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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era