Text: Vlad Tkachiev
Vladislav Tkachiev: As a result of the Olympiad you and Levon Aronian were awarded the Order of St. Mesrop Mashtots. How important is that award in your country?
Arshak Petrosian: It’s a very high state award – Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet.
How did the presidential reception for the Armenian team differ this time round?
Firstly, the whole team received the Order of Merit. The federation’s executive director H. Tavadyan received the medal for services to the Motherland of the 1st degree, while our team doctor A. Aguzumtsyan received the corresponding award of the 2nd degree.
I saw that Pashikian and Melkumyan travelled with you but didn’t play – were they responsible for the theoretical preparation?
Arman Pashikian helped out a great deal in chess matters, while Hrant Melkumyan travelled to the Olympiad as a fan and supported us in all kinds of ways.
I’ll move on to my favourite question, which I’m yet to receive a satisfactory response to during all my time as a journalist: why does Armenia always win?
Well, here you’ll have to be patient. Firstly – and this is the crucial thing – we’ve got a very friendly team. When people say:
The preparation for the next round is where you can see the role of a real team leader, Levon Aronian, who’s ready to share his vast knowledge with all the players. I don’t think that’s possible in all of the other teams. Secondly, a team which systematically wins ends up with a winning spirit. We almost always think we’ve got a chance, regardless of how a tournament’s going. A clear example of that is the European Championship last year, in which we shared 3rd-4th place and didn’t even claim medals. After losing in the second round we won the next 5 matches as if nothing had happened, and before the final round we were even in first place. What does team spirit mean? Here in Istanbul we lost to the Chinese team, and pretty quickly. It seemed as though we didn’t have any chance at all as the Russians could win all their remaining matches. However, we didn’t hold a post-mortem, and after a few introductory words we immediately split into groups and got down to preparing for the next encounter. We began to discuss who would help who with what – an absolutely working atmosphere. Perhaps those are the main components of success, although I’d once again emphasise our family atmosphere.
Did you manage to institute that or was it something there was already a basis for?
There was already a basis, although without a sufficient chess level it would nevertheless be impossible. We’ve got top quality chess players. Gabriel Sargissian, for instance, achieved a couple of individual successes this year, while he’s very clearly a team player. Observing his play you can say that his dedication during appearances for the team is simply incredible and practically 100%. Besides everything else they’re all very good and modest people. We can always find common ground on any issue. Of course it’s also important that the president of our federation is also the president of the country, Serzh Sargsyan. His concern and support is very important for the team, and the guys sense it. We’re all very grateful.
I could characterise each player in the team individually, starting with Aronian – he's a true team leader.
His willingness to support anyone at any moment with opening preparation is worth a lot, while at the same time he played brilliantly himself, taking first place on the first board. Sergei Movsesian, as you can see, is the only person in our team who limited himself to 50% of the points, but at the same time he won two crucial games against Grischuk and Almasi, which ensured we took the title.
Therefore he made a very big contribution to the victory. In general, after he transferred to the team last year it’s become much more compact. We’ve got 4 powerful boards, which was also proven at the World Championship in Ningbo. Vladimir Akopian, who took 2nd place on his board, played wonderfully, winning 5 games and drawing 5.
His play is always extremely stable. Well, and then there’s Gabriel Sargissian – the heart of the team, because he’s a great guy and plays all the games at the Olympiads.
I’m very confident in him, and know that in each game he’ll give his all regardless of the kind of form he’s in. In Dresden in 2008 he had the best result of anyone. That’s the backbone of the team. For the first time this year it consisted of the top 5 rated players, according to the strict principle introduced recently by the federation president: the top four rated players plus the national champion. That makes it possible for chess to develop in Armenia, as everyone knows that if they become champion they’ll get into the team, regardless of their rating. On this occasion it turned out that Tigran Petrosian won the title, and he’s also fifth in terms of ratings.
So we had the strongest line-up in the whole history of the team. Tigran also played well, scoring 2.5 points in the first three rounds, though after that we played exclusively with the main line-up.
As always! My approach to this is very simple:
You’re the only team that follows that principle.
Yes, if nothing forces our hands, like someone getting ill and so on.
Although you once told me that you played the late Karen Asrian with Black against Grischuk in 2006, despite his having a temperature.
Yes. On the first day after he had a high temperature, straight from bed. He was well-prepared, I had confidence in him and it turned out I was right. It’s clear that when playing for your national team the psychological pressure on the players is greater and that leads to substitutions, but I’ve noticed one thing: our players have an incredible sense of responsibility for their games. So if we’re on a roll, I don’t consider it necessary to change anyone. It was the same at the 2002 Olympiad in Bled. We needed to win the last match against Georgia with a 3-1 score, which is very tough. Gabriel Sargissian was ill, but I decided to play him as I had confidence in him despite his temperature. And he made a very important draw with Black.
Does the concept of secrets between players not exist for you at all?
No, I can honestly tell you we don’t have any secrets. Before each specific opponent everyone decides what should be played – what will be most unpleasant for him. So we decide on a plan of preparation together, after which we split into groups.
Do you personally get heavily involved in the issue of theoretical preparation?
Of course. At one time, when we didn’t have such computers, I actually did a great amount of work. Now it’s much less as our players are very well-prepared, but if something specific is needed I also join in. How else could you do it?
The last five Olympiads have been won three times by you and twice by Ukraine. Before that all the Olympiads ended in the victory of the Russian team led by Kasparov. Perhaps the role of team leader isn’t limited to playing well and a willingness to share knowledge? Can you talk about the necessity of self-sacrifice on his part?
Absolutely. Levon isn’t only a chess leader, but a model in all regards. He leads the group.
It seems to me that other teams like Russia also have good relations within the team and support from their country’s leadership. The difference that changes everything needs to be looked for somewhere deeper. When Movsesian was playing out his totally won position against Almasi he was being watched closely by your whole delegation: players, women’s team members and simply sympathisers. Meanwhile I think it was only the Russian team captain Dokhoian who waited in the hall for Karjakin to finish his game against Fridman. Then on the return to Sheremetyevo Airport I didn’t encounter a single camera or sign of congratulations on arrival. And that’s despite the Russian women’s team having won and the men sharing first place.
I don’t of course know anything about the internal reasons for a lack of Russian success. It was clear that this time round they were very focussed on first place.
But perhaps… after all, it’s not the first time we’ve been greeted like this. It was genuinely on a government level, and a presidential plane was even sent for us.
But do they meet you if you don’t win?
They always meet us, but of course it’s not done the way it was now. When you watch clips of how the team was greeted you can see that it was simply stunning!
There were many thousands of people – lining the streets we were driven along from the airport in open limousines. And on Freedom Square there was just no room to swing a cat. A concert had been organised, then a salute. After that there was an awards ceremony in the presidential palace.
How many joint training sessions were held before the Olympiad, and how long did they last?
Literally just before the start of the Olympiad we held a single 11-day session. The first part of the day was usually devoted to sport: mandatory swimming and forced marches around the local mountainous area, table tennis and sometimes normal tennis, basketball and of course football. For the second part of the day, at around 4 o’clock, we’d switch to chess. We looked at openings and solved studies and tactical positions.
I haven’t heard of other teams resolving studies together!
In my youth when I worked with Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian I saw that before each tournament he’d solve positions from the Latvian chess journal “Sahs”. He even told me that if he was ready to solve all the positions it meant he was in good form.
And do the guys also play against each other?
At blitz! For the buzz, as they say. The main thing is that working together before the tournament really brings people closer and creates that team spirit. Towards the end of the training camp we were visited by the country’s president, and he wished us luck. So we tried not to lose face.
I once spent quite a long time talking to Kramnik about your successes. While he recognised the role of a powerful leader and the level of the players he proposed three other reasons: in the absence of real success in other forms of sport you place the emphasis on chess; that your players don’t, after all, display the very best results in individual events but concentrate on playing for the team. And, finally, the third reason: Armenia achieved independence relatively recently and the results of the players help to confirm the new self-identity. Do you agree?
Other sports are also actively supported nowadays, but the results haven’t yet lived up to expectations. Towards the end of the 80s we had a lot of world-class sportsmen, but after losing the Soviet methodology of preparation it seems there was some kind of collapse. As for support for chess – well, you shouldn’t forget that since September last year chess has become obligatory in schools from the 2nd to the 4th classes. It doesn’t matter where, in the city or in the village. Grades are given just as they are for physics and maths. I think we’re the only such country, as it’s in absolutely all schools. After I visited the chess school of Levon Aronian and Gabriel Sargissian recently I can tell you there are a great number of talented kids who are 10, 12 or even 8. For someone like me with my experience it’s quite hard to be mistaken about that.
Kramnik’s other argument connected to politics… I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like that to me.
And the guys, as I already said, are twice as responsible when playing for the team as they are when playing for themselves. They almost never make the kind of blunders they might make in a different situation.
When the Russian football team is criticised it’s often for a lack of commitment. It turns out that all your players are nevertheless significantly underestimated, as apart from Aronian they’re all hovering somewhere in the region of 2700. That’s the top-50, but yet you take first place.
(laughs) Vladik, what can I say? After all, 2700 isn’t such a bad rating for a chess player. There’s inflation now, but until recently it was simply outstanding. Our players have incredible commitment in team events. There’s a huge weight of responsibility on their shoulders, but they handle it admirably. Sometimes I’m simply stunned! And then, I repeat, a team that wins gets a boost for the future! We play with the same line-up and there are no secrets – so get ready!
Arshak, has anyone ever suggested that you should write memoirs about these great achievements?
That did happen a few years ago, but I’m not drawn to writing. I’m more of a practical person and I prefer to be where things are happening – preparing for specific games and celebrating victories. While writing… Perhaps I’m a little lazy in that regard. Or not even a little, but a lot.
Is it possible to say that the profession of chess player is now attractive for a young person and his parents in Armenia?
It’s possible. Everyone sees our victories in these tournaments and how we’re greeted at a state level. I can tell you about a little episode: in Yerevan I was once passing a chess club and saw a great number of cars at the entrance. I was curious, of course, what event was being held there. So then, they told me it was a Class B tournament. Can you imagine! Brothers, sisters and parents had come to give their support. It was simply amazing!
Do you sometimes find it difficult to move around your native city as everyone recognises you?
Yes, it happens.
Do they order champagne for your table?
How did you guess?
And not only in Yerevan?
Wherever there are a lot of Armenians. Just recently I was in an institution in Yerevan. I only needed to walk literally a hundred metres, but 3-4 groups of people came up and congratulated me.
Of both sexes?
Of course, that makes no difference. Women’s chess is developing very rapidly in Armenia now. In general, I always associated the popularity of Armenian chess with the personality of Tigran Petrosian. I was under 10 years old when he played his match against Botvinnik. I can still recall the big demonstration boards that were set up in Yerevan’s central square, with the moves conveyed to them by telephone from Moscow. The boom started back then. The same happened in Georgia when Nona Gaprindashvili became Women’s Champion.
It seems to me you should create a monument to the glory of chess in Yerevan and make it obligatory for every distinguished international guest to visit it.
(laughs) Well, it’s difficult, of course, for me to talk about such things. But you really need to see the clips of the enthusiastic reception we got on the city streets!
In the Armenian team do you often analyse positions using a chessboard?
We mainly do just that: first on the board and only later on the computer.
There’s another difference between your team and the rest!
For us the computer works somewhere off to the side, but until we’ve come to some kind of conclusion on the board we don’t pay it any particular attention. Although sometimes you need to think about saving time.
I was impressed by a typical sporting technique that your team often uses. Let’s say the fate of a match is totally unclear and three games remain. In one of them you’re better, in the other worse, and in the third the position’s equal. In that case the one who has the advantage – and most often it’s Sargissian – starts to wait a long time, essentially doing nothing. And only later, depending on the results of the other two games, does he start to act. You’ve perfected that. It reminds me of that famous trick of Jordan’s, his hanging over the hoop, for which he earned the nickname “His Airness”.
A very good question. I can tell you that none of these matches between the top teams are easy. It’s only randomly once every few years that you get an easy win. Believe me, it’s usually 1.5-1.5 and in one game someone gets lucky. You can’t get by without that, and the times are long since gone when the Soviet Union could play three teams and you knew the winner in advance. That’s why I never believe in ultimate victory before a match is over, regardless of how winning a position is. Experience tells me that anything could still happen. Absolutely anything, as nerves are at breaking point.
Have you taken inspiration from the example of coaches in other sports?
Armenian football reached its peak in 1973, when Ararat won the USSR Championship and Cup. The team’s coach was Nikita Simonyan, the same guy who’s now Vice President of the Russian Football Union. I was stunned at the time by how he could create such a team. In general, I’ve always followed the work of football coaches, for example in the Champions League in the 2000s. Recently my interest has dropped a little. Perhaps – you’ll laugh – it’s because I always liked Ronaldo, the one who’s now a little plump.
“Toothy”. Yes. I really liked the way he played and shot – not hard, but accurately. Then he really put on weight and it of course became tough for him to play. But while he was playing I followed the work of the football coaches very closely. I tried to guess exactly when they’d make a substitution and tried to imagine myself in their shoes. So I watched not exactly as a spectator, and it was interesting.
It’d be curious to know if they follow your decisions!
(laughs loudly) Heaven forbid! There’s just no comparison!
And is Aronian trying to imitate “toothy”?
(laughs) Well, that I don’t know. As you can see, if things are going well for him he also becomes unstoppable: a quick run, and with his left hand…! At one time I also followed tennis closely – at the start of the 80s during the time of McEnroe and Connors. I was very interested in Agassi. Now tennis has become much more about power, but you know perfectly well that nothing stands still, and chess has also changed a great deal. Of course that happened as computers improved.
Could you theoretically contemplate an offer of work from another team?
That’s absolutely out of the question.
That was a question that didn’t need to be asked. You could even remove it.
Did you ever have the idea of preparing an apprentice for the post?
I’ve never prepared anyone, though I think Karen Asrian would have been a wonderful coach, if he hadn’t left us so soon. May he rest in peace! It was visible to the naked eye that he had all the makings of a coach. First of all, not everyone wants to be one, if only because besides everything else the essential quality is patience. You get very different personalities in a team and a coach needs to adopt a different approach to everyone.
In answering the next question you might need to overcome your inborn modesty. As clearly the best coach in the world at the given moment in time, who…
That’s not so important. I owe my titles to the success of the guys.