A boy playing giant chess in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Photo: Getty
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A checkered history: why Armenia dominates the chess world

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.

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 the world.

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump