Lawson in 'Standpoint': Armenian Exceptionalism

by ChessBase
3/6/2014 – Next Thursday will bring the first round of the Candidates Tournament for the World Championship 2014 in Khanty-Mansiysk. Hottest contender for the privilege of challenging World Champion Magnus Carlsen is Levon Aronian, who towers 43 points above the next-strongest candidate. English journalist Dominic Lawson interviewed the 'diabolically talented' Armenian.

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Armenian Exceptionalism

By Dominic Lawson

Standpoint March 2014

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).

Current world's top ten
Country Rating
 1  Carlsen, Magnus
 NOR  2881
 2  Aronian, Levon
 ARM  2830
 3  Kramnik, Vladimir
 RUS  2787
 4  Topalov, Veselin
 BUL  2785
 5  Caruana, Fabiano
 ITA  2783
 6  Grischuk, Alexander
 RUS  2777
 7  Nakamura, Hikaru
 USA  2772
 8  Anand, Viswanathan
 IND  2770
 9  Karjakin, Sergey
 RUS  2766
 10  Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime
 FRA  2758

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."

Levon Aronian in 2008 in the ChessBase office

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."

Armenians: Aronian with Charles Aznavour in Zurich last month

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.

Armenia wins the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul – see ChessBase report

"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.

[Event "Zurich Chess Challenge"] [Site "Zurich"] [Date "2014.02.02"] [Round "4"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E63"] [WhiteElo "2812"] [BlackElo "2789"] [PlyCount "89"] [EventDate "2014.01.30"] [EventCountry "SUI"] [SourceDate "2013.10.12"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. g3 d6 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O Nc6 7. d4 a6 8. h3 Rb8 9. e4 b5 10. d5 b4 11. Ne2 Na5 12. Qc2 c6 13. Nfd4 cxd5 14. exd5 Qc7 15. b3 e5 16. dxe6 fxe6 17. a3 bxa3 18. Bd2 Nb7 19. Rxa3 e5 20. Nc6 Ra8 21. Nb4 a5 22. Qa2 Bf5 23. Nd5 Nxd5 24. Bxd5+ Kh8 25. b4 Bxh3 26. Rb1 Bf5 27. Rb2 Bd7 28. bxa5 Bc6 29. Nc3 Nc5 30. Be3 e4 31. a6 Nd3 32. Rb7 $1 Qc8 ({Aronian envisages the following extraordinary variation:} 32... Bxb7 33. Bxb7 Rab8 34. Bxe4 Rb2 35. a7 $1 Rxa2 36. Nxa2 Ne5 37. a8=Q Rxa8 38. Rxa8+ Bf8 39. Bh6 Nd7 40. Bd5 {and Black is helpless despite his material advantage}) 33. Nxe4 Bxd5 34. cxd5 Qg4 35. Rxd3 Qxe4 36. Rdb3 Qxd5 37. Qe2 Qc6 38. a7 d5 39. Rxg7 $1 {This sacrifice – which could have been played a move earlier-spells execution for Nakamura's king} Kxg7 40. Bd4+ Kh6 41. Qe3+ Kh5 42. g4+ Kh4 43. Qh6+ Kxg4 44. Qh3+ Kf4 45. Rf3+ ({Nakamura resigned, unable to face the final humiliation of} 45. Rf3+ Kg5 46. Qg2+ Kh6 47. Rh3#) 1-0


Aronian vs Carlsen at the 2010 World Blitz Championship in Moscow, which Aronian won

In rapid games Aronian has a lifetime lead of eleven wins to six against the reigning world champion. Here is a stunning example of the Armenian’s skill when playing at extreme speed, the finish to a “blitz” (five-minute) game in Moscow, 2007.

Things look tricky for Aronian (Black), with his queen trapped and Carlsen’s knight on d6 eyeing his rook. Can you see how Aronian turned the tables? Black to play.

[Event "Moscow Tal Memorial 7th Blitz"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2012.06.07"] [Round "2"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Aronian, Levon"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C65"] [WhiteElo "2835"] [BlackElo "2825"] [PlyCount "68"] [EventDate "2012.06.07"] [EventType "tourn (blitz)"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "22"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2012.06.22"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. O-O a6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. Nxd4 Be7 8. f3 O-O 9. Be3 Nd7 10. Nc3 Ne5 11. Qe2 Bb4 12. Nd1 c5 13. Nb3 c4 14. Nd4 c5 15. Nf5 Bxf5 16. exf5 Re8 17. Nf2 Nc6 18. Ne4 Nd4 19. Bxd4 Qxd4+ 20. Kh1 Qxb2 21. a3 Ba5 22. Rab1 Qe5 23. Rxb7 Qxf5 24. Qxc4 Qe6 25. Qxc5 Bd8 26. Qd4 Be7 27. Rb6 Qa2 28. c4 Qxa3 29. c5 a5 30. Ra1 Rad8 31. Nd6 {[#]Aronian played} Bf6 $3 {The game continued} 32. Rxa3 Bxd4 33. Nxe8 Bxc5 $1 {Now all of Carlsen’s pieces are en prise – and Aronian is also threatening Rd1 checkmate! Carlsen staggered on with} 34. Rd6 {but Aronian played the merciless} Rxe8 $1 {Carlsen still has both rooks en prise and the additional threat is now Re1 checkmate – so he resigned.} ({White had been hoping to survive in a rook ending a pawn down after} 34... Rxd6) 0-1

Dominic Ralph Campden Lawson, 57, is the principal columnist and non-fiction book reviewer for the Sunday Times and also weekly leader page columnist for the Daily Mail. He is author of The Inner Game, an intimate inside account of the 1993 world championship match between Kasparov and Short. In January he presented BBC Radio's first chess series in half a century: Across The Board.

Dominic Lawson is a strong club chess player, who plays in the Central
London League. He writes a monthly chess column for Standpoint.

Standpoint is a monthly British cultural and political magazine. It is based in London and describes its core mission as being "to celebrate western civilisation", its arts and its values – in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech – at a time when they are under threat. The magazine is broadly centre-right in orientation, but aims to include a "broad church" and to capitalize on the realignment of political attitudes in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The magazine has sought to revive the art of the essay in Britain, calling itself a response to "a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food". You can subscribe to Standpoint here.

See also:

ChessBase report: Levon Aronian (2809 – World #3)
3/13/2013 – He is the top concern – the "main rival" – for the tournament favourite Magnus Carlsen. Armenian GM Levon Aronian, whose encounters with the Norwegian superstar are many and memorable, started his international career as the World Under-12 Champion in 1994. A steady climb took him to a permanent slot as number two or three place on the FIDE world rankings. Three days before the upcoming Candidates Tournament, where he will face Carlsen in round one, Michael von Keitz provides an Aronian portrait with full statistics.

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