GM Aronian’s influence is popular in chess-obsessed Armenia, although he now plays for the USA

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Shock move grandmaster Levon Aronian performed just one shock move on Friday. He didn’t get to the game between his adopted country and his native country at all. He was not among his new friends, nor among those he grew up with, whom he had traveled and inhabited for two decades.

But even in his absence his shadow spread like a seething undercurrent across the game – for he is such a prominent figure in chess. Not only that the tie could potentially decide the Olympics as Armenia and the USA finished first and second, but also that the Armenians wanted to prove that they had life beyond Aronian and that they could live without him A serious career challenge. Perhaps the US wanted to demonstrate that they are a power even without Aronian. It was a game of points and pride, all of these subplots added layers of intrigue.

On the first board were Fabiano Caruana and Gabriel Sargissian. Caruana is one of his best friends “whom he cooks dinner for”. That’s Sargissian. A year younger than Aronian, who is 39, they have both been friends and work together since they were young. Joining them were Wesely So, who lives next door to Aronian in St. Louis, and Hrant Melkumyan, who considers Aronian “the greatest influence of his life.” Aronian plays a big role in the lives of all eight players. A joke he cracked. A movement he had taught them. Even more so since Aronian is about as clumsy as a chess player could be.

What followed was riveting chess, with neither team willing to give up that easily. The end result reflected the liveliness of the game – apart from the encounter between Welsey So and Hrant Melkumyan, every game was a tenacious affair. Both teams won two games each in a poetic justice. There was no Aronian who could break the tie, no Aronian who could swing the game one way or the other. How heartbreaking it would have been for Armenia. Maybe not as heartbreaking as when he left her.

But like most nations that have emerged from war and suffered genocide, Armenia has a remarkable ability to carry on. Life without Aronian would have been unthinkable. Until last year, Aronian was Armenia’s guiding star, their greatest hope, their eternal inspiration, a national hero and the man who inspired every child and adult in the chess-mad country that has the most grandmasters per capita in the world, the first country to take chess to make it a compulsory part of the curriculum, it wanted to become. The story of Aronian’s life is taught in school. Even if his life story were to be removed from the curriculum, it is part of folklore. How the Aronian family hosted a homeless chess player who fled Azerbaijan to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region during the 1988 war in exchange for him teaching their son chess. How Aronian fought poverty, walked five miles at the weekend to play chess tournaments in Yerevan. And so on.

But his departure has not plunged her into despair. Rather, it motivated them to hit past their weight. They always have – a country of three million people has won the Olympics three times. “Obviously he was our best player and a very good player. But we’ve been through a lot as a country, so we don’t mourn personal losses, but find the best way to make the most of what we have,” Armenian captain Arman Pashikian said at the start of the tournament when asked about Aronians Switch.

However, Armenians cannot hate him. He would polarize opinions with the sole act of adopting another country, but he would continue to be an inspirational figure for Armenians. “We can’t hate him, although of course we’re sad. He is our brother and friend. So many beautiful memories. But he will continue to be an inspiration to us and our country, although I hope more players don’t follow his path and change the nation,” GM Ave Grigoryan told chessbase.com

But Armenian chess culture is so ingrained that the game would continue to thrive even after their greatest player left. When Tigran Petrosian faced Russia’s Mikhail Botvinnik for the world championship in 1963, thousands camped out in Yerevan and watched as each move was telegraphed to a giant demonstration board in the city’s Opera Square. “There could be more chess clubs than coffee shops in Yerevan,” Aronian himself once said.

There are also geographical and social reasons. The Armenian-American writer Peter Balakian once wrote in the New York Times: “For a small landlocked country, chess is a particularly ingenious and effective way of mobilizing competitive spirit as well as athletic competition and intellectual discipline without it would require enormous infrastructural resources and, of course, financial outlay.” But they lost the hero who embodied that spirit. But they would neither mourn nor shed a tear for Aronian.

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