Armenian Exceptionalism

Levon Aronian: Armenia’s world-title hope

Chess Judaism
Aronian playing Carlsen in 2007

By the end of this month the new world champion Magnus Carlsen will know the name of his first official challenger. From March 13-31 eight of his rivals, including the ex-world champions Anand of India and Kramnik of Russia, will take part in an all-play-all tournament, with the winner earning the right to take on the seemingly invincible 23-year-old Norwegian.
The US number one Hikaru Nakamura will not be playing — he didn’t qualify. But that did not stop the American from declaring last month: “I am the only person who is going to be able to stop Sauron. I do feel at the moment that I am the biggest threat to Carlsen.” The identification of Carlsen with the evil force in The Lord of the Rings was a joke; but one person might not have been quite so amused. Levon Aronian is, on ratings, by some distance ahead of any of Carlsen’s other challengers and, unlike Nakamura, is actually playing in the tournament which will select the champion’s opponent.
Yet when I spoke to Aronian last month, just before he went into purdah to train for the event (to be held in the Russian town of Khanty-Mansiysk) he was not in the least offended, even by Nakamura’s suggestion that he was too “old” to take on Carlsen: “Not at all, I love trash-talking although I’m wise enough not to do it myself now. And if Hikaru says that I am too old, then he must feel old himself, since he is not much younger than I am.” (For the record, at 31 Aronian is five years Nakamura’s senior)
But what does Aronian, described as “diabolically talented” by one of his more respectful rivals, think of his chances in a match against “Sauron”? “I do believe that I would do very well. But that’s not a comment on Carlsen — I am confident that I would do well against anyone.” 
Confidence is indeed Aronian’s hallmark and it is most manifest in the rapidity of his play. He has been known to beat lesser grandmasters using less than a quarter of an hour’s thought for the entire game. But occasionally this trait has caused Aronian to blunder in winning positions.
“Yes, sometimes I just think my position will win itself. But it is not so much over-confidence as that I become too emotional. This comes from my love of beating my opponent and my anticipation of that pleasure. But if I blunder away the game I always recover and am stronger for the next game. So it is not too much of a problem.”
Some might see Aronian’s hyper-competitiveness as a legacy of his particular cultural inheritance. His mother is Armenian and his father is Jewish — which was also true of Garry Kasparov. Levon is of course acutely aware of the fact that the Armenian people have also experienced a history of oppression, with Hitler once citing the fact that the Turks had got away with the genocide of the Armenians as a reason why he could do the same to the Jews. “Yes, this legacy makes you able to deal with setbacks, because you know it is nothing compared with what your peoples have endured.”

 Although the connection between Jews and chess is well-established, in the modern era Armenia is the nation with the most notable over-achievement. It stems from the fact that in 1963 the Armenian Tigran Petrosian beat the Russian Jew Mikhail Botvinnik to become world chess champion: this was a source of colossal pride in a nation then under the control of Moscow.

Armenia is the only country in which chess is part of the compulsory school curriculum — and its grandmasters are paid a salary by the state. As Levon explained to me, this is one reason why he uses an Armenian surname, rather than his father’s name of Aronov. He adds: “I feel much more Armenian than Jewish, although there are sides to me which are more Jewish culturally, involving the arts and music.”

Music is a large part of his life but Levon still astonished me by saying that when he is playing chess “I always have music in my head and I like mixing up various pieces of music, improvising with them during the game. Actually, I find it helpful.”
In their contentious book, The Triple Package (Bloomsbury, £18.99), the “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld argue that some peoples have been especially successful because a tribal superiority complex has been mixed with a sense — as outsiders — of needing to prove themselves. They put Jews in this category, but don’t mention Armenians. Yet Aronian’s explanation of Armenian chess outperformance (this relatively poor country of only three million people has won the annual Chess Olympiad three times since 2006) evokes their theory.
“Every Armenian chessplayer believes that it’s only an accident that he isn’t the best in the world and his attitude is to show the world what is rightfully his. So, when I was younger, I would always trash-talk my opponent. In fact, I had the image of being a prat.”
So why no longer?
“Because I finally am where I thought I should rightfully be.”

Last month in Zurich, the ex-trash-talker Aronian annihilated the self-proclaimed “biggest threat to Carlsen” Nakamura — a case of actions speaking louder than words.