Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Saturday, 26 September 2009 12:03 UK

Armenia revels in its chess prowess

Armenia, with a population of three million, has won the last two men's world team chess championships, beating opponents including Russia, China, and the US. What is their secret? David Edmonds travelled to the country to find out.

I speak not a word of Armenian, and the first man I met in Armenia spoke not a word of English.

He was the driver picking me up from the airport.

"David," I said, pointing at myself. "Tigran," he said, shaking my hand, "Tigran Petrosian."

young Armenians playing chess
Chess is a popular game with young Armenians

This seems a weird coincidence. In 1963, his namesake, Tigran Petrosian, had defeated Mikhail Botvinnik to take the world chess title.

For Westerners it was a case of one Soviet Man beating another. The Soviets used chess to demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism, and had created a highly efficient chess factory, churning out prodigies like sausages.

But that is not how they saw it in Armenia. For them, Petrosian was above all an Armenian.

National obsession

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Opera Square in the capital Yerevan, to watch the games being displayed on giant boards, as the moves were relayed from Moscow.

The result led to an outpouring of patriotic fervour. That same year, John F Kennedy was assassinated.

"In America everyone can remember where they were when Kennedy was shot," one man tells me. "Here in Armenia, everyone of a certain age can recall the exact moment Petrosian became world champion."

From that moment on, chess became a national obsession.

A spectator tells me that Armenia's number one player, Levon Aronian, is their equivalent of David Beckham. He even has the designer stubble.

My driver, Tigran, was not the only Tigran I met.

Tigran is an ancient Armenian name. Tigran the Great built a vast empire here in Roman times.

But since the chess conquests of Tigran Petrosian, Tigrans have multiplied.

Tigran Xmalian is a director, who has made a film that uses chess to tell the history of modern Armenia. It is a tragic story.

The defining episode occurred in World War I. Around a million people - some say more, others less - were massacred or died of exhaustion in enforced deportations by the Ottoman Turks.

Since the late 1980s, Armenia has experienced a catastrophic earthquake, war with Azerbaijan and economic collapse. Tigran Xmalian says chess offers the people hope - the chance of salvation. For in chess, he says, every pawn can become a queen.

Later I meet the president of the Armenian Chess Federation. The interview had taken months to arrange.

That may seem odd until you realise that in his spare time, he is also president of the country.

His cabinet consists of two Tigrans - the prime minister and the finance minister.

The state already offers free training to the most promising players, and a guaranteed salary (equivalent to the average wage) to any Armenian who reaches the elite title of grandmaster.

The president now plans to introduce chess into the school curriculum.

"We don't want people to know Armenia just for the earthquake and the genocide," President Serge Sarkisian said. "We would rather it was famous for its chess."

Chess house

In the centre of Yerevan, there is an imposing four-storey, Stalinist-era edifice where anybody can turn up for a quick blitz game, lasting just a few minutes, or a more measured contest of several hours.

Some players thump the pieces down like slabs of meat, others glide them across the board as if they were fragile china.

The men (they are almost all men) range from international class to what in the chess community are known as patzers, useless amateurs.

The building is called the Tigran Petrosian Chess House and inside you can hear lots of explanations as to why Armenians excel at the game.

Secretly, sometimes not so secretly, many think that the real reason is Armenians are just more creative, more logical, and just, well, smarter than the rest of us.


Chess tournaments in Jermuk.
Chess tournaments in Jermuk bring many spectators

At a major international chess tournament taking place in the spa resort of Jermuk in the arid mountains, I bump into yet another Tigran Petrosian.

He is no relation of Armenia's chess legend, but when Petrosian won the world title, says the younger Tigran, his father had a dream that if he ever had a son he would call him Tigran.

The boy has himself grown up to be a high-ranking grandmaster, a member of Armenia's world-conquering side.

Cheery and plump, this Tigran Petrosian is an unlikely sex symbol, but in Armenia chess players are celebrities.

A spectator tells me that Armenia's number-one player, Levon Aronian, is their equivalent of David Beckham. He even has the designer stubble. Young girls and aspiring chess players chase him for photos and autographs.

In Jermuk, the crowds gather in the piazza where the games are being shown on display boards. A number of seated, elderly gentlemen passionately debate the moves, the high sun reflecting off their brown, bald temples.

The tournament is called the Tigran Petrosian Memorial Tournament. The world champion, who died two decades ago, would have turned 80 this year.

Tigran Petrosian junior hopes to make the Armenian side that will defend its gold medal in 2010.

"The name gives me a good feeling," he says.

"But the problem is that with this name everyone expects me to win every game. It is too much pressure."

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