Armenia Dispatch: 8 Chess Power

I am playing a little bit of catch-up here since I didn’t much cover part of the day yesterday. I hooked up in the late afternoon with a great guy named Aram, an American Armenian who is involved in the local chess scene. This is a story I am hoping to do while I’m here because almost everyone I talked with about Armenia before coming told me what a big deal chess is here.

Now, I love chess. But I’m about as “recreational” a player as they get. Every so often I’ll have an inspired game and do something I’m proud of, but most of the time I muddle through as a rather poor intermediate player…the kind of guy good chess players eat for breakfast. So I thought that in addition to doing a little reporting, it might be fun to come here and try to scare up a game. The problem is, I would get whooped here by 8 year olds.

So as a side hobby (he holds a PhD in bio-mechanics from Harvard) Aram works in Yerevan with the Armenian Chess Academy, which not only holds chess tournaments here and there, but also helps teach young people how to play. The federation was located in a non-descript building a few blocks away from the Marriott, where I am staying. I met up with Aram there as well as with a very intense-looking dude named Smbat Lputyan, who, it turns out, is a Grand Master chess player (Aram explained the ranking system to me…that is, how someone reaches Grand Master status, but it’s too complicated to explain here). Suffice it to say, Smbat is the kind of guy who could probably beat me in chess in three moves or less while watching TV, talking on the phone and juggling.

I chatted with Aram for a while and learned a great deal about Armenian domination in chess. As he put it, when people discuss small countries like Armenia, they are accustomed to saying things like “per capita, Armenia has more grand masters than most other countries…” but for Armenia, he says, you can dump “per capita”. He then opened me the fide web site showing how many Armenians are in the big time, chess-wise. It’s very impressive. The Russians are big players, too, as you might have guessed (although probably the biggest name in chess, Gary Kasparov, who is Russian, was actually born of an Armenian mother. So there you go.)

Anyway, I hung out at the chess academy for a while, and learned a great deal about chess and Armenia’s unusual strength in the sport. There were a few kids in the academy’s training rooms, sitting behind chess pieces and looking at them very intently, notebooks open next to them so they could log their moves. I had a momentary impulse to ask for a game, but then decided against it. It would ruin my ego to be destroyed by someone under ten.

I am going to head to a competition tomorrow (Sat) to check it out, in fact, look forward to watching some of the best kids in the world play each other as I look on.