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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.

A boy playing giant chess in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Photo: Getty
A boy playing giant chess in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Photo: Getty

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.