Tigran the Great of Chess

by Aram Hovasapyan

My first two blogs, the Artyok Ovker En series, concerned the monumental impact of great figures in the forming and shaping of an independent first republic of Armenia. Being familiar with this history is very important, and, as an Armenian, one should take pride in it. However, for this blog, I wanted to shift gears into a more modern subject that has greeted Armenia with much success, the game of chess.

Chess is very popular among Armenians. As a personal example, my father played in the Tiflis and Georgian SSR championships among highschoolers, and both my sister and I played competitively as well. Some Armenians dedicate their lives to the game, and in so doing, have succeeded in placing Armenia on the map.

Today, Armenia is a force to be reckoned with in chess Olympiads and Championships-both its national team and individual players are well renowned. We were back to back champions of the World Chess Olympiad in 2006 and 2008. In 2011 we won the World Chess Championship that was hosted in China, and the host nation came in second place. This was quite a feat as China boasts 300,000  Chinese Chess Federation members and about 3,000,000 active chess players nationwide; that second figure matches the entire population of Armenia.  As for individual players, Levon Aronian is the reigning World Blitz Chess Champion and rated as number two in the world. Most welcoming, in 2010, the BBC aired a short documentary about the tiny and relatively poor chess powerhouse titled,”Armenia: the Cleverest Nation on Earth.”

Armenia’s success today can be traced to a man legendary not only among Armenians, but among the world chess community:Tigran Petrosian. Petrosian was born in Tiflis (remember the strong Armenian presence in the city that I discussed in the Artyok Ovker En Part II blog) in 1929 and lived through a rough childhood. He was a stellar student, but also displayed a great interest in chess. He spent his free time reading books on chess theory and in 1947 earned the rank of Master. In 1952 he secured the tilte of Grand Master in the Interzonal tournament in Stockholm. In 1963 Petrosian defeated Mikhail Botvinnik to become the World Chess Champion, a title he would hold until 1969. In Republic Square in Yerevan, a large chessboard was hung that allowed the great crowd of eager Armenians to keep track of every move as their fellow countryman battled for the world title. Petrosian became a celebrity and a source of pride among all Armenians in the world.  After winning the title, Petrosian campaigned to restore circulation of the chess magazine 64 (the number of squares on a chess board) throughout the Soviet Union. He would serve as the editor of the magazine until 1977.

Petrosian vs Fischer Buenos Aires 1971

All in all, Petrosian was a candidate for the World Championship eight times, successfully defended his world champion title against Spassky in 1966, a feat that had not been done since 1934, and won the Soviet Championship four times. He was known as “Iron Tigran” due to his impregnable defense and cautious playing style. Petrosian was recognized as being the most difficult player to beat by several chess book authors. Bobby Fischer, widely considered to be the greatest chess player of all time and the man who would become the World Chess Champion in 1972, once declared, “He [Petrosian] has an incredible tactical view, and a wonderful sense of the danger… No matter how much you think deep… He will ‘smell’ any kind of danger 20 moves before!”

“Iron Tigran’s” success bolstered competitive chess among Armenians. Armenians saw chess as an avenue for the small Soviet republic to make a name for itself. He influenced players such as Rafael Vaganyan, who would attain the title of International Grandmaster at the incredible age of 19 in 1971. Vaganian remained one of the top players of his time. Another World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov , was born to an Armenian mother. Kasparov became the youngest ever undisputed World Chess Champion in 1985 at the age of 22, a title he would hold until 1993. Overall, Armenia has produced 38 grandmasters.

In 2004, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Tigran Petrosian’s birth, a chess match was held between six players representing Armenia, and another six representing the “Rest of World.” Chess remains very popular in Armenia, and the national team is still one of the strongest in the world.

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