prominent player, the legendary Tigran Petrosian.
Petrosian faced Russian Mikhail Botvinnik in the match and as each move was made it was relayed by telex from Moscow and displayed on a giant board in Yerevan’s central Opera Square, where thousands gathered day after day to analyse the moves.
Grandmaster Levon Aronian, currently ranked number five in the world, is the closest Armenia has to a modern-day Petrosian. Instantly recognisable to Armenians, 27-year-old Aronian has been dubbed the country’s David Beckham and his career is as closely followed here.
He has even added a touch of tabloid-style scandal to the chess world through his relationship with chess master Arianne Caoili, a beautiful Philippines-born Australian. Their relationship caused waves four years ago after a rival grandmaster became jealous of Aronian dancing with Caoili and punched the Armenian player during an after-tournament party.
On a break from training for the upcoming olympiad in Yerevan, Aronian said one of the reasons that Armenians excel at chess is that they are individualistic and drawn to one-on-one competition instead of team sports.