General May 21, 2020 | 9:45 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

The Armenian Chess Miracle

Levon Aronian is the undisputed leader of Armenian chess, but he emerged in a nation that was already chess crazy, at least since Tigran Petrosian became the 9th World Chess Champion in 1963. FM Andrey Terekhov looks at how a country of just 3 million people could do what Russia have failed to do since 2002 - win the World Chess Olympiad - not only once, but an incredible three times. This is the third installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.

Armenia is arguably the most chess-playing nation in the world. It might be the only country in the world which has introduced mandatory chess classes into the primary school curriculum, and it’s not just the quantity of players – Armenia is also #6 in the world by the average rating of its Top 10 players.

Landlocked Armenia, a country smaller than Belgium, became a giant of the chess world | image: Google

How did chess become so popular in a small country with a population of 3 million? What is the secret behind the Armenian chess miracle?

A nation with a long history

To answer this question, we will first step back in time, to the beginnings of the long and complicated history of the Armenians. The history of the country could be traced back to truly ancient times, which is not that surprising for a country that lies in the shadows of the Biblical mountain Ararat. The present capital of the country, Yerevan, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet, with a foundation date of 782 BC. A thousand years later, in 301 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. A century later, in 405 AD, the Armenian alphabet was invented.

Armenia’s primary challenge has always been its precarious geographical position at the crossroads of civilizations, as it has been surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors throughout its whole history. Romans, Parthians, Persians, Arabs and Byzantium took turns at fighting over the Armenian land. Surviving was not easy, and many Armenians sought refuge away from home. This was the beginning of the Armenian diaspora, and over the centuries it reached the furthest corners of the world. To my surprise, I've seen Armenian churches almost everywhere I've been – not only in Russia, or in Germany, but even as far away as Singapore and Australia!

The diaspora increased dramatically after the tragic events of 1915, when more than 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or expelled from the Ottoman Empire. Today, more than 7 million Armenians are scattered all over the world, compared to the 3 million that live in Armenia itself.

The founding father of Armenian chess

Let us return to chess. It is presumed that chess was brought to Armenia by Arabs, perhaps as early as the 9th century. By the 12th-13th centuries chess starts to appear in the Armenian manuscripts, which are carefully preserved in the Matenadaran, the Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan.

We will start tracing the development of Armenian chess from the beginning of the 20th century, shortly after Armenia became a part of the Soviet Union. The key driving force in those days was Genrikh Kasparyan (1910-1995), the founding father of Armenian chess.

Genrikh Kasparyan

Kasparyan still holds the record for the most victories in the Armenian Championship (10 titles, from 1934 to 1956). He also put Armenia on the Soviet chess map when he won the semi-final of the USSR Championship in 1931, finishing ahead of Botvinnik. Kasparyan would qualify for the USSR Championship on three more occasions (the last time in 1952), which was no small feat in Soviet times. Kasparyan was in the first batch of players awarded the International Master title, when it was introduced by FIDE in 1950.

However, Kasparyan’s achievements as a chess composer are even greater. He is the author of several hundred studies, primarily focused on the endgame. In 1972 he became the first person to be awarded with the title Grandmaster of Chess Composition.

He published several collections of chess studies, and those are probably among the most underrated chess books out there. Levon Aronian once included Kasparyan’s “The Secrets of the Chess Composer” on a list of his three favorite chess books!

Here is one of the most famous of Kasparyan’s studies:

Genrikh Kasparyan
Shakhmaty v SSSR, 1939, 1st prize

1.Bg5! b3 2.Rd2+ Ka1 3.f7

3.Be3? b2+ 4.Rxb2 Rxf6 5.Bd4 Rf1+ 6.Kc2 a3 7.Rb1+ Ka2 8.Rxf1 stalemate!


3...a3 4.Rd1 Rd6 5.f8Q b2+ 6.Kc2+ Rxd1 7.Qxa3#

4.f8Q Rg1+ 5.Rd1 Rg2 6.Qa3+ Ra2 7.Rd2!! Rxa3

7...b2+ loses prosaically: 8.Qxb2+ Rxb2 9.Rxb2 a3 10.Rb1+! Ka2 11.Rb8 Ka1 12.Kc2 a2 13.Kb3 Kb1 14.Ka3+ Ka1 15.Rh8 Kb1 16.Rh1+

8.Rb2! Black has only one legal move, which leads to immediate mate: 8...Ra2 9.Rb1#

Tigran Petrosian

The next breakthrough in Armenian chess history was the emergence of Tigran Petrosian (1929-1984). Incidentally, like Kasparyan before him, the future 9th World Champion was not born in Armenia. Both Kasparyan and Petrosian grew up in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and made their first steps in chess in Georgia.

The triumphant greeting of Tigran Petrosian at Yerevan airport

Petrosian showed great promise already as a teenager. In 1945 he won the Georgian Men’s Championship. In 1946 he moved to Yerevan, won the Armenian Championship, then won the USSR Junior Championship (with a phenomenal score, 14 out of 15!) and scored a master title by winning a match against Kasparyan (8:6) in what could be considered a symbolic passing of the torch for Armenian chess.

A few years later Petrosian moved to Moscow, where he quickly rose from a rank-and-file master to a grandmaster and a World Championship candidate. From 1953 to 1980 Petrosian would not miss a single World Championship cycle, always reaching at least the Candidates stage.

Petrosian managed to scale the highest peak of chess on the fourth attempt. In 1962 he won the Curaçao Candidates (no losses in 27 games!) and in 1963 he defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match (+5 -2 =15).

A little-known fact is that Petrosian also became the first World Champion in 30+ years to win a World Championship match after ascending to the throne. Indeed, from 1934's Alekhine-Bogoljubow to 1966's Petrosian-Spassky the best that the reigning World Champions could muster was drawing the match against the challenger!

Petrosian had an innate talent for defense and prophylactic thinking, which made him almost unbeatable. He played in 10 Chess Olympiads from 1958 to 1978, including four times on first board, but lost just one (!) game out of 129. This trait earned him the moniker “Iron Tigran”. Lev Polugaevsky once said:

In those years it was easier to win the USSR Championship than to win a single game against Petrosian.

The following position is the most famous of all Petrosian’s defensive concepts:

Reshevsky – Petrosian
Zürich 1953, Candidates Tournament

Here Petrosian played 25...Re6!!, a purely positional exchange sacrifice to stop the white pawns and secure the black knight an outpost on d5.

Tigran Petrosian died at an early age – he was only 55 years old when he died of stomach cancer – but left an incredible legacy and remains a national hero in Armenia to this day. The usage of the name Tigran, which was already popular, spiked after 1963, and the latest FIDE rating list has about a dozen players with the name Tigran Petrosian, including 1 GM and 2 IMs!

In 2018 Armenia issued a banknote of 2,000 Dram with Petrosian’s portrait on it. There is only one other chess player who has previously been honored in a similar way – Paul Keres appeared on Estonia’s 5 kroon bill (unfortunately those are no longer in circulation as Estonia has since joined the Eurozone.)

The last Soviet generation

Rafael Vaganian

Petrosian’s victory in the World Championship match led to a chess boom in Armenia. The numbers enrolling in chess clubs doubled, and eventually other Armenian players became grandmasters, including Rafael Vaganian, Smbat Lputian and Arshak Petrosian.

Of this generation, Rafael Vaganian was the most successful. He became a grandmaster at 19 years old by winning a strong tournament in Vrnjačka Banja (Yugoslavia), ahead of Leonid Stein and Ljubomir Ljubojević. It was an impressive achievement, since Vaganian was not even an International Master at the time!

Vaganian played in many USSR Championships and finally won the title in 1989. He also reached the Candidates Matches twice (1986 and 1988). Apart from this, Vaganian won dozens of tournaments over his long career, including a Senior World Championship title as recently as 2019.

Coincidentally, the last person to win the USSR Chess Championship was another Armenian, Artashes Minasian, who won the final edition of the tournament in 1991.

Chess in independent Armenia

In December 1991 Armenia officially attained independence, but its starting conditions were tough. Armenia is not rich in natural resources, and being a landlocked country made it vulnerable to an economic blockade by its neighbors (Azerbaijan and Turkey), which has not been lifted to this day. Armenia experienced a sharp downturn in its economy and electricity blackouts became a regular occurrence.

Chess was one of the few respites. In 1992 Armenia surprised the world by winning a bronze medal at its first Chess Olympiad, fielding a team that was made up mostly of the players who cut their teeth in the Soviet competitions – Rafael Vaganian, Vladimir Akopian, Smbat Lputian, Artashes Minasian, Arshak Petrosian and Ashot Anastasian.

Vladimir Akopian

The youngest member of this team was the 1991 World Junior Champion, Vladimir Akopian, who would become a key member of the Armenian team, linking the Soviet generation with the one that emerged after independence. Akopian has some links to Kasparov – he was also born in Baku (Azerbaijan) and studied in the famous Botvinnik/Kasparov school. In 1999 Akopian came tantalizingly close to winning the FIDE Knockout World Championship, losing the final match to Alexander Khalifman.

Akopian was the first Armenian player to cross the 2700 rating barrier (in 2003) and he would represent the country in the next 12 Olympiads, including playing three times on first board. Vladimir Akopian led the team to three bronze medals (in 1992, 2002 and 2004), but in 2006 he passed the baton to Levon Aronian, as by that time Aronian was already a Top 10 player.

This ushered in an incredible streak of victories for the Armenian team, as it won the Chess Olympiads in 2006, 2008 and then again in 2012. This success simply defies explanation. Of course, Armenia had a strong line-up but the same could be said about many other countries. And yet when it came to Chess Olympiads, there was a certain magic, the proverbial team spirit that helped Armenia to get over the line.

The team that won the first-ever gold for Armenia featured a player who would die tragically young. Karen Asrian was in the world top 100 for many years and played on the third board at the 2006 Olympiad. In June 2008 he died from a sudden heart attack whilst driving to a tournament in Yerevan. He was only 28 years old. The tournament that was about to start was postponed and later renamed the Karen Asrian Memorial.

Despite this terrible blow, Armenia won the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, and then another one in 2012. In the last edition they were strengthened by Sergei Movsesian, an Armenian who lived in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for many years but returned to Armenia to represent his home country.

An Armenian postage stamp depicting the national team that won the 2008 Chess Olympiad

Movsesian is but one of many examples of great chess players in the Armenian diaspora. For example, in the United States there are Samuel Sevian, Varuzhan Akobian and Tatev Abrahamyan; Brazil has Krikor Mekhitarian; in Russia there are Yuri Dokhoyan and David Paravyan; and of course, many Armenians would not hesitate to count Kasparov too!

Armenian chess has come a long way from its humble beginnings a century earlier. In 2011 Armenian chess received a further boost when it was made a mandatory subject in primary schools, along with the more established subjects such as math or sport. Who knows, maybe the next Petrosian or the next Aronian is currently discovering chess in the second grade of a school somewhere in Armenia...

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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