The Societal Impact of Chess, Part 2: The Armenian Poster Child

The Societal Impact of Chess, Part 2: The Armenian Poster Child

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Below is another excerpt from Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess, Chapter 6, Far Transfer:

(...)    Whenever you encounter a “chess should be a mandatory part of the school curriculum” type, two things will become immediately apparent:

  1. They don’t mean something that you might naively think they mean—i.e. a general sentiment that the spirit of play should be integrally incorporated in the educational experience for maximum pedagogical effect. This belief has a long intellectual pedigree, going back to Plato and later reinforced by the likes of Vittorino da Feltre and Jean Piaget, and happens to be one I very much subscribe to.

    But such a position naturally doesn’t single out one particular form of play over others, thereby posing an implicit threat to any “chess is the educational silver bullet” type who might thereby find himself forced to justify why, precisely, chess, and chess alone, should be immediately incorporated into all education curricula—as opposed to, say, go, scrabble, xiangqi or shogi.

  2. The country of Armenia suddenly takes center stage.

The Armenia business can be quite off-putting to the uninitiated, given that most of us, when contemplating where we might find evidence of large-scale pedagogical innovation, tend not to give the place any more consideration than Albania or Andorra—which is to say, none at all.

But according to many in the chess world, Armenia represents nothing less than the acme of possible learning environments, given that, in 2011, the country opted to incorporate chess as a mandatory part of the curriculum for all children in grades two, three and four, prompting the inevitable chorus of chessophilic bellowing that other countries should promptly follow suit or “be left behind.”

OK, well, let’s take a closer look. More than a decade has now passed since Armenia introduced its world-leading chess-related educational policies and it’s time to take stock.

Surely by now one can start to see significant national glimmerings of the much-ballyhooed development of widespread improved creativity, leadership and decision-making skills and much more besides that Armen Ashotyan, Armenia’s then-Minister of Education and Science, promised us back in 2011. 

Well, it’s a bit hard to tell, given what’s been going on in Armenia lately. For those whose attention has naturally been directed in a non-Armenian direction of late, here is a brief précis:

In 2018 there were widespread anti-government protests, prompted by the decision of Serzh Sargsyan, the President of Armenia from 2008–2018 to establish himself as Prime Minister in the next government, conspicuously imitating the presidential–prime ministerial flip-flop maneuverings of one Vladimir Putin, to whom the Washington Post described Sargsyan as “a faithful client.” 

The protest movement, commonly referred to now as the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution, eventually resulted in Sargsyan’s resignation, following which he has been the subject of a bevy of embezzlement and corruption charges.

Sargsyan, as it happens, is also the longstanding president of the Armenian Chess Federation and likely a principal driver of making chess mandatory in Armenian schools. 

Meanwhile, the long-simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region exploded again in 2020 with a 44-day war won by Azerbaijan, which recaptured large swathes of Armenian-populated territory. This was followed by a series of additional military skirmishes that continue to this day. 

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh regions conflict

Most observers are naturally focused on the wider geopolitical implications associated with the conflict, given that the Azerbaijani military is stocked with Turkish and Israeli drones, while the Armenians are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and have explicitly requested Russian support by invoking its mutual-defense clause, so far to little avail. 

Suffice it to say, we’re now an awfully long way from evaluating the impact of a mandatory chess-in-schools program, but without in any way pretending that I am remotely qualified to meaningfully opine on the geopolitical situations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh or anywhere else, it nonetheless seems evident to me that unthinkingly parroting the phrase, “We should all be more like Armenia,” as chess-in-education types still insist on doing at every conceivable opportunity, should give any reasonable person pause.  

Well, OK. But what about if we limit ourselves to solely education-related conclusions from all of this? After all, back when the program was adopted in 2011, we were promised a battery of scientific studies to rigorously evaluate its successes or failures; and in 2013 Al Jazeera reported Armenian psychologist Ruben Aghuzumtsyan forthrightly declaring that “children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis.”

Leaving aside the fact that Prof. Aghuzumtsyan is also listed as being a proud member of the Armenian Chess Federation—surely you weren’t expecting the slightest pretense of scientific objectivity by this point—it’s hardly unreasonable to simply ask, more than 11 years on, 

Where are the studies? Which peer-reviewed journal do I find them in?

Well, good luck with that. 

Instead, what you will find is FIDE proudly sponsoring pedagogical conferences with the “Chess” Scientific Research Institute of ASPU (Armenian State Pedagogical University), once again demonstrating that the current international governing chess body is simply incapable of encountering any laughably unscientific chess-boosting cause without swiftly taking ownership of it.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the chess world remains captivated by Armenia’s indisputable history as a remarkably overperforming chess powerhouse in high-level competition—the incubator of former world champion Tigran Petrosian and current top player Levon Aronian. After all, the Armenian men’s team recently won silver at the Chess Olympiads in Chennai—perhaps their innovative chess-in-schools program had something to do with that? And as if that weren’t enough, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently declared it “an official strategic goal” of his government that Armenia would win the world chess championship by 2050. 

Well, aside from the fact that, whatever its merits or lack thereof, the world chess championship is officially contested by individuals and not nations; and trying very hard not to judgmentally remark that a politically turbulent, deeply war-torn country really should be directing its strategic efforts towards things like the peace and prosperity of its citizens, you may recall that the whole reason we are talking about Armenia in the first place is because of their decision to implement a mandatory chess-in-schools program—the purpose of which, so we were explicitly led to believe, was all about producing responsible, creative, critical-thinking, leadership-prone citizens rather than a flood of flag-waving Armenian world chess champions. 

Meanwhile, closer to home (unless your home is in Armenia, of course, in which case you have my sincere condolences), the unrelenting “chess-in-schools” lobby remains blissfully undeterred by any of this, loudly decrying how chess is so clearly vital for the appropriate intellectual development of any student, at any time, under any circumstances, and therefore should be mandatory everywhere, as the great international pedagogical beacon that is the Republic of Armenia has so amply demonstrated to one and all.



My name is Howard Burton and I am a documentary filmmaker and author. I produced a recently released 4-part documentary, THROUGH THE MIRROR OF CHESS: A CULTURAL EXPLORATION, about the remarkable impact of chess on culture, art, science and sport. I also wrote a book, CHESSAYS: TRAVELS THROUGH THE WORLD OF CHESS, about all sorts of chess-related issues that I encountered during my time spent as a tourist in the chess world.