“Am I allowed to be in here?” I whisper to my boyfriend.
We’ve just walked through the front door of what, at first glance, seems a rather unremarkable triangular Soviet building in Yerevan, and all heads have turned towards us. As the only woman in the room, I feel the weight of their stares.
“Maybe cover up a bit,” he whispers back.
As I pull my cardigan over my shoulders, a short, stout, elderly man hobbles towards us.
He speaks to us in Armenian. My boyfriend answers, and I assume explains that we are interested in having a look around.
My limited Armenian means I can’t follow the rest of their conversation, although I do pick up a few words.
“Jamportel.” To travel.
As they speak, I take in my surroundings. The 20 or so men sitting at the row of chess tables to my right have returned to their games. Their clicking chess clocks consume the hall. A little room next to the entrance is covered in newspaper clippings, posters of tournaments and photos of chess champions.
Founded in 1970, Yerevan’s chess house is home to some of the major international chess championships and domestic tournaments. It is the center for chess in the country and for many across the world.
I turn back to my boyfriend. The man smiles and steps away.
We look down from the gallery at the empty chess tables lined up in the basement below us. My boyfriend points to one of the doors on the perimeter of the chess area below.
“That’s the room I was in! I came here for a day when I was 10. My parents dropped me off so I could learn chess. That was my first trip to Armenia.”
It’s hard to imagine a younger version of him, sitting quietly and deep in concentration at a table across from another young opponent, equally as still and serious, with only the black and white checkered board and 32 pieces to entertain themselves with.
That’s customary for schoolchildren in Armenia. From 2011, chess was made mandatory for all primary school children aged seven to nine. The national sport continues to thrive as Armenia breeds the next generation of problem-solvers.
We walk around the gallery, watching the men in full concentration.
We approach a table and observe more closely. The two players don’t look up. They eye the board in silence, and move their pieces with calm confidence. The wooden pieces knock against the board with each move.
“Good play,” my boyfriend remarks as one of the men moves his bishop to squeeze his opponent into a corner.
The elderly man returns and takes my boyfriend lightly by the arm. He leads us up the stairs to a room decorated in glass cabinets, trophies gleaming from inside. Framed portraits fill the spaces between cabinets.
The man shows us a plaque with a long list of names. Chess champions. He looks at me and then steers my gaze to the one next to it, the women’s champions.
I breathe a sigh of relief. Women are allowed in here, evidently.
He points to a portrait of a woman with dark hair and a square face, and says something.
“She was one of the greatest female chess players of all time. Armenian, of course,” my boyfriend relays in English to me.
The man points to another portrait, one of Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, after whom the chess house is named and whose bronze statue stands just outside the entrance.
Known for his almost impenetrable defensive playing style, “Iron Tigran” won the chess world championships in 1963 and defended his title in 1966. In 1967, when construction of the house began, Petrosian lay the first stone in the foundation of the building. He is the player responsible for popularizing the sport in Soviet Armenia in the 1960s.
The man asks us where we’re from, and gives me a warm, encouraging smile.
Here goes: “Yes Austria-eets em,” I reply, putting my Armenian to the test.
My boyfriend says Canada, and explains that we just moved to Germany.
The man’s face lights up. Where in Germany?
His excited eyes reveal this is the answer he was hoping for. He pulls a notebook from the back right pocket of his jeans, and flips through until he finds what he is looking for. He holds it out in front of us, pointing to an address and explains in Armenian.
My boyfriend translates for me.
“His nephew lives in Frankfurt. He’s giving us his name and address, just in case we need anything or get into any trouble.”
We take a picture of the page in the man’s address book, and take one last look around the trophy room before we head back downstairs.
The man leads us to an empty chess table at the end of the long row of clicking clocks. Using only his hands, he plays out some basic chess strategies.
His hand motions around the center four squares, then circles the 12 around it.
Control the middle.
His hand then slides to show a pawn move forward, a knight’s L move, and another pawn move.
He continues to build plays in our minds, without any chess pieces, his fingers dancing around the board.
The September sun shines through the large windows.
It’s hard not to feel inspired by the game: the thought process behind each move; the finely carved pieces and their unique strengths; communicating with your opponent without uttering a word.
It comes time for us to leave. We shake the man’s hand, thank him and bid him farewell.
We walk out into the afternoon sunshine, cross the busy road and look back at the strange building. Seven images representing chess pieces are depicted in bronze on the outside wall. And there’s something else we hadn’t noticed previously: the shape of the building.
“It’s a rook! It’s a chess castle!”
Armenia is clearly the kingdom of chess.