The grandmaster of shock moves, Levon Aronian, pulled off just one shock move on Friday. He did not turn up at all for the game between his adopted country and the nation of his birth. He was neither amidst his new friends nor with those he had grown up, travelled and roomed for two decades.
But even in his absence, his shadow sprawled over the game as a simmering undercurrent—for he is such an eminent personality in chess. Not only that the tie could potentially decide the Olympiad as Armenia and the US were placed first and second on the table, but also that Armenians wanted to prove that there is life to them beyond Aronian and that even without him, they could mount a serious challenge. Perhaps the US wanted to demonstrate that they are a force even without Aronian. It was a game for points as well as pride, all these sub-plots adding layers of intrigue.
On the first match board were Fabiano Caruana and Gabriel Sargissian. Caruana is one of his best friends, “ who he cooks food for.” So is Sargissian. A year younger to Aronian, who is 39, both have been friends and collaborators since teenage. Beside them were Wesely So, who lives next door to Aronian at St Louis, and Hrant Melkumyan, who considers Aronian the “biggest influence of his life”. Aronian looms large in the life of all eight players. A joke that he had cracked. A move that he had taught them. More so as Aronian is as raffish a chess player could be.
What followed was engrossing chess, with neither team willing to surrender easily. The end result captured the feistiness of the game—apart from the Welsey So-Hrant Melkumyan match-up, every game was a dogged affair. Both teams won two games each in a delivery of poetic justice. There was no Aronian to settle the tie, no Aronian to swing the game this way or that. How heartbreaking it would have been for Armenia. Perhaps, not as heartbreaking as when he left them.
But like most nations born out of war and have endured genocides, Armenia has a remarkable capacity to move on. Life without Aronian would have been unthinkable. Until last year, Aronian was Armenia’s guiding light, their biggest hope, their perpetual inspiration, a national hero, and the man every child and adult in the chess-mad country, which has the most grandmasters per capita in the world, was the first country to make chess a mandatory part of the curriculum, wanted to be. The story of Aronian’s life is taught in school. Even if his life-story were to be culled out of the syllabus, it’s part of the folklore. How the Aronian family housed a homeless chess player who had fled from Azerbaijan during the war of 1988, over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, in exchange for teaching their son chess. How Aronian fought poverty, walked five miles on weekends to play chess tournaments in Yerevan. And so on and so forth.
But his departure has not plunged them to the pits of despair. Rather, it has motivated them to punch above their weight. They always had—a country of three million has won the Olympiad thrice. “Obviously, he was our best player and a very good player. But we, as a country, have been through a lot, so we don’t mourn for personal losses but find the best way to make the best use of what we have,” Armenian captain Arman Pashikian had said at the start of the tournament when asked about Aronian’s switch.
However, Armenians can’t hate him. He would polarise opinions with the single act of adopting another country, but he would continue to be figure of inspiration for Armenians. “We cannot hate him, though obviously we are sad. He is a brother and friend to us. So many beautiful memories. But he will continue to be an inspiration for us and our country, though I hope that more players don’t follow his path and change the nation,” GM Ave Grigoryan, who told chessbase.com
But the Armenian chess culture is so deep-rooted that the game would thrive on even after their greatest player had left. In 1963, when Tigran Petrosian took on the Russian Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship, thousands camped out in Yerevan, watching each move relayed through telegraph to a giant demonstration board in the city’s Opera Square. “There could be more chess clubs than coffeeshops in Yerevan,” Aronian himself had once said.
There are geographic and social reasons too. The Armenian-American writer Peter Balakian had once written in New York Times: “For a small, landlocked country, chess is a particularly ingenious way, and effective way, of mobilising both competitive spirit and sports competition and intellectual discipline, without the need for huge infrastructural resources and, of course, financial spending,” But they have lost the hero that embodied this spirit. But they would neither mourn nor shed a tear for Aronian.