Finding Cultural Identity in the Strangest Places

Chess–

Wait, don’t click away!

I know chess doesn’t sound like the most fascinating topic, but to us Armenians it really is, so hear me out!

For Armenians, chess isn’t simply a fascinating game – it’s a symbol of cultural identity.

It’s a game invented by the Indians, popularized by the Russians, and almost unbeknownst to the rest of the world, perfected by the Armenians.

Our tiny country of barely 3 million has little when it comes to “being best” at anything. We don’t expect to produce the next Mariah Carey or Justin Bieber. We won’t introduce the newest J.K. Rowling or Steven Spielberg. Our football team won’t ever win a World Cup, and aside from wrestling, the prospects of Olympic medals are slim.

Over the years, I’ve come to embrace the “underdog” title or the “little engine that could.”

But like almost any rule, there are exceptions – and our exception is chess.

167539895Armenia: the only place where chess is as big as the people who play it (Image: Anoosh Chakelian, New Statesman)

It’s pretty crazy how much a checkered board with 32 black and white pieces plays in the lives and hearts of a nation.

You might be wondering: of all the millions of things in this universe, why chess??

Well, my friend, the answer is simple: I have no idea.

Is it something in the water? Probably not.

Do Armenians inherit some sort of chess gene? I wish.

All I know is that we’re not just good at it, we’re possibly the best. So let’s break it down.

Our Grandmasters Practically Grow on Trees

In the 1950s, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) began honouring talented chess-minds with the highest title of all, the Grandmaster (GM). Since then, Armenia has produced dozens of GMs, many good enough to rank within the World’s Top 100 players.

Some Key Stats:
  • Armenia boasts 37 GMs, only two less than China’s 39 despite 455x fewer people
  • 4 Armenians headline the Top 100, the best being Levon Aronian who comes in at #5
  • 21 Armenian players participated in the European Youth Championship this past August, where 2 won gold medals
  • The nation captured gold in 3 of the past 6 Chess Olympiads – knocking out the likes of Russia, China, and the U.S.

armenias-domination-in-recent-chess-olympiads

Finish Your Chess Homework!

What do math, science, and chess all have in common? They’re all compulsory courses for elementary and secondary students in Armenia.

When children aren’t honing their chess skills in regular school, they attend academies all of the country devoted to enhancing young minds. The most famous academy is the Tigran Petrosian Chess House, named after the legendary Armenian player who was World Champion from 1963-1969.

Serzh Sargsyan, the President of Armenia and also the Armenian Chess Federation (yes, federations exist for chess too!) says:

… Chess trains [children’s] minds… I’m sure, kids who play chess are more organized, more disciplined, and more honest.

Based on the President’s words, it’s no wonder schools focus as much on chess as they do math.

23049087176_bb5c70e47d_bA chess player’s paradise… (Image: Rob Schofield, Flickr)

The Hype is REAL

Although Russia dominates in the total number of GMs, Armenia’s fascination for the game is unrivaled.

Just walk along downtown Yerevan and you’ll see as many chess matches on street corners as Starbucks in New York City. Here, not only children play, but their older cousins, their parents, and their parents’ parents. Chess is considered a historical treasure – so ingrained into the culture – that older generations preserve the legacy and passion for newer ones.

This idea couldn’t be better described than with my visits to my Hokkour and Amo’s (aunt and uncle’s) house. It’s the place where my Amo first taught me how to play. It’s also the place where I now teach my 5 and 3-year-old cousins the rules of the game (although the younger one often loses patience before he begins hitting me with his King).

Garry Kasparov (half-Armenian) is considered the greatest chess player of all-time. He quotes that…

In Armenia, chess became something like soccer in Latin America…

Our Players are National Celebrities

While young girls in Canada crush over Ryan Gosling and Justin Bieber, Armenian girls go gaga for chess icons, in particular, top-ranked Levon Aronian – dubbed the “Armenian David Beckham.” And it’s not only teenage girls, but older girls, boys, men, women, and hell practically everyone in the country has fallen in love with Aronian.

He’s so celebrated that the FIDE organized the 2009 Grand Prix to take place in the nation’s iconic Jermuk Mountains. It’s where 4 generations of people, five-year-old baby faces to seventy-year-old wrinkly ones, turned out to watch his graceful play.

levon-loveThe “Armenian David Beckham” himself (Image: Grand Chess Tour)

Chess: An Armenian Love Story

A chessboard is as common as plates and cutlery in an Armenian household. Everyone knows the rules, everyone plays it, and, most of all, everyone loves it.

But, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a competitive player ready to become GM or a beginner who simply wants some fun in casual games. If you’re anything like my family and Armenians in general, chess is a symbol of national success and cultural pride.

We won’t win the next World Cup in football, but we will in chess, and that’s completely okay with us.

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