Levon Aronian: The Armenian Lion
Levon Aronian is one of the most colorfully dressed Grandmasters in the world, and also someone who has an immense passion for chess. He played for Armenia, and won multiple medals at the Olympiads before he moved to the United States. Aronian has played some brilliant games at the Olympiads against very high-quality opposition. In the 6th and final episode of "Olympiad Stories with Saravanan", IMs Sagar Shah and Venkatachalam Saravanan discuss about the strong chess culture in Armenia, the excellence of Levon Aronian, the amazing team spirit between the Armenian players, and much more. Photo: Susan Polgar Blog.
Levon Aronian and Team Armenia's domination in the Olympiads
IM Sagar Shah (SS): Saravanan, how do you like my T-shirt today?
IM Venkatachalam Saravanan (VS): It reminds me of Levon Aronian actually [laughs]. He's one of the most colorfully dressed Grandmaster in the top. I have always admired his boldness in dressing!
SS: Whenever I wear this, people say "inspired by Aronian" [chuckles]. That's how popular he is for his dressing sense, but his play is also equally colorful!
VS: You know, I simply love Aronian's thinking process. Many times, Aronian creates certain masterpieces. The most famous headline about Aronian was in the "New in Chess" Magazine about a decade ago - I'll never forget it:
It's one of the best compliments that a Grandmaster can get! I really like his style of play, and even as a personality he comes across as very pleasant. I've had many enjoyable conversations with him about his games.
SS: We know that he's a world class player and that he has achieved so much in chess. He has reached World no. 2, and many thought that he might be the perfect candidate to beat Carlsen when he was at the peak of his powers. But one thing which he has done equally well, is win so many Olympiads for Armenia! The catch here is that the remaining players of his team were not as strong as him.
VS: That's true, but I've read a lot of interviews where his teammates praising Aronian, that he always pulled the team up by helping them with preparation during the tournament. I think the Armenian Open Team had a special bond as teammates. Of course, the spark is probably Aronian, but the contributing team members also. See, 3 gold medals and I think three bronze medals I think 3 bronze medals - it's not a joke, simply speaking.
SS: In 2006, 2008 and 2012, they won the Gold medal. In one of them, China finished 2nd and USA 3rd. In another one, it was Israel and USA, and in the last one in 2012, it was Russia and Ukraine in the 2nd and 3rd spots. They left behind all these powerhouses of chess and won the gold!
VS: Once again, not only Aronian was a unifying factor of the team, but his individual contributions also. I have always had very high regard for his play. In any team championship, not just the Olympiad, and at any level of chess. I've seen that the sum of the parts is never equal to the strength of the whole team. To play chess tournaments as a team and win, you need a certain bonding in the team. Either you have to be extremely strong and everyone has to be very, very professional, or you should have that special bond. See, sometimes you see the next board and you see that your teammate is in trouble against this opponent. You should be willing to risk your game without bothering about the result.
SS: I think mainly this camaraderie is built by spending time with each other. You go out for dinners, you go out for walks together, and I guess Armenians always do that. Whenever I am at any tournament, and Aronian has played a good game, in the break between two rounds he's always showing his game to his friends, and they're always analyzing and laughing and discussing.
VS: You know, anything can happen in a team tournament. The late Tony Miles, he almost never agreed to play on any board for England next to his teammate Jonathan Speelman because Speelman had this habit of twitching his eyes. Miles used to get extremely distracted and irritated with that - so there are many, many Olympiads where Miles would simply say, "Put me two boards away".
You never know what consists of a team dynamic. You never know what makes people click with each other in a team tournament. I have enjoyed the many team tournaments I have played. I've played for Indian Bank, Bank Sports Board, Bharat Petroleum, Petroleum Sports Board, and Tamil Nadu. I have enjoyed all the team tournaments, because most of the time the teammates we got were real fun. Especially when we played for Tamil Nadu, we had such fun characters in the team.
Everyday dinner was a laugh! Once you have such a hearty laugh during dinner, then come back to the room and want to prepare, you naturally feel like helping each other in their preparation. There are no secrets and seldom it was like," you know, this is a secret, but please just use it and don't spread it later." This kind of a give and take relationship starts at the dinner table and the breakfast table, not in the preparation session.
SS: Absolutely, well said. I think in the case of Armenia, Aronian not only proved to be this bonding factor - the team had other strong players like Sargissian, Movsessian, Akopian, and so on. But he also led from the front by scoring wins against the top players! If you had to choose one of his games, which one would that be to look at first?
VS: Without any doubt, his win against Ivanchuk from Istanbul 2012. Okay. It's one of my most favorite games of Aronian, not just because of the Olympiad and the opponent. Generally, in team championships, you prefer players who don't take too many risks. The reason is: you might have sacrificed a pawn or a piece in your game, but your teammates may not know it is preparation. Or, your teammates try to calculate and they may think that you have actually blundered. So, generally team tournaments are won by people who are solid. Most of the time, everyone can play solidly - that is a kind of team which wins. But in this game, two of the topmost players in the world, they can play as solid as they can. But just see the chess they play and see how Aronian won the game! This is an amazing game.
Levon Aronian (Armenia) vs Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine), 2012 Istanbul Olympiad
SS: We have the Queens Indian on the board - all very standard. After 9...Na6, Levon sacrifices a pawn with 10.d5!?
VS: This is the moment it starts. See the boldness in playing such an opening in an Olympiad against Ivanchuk on the top board!
SS: After 10...exd5 11. Nd4 Bc5 12. Nc2 c6 13. cxd5 cxd5 14. Bg5 Nc7, Aronian plays 15. Ne3 which is already very interesting.
Now White wants to win the d5-pawn, so Black must do something. I mean, you cannot really allow him to take on f6 followed by taking on d5 - then Black will be strategically worse. So, Black played 15. d4.
VS: Yeah, ...d4 was questioned at the time. ...Bxe3 was touted as a little better here. White has to take fxe3, and now Black can play ...Qe8 with a really complicated position.
I'm not sure if d4 was a drastic mistake, even a big mistake, but it's a mistake nevertheless. But of course, It all depends on how white is going to continue from here.
VS: We don't know what the role of the c3-pawn is going to be, how dangerous it is. But of course, right now we are just looking at Black's fractured kingside. The point is, it almost looked like as if there is nothing active White can do here. Because see, there's only one threat, and we all know that one weakness, one threat will not win the game. So, it's curious to see how Aronian is going to find ways to open up the position. This is where Aronian's strength stands in my opinion, and this is where a student of the game will benefit by trying to see what White is going to do to open more fronts towards the opponent king.
VS: b4 is probably the turning point of the game. The ability to spot turning points and decisive moments, is one of the qualities that make the player stronger. This was a moment where Aronian seizes the turning point. White is opening up lines into the opponents king. But, after all I have a line open till the h7 square. So, what am I really going to gain by opening up the a-file? It, it all looked kind of abstract, isn't it? I'm very sure only a Grandmaster who understands tactics at a higher level, that at some point I increase pressure and I don't care about material. At some point, I will definitely get a breakthrough, which will ultimately lead me to the black king.
SS: Correct, a lot of imagination is needed for this move. After 25...axb5 26. axb5 Bxb5, White gets his rook in with 27. Ra7, and Black goes 27...Ne6.
The main point here has always been that when the Knight moves, you are going to play ...Rg7 to defend this paw on h7. So, after 28. Ne7, Ivanchuk could have played ...Rg7, but then there is Nxd5 which attacks the Queen. So, Black played 28...Qg7 and now white won the rook with 29. Nxg8.
VS: If Black does play 28...Rg7 29. Nxd5 Qh5, White wins with Rxf7! It is a very unusual distraction tactic.
SS: I guess that's also a role of the Rook breaking in!
VS: Yes. We do have a reason now for what Aronian saw 10 moves ago - the reason for b4. This is simply a beautiful game!
SS: Boom, Rxf8+! After ...Qxf8, in comes Qg4+ Kh8 Qf5! threatening a mate - ... Qg7 is met with Qc8+ followed by winning the knight. This was a very nice game by Levon!
VS: I really like the way that, you know, both of them went at each other and the tactics involved. But more than anything, Aronian's imagination. I think as a player his biggest strength is his imagination, especially the ideas created by Aronian. It's a bit of a tragedy that there is not any book written on Aronian yet. But the day that a book will be written on Aronian's imagination, that will be a wonderful textbook on the subject for anyone who wants to study the game.
SS: I think overall Aronian has so many ideas within him, and also the fact that he's a big connoisseur of art. He likes good music, he likes good food. When you meet him, you see a man who is filled with things he's passionate about. That is overflowing in his play as well!
VS: When Aronian came on Surya Sekhar Ganguly's stream, he astonished all of us by telling that he has read Indian philosophy!
When I met him in St. Louis 2018, I asked him: "Aren't you tired having played so much intense chess?" He said:
Energy is a very elusive thing. Sometimes you may win a tournament, and you feel that I can play three tournaments more. Sometimes, even if you are well rested but play the tournament badly, you're about to suffer because of the lack of mental energy.
I asked him "What did you do between these tournaments?" He said he went to a musical instruments museum, where he saw some trumpets which he had never seen before. Aronian has deadpan sense of humor, so I asked him "Is this one of your jokes? He said, "No. I'm being honest! It was so nice to see those trumpets". He's a different guy in top chess, with a lot of interests, the way he speaks, his sense of humor, and his very infectious laughter.
SS: Let's have a look at another game of his, this time against David Navara in the 2006 Turin Olympiad. According to you, what is special about this game?
VS: The way crackers burst open, suddenly it all blew apart in the center and then came Aronian's imagination once again. This was a "wow" game for me, looking at Aronian's idea - mind you, he's playing in the top board for Armenia against a very strong team! This is what he produces on the board!
Levon Aronian (Armenia) vs David Navara (Czech Republic), 2006 Turin Olympiad
SS: Once again, we have the Queen's Indian on the board. But instead of Ivanchuk's Bishop on a6, Navara puts his Bishop on b7.
VS: ...d5 looks a little suspect. But at the same time, we are playing towards the center. Probably something like ...Nd6/Nc5 would've been better. But the way Aronian exploits it is of course very nice.
VS: Back in 2006, the chess engines weren't as strong as they are now. If you gave the position after ...Nc3 to the engine, it would not change its judgement and think that Bxc3 is the best move here for White. Only after 10-15 seconds, it would find Aronian's shocker 11. Nf7!
SS: If you take the knight with ...Kxf7, then dxe6 comes with a check and b7 is hanging. So Navara played ...Qd7, and now came Bxc3!
VS: This is the move I like more than Nf7, because whatever you take with, I play dxe6 and anyway b7 hangs! This is like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of situation for Black. Simply beautiful! Two top Grandmasters of the world are producing it in a very, very prestigious tournament on the top board in a tense game. It shows first of all their creativity, their boldness, and so on. But it also shows the ability of chess to survive in spite of all the engines and whatnot. Look at the creativity of the board!
SS: Navara is a very creative player himself. So. to do this against him is even nicer! After 12...Bxd5 13. Bxd5 Qxd5, white plays 14. e4 to block the queens attack to rook, ...fxe4 and now just wins the Rook with 15. Nxh8.
VS: The idea is so cute! A reservoir of ideas on the chessboard is basically what makes a chess player very strong. When you study the games of players like Aronian, there are ideas which are extremely unique. I'm sure that it is difficult to find them again - either by yourself on the board or in the history of chess.
SS: Recently Levon came to the Tata Steel Chess India 2021. After the event ended, we all met in our room all the players. There was Harika with her husband Kartheek, and Levon was there with his girlfriend, Annie. Taniya and Samay were there as well. We were just having fun, and Levon was having a good time with all of us.
After some point, everyone went to their rooms, and the talented youngsters like Raunak, Gukesh and Nihal came to that room because Levon was there. What does Levon do when he sees all these young Indian kids in front of him? He gives them positions to solve! It was around 2 AM in the night, and they were solving. He gave them a very complicated mate in three or something. So, they would say some move and knowing the answer, Levon would refute their tries. That's when you realized that this guy loves chess so much!
VS: There is an event during the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, a banter chess event called "Ultimate moves". There are 2 teams - in 2019, one team had Kasparov, Carlsen, Ding Liren and so on. The second team had Anand, Aronian, Anish Giri and so on. Basically, you do trash talking throughout the game!
The best of the jokes always came from Aronian! I'll never forget this: there was a tiebreak for the first place between Ding Liren and Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen lost the tiebreak, and Ding Liren became the champion. Throughout the tiebreaks, it was one of those days for Carlsen, a bad day at the office. That was in the morning, and in the afternoon the Banter Blitz and trash talking started. So, Carlsen comes and sits on the board and Maurice Ashley asked Aronian:
Levon, What do you think about this position?
Levon instantly came up with:
This is the first decent position Carlsen has had today.
Everyone burst out laughing, including Carlsen because it was so funny and you know, it's like good natured banter. Aronian is full of these one liners and jokes. Very enjoyable, very engaging personality!
SS: There's one more game that you have chosen, Sara. This is between Sargissian and Grischuk.
VS: Yeah, this was a very crucial win in the 2008 Olympiad. This was the pivotal game in which Sargissian actually beat Grischuk, who was the star at the time and much higher rated than him. The Rumor at that time was, This opening by Sargissian was a team preparation, which included Aronian. But once again, this was a fantastic fight, which I really liked at that time. Even now too, when you look at the game, it's a really great and complicated fight between both the players.
SS: I think Sargissian has been kind of a permanent board number 2 for Armenia. Here's a very nice picture of the Armenian Team:
VS: I think this was after they won the Olympiad. When they went back to Armenia, the whole team was given a reception in the airport by the president of Armenia himself. In the far right, that's the president of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan. From the left, it is GM Vladimir Akopian, Then you have the trainer of the team. That's Arshak Petrosian, he is the father of the wife of Peter Leko and also the trainer of Aronian himself. Then you have Tigran Petrosyan, Levon, Sergey Movsesian and Gabriel Sargissian.
SS: One more picture that I would like to share is this one:
VS: This was the ultimate honor that the chess team of Armenia had. I mean, how many countries would do this, put the team on a national postage stamp after they win a chess Olympiad? Salute to Armenia. This photo overwhelms me when I see it. What an honor!
SS: Absolutely. I was watching a few videos on YouTube, and I realized that chess in Armenia is kind of as popular as maybe cricket in India!
VS: Oh yeah. It all started in Soviet times, and of course they had the great Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian who started it. He was the World Champion from 1963-1969.
SS: Armenia also has chess as a compulsory subject in schools!
VS: Yes, I believe it was introduced in 2012.
SS: This has helped Armenia tremendously, and they have a very good chess culture overall in their country. When you see these videos where they're getting down from the airport and going across the city, and the crowd has gathered on the streets. Everyone is cheering for you, the president himself comes to receive you. Then you realize that, you know, it's a big thing in chess and I think that also motivates them.
VS: Of course. Basically, state support is very, very important for any sport. You leave the developed countries where people may find support from the corporate sector or sponsorship and so on. But for the rest of the world, state support is very important. Armenia has always enjoyed the state support all these years,, which I think is one of the main reasons why chess is where it is in Armenia.
Gabriel Sargissian (Armenia) vs Alexander Grischuk (Russia), 2008 Dresden Olympiad
SS: We have another Queens Indian on the board, and a pawn sacrifice with 6.d5, similar to Aronian's game.
SS: Here's the thing, Grischuk is one of the best players in the world. Generally, the strategy of the team could be to let Levon Aronian strike and others will be solid. But I think in the Armenian team it was more like, you know, we all have to try our best.
VS: This is a critical moment of the game, because you to choose between 2 major decisions: either you bring the Knight back, or you capture on h7. If you capture on h7 and you bring the knight back on the next move, there's a chance that the Bishop may get trapped on h7. If you don't take on h7 and bring the Knight back straight away, then you are a pawn down. This is basically where a chess players real abilities are tested. This is basically what every trainer tries to develop in a young player - the ability to spot turning points and critical moments.
SS: Sargissian did take on h7, and after ...Kh8, I think the next move was very nice. One piece is hanging, why should I go and defend it? Let me go and attack your piece with Qf4!
But the question is, after ...axb5, what is happening? Then there is Qh5 Ng4 Qxg4 g6 Qh3 and the variation goes on, somehow there is good compensation for White. In the game, Black played ...g6.
VS: This is the next thing. The bishop on h7 is doomed. But the point is, White can still get compensation for the piece or even more. So once again, it's kind of a critical moment of the game. It's extremely tempting to just take Rxd7 with some compensation on the 7th rank. But Sargissian found a better move!
SS: After 25. Bxg6 Kxg6 26. Rd6+ Kg7 27. Rad1 Rg8 28. f4 Bf6 29. e4, we reach the following position:
VS: See the unhurried way in which White conducts the game after giving up a whole piece. Sargissian has played this game with remarkable composure more than anything! To keep tension on the board and to keep playing is probably what very, very strong players can do very well. In the 1989 Manilla Interzonals, and the Grand old man of the Soviet Chess, Mikhail Botvinnik meets Boris Gelfand and Vassily Ivanchuk. They ask him, what do we do? How do we play? He tells them:
You know, Western players, if you maintain tension for 10 moves, they can withstand the pressure. But the 11th move, they crack. So, this is basically what you're supposed to do in the whole of this Interzonals, Keep tension throughout the game.
This is precisely what White is doing. He has sacrificed a piece, but see the unhurried way he is slowly going towards the Black king. Ultimately, he'll get the black king, but he's totally unperturbed that he's a piece down here. That's what makes this game very remarkable for me!
SS: I think if this was an individual game, it was amazing. But the fact that this is being done in a team tournament makes it even more special!
VS: Mind you, it's not clear tactical compensation. It is almost like positional compensation for the sacrificed piece. That's what makes it even more unique, but of course there's more drama to follow.
This is one of the most interesting moments. g6+ was not the most accurate here, White should've played Qd7. But mistakes are a part of chess. After Black played ...Kg7, White's next move is super cool by today's standards.
Apparently there are no drastic threats, and it still looks like Black can survive here. But the point is - it's very, very difficult to play such positions on the board for either side, not just for black.
SS: Black continued with 56...b4 57. axb4 Bxb4 58. Kg4 Kh6 59. Kf3 b5 60. Ke4 Bc5? This was the last mistake of the game.
VS: This is basically what I like. When we think of king march, We think of Nigel Short. But this is simply beautiful! I mean, that was the white king a few moments ago, and where is it now? It's beautiful the way he takes it forward.
SS: This game adds up beautifully as to how Armenia beat such strong teams. To play this way is amazing.
VS: The fact that they won three Olympiads, even when the Russian team was around and Ukraine was around, they deserve a special mention whenever we talk about Olympiads in my opinion.
SS: We also touched upon so many factors that made them the champions. And I think if those can be replicated, many countries can achieve such feats. But it's not easy.! You need a superstar like Aronian, you need very strong players. You need the state support, you need a lot of interest in chess. You need chess at the grassroot level in schools. So, you know, all these things coming together finally led to Armenia doing so well.
VS: Let's hope they do well in the upcoming Olympiads as well!