This is one of those infrequent articles that addresses a happy, positive theme in our Armenian reality.
Jadrag (Chatrak in its Eastern Armenian pronunciation) is the word for chess. It is not “shakhmat” which is yet another, totally avoidable, Russian intrusion into the daily usage of our language. Funny thing is, even “shakhmat” is borrowed, if memory serves me, from Persian, harking back to the game’s historic travels from its roots in India to Europe.
What prompted this bit of cheer is the news that Levon Aronian won in the third (and since then the fourth) round of the World Chess Cup. This biennial competition consists of 128 of the world’s top players, selected through a process of preceding competitions, and is designed to secure worldwide participation. It is also part of the world championship cycle, so Aronian might end up getting a shot at the title. Previously, in 2005, Aronian won this competition.
Levon Aronian is the fourth-highest rated chess player in the world. Four other Armenians are also on FIDE’s (Federation Internationale des Echecs—International Chess Federation) top 100 players list for Sept. 2017. Think about it, we hold 5 percent of these positions, when we represent only 0.13 percent of the world’s population!
How did we get so good? Most recently, some credit is due to President Serge Sarkisian—one of the few things he’s done right. Early in his presidency, chess was a focus of his attention and encouragement. But he is only the latest to contribute. Dikran Bedrosian (Tigran Petrosian), 1929-1984, who was world chess champion from 1963 to 1969, fundamentally popularized the game in Soviet Armenia. His role was analogous to Bobby Fischer’s in the U.S. with the difference that Armenians maintained their love for the game after their hero passed from the scene, whereas chess faded back to its “nerdy” reputation among Americans and lost its popularity. Bedrosian was either a candidate for or was world champion over the course of 10 three-year championship cycles. In a competitive arena that requires tremendous stamina, that is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself.
Chess is now taught in many schools in the U.S. thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Chess Federation. But it is an integral part of the scholastic curriculum in Armenia. Not only does it teach kids how to compete in a civil manner, it allows nonphysically gifted children a chance to shine, and it is excellent mental training for problem-solving, concentration, and logical thinking.
I always get a thrill when I read of the achievements of our compatriots in the field of chess, since I played competitively in high school and am still interested but now allocate no time to the game. Alas… In the U.S. Varuzhan Akobian has the sixth highest rating, and Melikset Khachiyan is 31st. We also have two compatriots on the top 100 women’s list and several under-21 players who may become a new Aronian, Petrosian, or Kasparov.
Who, you might ask, forgetfully, is Garry (Garik) Kasparov? He is the second Armenian to have held the world chess champion title, 1985-1993 (and 1993-2000 as a breakaway from FIDE). Coincidentally, he was born the same year as Petrosian first became the champion. Some consider him to be the greatest chess player ever, but of course that will always remain an untestable assertion. Still, all this is a source of pride for our nation.
Let’s encourage more of our youth to enter the 64-square, 32-piece fray of the “Game of Kings,” so they can develop their talents and we can maintain our rightful place in the world. Meanwhile, let’s hope it’s Levon Aronian’s turn to wear the chess crown.
Go, Levon! Hold our flag high!