In the 21st century, which country has won more international chess Olympiads than any other? Russia? USA? China? None of the above — it’s Armenia, which won gold three times (2006, 2008 and 2012). Despite a population of just 3 million, the country has a healthy number of top flight grandmasters, and Levon Aronian (the current world no. 5, and former world no. 2) has been its pre-eminent player for many years. So Aronian’s announcement that he will switch federations, representing the USA in future events, is significant. He will relocate to St Louis, which has become a major chess centre in recent years, with the backing of the American philanthropist Rex Sinquefield. Aronian’s move bolsters an already exceptional US team, with Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez Perez and Hikaru Nakamura all in the world’s top 20.
It may seem odd that a player’s affiliation is not simply bound by citizenship, but it does make sense to permit such transfers. Notwithstanding patriotic considerations, disagreements between players and their federations are common, so the possibility of a switch ensures that individuals are not beholden to their federations. (A prominent example is that of Alireza Firouzja, from Iran, who looks likely to represent France in future). To prevent abuse, the adopting federation is obliged to pay a significant fee to the old federation — €50,000 for a player of Aronian’s stature.
In a statement published on Facebook, Aronian harshly criticised the diminished support and attention that chess has received from the new Armenian government. (Until 2018, chess in Armenia enjoyed significant support and recognition from the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned amid the ‘velvet revolution’ of that year.) One can only speculate whether tragic events in 2020 may also have influenced Aronian’s decision. In March, his wife Arianne Caoili died of her injuries from a car crash in the capital Yerevan, while later in the year Armenia was engaged in a bloody war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aronian is already out of the current world championship cycle and at 38, is significantly older than many of his rivals. But I’m in no doubt that, with the right support, he could still mount a serious challenge to Carlsen. I hope that a new start provides the boost he needs.
Meanwhile, a stunning combination from the recent Armenian championship:
Robert Hovhannisyan–Arman Pashikian
Armenian Championship, February 2021
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nf6 4 O-O Nxe4 5 Re1 Nd6 6 Nxe5 Be7 7 Bf1 Nxe5 8 Rxe5 O-O 9 Nc3 Ne8 10 Nd5 Bd6 11 Re1 c6 12 Ne3 Be7 13 c4 Nc7 14 Nf5 Bf6 15 Nd6 Bd4 16 Qg4 Qf6 17 Qg3 Bxf2+ 18 Qxf2 Qxd6 19 c5 Qg6 20 a4 With this imaginative rook deployment, White gets dangerous compensation for the sacrificed pawn. d6 21 Ra3 dxc5 22 d4 Re8 23 Bf4 Rxe1 24 Qxe1 Ne6 25 Rg3 Qh5 (see diagram) 26 d5!! A brilliant idea. cxd5 26…Nxf4 allows 27 Qe8 mate. Or 26…Qxd5 sees White forcibly open the e-file: 27 Rd3 Qh5 28 Rd8+ Nf8 29 Rxf8+ Kxf8 30 Bd6+ Kg8 31 Qe8 mate. 27 Rg5! Qh6 28 Rxd5 Qxf4 29 Rd8+ Nf8 29…Nxd8 30 Qe8# 30 Qe7 h5 30…Qd4+ 31 Rxd4 cxd4 32 Qe8! ties Black in knots. 31 Rxf8+ Kh7 32 Bd3+ Bf5 Black won’t last long after 32…f5 33 Qe8! Qd4+ 34 Kh1. 33 Bxf5+ Qxf5 34 Rxa8 Qb1+ 35 Kf2 Qxb2+ 36 Qe2 Once the checks run out, White’s extra rook mops up comfortably. Qd4+ 37 Kf1 Qa1+ 38 Qe1 Qxa4 39 Re8 f5 40 Re5 Qf4+ 41 Kg1 c4 42 Qe3 Qg4 43 h3 Qd1+ 44 Kh2 Qd6 45 Qf4 c3 46 Qxf5+ g6 47 Qe6 Qxe6 48 Rxe6 b5 49 Re7+ Kh6 50 Rxa7 b4 51 Rc7 Black resigns
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