Chess in their blood – and their school schedules

Reading, writing and arithmetic – these are the three disciplines that children learn when they start school. But in Armenia there's a fourth: in 2011 the republic in the Caucasus with three million inhabitants became the first country to make chess a compulsory subject from second to fourth grade. Chess is the national sport in Armenia and politicians prefer not to leave the next generations' skills to chance.

The greats look down from the walls at the young and old masters playing at the tables. (Image: Tigran Petrosyan)

"As a child I didn't enjoy chess because I wasn't as good as my brother, who was the junior world champion," recalls Mikayel Andriasyan. Andriasyan is just 27 years old and already general-secretary of his country's chess federation. So, evidently, he did finally succumb to a passion for the game. In addition to his work at the federation, he also coordinates the schools program and all the activities of the national chess academy. Potential stars of the future aged between five and 20 study here, honing their skills in amateur tournaments on top of their regular chess courses at school. The academy operates branches in 53 different towns. Gaining admission is no easy task.

Given the positive experiences of the mandatory lessons, plans are now afoot to extend the program, the general-secretary explains: a curriculum for 11- to 15-year-olds is currently being tested. Even countries like Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have approached Armenia about it, he adds: they wanted to adopt the chess program in Armenia for their own schools, not least – presumably – because of effects that have nothing to do with winning medals. Andriasyan points to international studies and notes, "Chess players don't do drugs."

The role model for many Armenian chess players is Tigran Petrosian. A grandmaster, he was world champion between 1963 and 1969 and also topped the team world rankings with the USSR, which won nine Olympic gold medals with his help. Simultaneously he completed a Ph.D. on the role of logic in chess and spent years as the editor-in-chief of the Soviet chess magazine.

Petrosian, who is still revered as a national hero today, also laid the foundations in 1967 of the Chess House in Yerevan's central park, the chess federation's headquarters. Inside the building's foyer old folk play against each other and engage in animated discussion about moves and strategies.

Not far away there are several benches and tables in the park. There's a bubbling atmosphere because here, under the trees, residents of the capital can be found facing off over the black-and-white boards. All kinds of residents: children, women and men. Young and old. They compete with each other or analyse famous matches from the past. They are all familiar with the ideas and tactics of the old masters. The people here have no doubt: "Playing chess leads to a better future." And that future begins at school.

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