‘You need to be extremely confident. I mean, bordering on arrogant,’ says Levon Aronian, giving some thought to the prowess that has made him one of Armenia’s most beloved sportsmen. ‘You need to suss out your opponent. You’ve got to know his breathing pattern. Know when he’s nervous, the sounds he makes, the way he walks. You’ve got to control his confidence, try to get in his head.’
In his hometown of Yerevan, Aronian is a big deal. ‘People recognise me on the street,’ he says. ‘I get random people picking up my tab at restaurants. There’s a guy who writes me poetry, and another who even paid for my petrol once.’
For all of his fame and fighting talk, Aronian is not a boxer or a star tennis player. He is a chess grandmaster.
Aronian is ranked number one in Armenia, number two in the world and number three in the history books. His moves are audacious. Whispers in the chess club claim that he moves like a 1.e4 player, even though he’s a 1.d4. His face peers out from billboards and magazine covers across the Armenian capital; he counts fellow Armenians Charles Aznavour and Kim Kardashian among his fan base. He is, according to his Twitter bio, a ‘chess gangsta’.
‘Chess is pretty popular in Armenia,’ the 31-year-old says, understating the extent to which the board game has become a national obsession. In September 2011, the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan – who also happens to be the president of the Armenian Chess Federation – made Armenia the first country in the world to have the game as a mandatory part of its primary school curriculum.
An equivalent of half a million dollars was awarded to create textbooks, train instructors and buy equipment, with a further one million dollars spent on furniture for chess classrooms. ‘The players of the national team are all celebrities,’ Aronian says.
‘It’s very difficult in everyday life for a chess player,’ he continues. ‘Every day you have to face the fact that you’re the greatest. I mean, you don’t have to face it but you do have to make yourself believe it, which doesn’t really help when you’re talking with “normal” people.’
Aronian’s arrogance, however, is just a ruse – it comes with the territory. ‘It’s one of those professions where we are very egotistical,’ he says. ‘But I don’t associate myself with being me. I’m not just one person. I actually represent my family, especially my mother. She quit her job just to help me, to bring her son possibilities. I achieve for all of the people that supported and sacrificed things for me.’
Aronian, who now divides his time between Berlin and Yerevan with his girlfriend (‘Yes, yes. She loves to play chess’) grew up as the son of a mining engineer and a physicist in Yerevan during the 1980s, when Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union.
‘There was a period of time when there was no electricity, when the country was in war and there was no water – that sort of thing,’ he recalls of growing up in a particularly chequered phase in Armenia’s past. ‘It was kind of green, though, so I would go mushroom picking with my father. I liked to run around.’
Aronian was nine years old when Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Armenian chess players finally had the chance to represent their new nation.
‘As a country, we’d been going through a rough patch in the 1990s. Our first victory on an international level in anything – I’m not just talking sports – was in chess. It gave some kind of hope – people started thinking, those kids lived here in the nineties, and they made it,’ Aronian explains, offering an explanation for Armenians’ veneration of its chess grandmasters.
Aronian, one of the ‘kids’ he describes, discovered chess during the same period. ‘I was really annoying my older sister, Lilit, when we were visiting my paternal grandparents on one occasion. I just wanted to follow her everywhere, so she taught me how to play chess, you know, just to get rid of me. I fell in love with it,’ he says, thinking back to the moment he found his life’s calling.
Two decades later, Aronian is king of the game. While it’s difficult to communicate the thrill of chess – a game in which a move considered dramatic is one pondered for 40 minutes or more, and in which, it is said, there are more potential moves than there are grains of sand in the world (‘It’s true, but most of them are really stupid or bad’) – Aronian still finds inspiration.
‘I see far more beautiful things now that I can play every day,’ Aronian says, when asked if he ever tires of the game. ‘Also, you get to enjoy life more because you achieve things. You’re more relaxed about being unable to win every event. And, normally the one who stays calm wins the game.’
As a player with more championship titles and achievements than most others, what is Aronian’s secret to staying calm? ‘I probably devote more time to music than I spend on chess in everyday life,’ he says.
Even during a tournament, he composes pieces of music in his mind (‘Different types but lately symphonies and operas’), as a way to both relax and prevent opponents from interpreting his ‘psychological state’.
Another, perhaps unlikely, relaxation method that Aronian has recently taken up is the tango. ‘Yes!’ he says. ‘I love to dance.’ Comparing the intricacies of the ballroom dance to those of his day job, he says, ‘I think tango is far more beautiful, and not as loud…’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.