General May 25, 2020 | 9:55 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

Levon Aronian: Armenian Superstar

Levon Aronian led Armenia to an astonishing three Olympiad gold medals and was for many years the clear world no. 2, so that if we never get to see him play a World Championship match he'll join the likes of Paul Keres as one of the greatest players never to play on that stage. There's still time, however, and whatever happens Levon continues to light up the chess world. FM Andrey Terekhov profiles the Armenian no. 1 in the seventh installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.

In case you missed it, check out Levon Aronian's superb Banter Blitz session during the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge. He lived up to his reputation as the king of good-natured trash talk as well as playing some fantastic chess:  

Early career and coaches

Levon Aronian was born in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, on 6 October 1982, to a Jewish father, Grigory Aronov, and an Armenian mother, Seda Aronova.

Levon with his mother Seda in Venice | photo: Crestbook

I have read many different stories on when Aronian learned chess and who taught him, so I asked him to share how it happened:

Every summer holiday until the USSR got dissolved and traveling became very difficult, my family went to Belarus to a little village called Kokhanovo in the Tolochin area of the Vitebsk region. My father's family is from there. My sister Lilit, who is 6.5 years older than me, was 15 at the time. I was pestering her and pleading with her to take me to play with her friends. She was very annoyed and decided to get me interested in something to get some personal freedom. Since I already loved checkers, chess was a natural upgrade. It was the summer of 1991, so I was nearly 9 years old.

By modern standards, learning chess at 9 is relatively late, but Aronian quickly made up for the late start. From his earliest days in chess, he was blessed with the opportunity to learn from strong players:

After we came back from Belarus I was already obsessed by chess. I asked my parents where I can play and learn it better, and they took me to the House of Pioneers (it was still before the fall of the USSR!). My first coach was Lyudmila Finaryova, who was an amateur and a very active woman. She was of Jewish origin and since I am half-Jewish too she took a liking to me. Her daughter had a friend who moved from Baku after the pogroms and was a very good player. His name was Melikset Khachiyan. A short time later, Ms. Finaryova told my parents that since I was very talented she wanted me to continue studying with him. So I left the section of the House of Pioneers and moved to the chess club where Melik was a part-time coach.

After the Soviet Union dissolved, there was real chaos in our country. Privatization left many refugees from Baku without a place to stay (all the dormitories were owned by former USSR officials and people who had the smarts to get some papers). My parents suggested that Melikset stay with us and in return he would train me. He became an older brother to me. We worked together from late 1991 to late 1998.

Those were very successful years for me - having such a good player as a coach was very beneficial to my progress. Sometime in 1997 we managed to purchase an apartment for him. He had success as a player himself and so in the end we slowly parted.

Let us add a few strokes to the portrait of Melikset Khachiyan. He grew up in Baku (Azerbaijan) and as a teenager studied with two of Kasparov’s coaches, Alexander Nikitin and Alexander Shakarov. As Levon mentioned, after the fall of the Soviet Union Khachiyan fled Baku to escape ethnic violence and moved to Yerevan. Later Khachiyan would emigrate once again, this time to the USA, where he became a grandmaster in 2006.

Levon believes that the mass exodus of Armenians from Baku played a big role in the development of Armenian chess in the 1990s:

I think our chess in the 1990s got much stronger. The coaches that fled from Azerbaijan during the war years knew many things since Baku was much more international than Yerevan.

When you look at the best Armenian players from my generation or the slightly older one, most of us have knowledge either from the Oleg Dementiev branch (the coach of Arshak Petrosian, Vladimir Akopian and many others) or the Baku branch.

Young Levon Aronian progressed very quickly. In 1994 he won the World Under-12 Championship, finishing ahead of several future grandmasters – Étienne Bacrot, Ruslan Ponomariov, Francisco Vallejo Pons, and Alexander Grischuk.

A few years later, when Khachiyan moved on, Levon Aronian worked with several other influential Armenian coaches:

I worked a little bit with a great junior coach, Arsen Yegiazarian (another huge figure for our chess), but since I was already too advanced in my chess understanding, I moved on to Arshak Petrosian. We worked not too long, about half a year, but his influence on my chess is very big. I am coming from a romantic lineage (Alekhine – Tal – Kasparov) and in Arshak Petrosian I met someone very positional. We worked on and off, and I received advice from Arshak for many years.

After I became a GM, the biggest figure in my chess life has been Gabriel Sargissian. We did lots of sessions together and at least 80% of my chess DNA comes from Gabi. Most of my opening knowledge, my taste in chess comes from the years that I worked with him.

Levon Aronian, Arianne Caoili and Gabriel Sargissian by Lake Sevan in Armenia | photo: Crestbook 

By the mid-1990s, Aronian’s immense potential was beyond any doubt. In fact, in later years Aronian would sometimes be criticized for being too talented, with the implication that he was getting by on talent alone. For example, in 2011 Grandmaster Sergey Shipov described Aronian as a “diabolically talented sloth”. It was said half-jokingly, but Aronian happily played along. When he was asked about this comparison, Aronian replied that at least “it sounds better than a diabolically hard-working mediocre guy”.

In 2000 Aronian became a grandmaster, but then it took him a while to break into the world elite. As Aronian recalled, one of the barriers was the high cost of travelling to European tournaments from Armenia. To overcome this problem, in 2001 Aronian moved from Yerevan to Berlin, and even briefly switched chess federations, although his stint as a German player lasted less than a year. Today Aronian is a citizen of the world, constantly on the move and fluently speaking many languages, including Armenian, Russian, English and German.

In 2002 he won the World Junior Championship and later that year also the Armenian Open Championship (incidentally the only time that Aronian won the national title!).

Top player

Aronian broke into the Top 10 in 2005 and has stayed at the top ever since, never dropping lower than #16 in the world rankings. For several years, from November 2010 to September 2014, Aronian was #2 or #3 in the world. In March 2014 he reached a personal rating record of 2830, which is the fourth-highest rating ever attained, behind only Kasparov, Carlsen and Caruana.

Aronian has won dozens of competitions and below you will find some of his most important victories. The list is obviously incomplete, but it gives an idea of the most important tournaments that Aronian has won over the past 15 years:  

  • 2005 – won the Khanty-Mansiysk World Cup without losing a single game
  • 2006 – won the Linares tournament
  • 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 – four victories at Wijk aan Zee (shared in 2007 and 2008)
  • 2013 – won the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow and the Grand Slam Chess Masters in Bilbao
  • 2015 – won the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis (a point ahead of Carlsen, Giri, Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura)
  • 2017 – won the GRENKE Chess Classic in Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden (ahead of Carlsen and Caruana), Norway Chess in Stavanger (a point ahead of Carlsen, Kramnik and Karjakin), and the Tbilisi World Cup
  • 2018 – won the Gibraltar Masters and the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis (shared with Carlsen and Caruana)

Finally, Aronian led his country to an incredible three gold medals at the Chess Olympiads (in 2006, 2008 and 2012), which made Aronian a national hero in Armenia. In 2005 he was recognized as the national sportsman of the year, in 2009 he became an Honored Master of Sport, and in 2012 he was awarded the Order of St. Mesrop Mashtots (the inventor of the Armenian alphabet).

On top of these achievements, Aronian has won World Championships in Chess960 (2005, 2007), Rapid (2009), and Blitz (2010).

Levon Aronian at the 2019 Gibraltar Masters | photo: Niki Riga

By now Aronian has won most of the titles out there, except for the classical World Championship. For some reason, the biggest disappointments of Aronian’s career have always occurred in the Candidates Tournaments, which has so far prevented him from qualifying for a World Championship match. In that respect he recalls another great player of the past, Paul Keres.

It was certainly not for the lack of trying. Aronian is the only player to have played in six straight Candidates Tournaments in the modern era, from Elista 2007 to Berlin 2018, but he simply could not find his stride in these competitions. The closest Aronian got to qualifying for the World Championship match was London 2013, where he shared first place with Carlsen after the first half of the double round-robin. Unfortunately, in the second half Aronian lost three games and finished half a point behind Carlsen and Kramnik. 

Fans of Levon’s talent refuse to believe that his ship has sailed, but after missing qualification for the 2020 Candidates, and with so much uncertainty in the world because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not even clear when the current championship cycle is going to end. The way things are going, Aronian might turn 40 before the next Candidates Tournament comes around.

In this tournament Aronian is the “elder statesman” at the age of 37. In an interview for “Chess Life” in 2017 Aronian shared his views on the differences between the generations in chess:

...the generation that was born in the 1980s was probably the second worst generation, behind the 50s generation. The 70s were superior, and the 90s.

My generation, born in the 1980s, is more or less just myself plus Grischuk, Nakamura, and Mamedyarov – the 90s and 70s have far more people at the elite level... My generation, for some reason, was not entirely ambitious though very talented... Of course, it feels good to be one of the best players of the decade.

It’s not just legends born in the 70s – Kramnik and Anand – that keep me feeling young; the younger guys give me hope. I play them and see there are things that I do better, so it makes me feel younger than them!

The art of bluff

Levon Aronian has played many beautiful games in his career. He is a dangerous attacker and he sometimes allows himself an element of bluff. The following game is a great case in point:

Aronian – Grischuk
Sinquefield Cup, Saint Louis 2018

Black has established a strong blockade on the light squares. The position is about equal, but Aronian dramatically changes the balance with an exchange sacrifice that Fabiano Caruana described as a “gangster move”. Objectively, it is unsound, but it is easier to prove in analysis than in a practical game, especially as Grischuk was already approaching time trouble.


18...Kxf7 19.Rf1+ Bf5! 20.g4 g6 21.Qc1 Kg7?

The computer points out 21...Re6! 22.Qh6 Kg8 and White does not have enough compensation.

22.gxf5 gxf5 23.Bxe4 fxe4 24.Qf4 h6 25.Qc7+ Kh8?!

Stronger was the counter-intuitive 25...Kg6!
After the text move White manages to get his king out of harm’s way by hiding it... in the center!

26.Bd6 Rg8+ 27.Kf2! Rg6 28.Be5+ Kg8 29.Ke3!

The tables have turned and now it’s the black king that is in danger. Black could still maintain the balance with precise play, but that was not to be:

29...Rd8? 30.Qe7!

A move that completely paralyzes Black: 30...Qd7 31.Rf8+, or 30...Rc8 31.Rf6! Rxf6 32.Qxf6, threatening mate on g7. The c7-square is not available for the rook, and after 32...Qd7 33.Qg6+ Kf8 34.Bd6+ White wins the queen.

Black is almost in zugzwang. After 30...b5 31.h4 a5 32.h5 Rg5 33.Rf6 Rxe5 34.Rg6+ Black resigned.

Beyond chess

Levon Aronian has a sunny, positive personality. He also has a reputation as a true renaissance man, who is interested in virtually everything and has sophisticated tastes on many topics.

Let’s take music as an example. In one interview Levon described his favorite jazz musicians in great detail and even compared them to the greatest chess players:

Vasily Smyslov could very well be represented by Grant Green.  A harmonious manner of play and wonderful technique. I associate Tigran Petrosian with Warne Marsh. A unique style of play which, it seemed, was too calm and dull, but in reality was deep and cunning.

If you are not into jazz, you are welcome to compare your favorite symphonies with the Top 5 that Aronian shared on Twitter:

If classical music is not your cup of tea either, how about the Top 5 rock albums?

The bottom line? If you are looking for someone who can hold his end of an interesting conversation, Aronian sounds like a great bet.

The devastating loss

It is difficult to find words for this tragic chapter.

Levon Aronian and Arianne Caoili were a match made in heaven. Arianne was a woman of many talents who excelled at everything she did. She played in seven Chess Olympiads, studied for a Ph.D. in economics, recorded a music album, shined on Dancing with the Stars...

...founded her own consultancy company, started a newspaper in Yerevan and raised funds for Armenian schools by biking 2,000 kilometers across several countries in 20 days.

Levon and Arianne married in 2017 in a ceremony held in a 13th century church in Armenia, with the President of the country in attendance. Every photograph of this beautiful pair radiated happiness. 

In March 2020, terrible news came from Armenia – Arianne had suffered a horrible car accident and died two weeks later of her injuries.

The pain and grief that Levon is going through right now must be unbearable. One can only hope that chess will grant him some relief, if only for a while. There is no-one in the world right now who needs it more than Levon Aronian...

FM Andrey Terekhov

Andrey Terekhov (@ddtru) grew up in Russia, lived in many countries and currently resides in Singapore. His best results at the board are victories at the Munich Open (2008), Nabokov Memorial in Kiev (2012) and shared 2nd place at the Washington Open (2018). He is the author of the Two Knights Defense course on Chessable. For the past few years Andrey has been writing a book about Vasily Smyslov, with publication planned for late 2020.

How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!   

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