Armenia’s world No5, Levon Aronian, has upped sticks and announced that he will quit his native Yerevan and represent the United States in future. The 38-year-old, who memorably led his national team to Olympiad gold ahead of the Russian and American favourites at Turin 2006, Dresden 2008 and Istanbul 2012, will transfer to the billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s global centre at St Louis, venue of the annual elite Sinquefield Cup which Aronian has already won twice.
Aronian’s neighbours in town will include the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana (ex-Italy), and the world No 15, Leinier Domínguez (ex-Cuba), while his other new teammates will be the world No 7, Wesley So (ex-Philippines), the five-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura, and the rising star Jeffery Xiong, 20.
St Louis’s facilities include its chess club, open every day, and its World Chess Hall of Fame, fronted by a 14-foot tall king, state of the art computer programs, the legendary Garry Kasparov, and strong human trainers to help prepare for major events.
The writing has been on the wall for Aronian since 2018, when his friend, chess fan, and at that time national president Serzh Sargsyan, was deposed. Sargsyan had brought the victorious Olympiad teams home on the presidential jet, innovated chess teaching in Armenian schools, and attended Aronian’s wedding to the popular Arianne Caoili, who died in a car crash a year ago in March 2020.
The new regime slashed the chess budget, including support for Aronian himself such as access to a super computer, and made it clear that at 38 his time was past. Ironically, this decision comes just a few months after Aronian defeated Magnus Carlsen and Caruana with the black pieces at Norway’s Stavanger elite tournament.
Criticism has been directed at Sinquefield, 76, for buying up top talent, but international transfers are officially accepted by Fide. For a 2700-rated elite grandmaster like Aronian, the USCF (in practice, Sinquefield) must pay Armenia €50,000.
One question for the future is whether Sinquefield will try to make a compelling offer to Alireza Firouzja, 17. The former Iranian prodigy is widely regarded as heir apparent to Magnus Carlsen for the world crown, and their growing rivalry may well be the major chess story of the next few years. For now, Firouzja is living contentedly in Chartres, France, and is expected to take out French citizenship.
Sinquefied’s chess hero is Bobby Fischer and when he found himself on the same flight as the US legend over the Pacific in the mid-1970s he asked Fischer to “keep on beating those Russians”. Fischer promised, but then withdrew from chess for nearly 20 years. Fischer’s companion was the former Fide president Florencio Campomanes, so it seems likely that they were en route or returning from the abortive Anatoly Karpov-Fischer negotiations for a world title match.
The money was there, but the sticking points were Fischer’s insistence that the series should be for the first to win 10 games, draws not counting, and that the contest should be for the “Professional World Championship”, an unacceptable title for Moscow. It is a pity that the two greats never even took the opportunity to play a few five-minute games together.
Russia v United States contests have often been memorable, starting with the 1945 radio match when the USSR’s crushing 15.5-4.5 margin launched half a century of Soviet supremacy. A year on, over-the-board in Moscow, the US lost but Samuel Reshevsky beat Mikhail Botvinnik on top board.
In New York 1954, watched by 11-year-old Bobby Fischer, the US had some good moments in defeat. In 1960, when the US students won gold on Soviet soil, Boris Spassky was blamed and banned from overseas travel.
Fischer’s four Olympiads brought three draws and a loss to Spassky, while his 1962 game sparked Botvinnik’s quip that the American had only spoken three words to him in his life. In 1960 as they were introduced Fischer pointed to himself and said “Fischer”. At Varna 1962 , they sat down to play, bumped heads and Fischer said “Sorry” and at the end of the game he said “Draw”.
The 21st century Russia v US matches have been less memorable, but the meeting at Moscow 2022, the first Olympiad since lockdown, promises to be significant. The US team, with Aronian likely to be eligible, will be mostly from the world top 10, but Russia’s squad from the top 10-30 will be younger, ambitious and motivated.
Renewed interest in Fischer has been stimulated by John Donaldson’s recent 600-page book Bobby Fischer and His World which delves deeply into little-known areas of his life, and by the availability of videos of Fischer’s 1972 appearances on Carson Tonight and the Bob Hope Show.
Fischer also did a BBC interview (not currently viewable) on the eve of the match – This Little Thing between Me and Spassky. All of them show him good-humoured, articulate, and an evident hit with the audience, which provokes the thought that fans in the 1970s missed out not only on a potential classic Fischer v Karpov match, but also on Fischer as an outgoing television personality, with his 9/11 rant, his anti-Semitism, and his mental illness all still in the distant future.
3713: 1 Rd2! c6 2 Kf2! Kxf4 3 Ne6 mate.