Chess Olympiad 2022: More than just a silver lining for Armenia

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In the world of chess, former Soviet nations continue to sing the game’s song. Chess was one of their biggest exports, so it continues to have an outsized influence in many cultures and societies that were once part of the USSR.

Their impact was also felt in Mahabalipuram at the Olympiad. Four of the five countries that medalled at the Olympiad — Georgia, Ukraine (women) and Armenia, Uzbekistan (open) — were part of it.

Of this, Armenia’s silver demands deeper scrutiny. Among all countries that broke away, it’s the one place that can be accurately described as ‘chess mad’ the most. Months after breaking up from the USSR, they won their first Olympiad medal in 1992.

In a 10-year period that began in 2002, they won five medals in the open section, including three gold. The last of those gold, which came in 2012, was preceded by a landmark education reform that said chess was going to be a compulsory school subject just like mathematics and science.

In 2011, the government passed a law to this effect. “We hope that the Armenian teaching model might become among the best in the world,” Armen Ashotyan, who was the country’s education minister then, had said. As part of the programme, the government allocated $500,000 to draw up a syllabus and procure the appropriate equipment. The Guardian, who reported this news item, also mentioned they spent a further ‘$1mn for furniture for chess classrooms’. As it is, Armenia have the record for producing the most Grandmasters per capita. With chess being taught in schools to kids, that will only increase in the coming years.  

Yet, chess caused most of the Armenians the biggest of heartaches the country has ever witnessed. In February 2021, Levon Aronian (World No 8), one of Armenia’s greatest sportspersons — he was the main board on all three occasions they won gold — walked away. He decided to represent US, causing a deep rift among the very people that knew his openings and endgames by heart.  

In this context, the silver that was secured on Tuesday will also help. “The silver will be very big for our team,” Gabriel Sargissian, who played top-board, told this daily. The 38-year-old, whose only loss came against D Gukesh, expected to put up a fight but thought a medal was out of question when the team boarded the flight to Chennai. “No, no, no (if they thought they could win a medal),” he said. “We were No 12 seeds. We didn’t expect this. Thought that we can maybe fight for a medal but not in this way. We played against all the strong teams (Uzbekistan, India A and India B, and US).

“This will be very big for our team, a lot of new players. It should give them the confidence for the future. (At earlier Olympiads), we had a lot of good results but that was with a totally different team. This tournament is very special to us.”  

He also addressed the thorny issue of Aronian’s absence. Even if he felt a pang of regret, the admiration he has for him is clear. “Very big (how big is Aronian?), not only in chess but in general. Because he is maybe the best sportsperson in Armenia. Not many people like this (playing for the US) but there are some problems and he decided to leave.” Without Aronian playing for Armenia for the first time since 2002, Sargissian believed they had no chance. It’s why ‘this tournament will be very important for us,’ according to him.

The problem Sargissian was referring to was messy. It involved Aronian and the new government that came into power in 2018 (the earlier president, Serzh Sargsyan, doubled up as head of the country’s chess federation). “Last year was too hard for all of us: epidemic, war, in my case also personal adversity, and the absolute indifference of the state towards Armenian chess. I was facing the choice to leave my life’s work or move to where I was appreciated,” Aronian had written on his Facebook page. While he represented the US at the Olympiad, it’s obvious he cares deeply about his Armenian identity. He still refers to himself as the ‘Armenian lion’ on his Twitter page.

Minutes after their silver was confirmed, Aronian again showed how deeply he cared. “…but for me especially – Armenia!! Winning silver and coming so close to gold is incredible and makes me very proud. I hope such a sensational performance will get a deserved recognition!,” he tweeted.

Their population is less than 3 million (2020 figure) but they continue to keep punching above their weight in the ultimate mindgame sport.

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