Armenia back in battle with Azerbaijan - this time at chess

Leon Watson
·2-min read
Azerbaijani chess grandmaster Teimour Radjabov - Pacific Press
Azerbaijani chess grandmaster Teimour Radjabov - Pacific Press

The chess world is bracing itself on Sunday for another moment when a battle on the board mirrors one in real life.  Armenian chess supremo Levon Aronian faces Azerbaijan’s former World Cup winner Teimour Radjabov in the final of the Airthings Masters, one of the game's biggest tournaments.

For fans in their respective countries, there is more than just the £44,000 prize money at stake - the showdown comes after the war between the two nations last autumn over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which cost nearly 6,000 lives.

A ceasefire has since kept tensions at bay, yet chess supremos are not expecting fans from Armenia or Azerbaijan to hold back online.

Nigel Short, the English Grandmaster who is a vice-president of the governing body FIDE, called for the clash on the chessboard not to spill out into politics before the two-day match start.

He tweeted: “Whatever our geopolitical differences - and sometimes these are very sharp indeed - we all share the same humanity. “I sincerely hope the final of the Airthings Masters between Radjabov and Aronian is played in the spirit of the FIDE motto Gens Una Sumus (we are one family).”

The two Grandmasters are not known to have any personal animosity, but have both made no secret of their patriotic fervour and support for their respective nations.

Mr Aronian told chess24.com in October that he was ready to fight for his country after seeing the conflict break out at home. He said: “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."

Radjabov, meanwhile, has publicly accused Armenia of being a "terrorist state".

Grandmaster Levon Aronian of Armenia  - Oleg Nikishin
Grandmaster Levon Aronian of Armenia - Oleg Nikishin

The ancient game is no stranger to being seen as a proxy for wider political struggles played out on a chessboard. When the American Bobby Fischer took on Boris Spassky for the world chess title in 1972, it quickly blew up into a duel between the US and the Soviet Union.

Six years later Fischer’s successor, the Soviet loyalist Anatoly Karpov, was challenged by Viktor Korchnoi, a Russian who defected to the West in 1976. Karpov’s rivalry with the young Garry Kasparov spanned the 1980s, but then ended with the representative of 'perestroika' beating the old champion, who seemed to embody Soviet stagnation.

Despite the backdrop of conflict, Aronian said before today's finale: “Teimour is a tough competitor and he's very good at this format so I look forward to the match. I've played him before many times and the score is in my favour, but it is a final so everybody's ready."

Aronian vs Radjabov will be broadcast live at championschesstour.com with commentary from English Grandmaster David Howell from 2pm GMT.