They offered me 64 different explanations for why Armenians are world-beaters at chess. Armenia’s heritage as a cog in the Soviet chess machine plays a part, although that alone can’t explain why it outstrips other former eastern bloc nations. Some of them emphasised education—Armenian literacy rates are higher than in the US or Britain. A few others pointed to Armenia’s tradition of creativity in many fields, including music and painting. Armenia is poor and chess is cheap, one man told me. Then—and this is a favourite rationalisation—there’s the individualistic nature of the game. Armenians take perverse gratification in their incompetence at team games. (Weight-lifting is the only other sport at which Armenia excels.) The British ambassador, whom I later met in Yerevan, pressed a more physical, less abstract explanation upon me. Armenia is so mountainous that there’s no room for football pitches and athletics fields—but chess needs only space for a small board.
Being poor and smart helps, along with having the government shove chess down your throats the way the Soviets did.