In Armenia chess is king and grandmasters are stars

With matches dissected on the nightly news, its masters treated as sports stars and victories celebrated like national holidays, chess is the king of games in Armenia.

Tiny, isolated and impoverished, ex-Soviet Armenia has nonetheless emerged as a superpower in the chess world, storming international tournaments and rankings.

And as its national team prepares for the international Chess Olympiad this September in the Russian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, the chess-mad country is in the kind of frenzy of anticipation that most countries reserve for the football World Cup.

"Armenians are absolutely crazy for chess," said Ludvig Sharoian, one of dozens of men playing blitz matches on a spring day in Armenia's House of Chess in central Yerevan.

"When your country is good at something, of course people are going to be very supportive. And Armenians are very good at chess," he said.

Despite its population of only 3.2 million, in recent years Armenia has managed to outdo traditional chess powerhouses such as Russia and the United States and emerging giants China and India.

Its national team has won gold at the last two international Chess Olympiads, in 2006 and 2008, after taking bronze at the previous two. Armenia has 30 grandmasters, the rank awarded to more than 1,000 top global players, and three players in the top 100, only one less than the United States.

Armenians have been playing chess for centuries, since its earlier form chatrang was introduced when the region was part of Sassanid Persia, and the game was heavily promoted when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union.

But players and fans here said that this alone did not explain the country's passion for the game.

The key to understanding why Armenians both love and excel at chess, they said, is a 1963 world championship match featuring the country's most prominent player, the legendary Tigran Petrosian.

Petrosian faced Russian Mikhail Botvinnik in the match and as each move was made it was relayed by telex from Moscow and displayed on a giant board in Yerevan's central Opera Square, where thousands gathered day after day to analyse the moves.

After 22 games played over nearly two months, Petrosian had scored a decisive victory, prompting massive celebrations and an outpouring of nationalist pride.

"That was what started it all. It was a fantastic example for the development of chess in Armenia," said Armenia's national chess team coach, Arshak Petrosian, no relation to the legendary player.

Chess quickly became a national obsession and enthusiasm for the game has only grown in the decades since.

Grandmaster Levon Aronian, currently ranked number five in the world, is the closest Armenia has to a modern-day Petrosian. Instantly recognisable to Armenians, 27-year-old Aronian has been dubbed the country's David Beckham and his career is as closely followed here.

He has even added a touch of tabloid-style scandal to the chess world through his relationship with chess master Arianne Caoili, a beautiful Philippines-born Australian who has appeared on reality television show Dancing with the Stars.

Their relationship caused waves in the insular world of international chess four years ago after a rival grandmaster became jealous of Aronian dancing with Caoili and punched the Armenian player during an after-tournament party.

On a break from training for the upcoming olympiad in Yerevan, Aronian said one of the reasons that Armenians excel at chess is that they are individualistic and drawn to one-on-one competition instead of team sports.

"From my childhood I would see people playing backgammon on the streets. Everyone is crazy about playing boardgames. We love to compete against each other in mind games," he said.

The country's recent chess victories are also feeding a new generation of fans and players, he said.

"When you're successful internationally that helps attract more people to chess," he said.

Chess great Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian, has also been an inspiration to many young players in the country, Aronian said, even though he represented Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Strong government support is another factor in Armenia's rise to the top of the chess world.

The country's chess players are given a salary by the state of about the average national wage, on top of their substantial earnings from prizes, and the government has set up sophisticated training programmes for new young players.

Chess is included in the country's physical education curriculum and nearly half of the country's schools offer after-school chess programmes. President Serzh Sarkisian, who doubles as head of the country's chess federation, has even proposed making chess an obligatory part of the national school curriculum.

Petrosian, the national team coach, said he expects the country's next generation of players to be as good, if not better, than Armenia's current grandmasters.

"Chess is going through a very big boom right now and Armenia is only going to get better," he said.

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