Tiny Armenia is a big player in world chess, and a new gambit could make it even bigger: mandatory chess in school. The former Soviet nation has made the game part of the primary school curriculum along with such standards as maths and history for children between the ages of seven and nine.
Chess is a national obsession in this country of 3 million people tucked away in a corner between Turkey and Iran. The passion was fostered in modern times by the exploits of chess champion Tigran Petrosian, who won the world championship in 1963 and successfully defended his title three years later.
In July a six-person national squad came first at the World Team Chess Championship in Ningbo, China. The returning players and their coach were greeted as heroes and collectively awarded $20,000 (£12,000). That group included up-and-coming player Levon Aronian, 28, who is currently third in the World Chess Federation’s rankings.
Armenian authorities say teaching chess in school is about building character, not breeding chess champions.
The education minister says taking the pastime into classrooms will help nurture a sense of responsibility and organisation among schoolchildren, as well as serving as an example to the rest of the world.
“We hope that the Armenian teaching model might become among the best in the world,” said Armen Ashotyan.
Half a million dollars were allocated to the national chess academy to draw up a course, create textbooks, train instructors and buy equipment. A further $1m paid for furniture for chess classrooms.
The only thing eight-year-old David Ayrapetyan is hoping for from the programme is an opponent worthy of his skills. The chess whiz finds the local retirees and fellow children to be pushovers. Only classmate Aren Sedrakyan can give him a run for his money.
David’s father, Arman, says he thinks chess is good for him no matter what the future holds. “Even if he doesn’t become a grandmaster, chess will teach him to think logically and improvise, as those are indispensable qualities in life,” he said.
Wendi Fischer, executive director of the US Foundation for Chess, has campaigned for the game to be taken up in American classrooms and says Armenia’s programme has big potential.
“By incorporating chess as part of the curriculum you are including a game, and that’s how kids see it,” she said. “They think they’re focused on fun. So I think it is a great way to cross over between a true hardcore curriculum that’s mandatory and the young children being able to play and explore and have fun.”