Chess, by reputation, is a game of war played out in the mind. But war is becoming very real for one chess grandmaster.
Levon Aronian, one of Armenia’s top sports stars, has revealed he is ready to fight for his country after seeing a conflict break out at home with neighbour state Azerbaijan.
The world number 9 has been in Norway competing at the Altibox Norway Chess tournament but said he will join the army if necessary when he returns.
In an emotional interview, Aronian told chess24’s Kaja Snare that he already has friends who have been casualties of the fighting that started last month.
Speaking from Norway, Aronian said:
My country is under assault by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
We are trying to protect ourselves and our right to live in peace. For every Armenian in the world this is now the main concern. I am going back tomorrow and will do everything I can to help my country overcome this trouble.
I will do everything to help my country with everything I can. If it is necessary for my country for me to be in the army I will do that.
Aronian made the comments a day after beating Magnus Carlsen in the final round of Norway Chess.
But despite an impressive third-place finish, Aronian also admitted his chess has suffered as a result of the stress of turmoil at home.
Aronian: ‘I haven’t had any normal sleep’
“I can tell you that since the war started September 27 I haven’t had any normal sleep and have not been able to concentrate on chess,” Aronian said.
“At the same time, it has allowed me to relax because I care so much about my friends and family who are there in the war so I think I am just letting myself go. Maybe that is why my results were good, because I didn’t care.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in a conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 750 people have been killed since fighting began on September 27.
Aronian is not the only top grandmaster who has spoken out publicly about the conflict, with players on both sides making their feelings known.
World number 10 Teimour Radjabov, from Azerbaijan, has tweeted repeatedly on the subject and accused Armenia of being a “terrorist state”.
Azerbaijan no. 1 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov published a long post on Facebook:
Although, I know it’s inappropriate to transfer the war happening between Azerbaijan and Armenia to the world chess community and use it as a campaign channel, but I can’t keep myself from sharing my feelings and using the chance to enlighten my friends around the globe.
My family and I was born in Zangilan, the region occupied by Armenian military forces more than 30 years ago. I used to live there until the age of 7 and started my chess classes in the lands, which are under occupation. My uncles used to teach chess in Zangilan and my grandad built mosques in our villages. I was a kid of 7 years and very well remember the times when we were driven out of our homes by Armenian military forces. Since then I never saw my village, only on the photos. I miss my village, I miss my childhood memories and live with the dream to come and smell the air of my homeland. And there’re almost 1 mio refugees who lost their homeland and live with the same feelings as my family does. We lost our homes, mosques, the graves of our ancestors, historical monuments, museums, culture and the childhood memories.
Azerbaijanis are not aggressors and as a proof we were patient during 30 years, waiting for peaceful liberation of our internationally recognised territories (reff. UN SC Resolutions dd. 1992: 822, 853, 874, 885). Unfortunately Armenian government consciously preferred war to piece and tries to progress in the conflict using propaganda and provocations.
For those, who’d like to have detailed and unbiased official information on the conflict, please read below:
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1. Nagorno-Karabakh is not a disputed territory. This is the territory of Azerbaijan. Both historically and officially recognized by the whole world, including Armenia.
2. Armenia has occupied not only Nagorno-Karabakh, to which the claimant is Yerevan, but also 7 Azerbaijan regions around it, which Armenia was not going to give up all these years peacefully.
3. The war is not on the territory of Armenia. The Azerbaijani army is not trying to seize the territory of Armenia or any part of it. The war that began with the occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan more than 30 years ago and as a result of which up to 20% of the territory of Azerbaijan was occupied, is the liberating one to get the lands back to Azerbaijan.
4. Azerbaijan could liberate its territories 30 years ago. Could also do that during 30 recent years. Our country has a numerical superiority of the army, a numerical and qualitative superiority of equipment and military weapons. And if you ask why this has not been done before the answer is that as a result of the ceasefire in May 1994, the parties pledged to resolve the conflict peacefully and to do it with the help of mediators – the OSCE Minsk Group. Unfortunately, over all these years, official Yerevan has not shown the political will for the peaceful liberation of at least 1 cm2 of the occupied land.
5. Azerbaijan has repeatedly said that we are adherents of a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, with Nikol Pashinyan, the negotiation process has frozen completely, his statements contradicted the peaceful settlement of the conflict, and the increasing shelling of civilians living on the front line only transferred the conflict from partially frozen to unfrozen. The last straw in the cup of patience of official Baku was the shelling of civilians in Azerbaijan in the front-line zone on 27.09.2020
Players on both sides have been badly affected.
Asked if he knows anyone who has been a casualty of the conflict, Aronian said: “Yes of course. I know many people. Many that I was friends with.”
He added: “I know we will do everything to survive. At the moment you don’t really think about optimism or pessimism. You think about your duty. And this is our duty.
“Both my grandfathers fought in a war. My grandfather left his two children and went to the war without questioning if this is right or wrong. He knew he had to do it. That’s how I feel as well.”
Aronian has already faced one tragedy this year.
In March his wife, fellow chess player Arianne Caoili, died in a hospital two weeks after she was involved in a car accident.
It was reported at the time her Lexus R350 crashed into a supporting column under a bridge in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
Aronian, who was in Spain when the incident happened, rushed home to be by her side despite growing travel restrictions.
Caoili, who was also known for appearing in Australia’s version of the Dancing with the Stars TV show, was 33. Her death sparked an outpouring of grief in the chess world.
Seven months on, Aronian is in a new relationship with his girlfriend Anita Ayvazyan but still says coping with loss is a challenge.
“I am anxious,” he said. “But generally OK. My mother says something that I love. It’s an Armenian saying. It said ‘God gives you challenges modeled to your size’.
“He doesn’t give big challenges to small people. He gives big challenges to big people. I know I can take it.”