Armenia Dispatch: 12 – Chess Kids

I’m about a day behind, so I’m going to try to catch up here on what’s been happening during my trip to Armenia.

I left the Bambir guys and headed to the chess academy, where I hooked up with Aram, who works with the academy to promote chess in the country and abroad (and they offer expert instruction for young Armenian players…of which, you will read, there are many). At the Academy, Aram introduced me to two Grand Masters of the game: GM Karen Asryan and GM Tigran Petrosyan. For fun, Aram sat them down and asked them to play a “blitz” game for me, where they went head to head in a game that lasted (I kid you not) less than a minute. This is not to say that the game consisted of just a few moves. Far from it. No, they played a complete game, but played it so fast – moving pieces, taking them from one another – that their hands moved in a blur. Like I said, these are Grand Masters…some of the best chess players in the world (they’re also very nice guys).

I left with GM Petrosyan in his car to a part of town called the Cascade, which is a broad park where a series of staircases rise along a huge ramp towards the Mother of Armenia statue that overlooks the city. I was here because a group of organizations including the UN, the Armenian Chess Federation and the Armenian Chess Academy, were holding a major chess competition for young and old in the park. I wanted to see how big a deal chess is in this country. Suffice it to say, chess is a VERY big deal.

There were two events going on. In one, about 40 kids from all over Armenia came to play in a “blitz” tournament (very fast games) where they went head to head until a single winner emerged. These were some of the finest (young) players in the country (the best young players, I was told, were actually in Serbia at a major competition, but these kids were still incredible. There was also a Grand Master challenge match where three Armenian Grand Masters (Karen Asryan, Tigran Petrosyan, Ashot Anastasyan) took on fifteen competitors each, facing them from the other side of a long table.

I spent the whole day watching these two events, and really enjoyed myself. It grew quite hot, but the Grand Masters hardly seemed to notice and pretty much disposed of their competition without too much effort (there were a few draws, I understand, but several of the people playing against the GMs were chess teachers, so perhaps this is to be expected). Watching the kids, man, you’ve never seen such determination, such intellectual intensity. It was amazing to watch as both boys and girls played (and there were several girls) in vigorous, fast-paced competitions that lasted until one was crowned winner.

So that was my very full day…Armenian rock and Armenian chess…two very interesting sides of the culture here…in this endlessly fascinating place that I highly recommend you visit some day.