YEREVAN (CNN) — When Levon Aronian walks down the street in his street in his native Armenia he’s met by cheering crowds; restaurants insist he eats for free; new parents name their babies after him.
Aronian isn’t an actor, activist, or astronaut. He’s a chess player —the fourth best in the world, to be precise. And in this tiny, ex-Soviet, chess-obsessed country, that means he’s also a national hero.
“The first time my fiancé arrived in Armenia we stopped at one petrol station and they said, ‘OK, we’re not going to charge you,’” says the 33-year-old dubbed “The David Beckham of Armenia” by the foreign press.
“So for her this is pretty shocking — but that happens all the time,” he adds, referring to his Australian girlfriend Arianne Caoili, an international chess champion in her own right whose good looks have spurred the nickname “The Anna Kournikova of Chess.”
The red carpet treatment of players isn’t so far-fetched in a country where chess is compulsory in all schools. Here, even the nation’s President Serge Sargisian is also President of the Armenia Chess Federation.
For a nation of just three million, Armenia has one of the highest numbers of grandmasters per capita in the world. Of the past five Chess Olympiads, the national team has won three times — led by none other than idol Aronian.