GM Aronian’s influence is dear to chess-obsessed Armenia although he now plays for the United States
Concussion grandmaster Levon Aronian had just one concussion kick on Friday. He didn’t show up at all for the match between his adopted country and his native nation. He was neither among his new friends nor with those he had grown up, traveled and housed for two decades.
But even in his absence, his shadow lay over the game like a quivering undercurrent – for he is such an eminent personality in chess. Not only that the tie could potentially decide the Olympiad as Armenia and the United States were placed first and second on the table, but also that the Armenians wanted to prove that there is life for them beyond. beyond Aronian and that even without him they could mount a serious challenge. Perhaps the United States wanted to demonstrate that they are a force even without Aronian. It was a game for points as well as pride, with all those subplots adding layers of intrigue.
On the scoreboard for the first game were Fabiano Caruana and Gabriel Sargissian. Caruana is one of his best friends, “for whom he cooks”. Sargissian too. A year younger than Aronian, who is 39, the two have been friends and collaborators since teenage years. Next to them were Wesely So, who lives next door to Aronian in St Louis, and Hrant Melkumyan, who considers Aronian “the biggest influence in his life”. Aronian looms large in the lives of the eight players. A joke he had cracked. A gesture he had taught them. Especially since Aronian is as cheeky as a chess player could be.
What followed was a tense game of chess, with neither team willing to surrender easily. The end result captured the feistiness of the game – apart from the Welsey So-Hrant Melkumyan match, every match was a hard-fought affair. Both teams won two games each in a performance of poetic justice. There was no Aronian to settle the tie, no Aronian to swing the game one way or the other. How heartbreaking that would have been for Armenia. Maybe not as heartbreaking as when he left them.
But like most nations born of war that have endured genocide, Armenia has a remarkable ability to move forward. Life without Aronian would have been unthinkable. Until last year, Aronian was Armenia’s beacon, its greatest hope, its perpetual inspiration, a national hero, and the man that every child and adult in this chess-mad country, which counts the more grandmasters per capita in the world, was the first country to make chess a compulsory part of the curriculum, wanted to be. The Aronian life story is taught in school. Even if his life story were to be removed from the program, it is part of the folklore. How the Aronian family housed a homeless chess player who had fled Azerbaijan during the 1988 war, on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in exchange for teaching their son chess. How Aronian fought poverty, traveled eight kilometers on weekends to participate in chess tournaments in Yerevan. And so on.
But his departure did not plunge them into despair. On the contrary, it motivated them to punch above their weight. They always have – a country of three million people has won the Olympiad three times. “Obviously he was our best player and a very good player. But we as a country have been through a lot so we’re not mourning personal losses but finding the best way to make the most of what we have,” Armenian captain Arman Pasikian said at the start of the tournament when asked about Aronian’s switch.
However, Armenians cannot hate him. He would polarize opinions with the single act of adopting another country, but he would go on to be an inspirational figure for Armenians. “We can’t hate him, although we are obviously sad. He is a brother and a friend to us. So many beautiful memories. But he will continue to be an inspiration to us and our country, though I hope other players don’t follow his path and change the nation,” GM Ave Grigoryan told chessbase. com.
But the culture of Armenian chess is so deeply rooted that the game would grow even after the departure of their greatest player. In 1963, when Tigran Petrosian faced Russia’s Mikhail Botvinnik for the world championship, thousands camped out in Yerevan, watching every move relayed by telegraph to a giant display board in the city’s Opera Square. “There might be more chess clubs than coffeeshops in Yerevan,” Aronian himself said.
There are also geographical and social reasons. The Armenian-American writer Peter Balakian once wrote in the New York Times: “For a small landlocked country, chess is a particularly ingenious and effective means of mobilizing both the spirit of competition, athletic competition and intellectual discipline, without the need for huge infrastructural resources and, of course, financial expenditure”, but they lost the hero who embodied this spirit. But they would not cry or shed a tear for Aronian.