Levon Aronian's Armenian Interview

by Meri Grigoryan
12/3/2017 – After winning the FIDE World Cup, Levon Aronian sat down for an in depth interview published by the Champord Newspaper and conducted in Armenian. Meri Grigoryan painstakingly translated the full 43-minute conversation between Levon and Mark Grigoryan (no relation to Meri!), which we shared with Champord to subtitle the original video on YouTube. Enjoy both the video and the complete transcript!

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"A game of chess is a riddle"

In 2017 Levon Aronian won the GRENKE Chess Classic, Altibox Norway Chess, the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz and finally the World Cup, just in time to marry his long-term girlfriend Arianne Caoili. The following interview was published to the Champord YouTube channel on October 13th. Champord is the first free paper in Caucasus region, and is distributed throughout the public transit system of Armenia's capital, Yerevan. It was founded in 2016 by Caoili, who is now also an adviser to the Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan.

The interview is timeless and personal. Enjoy!

Levon Aronian’s Interview by Mark Grigoryan, Executive Director of Public Radio of Armenia

Mark Grigoryan: Good evening. Today the Public Radio of Armenia welcomes a very interesting guest, who is a double World Cup winner, a triple Olympic champion and multiple tournament winner, Levon Aronian. Let us begin our conversation with the game of chess itself. I understand that chess gives you a distinct and interesting personality. The game of chess, I refer to games played at a higher level, puts one under huge stress. How do you overcome that stress?

Levon Aronian: A very interesting question. Well, if I could deal with it I would never make any blunders (laughs). For that reason, many players try different approaches. I know that for myself the best way to manage the stress is to be in good physical shape.

MG: So physical preparation is very important here.

LA: It is very important to me, because one knows that a chess player’s life during a tournament is about waking up, having breakfast, preparing 3-4 hours, then after that playing for 4-5 hours, and there is little time left to fully prepare yourself physically and to be able to cope with your tiredness. Thus when this routine lasts about two, three or four days, and as there is no rest day in tournaments nowadays, then the stress can overload. Therefore, I try to keep myself fit on a daily basis, so I can endure the stress.

MG: In other words, in order to cope with and reduce the stress you try to be in good physical shape and that is no less important than your chess preparation?

LA: To tell the truth, at the moment, I believe that I have great experience in chess, and have played many openings which I can reuse by picking them out again from my store.  At this moment I have lots of chess knowledge and therefore apart from chess I need to have physical strength, and in fact I have already been training physically on a daily basis since February and am very satisfied.

MG: When you say you know many openings, do you know the openings up to eighteen, twenty or twenty-five moves or perhaps more?

LA: No, this depends more on yourself, when you know yourself you understand which positions and style you like, it is not necessary to have studied them a lot, not necessary...

MG: To remember all the moves in detail…?

LA: Yes, yes, yes.

MG: Then it is more important to know the ideas.

LA: Yes, and that depends a lot on a chess player’s erudition. When you are in love with chess, and as nature intended that all the strong chess players are, you tend to read chess books every day. You always open a chess book, you might open it at page fifty and read it. Perhaps poetry lovers are like that (laughs) when they always try to find something new in their favourite poetry books.

Levon Aronian

MG: I understand that you also must be in love with that kind of tension.

LA: Indeed, well… (sighs)

MG: Is it difficult to live without that tension? Would life perhaps lose its meaning?

LA: It is difficult to live with and without that tension (laughs). When you understand that you do something that only a few people can do, and you are proud of yourself when you can keep a cool head in a very difficult game. Especially when the game goes badly for a player and at that moment it is very interesting to see whether you can cope that stress or overcome the difficulty.

MG: When the game does not go well, shall I assume that we do not talk about just one game, but a certain period?

LA: Yes, well, we always have a certain period when everything goes well, and then after sometime there is a period when nothing works out (laughs), and this depends on the chess player, and I think generally a top-class sportsman ought to change, because your opponents do understand what you are trying to do and they work on it, and you must constantly evolve and improve.

MG: Yes, that continuous movement towards the new, constantly moving forward. I would like to ask you one more question regarding tension, and I am certain that very many Armenian chess lovers would be interested to know the answer, perhaps first of all. You also play against Azeri chess players; does it give you any extra stress or perhaps responsibility?

LA: Perhaps it was stressful at the beginning of my chess career, but it isn’t nowadays. I try to deal with it, and it is important that in sport you should avoid such things, and if you think a lot about playing absolutely the best, then in most cases you will fail in your play.

MG: And how about them, are they under extra stress?

LA: It has been known. I recall an incident in the early years of my career. I do not wish to mention any names, but once I received a telephone call at 1:30AM by the father of an Azeri chess player during the European Individual Championship in 2005 or 2004, sorry, or in 2003, it does not matter. And he asked me to agree a draw against his son as the result was very important to them. I refused his request, firstly I do not like such things, and it was not decent to call at such an ungodly hour and deprive your opponent of sleep.

MG: Was it more stressful for you?

LA: The game went badly, and I should have lost it but in the end, it was a draw (laughs).

MG: In one of your interviews you said that when you play against an ordinary human being, an ordinary chess player, then you form an ordinary relationship with your opponent during the game, but when your opponent has no sportsmanship and during a game he tries to distract you or get on your nerves, it naturally creates a certain tension which has an effect. What tricks have been used against you?

LA: It has happened many times. Once when I was facing an Israeli chess player, not a leading one, but a moderately strong player. He was drinking a cup of tea, and he would take the tea bag out of the cup and squeeze it with his fingers, then make a move. And one of my closest chess colleagues, Alexander Grishchuk, came to me and said, “Levon, you might soon win the game, but could you somehow avoid shaking his hand?” And amongst other things sometimes top-class players tried to take their move back.

MG: Wow!

LA: Yes, Nakamura did it against me, so did Carlsen (nods his head), it did happen (laughs).

MG: But… (amazed) There are arbiters, I don’t know… It shouldn’t be allowed!?

LA: Well, during those two incidents I called on the arbiter to intervene. My opponents denied it and said that it did not happen, but the arbiter said that he had witnessed it and if necessary there was a video recording… (points at the cameras)

MG: The cameras?

LA: …yes, and they (LA and MG laugh) did not wish to (both laugh).

Aronian vs. Nakamura, Moscow Candidates Tournament, March 17, 2016 | Source: WorldChess on YouTube

MG: In recent years there was the well-known “Toilet Gate”. It was alleged that one of the players was going to the bathroom to use his phone to connect with his trainers. Have similar incidents happened with you?

LA: No, but sometimes I would feel something was not quite right during a tournament. I am usually a sceptical person and would deny such goings-on, but then you notice something strange when suddenly a strong player performs really well and then he plays really badly. It is weird but I think that such things just happen.

MG: When we speak philosophically about chess we often think of White and Black, and that White is the power of good and the Dark is the power of evil (LA gives an understanding nod), do you understand the game of chess in that way?

LA: I do not differentiate between good and bad in that way.

MG: That is to say you aren’t always playing on the good side (LA laughs) and your opponent (MG smiles) always on the evil side, do you see it that way?

LA:  No, because good and bad can be… bad can be very kind, and good can be very evil. It's a very strange concept to me, but in chess there are certain things that attract me and I wish the world had those things.

MG: Such as?

LA: For example, chess itself is a very fair game, and when you arrive for the game it does not matter what's happening around you. If you are a strong player then you'll win the game. Take for example different sporting disciplines where a lot depends on the referee’s decision, in comparison chess has a huge advantage. There is the idea in chess of rating. I understand that a radio audience or TV viewers comprehend the rating system in one way, but other people look at it differently. The rating is the most objective thing, if you are strong, then your rating is high. If at a given moment you play badly, then your rating is low. And that is a very positive thing.

MG: Apropos, before the interview I looked at your ratings and noticed that you have a lot higher rating in rapid chess than in classical. I also noticed that during the latest World Cup Championship you drew in the classical discipline and then you would win in the rapid. Was that your strategy?

LA: No, it wasn’t, I try to be the winner in every game, but when you play against strong opponents a draw often happens. It is impossible to avoid.

Levon Aronian

Levon at the 2017 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MG: I heard that apparently a draw is the most logical outcome of a game.

LA: Yes, because the latest chess rules which are currently in use, I think for about 270 years, help Black to achieve a draw. There was a time when you could stalemate your opponent with your vast army and that would have been considered a win. Perhaps 0.75 for those days. Chess was always the sort of game that people would play by betting money, and the winner would have been offered something. In those days they would reckon in that way. Nowadays you may have two knights advantage and it can end in a draw, which is a little illogical, and therefore a draw is now the most common outcome of a game.

MG: I would have thought that when two people play chess, if we assume that both are perfect chess players who avoid making any mistakes, that the result of the flawless play would definitely end in a draw. Am I correct?

LA: Definitely, but when White has a little advantage…White wants to win, he has to take risks and for that reason Black often wins. It's an interesting paradox but winning with White is harder, because you must stubbornly advance and attack, however the counter attack with Black is a lot easier.

MG: Chess and conflicts. Is chess, the game of chess, a conflict for you or not?

LA: Definitely. You speak to your opponent through each move. In the beginning you try to take control of the centre, then you develop your pieces, and find any mistakes in your opponent’s development. And at the same time, your opponent tries to explain to you that whatever is played is not a blunder but has a reason behind it, and if you try to capture a certain weak pawn then you will find yourself in a trap. Thus, a game of chess is a riddle, a conversation which always includes inner conflict.

MG: Yet again going back to your previous interviews I shall read a section from one: “Up until you encounter a conflict either with society’s opinion or with one of the past chess players' point of view, you will not become a great chess player”. What is your conflict with society?

LA: When I became a grandmaster, I think I was 19 years old, many would tell me that if I didn't reach the top 100 or 50 before I became 20 years old I would not have another chance. Conflict number 1. I did prove to them that age does not matter! The second conflict was that when I was growing up they would tell me that I should play a very active opening as Black. I would only play open games, it is difficult to explain, but on e4 I would answer e5. That is called an open game.

MG: Yes, I was going to say that the open game is 1. e4 e5.

LA: Yes, a symmetry. And many would tell me that if I continued this way I would not reach any heights, because one should always try to play more aggressively in order to win with Black. And I would always tell them that I was playing to win as Black but first I needed to equalise the position. This is conflict number 2. And I think I do win with Black (laughs)!

MG: I thought that conflict with society’s opinion could not only be about chess but also outside of chess.

LA: Well, outside of chess, I reckon, I did not behave in a way that would be in conflict with society. But I have an interesting observation about chess which I often noticed. If we take chess during the 60s, 70s and 80s then everything was always projected through chess whether it was people's psychology or their attitude to life. And nowadays chess reflects our current life. In the 60s we had chess players such as Tal and Petrosian; this was the renaissance period, the alternative way; the rock and roll. In the 70s we had many talented chess players, such as the interesting player Miles, this was the hippie movement. And in the 90s many different chess players were born, and these were the years when the Soviet Union collapsed (laughs).

By GFHund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mikhail Tal (seated, left) and Tigran Petrosian (standing, right) | Photo: GFHund CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

MG: And out of the past chess players with whom did you have the biggest conflict?

LA: Perhaps the biggest problem I had was with Petrosian, because he is very dear to us all. From your childhood you try to play like Petrosian and always have problems with him, because it is difficult to understand his games and it is easy to judge his style nowadays. He would not keep up the tempo, he was adagio (laughs).

MG: But along with adagio he would pressurise the position and by maintaining the equilibrium he would always try to put the opponent under pressure?

LA: Yes, but recently opponents simply do not allow that. It also depends on the modern openings. There are many openings when the pieces, say after 15 moves, only 2 Rooks, a Knight and a Bishop are left.

MG: And the game has not even started.

LA: Yes, yes, already you are playing the endgame, hence the style has changed greatly, and you cannot completely pressurise your opponent in the long run.

MG: Here too the psychology of overpowering the opponent is interesting. I shall try to explain what I mean by that. Naturally, when I was preparing our interview I looked at a few commentaries on your games. And in many cases the commentators would say that Aronian went wrong here or there, and here he should have played this or that. However, you would still win those games. Can one state that, yes, you knew that a certain move would have brought you a quicker victory, but you worked on your opponent’s psychology? Was there also a psychological game?

LA: It often happens when you have an advantage that your opponent tries to slip away like a little fish.

MG: Of course, moreover I suppose that the opponent tries even harder to get away, because you can see that advantage as it becomes clearer.

LA: Yes, and he sacrifices some pawns or some pieces for pawns. And at that point you need to have a feeling for the game of initiatives which unfolds, and the objective strength of your moves are not important but it is important to keep your opponent in the net. [LA says the word ‘net’ in English, and both laugh before clarifying.]

MG: And in such cases, have you ever played with your opponents like a cat with a mouse?

LA: No, I have never liked that. I have seen it and many players like to do it. (gesticulates) Here I can win this way, or there I can win the other way, let my opponent have some hopes. But I always believe that we should be like wolves, and you should definitely devour your weaker opponent as quickly as possible.

MG: And what if the wolf is your opponent?

LA: That would be a difficult situation. Wolves should be avoided! (laughing)

MG: What happens to chess players when they cannot perform at the highest level any more, and think that they ought to leave the chess world? What happens then?

LA: Well, many choose some public activity, or try to work again in the chess world. For example, Judith Polgar tries to develop chess in her country, also Gary Kasparov, currently Smbat Lputian does the same thing in Armenia. There are some who become trainers, but when you have been a very strong player it is hard to be a trainer, unless you coach someone very strong.

MG: Stronger than yourself?

LA: Yes, or someone close to you, but all the same when you coach someone whose style is different from yours, and when he or she cannot get results, then you get upset. Only a few become trainers from the top players.

MG: I know that Mark Taimanov was a very good pianist. There are also painters amongst the chess players. Are there only a few in politics?

LA: Yes, perhaps Karpov, Kasparov and Adianto, a GM from Indonesia, I don't know many.

MG: Let's now try to talk about something other than chess, because your life surely cannot be only chess?

LA: Chess is the meaning of my life, but…(laughing)

MG: You certainly have a hobby, don’t you?

LA: Yes, yes.

MG: What is your hobby?

LA: Ah, well, something that helps a chess player, in my opinion it’s music. When I was young I would attend a chess club and take piano lessons, but in the early 90s I needed to make a choice. I chose chess, but nevertheless my second self always draws me to classical music.

MG: Classical music?

LA: Mostly, yes.

MG: Piano, symphonic?

LA: Not specifically only that, I am interested in every genre.

MG: Classical music is a huge area and I can hardly imagine that you could be interested in all of that. Are there any favourites?

LA: Well, I do not have vast experience, I have been interested in classical music for about 10 years perhaps, and am still interested in the work of people who lived and created in the past. I do not know today's musicians, but I like many conductors such as Fürtwaengler [conductor/composer Wilhelm Fürtwaengler 1886-1984 -Ed.], I like his works very much, also Klemperer [conductor/composer Otto Klemperer 1885-1973 -Ed.]. From musicians I like Oistrakh [Violinist David Oistrakh 1908-1974 -Ed.].

MG: Tigran Mansuryan said that you know classical music well, and that you know it at the level of an expert. 

LA: (smiles) I have a high regard for Mr Mansuryan, and he might have wanted to flatter me a little (laughing). I have little knowledge but a keen interest in music. I really like conversing with him, asking him questions. I learned about symphonic music from him. I am a big fan of Bruckner’s work, he respects that (laughing) and we sometimes talk about it.

MG: What does classical music do for you?

LA: Well, when I study chess alone (lately I have been working by myself), I give some material to my assistant Ashot Nadanian. He works next to me, and I work next to him, and I need some music which has a mathematical form like chess, and obviously names such as Bach, Bruckner and Beethoven come up, whose music continuously goes forward and it inspires and helps me to make my work less boring.

MG:  Therefore not so much the romantic period music, because that mathematical precision might be reduced to emotional effect?

LA: No, I do listen to different genres of music; I listen a lot to Shostakovich and Mahler, but when I concentrate a little on the late baroque genre it is closer to my heart, because you follow the music, it flows like water, and you don’t need to concentrate much on every single sound.

MG: You are a very modest person.

LA: (laughing) No, I don’t think so, I just know my values, my strengths and weaknesses.

MG: I mention your modesty because you have a broad enough knowledge of music and I can see your expertise (LA laughing), an expertise on a larger scale, but you say that you are not quite so in music…

LA: Well, I learn something new each day, I try to improve every day. Lately I’ve been concentrating on concertos. I like them very much, and a couple of days ago I was listening to Britten’s violin concerto and I thought to myself how strange, if you did not know who the composer was then you would think it was Prokofiev’s work. It sounds like Prokofiev’s violin concerto no 3 [Prokofiev has only two violin concerto -Ed.]. I always spend each day in search of new ideas in chess or music.

MG: Apart from music do have any other hobbies?

Levon Aronian at 20 years oldLA: Yes, I do. Well, apart from my preferences in sport which have a big part in my life, such as running, I also like reading, and since my childhood I have liked poetry.  Once a funny story happened. I was playing U20 World Championship in India and I had a small rucksack in which I would carry a book by Khlebnikov [Velimir Khlebnikov 1885-1922 -Ed.] and read it. And it was stolen from me while on the way. My parents told me that those poor people (laughing) tried so hard to steal it and how interesting it was that now they must learn Russian (MG laughing), then learn Khlebnikov’s language which is another Russian language.

(Above) 20-year-old Aronian on his way to becoming the World Junior Champion | Photo: Vishal Sareen

MG: Yes, yes. And if I ask you to read or recite a poem, it does not matter in what language, something that is very memorable to you.

LA: It would be a piece from Tarkovsky, Arseniy Tarkovsky. It’s in Russian.

[Recites the poem ‘First Rendezvous’ — original translation © Meri Grigoryan]

Each and every moment of our rendezvous
We were rejoicing like the Epiphany,
The two of us alone at the world's end. You
Were more brave and lighter than a feather, so blissfully,
Like a whirlwind on the stairways
You rushed and led me through those steps,
Through dewed lilac into your great finesse
From the other side of the mirrored glass.

LA: It is quite a long poem and very beautiful.

MG: Thank you. Yes, yes, indeed it is very beautiful. Before the start of our interview we requested our readers to ask you a few questions on Facebook, there are not many questions. Let us try to answer to those questions.

LA: Yes.

MG: Amalia Kuroyan, “If you weren't a chess player what would you have been?”

LA: It would have a connection with something which includes the laws of mathematics.

MG: I thought that you would say a musician, because we spoke about music just before.

LA: (laughing) To become a musician I think you have to have an inner talent, so you can create. I do not know whether I have that or not. Or I wouldn’t know it.

MG: Alexander Ganjumian from Moscow writes, “After a game during the analysis do you ever suddenly see that there was a possibility of a straightforward win at some point, and you overlooked it. What do you feel at that time?”

LA: Blunders often happen, evidently when you are under stress you do not see simple moves. I feel that I still have a lot of work to do on that.

MG: Olesya Vardanyan writes from Tbilisi, “The protagonist, in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “The Luzhin Defence”, would fall badly ill after a defeat. He would not remember the cities where he had been, because all the trips were connected with chess. Is that really the case? And perhaps it is hard to be understood outside the world of chess?

LA: There are such chess players, but I am not one of them. I became fanatical about chess at 26 or 27, a moderately serious age, and before that…

MG: You were already a grandmaster, and were playing at the top level?

LA: Yes, I was having fun. I loved chess very much, but I would not think about it all the time. Chess became my hermit's cell somewhat, perhaps at the age when I realised that I was, in my opinion, born for a certain goal.

MG: One more question from Lusine Grigoryan from Stockholm, rather two questions, “Why there are no women chess players in men’s events?” Lusine perhaps did not know about the Polgar sisters.

LA: I have always believed that women can play equally against men, but in many countries, it is very difficult. We still have a certain viewpoint that we tend to say that it is not necessary for a girl to succeed, she ought to have a family and become a mother which is more important. And in the chess world there are only a handful of successful mothers.

MG: Yes, with such psychology you would perhaps not achieve any big success.

LA: Yes.

MG: And Lusine’s 2nd and maybe the final question, “Do you like chocolates?”

LA: I do like chocolates, but dark ones, 85% and above.

MG: And at the end of our conversation I would like to present you with a small gift. Firstly, let me show it to you.

LA: Yes.

MG: I hope you will recognise this voice [plays a CD]

“Dear countrymen, at this very moment it is hard for me to say how happy I am that I was able to achieve the World Chess Championship title. It is difficult for me to find words to express my thankfulness to my fellow countrymen, to each and every one of you who supported me throughout the two-month hard-fought struggle. I acknowledge my victory as our victory. Evidently, without your help and support I could not have achieved that victory in the heat of the battle.”

That is Tigran Petrosian's voice. He said this in 1963 immediately after becoming World Chess Champion. And so, he addresses the entire radio audience of the Public Radio of Armenia. Here it is [presents the CD)].

LA: Thank you!

MG: And I hope that very soon you too, within a similar context, will address the audience of the Public Radio of Armenia (both laughing).

LA: God willing!

MG: Thank you.

LA: Thank you. 

Meri is a British-Armenian living in London. She won Yerevan Women’s and U21 Open Championships at the age of 12 and 15 respectively. She was a multiple winner of Armenian Girls’ Championship. She is a polyglot, professional chess coach, and Director of Organic Chess LTD, which trains and employs chess teachers in the UK.


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