Notes from Armenia

Getty images/ iStock

Getty images/ iStock  

On a free walking tour of Yerevan, as a passing shot, our guide Varko lets us in on a little-known chess world secret

Picking an accommodation option that sits cheek-by-jowl with a primary school is always a risky proposition. One that is fraught with countless somnolence-threatening annoyances. From loud, early morning assembly calls and mid-day playground cacophony to afternoon marching band practice, the ultra-light sleeper in me has encountered it all.

But my recent stay at a family-run B&B in Yerevan — the pink-hued capital of Armenia — that shares a wall with one of the city’s most popular public schools, showed me another, more surprising facet to Armenian academia. One that struck a home run in more ways than one…

Chess in school

With one of the most ambitious school chess programmes in the world, the chess-obsessed nation has made the game a compulsory subject on the national curriculum. An initiative of the then Armenian President Sersh Sargsyan — who was also president of the Armenian Chess Federation — since 2011, children studying in grades two to four have two weekly chess lessons that are graded just like any other school subject. And just like the one next door, these classes are often conducted in school playgrounds that have sets of purpose-built concrete chess tables in a designated corner.

To keep up with this new demand, Armenia now has more than 4,000 qualified chess teachers in its school system, besides national champions like Levon Aronian as visiting faculty. The once number-two chess grandmaster in the world, also known fondly as Armenia’s David Beckham, today regularly coaches kids in chess at schools across the country. Interestingly, a 2009 BBC World Service report titled Armenia: the cleverest nation on earth shows that with its population of a little over three million, Armenia is among the world leaders in chess, with one of the highest numbers of chess grandmasters per capita.

Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian

So, where and how did it all begin for this Armenia-chess love affair? Curious, I visit the Tigran Petrosian Chess House — the ‘Ground Zero’ of all things chess in the Caucasian state. Nestled on Yerevan’s leafy Khanjyan Street and built in the early1970s in the typical Soviet brutalist architectural style, the building is named after the Soviet Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, who became the World Chess Champion in the 1960s.

Here, I learn that although chess was institutionalised during the early Soviet period, the country has always had a historical love of the game that goes way back to the Middle Ages. This was proved with the discovery of an ancient chess set in the citadel of Dvin, the medieval capital of Armenia, in 1967.

At Yerevan’s imposing grey basalt Matenadaran museum of manuscripts, a digital copy of Shatrang: The Book of Chess (1936) by Joseph Orbeli and Kamilla Trever tells me more as it augments the India-Armenia chess connection. Called chatrang, a word derived from the Sanskrit term chaturanga, which translates to ‘four arms’ (representing elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers), chess apparently came to Armenia from India via the Arabs in the 9th century, when Armenia was under Arab rule.

Shakh yev mat,” is a victory cry I hear all of a sudden as I settle down with my 200-dram (₹30) blueberry softy cone at a bench outside the Moscow Cinema on Yerevan’s arterial Abovyan Street, next to a giant pedestrian chess set. But then, the Armenian equivalent of “checkmate!” is something I’ve been hearing at almost every public square and city park I’ve sauntered past in the last few days. There’s probably nary a public space in Yerevan that doesn’t have at least a couple of chess tables, with players of all ages hunched over an intense game of chatrang.

On a free walking tour of Yerevan, as a passing shot, our guide Varko lets us in on a little-known chess world secret. As it so happens, Garry Kasparov, the former Soviet grandmaster, and easily the world’s best ever chess player, is of Armenian heritage, though he was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Apparently, his original surname was Kasparyan — with the ubiquitous finale of an Armenian surname, which usually end in “ian” or “yan”.

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:57:21 PM |

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