A schoolgirl playing at the 15th School Chess Olympiad hosted by the Chess Academy of Armenia

The Armenian Advantage: The Past, Present and Future of Chess

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YEREVAN — Much of the world today seems to have discovered (or rediscovered) a passion for chess, arguably due to freed up time during the COVID-19 and the hit Netflix Show “Queen’s Gambit.” For Armenians on the other hand, chess is much more than a quarantine pastime – it’s an integral part of society. This begs the question – how is it that chess is so embedded in the fabric of Armenian culture?

Early History

Sources date that Armenians have been playing chess as early as the 9th century, which they called “chatrak,” deriving from the Sanskrit word “chaturanga” — the name of a board game theorized to be the ancestor to chess (Soviet Armenia Encyclopedia, 1986). The foundation of modern chess in Armenia hails its origins back to Soviet Armenia when the Armenian Chess Federation was created in 1927. From thereon, lectures on chess and chess clubs began to grow popular in the country, and Armenia hosted its first National Championship in 1934, for both men and women. The “founding father” of chess in the country was Genrikh Kasparyan, who made it to the semi-final of the USSR Championship in 1931 and won the Armenian Championship 10 times from 1934 to 1956, which is still a record to this day. While Kasparyan set the early foundation, many reports credit another player to be the one who truly lit the spark for chess in Armenia.

Tigran Petrosian was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1929, and studied chess there until moving to Yerevan in 1946. Nicknamed “Iron Tigran” for his strong defensive playing style, Petrosian won the Armenian National Chess Championship in 1946 and 1947, and became USSR Junior Chess Champion at the age of 17. In 1952, after moving to Moscow, he became one of the first Grandmasters in the world (per FIDE) and went on to win the USSR Chess Championship in 1959, 1961, 1969, and 1975. However, it was Petrosian’s victory over Russian Mikhail Botvinnik to become the 1963 World Champion that was truly his breakthrough moment.

Rise in Popularity

The popularity of chess in Armenia after Petrosian’s 1963 victory skyrocketed. According to the Soviet Chess Encyclopedia of 1990, there were 30,000 chess players in Armenia in 1962, but upwards of 50,000 by 1986. It is even said that the prevalence of boys in Armenia named “Tigran” spiked after 1963 — no doubt a tribute to Grandmaster Petrosian. In the early 1970s, the now iconic “House of Chess Players” was opened as a hub for all chess activity in Yerevan, an Armenian chess magazine began to circulate, and chess lessons were televised. By the mid 1970s, in the same way Western societies sent their children to play on sports teams after school, Armenians would send their children to chess classes. Playing chess turned into much more than a board game for Armenian society: it was an area of national pride.

Students taking chess lessons at the Chess Academy of Armenia

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Interestingly, though both boys and girls were playing chess, the most celebrated Soviet Armenian players are men. While there were no Soviet Armenian female chess pioneers such as Georgia’s Nona Gaprindashvili, Armenian women players were still making strides in the sport. In 1964, Tamara Boiakhchian won the Armenian National Championship for the first time, and would go on to win more Armenian championships for a total of 7 times. Representing neighboring Georgia, ethnically Armenian Varvara Stepanovna Zargarian found success not only in winning the National Georgian Championship in 1938 and 1939, but also by playing in the 1945 USSR Women’s Championship. Another ethnically Armenian player, Nonna Karakashyan, won the National Azerbaijan Championship in 1961, 1963 and 1964, and was a member of the Azerbaijani national team for almost a decade. Karakashyan would later come to be a Deputy Director of the Executive Committee of the Armenian Chess Federation after the collapse of the USSR.

Chess in Armenia Today

Much of Armenia’s chess success continues to this day. Since independence, Armenia has been punching well above its weight, winning the World Chess Olympiad 3 times, and boasting 24 active Armenian grandmasters, 4 women grandmasters, 17 international masters and 4 women international masters; not to mention the fact that Armenian Levon Aronian is the fourth-highest rated chess player in history. Independent Armenia also takes pride in having a woman who is a grandmaster, Elina Danielian — one of only 38 women in the world. Danielian, it’s worth noting, is independent Armenia’s first European individual champion of either sex.

Woman Grandmaster and Secretary General of the Armenian Chess Federation Maria Gevorgyan

So what exactly is it that has driven Armenians to produce such successful chess players in the 21st century? Well, for some players, it starts in the home. In the words of Woman Grandmaster and Secretary General of the Armenian Chess Federation Maria Gevorgyan, “in almost every family in Armenia, there is a chess player.” WGM Gevorgyan, born in 1994 and a member of the newest generation of Armenian chess stars, began playing chess at the age of three, and when old enough, took classes and began competing more seriously once her talent was discovered. From there on, among her many successes in Armenia and internationally, she placed 3rd in the European Youth Chess Championship in the girls U18 category in 2011, becoming the first female from Armenia in 18 years to win such a title in Europe at the time.

Just like her, children today who are interested and/or talented can go to study chess with a tutor, at a chess camp, or one of the various chess schools and academies in the country. WGM Gevorgyan noted that for younger children, there are many opportunities to take classes and study chess for free. Armenia of course, made history by becoming the first country in the world to mandate the teaching of chess in public school in 2011, though the impact of classes has yet to be fully understood, as the first generation to have taken them is too young to see a result.

As far as other chess “infrastructure,” Armenia is fortunate to have grandmasters and highly ranked players who coach at chess schools or privately. Youth who have talent typically go to additional lessons where they solve more intense puzzles, learn advanced techniques and work with tougher coaches. In some instances, as early as middle school, players with potential choose to either intensify their chess studies or focus on school. Those who choose the path of chess of course still stay in school but prioritize chess.

The support of the government matters quite a lot as well in the advancement of chess in Armenia. After all, former president Serzh Sargsyan is the president of the Armenian Chess Federation, and previously the state was seen as the main supporter of developing chess talent in the country. Today however, Grandmaster Levon Aronian sees governmental neglect towards the advancement of chess, and cites mismanagement by the Pashinyan administration as his reason for leaving Armenia to represent the United States. WGM Gevorgyan noted that when Aronian left, Armenia lost not only a powerful player, but an important role model. He was someone children and young adults looked up to and aspired to be like. Gevorgyan feels strongly about the importance of having such role models and emphasized that “a role model shows what was once thought impossible, is in fact possible.” Victories such as hers in 2011, for example, no doubt inspire other girls to take up chess in Armenia and for the country to take women chess players more seriously.

As far as other challenges chess players face today, WGM Gevorgyan noted that there are limited opportunities for Armenians to compete with international competitors in Armenia and internationally. This is a big contrast with European players, who have more tournaments hosted in their home countries and less financial costs associated with attending competitions. However, Armenia stands out in the world by being one of the few countries where full time chess players can make a living. The country also has a Research Institute of Chess to study the psychological, educational, and sociological issues of chess education – an institution unique to the country. Though the world has much to learn from Armenia, one thing WGM Gevorgyan feels Armenians need to learn from the world is how to better recognize and celebrate its successes. “We are doing incredible things, we just need to show people more about it,” she explained. Other countries are using the regained popularity of chess during the pandemic to publicize and showcase their achievements, not only through traditional media but also with live streams of their games on the internet.

Though Armenia is a fertile ground for developing world class players and has a legacy for doing so, it’s obvious not every child is destined to become a grandmaster. So why encourage children to study chess and not something more “practical”? For Armenians, chess is seen as a way to teach kids how to think critically, creatively, use logic, and manage their time — and preliminary studies show this to be true. Maria Gevorgyan herself is in fact researching the impact of chess education as a part of her doctorate thesis in pedagogy. Though research is ongoing, it seems Armenia’s investment in chess, whether it produces a grandmaster or simply a more well-rounded individual, appears to be a worthy one, and as such remains an integral component of modern Armenian society.

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