In Memory of GM Karen Asrian

Chess Personalities
You can: 1 - be just nice, 2 - adopt a “win at all costs” mindset, or 3 – be like GM Karen Asrian.

Karpov, Kasparov, Ivanchuk, and Kramnik were playing just ten meters away from me. The 32nd Chess Olympiad was in Yerevan, Armenia. I was seven years old, and with my father, every day, we would go there to watch the games.

I remember only one of them.

"Who would you like to be when you grow up?" my father asked me and pointed to those chess legends.

What does it mean to be like someone? I didn’t understand the question. I wanted to be me. So after some thought, I declared, “No one. I am me, and I’ll be me.”

Years passed, and nothing changed in my life from that perspective. I wanted to be me. Until 2006. Until I met GM Karen Asrian.


The first time I had a chance to interact with him in person, was during a chess camp organized by the Armenian Chess Federation and by the Armenian Chess Academy led by GM Smbat Lputyan (which I never appreciated then... Shame on me.)

GM Asrian came there as a coach, and as I was in the lead group (I was an IM already), he would train us mostly.

His rating was 2,600+, and he was part of the Armenian team that won the gold medal in the 37th Chess Olympiad, in 2006.


Of course, he was a very strong chess player, but I was still surprised by his abundance of chess knowledge. He knew nuances in the openings that he never played, knew games by heart that I had never seen, and had knowledge of theoretical endgames like a walking encyclopedia.

But most of all, I was impressed by his charm.

I wasn’t sure if his positive energy came from always smiling, or if always smiling came from his positive energy.

Now I know it came from his heart and soul. But at that time, I was confused.
He was also super humble and polite with us.

I remember, once during the lesson I asked a question that had already been answered that morning (I was the memory leader in our group, just from the bottom), and everyone laughed (as they often did when my memory reported a bug), but Karen said “Let me explain that from a different perspective. Maybe it’s my fault that you still have that question.”

That was an answer that had an impact on my future coaching career. Whenever my students ask me a question about something I’ve explained earlier, then it’s my problem.


I learned from Karen the beauty of humbleness, politeness and awesomeness. Chesswise–not only chess knowledge, but also something about character and winning.

At the World Youth Championship, I was playing Under 18 category, and Karen would prepare me for the games every day.

I’m not sure if he realized that he wasn’t just sharing with me his opening knowledge, but also his fighting energy. I took all.

Not surprisingly, I was leading the tournament with 4.5 out of 5.
When the pairings of the 6th round came, I saw that the next day I was going to play against Italian Grandmaster (then International Master) Daniel Vocaturo with Black pieces.

The mindset I see most chess players have in such situations, and I had it too then, was “Okay, I’m the leader, so a draw with Black pieces is okay.”

Karen also came to the pairings board, looked at it carefully, and said: “Ah... Vocaturo... It’s a good opponent to win.”

That was very surprising to me then. So I stupidly asked, “Karen, have you seen that I’m playing with Black?”

He turned to me with a strange look. “And what?”

The next morning, he spent several hours teaching me very aggressive variations for Black - in my favorite French Attack!

(He was a Caro-Kann player. When I saw his analyses in the French, I realized a little bit more about the difference between a Master and a Grandmaster)

Sure enough, I went on to win the game with Black.

It’s a shame that having Karen, I didn’t win the tournament. Not even made it into the top 3. (I finished 4th)

But that mindset and character led me to build a very aggressive opening repertoire for Black.
I realized that it's better to finish in last place eight times and win twice, than to finish in the top 10 in ten tournaments.
(Both emotionally and financially)


Almost every day I trained with my then coach, GM Artur Chibukhchian (you might remember him from my article on how to find the RIGHT COACH), and his contribution to my becoming a Grandmaster was the biggest.

But the way Karen touched my character and mindset, definitely had a huge role as well. In the next 5 months, I made all my 3 Grandmaster norms and crossed 2,500 rating (a barrier one should cross to get the title.)

After becoming a Grandmaster, I was thinking about finding a way to talk with Karen and see if he would be interested in training together.

I never approached him... I kept postponing. Thinking there would always be a “later.”

On June 9, 2008, Karen died of a heart attack while driving.

That day, many lost: a son, a brother, a friend...

I lost my big brother and my teacher.

I cried all day, and I didn’t touch chess for a while. I didn’t do anything for a while...


After a year, I was playing a robin-round tournament, and as Black, I faced strong Grandmaster Ferenc Berkes from Hungary, rated 2,647.

He was a 1.d4 player, and I prepared against it all morning.
He surprised me with 1.e4
WTH... He never played 1.e4

I was thinking of counter-surprising him with 1...c5, but then decided to go with my favorite French and surprise him later.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 and he played 3.Nd2

I quickly recalled that in my last ten games, I played here 3...Nc6, without exception. And this is what he’s prepared for, and this is a position he wanted to play so much that he deviated from his standard 1.d4 and played 1.e4

Beside 3...Nc6 I knew all other moves as well, including 3...c5, 3...Nf6, 3...Be7 and I knew them very well.

I was thinking about which one to choose and take him out of his preparation and make him hate himself for his opening choice.

But in the end, I still played 3...Nc6

He won. After analyzing the game, as we were about to leave, he kindly decided to give me one last piece of advice: “In such situations, it’s better to counter-surprise the opponent. You should have played something other than 3...Nc6.

I thanked him and left.

I didn’t tell him that it was a move Karen had taught me.


I always thought that if everyone loves you, then you’re fake.
Karen changed my belief.

He was loved by everyone. And it was very clear why...

Karen Asrian in 2006. Source: Courtesy of Akopian

He changed my belief in another perspective too.

I saw and still see this virus in human consciousness: the attitude that you should win at any cost, whether in a chess game, your financial game, your career game, or whatever game you play.
I’ve always hated it, and I still do.

At the same time, I’ve seen many people who are very nice but haven’t realized their potential in life.
I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either.
And I thought it was a choice that one should make.

With Karen I learned that it’s possible to go up and forward, while at the same time staying true to your values, humble and nice.

I’m trying to be that way...

Now he is not with us physically. But he left behind lots of seeds.

He had a big impact on many lives.

I’m just one of them.

Today, April 24, is Karen’s birthday. He would be 44 years old and I miss him.

In memory of GM Karen Asrian,
GM Avetik (or Avo as my friends call me)

The article was originally published on, where you’ll find over 100 other articles written by Grandmasters, who share tips from their professional journeys and how to adopt the right mindset for this beautiful game, in order to have fun and grow at the same time.