Yerevan, Armenia - Little Susie Hunanyan attended her favourite class in school last week, and it wasn't drawing, crafts or sport. The seven-year-old sat studiously through an hour of chess lessons.
In Armenia, learning to play the grand game of strategy in school is mandatory for children - the only country in the world that makes chess compulsory - and the initiative has paid dividends. Armenia, a Caucasus country with a population of just three million, is a chess powerhouse.
Susie listened attentively as her teacher explained chess moves on a large board in front of the class at the Yeghishe Charents Basic School in the capital, Yerevan.
"I like chess lessons a lot. They always pass by smoothly," she said, setting up pieces sequentially on her board.
Armenia has produced more than 30 grandmasters and won the team chess Olympiads in 2006, 2008 and 2012. Armenian champion Levon Aronian is currently the third-best player in the world, according to the World Chess Federation rankings.
"My grandpa taught me how to play chess. But now that I learn chess in school, I am better at it than he is."
- Susie Hunanyan, 7, chess student
In 2011, Armenia made chess compulsory for second, third and fourth-graders. That's why Susie and her classmates have two hours of chess every week in school.
"My grandpa taught me how to play chess. But now that I learn chess in school, I am better at it than he is," Susie said, adding when she grows up, she'd like to become a chess champion like her idol, Levon Aronian.
For an hour, the students playfully engaged in one-on-one matches against each other.
"Chess is having a good influence on their performance in other subjects too. The kids are learning how to think, it's making them more confident," said teacher Rosanna Putanyan, watching her pupils play from the periphery.
The chess initiative is not only meant to scout young talent but also build a better society. Armen Ashotyan, Armenia's education minister, told Al Jazeera the project is aimed at fostering creative thinking.
"Chess develops various skills - leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking and responsibility," Ashotyan said. "We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions."
More than $3m has been spent on the project so far to supply chess equipment and learning aids in all Armenian schools, Ashotyan added. The majority of the budget was allocated to train chess players to become good teachers. In coming years, spending on chess is expected to rise, he said.
|Education Minister Armen Ashotyan [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera]
The initiative is also attracting attention from other countries. Later this year, chess will be integrated into the national curriculum of Hungary's elementary schools. Countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Spain are showing interest in running similar projects.
In Britain, the United States, Switzerland, India, Russia and Cuba schools have long offered chess as a subject, though no nationwide legislation making it compulsory exists.
Developing mental capacities
A team of Armenian psychologists headed by Ruben Aghuzumstyan has been researching the impact of chess on young minds since last year.
Aghuzumstyan said preliminary results show that children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis.
"During the first few years of school, children are equipped to learn with games. So for kids who are seven, eight and nine, learning is better through games, and chess is an optimised game which develops a lot of areas of the brain," Aghuzumstyan said.
The psychologist, who is also a member of the Armenian Chess Federation, said chess improves social skills as well as mental strength.
Chess became more popular in the former Soviet republic in the 1960s. Tigran Petrosian, a former world champion who won many accolades for the Soviet Union, became a household name in the 1970s. Ever since, chess has become a staple sport of the country.
On sunny days, parks in Yerevan are filled with chess enthusiasts capturing pawns and checkmating kings.
Aghuzumustyan explained why chess is so popular in Armenia, a nation with a troubled past. "We have a tough history," he said, referring to the mass killings carried out by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
"Chess is having a good influence on their performance in other subjects too. The kids are learning how to think, it's making them more confident."
- Rosanna Putanyan, chess teacher
"Armenians have always been used to solving problems, because we always had problems. For us it often wasn't a question of living well or not, but a question of living or not. And chess is about solving problems on a board. It's not a coincidence that we, as a country, are so good at chess," Aghuzumustyan said.
In one of Yerevan's southern suburbs, an extravagant building complex hosts the Chess Academy of Armenia. On a recent rainy afternoon, dozens of young chess players filed into small training rooms to get advanced lessons. The chess players, some as young as four, are being groomed for a professional career, free of cost thanks to the government.
Top-ranked chess players in Armenia win respect and adulation. Massive billboards with photos of the winning Olympiad team of 2012 on Yerevan's streets indicate their star status.
And the government provides top players with handsome salaries and perks: Tigran Petrosian, who was part of the gold-winning 2012 team and shares the same name as the country's champion during the 1970s, drives a swanky Mercedes S-550.
"We don't have to worry about money. That's a good thing. Although we have corporate sponsors for some events, it's mainly the state that supports and helps us out," said Petrosian as he drank juice in a Yerevan café.
The 29-year-old grandmaster said being a chess player in Armenia is a big deal. "I get greeted on the streets when I walk. People chase me home. And I get a lot of fan mail. I am happy to be a chess player in this country."
Yerevan Chess House, located in the heart of Armenia's capital, bears testimony to the country's chess mania. Every day dozens of chess players, young and old, spend hours here battling it out on their boards. Magazines, newspapers, books and DVDs about chess are on sale at the chess house's newsstand.
"Chess 64" is a popular TV show hosted by Gagik Hovhannisian that has been running since 1972. Earlier this year, the government introduced another programme, "Chess World", hosted by 22-year-old Aghasi Inants, to attract youngsters to the sport.
On a recent afternoon at the Chess House, Inants said the aim of the series is to popularise chess further. "In one show, we had chess lessons for youngsters, chess news, we also have celebrity interviews, as well as a section on chess history," he said.
"One day a mother called me and said that her daughter wasn't willing to do her chess homework until she saw my show … The kid was sure that it would be easier for her to solve her chess homework after she had watched my show," the host recounted proudly.
But not all Armenians are mad about chess. Inants' friend David Khachatryan doesn't play and isn't fond of the game either.
"I will be very happy the day when football here becomes as important as chess," Khachatryan told Al Jazeera. "It would be great to have a football team as good as our chess team."