The country breeding a generation of chess whizz kids
Since 2011, all children in Armenia from six to eight years old have had compulsory chess lessons. For one boy it's paying off, reports Emma Levine.
I was trapped. Surrounded on all sides, and there was no escape. The king's capture was imminent - and my bishop was of no use this time. "Shakh yev mat," Mikhael announced triumphantly. Check mate - and my victor was just 11 years old.
It wasn't surprising - a few days earlier Mikhael had been crowned the national schools' chess champion, adding to his other trophies.
He'd been playing since he was five.
"I learned from my father and grandfather - and then, weekly lessons in school," he told me in the family's apartment in Yerevan, Armenia's capital.
One of his heroes is compatriot Levon Aronian. This charismatic 35-year-old, one of Armenia's many grandmasters, was once number two in the world - a superstar and national hero in a country not accustomed to sporting success.
Mikhael's mum, Nara, proudly shows me her son's trophies and medals.
"Mikhael wants to be a world champion. He watches international games to perfect his chess," she told me over tiny cups of soorj - strong Armenian coffee. "We don't put pressure on him - it's what he loves doing and that's the most important thing."
Nara travels with her son to all his tournaments, including going abroad.
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"I can't beat him any more!" his older brother, Khachatur, tells me ruefully.
"Mikhael has this amazing knack of getting inside an opponent. If he gets beaten he'll analyse their moves and their game, and knows instinctively how to beat them next time.
"And," he adds, "he memorises every game, and recreates it on the board."
Mikhael's perseverance is paying off. He's racing up the national chess rankings for youth players. In a couple of years he could be one of the world's youngest-ever grandmasters.
Since 2011, all children in Armenia from six to eight years old have compulsory chess lessons. It's the first country in the world to include it on the national curriculum.
To see more young stars I head to Chess House on a packed marshrutka - or minibus.
Yerevan has an ancient history - it's actually 28 years older than Rome. But there's little evidence of that now. The marshrutka weaves through Republic Square, which is encircled by elegant 20th-Century government buildings and museums built from pink volcanic tufa stone.
But in construction-mad Yerevan, you're never far away from a crane or deafening drill. Recent years have seen the government reneging on its promise to protect historic buildings - embarking instead on urban development on a mammoth scale.
I jump off the marshrutka at Circular Park, a leafy respite.
Here, I join a handful of spectators watching several elderly men perch at rickety wooden tables, playing chess with their pals. I head past them to Chess House and the real hub of activity - upstairs in the main hall, rows of long tables are lined with chess sets, with about 200 children deep in play.
The room is silent, the children's behaviour impeccable, with no tantrums or raised voices. All look utterly immersed in the games - which last up to two hours - their faces wearing the serious expressions of professionals. The children record every move in their notebooks.
But when 10-year-old Davit makes a blunder, there are tears - and then a motherly arm around his shoulder from Maria, one of the supervisors. "They are just children, after all!" she says, smiling.
Downstairs in the waiting area, scores of parents, grandmothers and a few uncles wait patiently for the children to emerge from the hall, once their matches are over. You can feel tension mounting as each one walks slowly down the carpeted steps to greet their mum. Win lose, or draw, each gets a hug.
In the main entrance is a bust of Tigran Petrosian, the chess world champion from 1963 to 1969.
"Armenia has always enjoyed a strong link with chess, but Tigran's victories were the revolution for us," explained Smbat Lputian, president of the Armenian Chess Academy. He shows me around the academy, a smart three-storey building in dazzling white, in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by Soviet-era grey apartment blocks.
"Since our independence from the USSR in 1991, we have made fantastic progress," he says proudly. With a population of a little over three million, Armenia has one of the highest numbers of chess grandmasters, per capita, in the world.
Lputian was the driving force behind making chess mandatory in schools, with the support of the Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan.
"So what was the main reason?" I asked him.
"The most important quality of chess is that it's a fair game, so young children start learning a game which is clean and honourable, and it teaches them good behaviour. The child is constantly making strategic decisions - assessing the situation before making a move." He paused. "I think this is a great benefit for society as a whole."
Armenia now has more than 3,000 qualified trained chess teachers in its schools. Many other countries want to follow suit, according to Lputian. He tells me excitedly about a new chess scientific research institute, due to open in Yerevan later this year, where scientists and psychologists will research the impact of chess in the learning process.
Through their dedication, Mikhael and thousands more children here have helped put Armenia on the chess-playing map. And at least I can console myself that I was beaten by a potential grandmaster.
All photographs by Emma Levine
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