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Armenia takes chess obsession into classroom

By Avet Demourian
Associated Press / November 15, 2011

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YEREVAN, Armenia—Tiny Armenia is a big player in world chess, and a new gambit could make it even bigger: mandatory chess in school.

The click-clack of chess pieces is being heard around the former Soviet nation's primary schools this fall, as the game becomes part of the curriculum along with such standards as math and history for children between the ages of 7 and 9.

Chess is a national obsession in this nation of 3 million people tucked away in a corner between Turkey and Iran. The passion was fostered in modern times by the exploits of chess champion Tigran Petrosian, who won the world championship in 1963 and then successfully defended his title three years later.

In July, a six-person national squad came first at the World Team Chess Championship in Ningbo, China. The returning players and their coach were greeted as heroes and collectively awarded $20,000. That group included up-and-coming player Levon Aronian, 28, who is currently rated third in the World Chess Federation's rankings.

Armenian authorities say teaching chess in school is about building character, not breeding chess champs.

The education minister says taking the pastime into classrooms will help nurture a sense of responsibility and organization among schoolchildren, as well as serving as an example to the rest of the world.

"We hope that the Armenian teaching model might become among the best in the world," Armen Ashotyan told The Associated Press.

Half a million dollars were allocated to the national chess academy to draw up a course, create textbooks, train instructors and buy equipment. Another $1 million went toward buying furniture for chess classrooms.

The only thing 8-year-old David Ayrapetyan is hoping for from the program: an opponent worthy of his skills.

The chess whiz finds the retirees and children who hang out in the yard outside his apartment block to be pushovers. Only classmate Aren Sedrakyan can give Ayrapetyan a run for his money.

Ayrapetyan's father, Arman, is happy to put up with the boy's incessant pleas for him to find better opponents. He thinks chess is good for him no matter what the future holds.

"Even if he doesn't become a grandmaster, chess will teach him to think logically and improvise, as those are indispensable qualities in life," he said.

Wendi Fischer, executive director of the United States' Foundation for Chess, has campaigned for the game to be taken up in U.S. classrooms and says Armenia's program has big potential.

"By incorporating chess as part of the curriculum, you are including a game, and that's how kids see it," Fischer said. "They think they're focused on fun. So I think it is a great way to cross over between a true hardcore curriculum that's mandatory and the young children being able to play and explore and have fun."