Interviews Feb 29, 2016 | 9:32 PMby Colin McGourty

Levon Aronian: "They wrote me off"

Levon Aronian sneaked into the 2016 Candidates Tournament at the last possible opportunity, failing to qualify but gaining the wild card of the Armenian sponsors. In a new interview he talks about his desire to exploit that opportunity and prove he’s the best, while he also discusses his early days when people had given up on his chances of ever becoming a top player.

Levon Aronian at the 2015 London Chess Classic | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

Levon Aronian has had a shaky run-up to the Candidates Tournament. In the Zurich Chess Challenge he started with a crushing 19-move loss to Vishy Anand and ended second last above veteran Alexei Shirov.

Anand plays 15.Nxh6! It wasn’t strictly necessary to get mated in 5 moves from here, but it was game over either way

If his plan was to put that tournament behind him by playing in the German League, it didn’t entirely work out as hoped, since he was ground down in an endgame by Richard Rapport. That can all be forgotten very soon, though, if Levon finally manages to show his talent on the biggest stage and force a match against Magnus Carlsen.

In advance of the 2016 Moscow Candidates tournament, starting on March 11, Levon talked to Vladimir Barsky and Kirill Zangalis for Sport-Express. We’ve translated some of the highlights of the interview below:

On the current World Championship system     

I really like the Candidates Tournament. I understand, of course, that it’s only one tournament which people think anyone can win. At the end of the day, though, it’s usually won by the best player. You don’t get someone leading with a score of +5 and then ending up in last place. Usually the person who demonstrates good play from the very start goes on to win - for example, in Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 Vishy Anand won by a wide margin, playing wonderfully. Or take Magnus Carlsen and Volodya Kramnik, who also both played very well in London 2013. It seems to me that in the whole history of the game it’s never happened that a random person won.

On why he moved to Germany in 2001

It turned out that the sponsors who had helped me wrote me off… or something like that. They thought I’d make no great progress and therefore there was no point investing additional funds.

You were 18-19 years old at the time?


They wrote you off?

Well, it happens. At the time I had few tournaments and my rating was pretty modest. A 2530 Elo at 18 years old – even at the time the thought was: well, he’ll be a 2600 grandmaster, but what of it? There are hundreds of such people!

At some point you played for Germany in tournaments?

I represented Germany for about six months. They didn’t pick me to play for Armenia as they decided to get rid of dead weight. And then I changed federation – not because I wanted to play for Germany but to show I could do it. I returned when new people took over the Armenian Chess Federation. In 2003 Serzh Sargsyan, now the country’s President, took control of the federation; he was the Minister of Defence back then. They got in touch with me and I decided to return.

When did you make a real leap?

I started winning strong tournaments at the end of 2002. Then my rating just kept on climbing and never fell back.

Which victories do you consider milestones in your career?

The World U20 Championship, of course. On the advice of my then trainer Arshak Petrosian from the age of 15 to 20 I only played in the U20 World Championship, and not in the U16 or U18. And I won at my final attempt in 2002, when I was already 20. In 2003 I finished third in the European Championship and in 2004 I repeated that result. Finally, at the end of 2005, I won the World Cup, after which I began to play in elite tournaments.

On the difference between classic, rapid and blitz chess

It hurts to lose in any kind of chess. You always try to make the best moves, but it’s simply that in blitz I often have a problem with trying to play normal chess, and that perfectionism leads to time trouble and blundering it all away. The quality of my play in blitz and rapid largely depends on my mood on that day. In classical chess, meanwhile, it seems to me that I should give my all, even if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep and feel bad. I still feel that responsibility. What will children think when they study our games and want to learn chess from them; what will they think when they see an ugly game played by a chess player who had 90 minutes to two hours for the game, plus 30 seconds a move? I feel uncomfortable when I play absolutely lacklustre chess at such a time control. I feel I can’t be forgiven! But in rapid and blitz I think, purely subconsciously: whatever I do, at the end of the day it’s just rapid and blitz!

You’re more indulgent with yourself?

Yes, and that’s my problem – at times I can’t get in the right mood for a game at a short time control, as here (in Zurich), although 40 minutes is barely rapid.

On whether he was satisfied with his last tournament before the Candidates

No! You can never be satisfied if you play terribly. I realised that I’m far from my best form or my ideal psychological state. I need to work on that before the tournament, putting in more effort not just physically, but also in purely chess terms, to be ready for big games.

Levon Aronian missed his chance to qualify for the Candidates at the 2015 World Cup in Baku, but in the end it didn't matter | photo: Baku World Cup website

On getting the Candidates wild card

I was very lucky! I can’t say I deserved it. Recently I talked to my good friend Boris Gelfand and he said, “Sometimes you pick a lucky lottery ticket! Or Father Christmas brings presents!” It turned out Father Christmas brought me a present. You have to be a good boy!

On why his fiancée Arianne Caoili lives in Armenia

From the age of 13 she lived in Australia, in a very developed country where everything is predetermined. It seems to me that life in Armenia is a return to her roots – after all, she was born in the Philippines and spent her childhood there. She’s happy to live in a country where everything’s natural. People look you in the eye and tell the truth; perhaps things you don’t want to hear – but it’s sincere.

What is she doing now?

An awful lot of things. By profession she’s an economist and a political scientist. She publishes a weekly newspaper in Armenian.

She speaks it fluently?

She knows it pretty well. She’s fluent in Russian. Of course she’s helped by translators.

What’s the newspaper about?

Arianne has been living in Armenia for two years now, and she once remarked, “Somehow you don’t have a winners’ spirit!” So she decided to publish a newspaper which shows people that there are a lot of good things in the country. Of course the paper isn’t only positive, “with rose-tinted glasses”; but its purpose is to inspire people. Yes, the paper talks about joyful events, but, for example, there are also reports from the front. It’s a paper for the people.

It’s thick?

No, thin. It’s distributed freely, on public transport.

News, sport?


Is there a chess section?

Yes. Arianne gives simple puzzles in order to grasp whether readers like it or not.

Do you support her?

When it comes to complex puzzles then of course I’ll join in. For now, though, my support is mainly moral.

On choosing between chess and music

The thing is that because of chess I lost out on music. In my childhood I studied both the piano and chess, but then I had to choose one of them. Those were tough times, the 90s. In Yerevan transport was unreliable and it was hard to get through. So I only studied music for a year, though it’s nevertheless the love of my life.

And when did you have to make that choice?

I was 10 years old. Something had already started to click in chess. I also had a wonderful teacher, the strong specialist Melikset Khachiyan. It’s really inspiring when you see you’re making quick progress in something, racing ahead like Little Muck on his magical boots. I didn’t have that sensation when playing the piano, although I think I have a certain inclination for music. And I can sense which music is good and which is… No, not bad, but let’s say, transitory…

Music helps you?

Yes, I use it in different ways. It can be necessary to relax, while sometimes, on the contrary, it drives me on. For the first purpose it’s classical, for the second – jazz.

And if you had to choose between Lennon and Beethoven?

Definitely Beethoven!


Because in Beethoven I see the aesthetics of a whole nation - the Italian School which was altered, perfected and then returned to the Viennese School.

You have such a fine sense of all that?

Of course. I can see what a huge layer of culture has gone into this or that symphony. And there’s also the feeling you get from understanding the music of a whole nation and recognising to what degree a composer of genius managed to combine it all. I always feel the nationality of a composer. You hear Rachmaninoff and immediately tell yourself: oh, that was written by a Russian!

On antagonism in chess

I’m a very good-natured person and I always need to get myself more worked up. It’s a pity the medicine “Ozverin” (roughly - “go wild”) doesn't exist, as in the famous cartoon about Leopold the Cat. I give it all I’ve got to get angry at myself, my opponent and everything around me, but it ends up being insincere, because it’s not my nature. I don’t think it’s all that difficult, but you have to somehow “drive” yourself into that mood and then get out of it again, to remain yourself.

On proving he’s the best

Do you want to become World Champion?

A lot!

Do you feel you’re the best?

Unquestionably! But that means nothing. What’s important are victories and dominating over many years. For some reason I can’t quite find the last piece of the puzzle. Siegbert Tarrasch aptly said, “It’s not enough to be a good chess player, you also need to play chess very well.” Therefore my words have no real significance. Very soon, on the 10th March, the Candidates Tournament is starting, and there you have to show what you’re made of at the board.

Are you aware yourself what’s missing?

Yes, and I’m working on it. Of course I want to be the best always and everywhere. The ambition is there, but it all needs to come together in a breakthrough. In the London 2013 Candidates Tournament I was level with Carlsen on +3 after the first half, but then it became hard to play and in some game towards the end I simply couldn’t even calculate a thing. At the same time, though, I was calm, like Kaa in The Jungle Book; no doubt that’s my main problem. After all, I know a little about playing chess.

On the most important thing in chess

Definitely a love of chess. When it’s not hard work for you but a deep feeling it’s something else entirely. You need to love the game wholeheartedly and the rest will follow. If that’s not there then you can bend over backwards, but you’re not going to become a top grandmaster.

On Carlsen’s bad influence on young Armenian players

It seems to me it’s a purely regional problem. How do they play chess in the Caucasus? Everyone is talented, but they play purely “by feel”, without particular study. How, for instance, did I start to play? I didn’t really know anything, but Gabriel (Sargissian) showed me something and I started to work together with him. And now we have very talented 20-year-old chess players, but I don’t know how we can change them. They don’t want to work but absolutely all of them want to play! The influence of the World Champion can be felt: everyone wants to play like Carlsen, but they don’t understand: Carlsen works a lot in order to play everything. In our generation, meanwhile, everyone compared themselves to Kramnik, trying to play with a certain grounding.

So in the Caucasus there are talented but lazy people; and it’s not clear how to change that.

One fellow player from the Caucasus (a certain Garry Kasparov) never had too many problems either with aggression or working enormously hard on chess | photo: Lennart Ootes

On whether Carlsen is in a league of his own

I don’t see that. I think the same as Boris, who says he’s ready to play a match against Carlsen any day. I’d also love to play! It’s always interesting to fight with a chess player who you respect and you’ll go all-out against.

See also:

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