Inside the Mind of GM Vladimir Akopian: Lessons from Elite Chess Circles

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Inside the Mind of GM Vladimir Akopian: Lessons from Elite Chess Circles

Learn from Akopian's fearless mindset, his training under the legend Botvinnik, the strong and weak points of Kasparov, and more!

Psychology and Mental Toughness | 12 min read
Inside the Mind of GM Vladimir Akopian: Lessons from Elite Chess Circles

“We knew there were talks that they want to resume the Botvinnik-Kasparov School. Botvinnik himself was looking through the games of the young talents and somehow I got this invitation”, remarks GM Vladimir Akopian, who back then was just a talented schoolboy.

Today, he’s a titan of the chess world, who has won 3 world championships – the U16, U18, U20; has helped his country win 3 gold and 2 bronze medals at the Olympiad and coached many strong Grandmasters.

We interviewed Vladimir Akopian on the ChessMood podcast. He shared his deep insights and stories from his chess career – from working under Botvinnik, dissecting the strengths, weaknesses and psychology of Garry Kasparov to leading his team to achieve the impossible and his insane record that has helped his nation win 3 gold medals at the Olympiad!

Training at the Botvinnik-Kasparov Chess School

In 1986 Mikhail Botvinnik, the patriarch and former world chess champion, was searching for 12 talented young stars to train at the Botvinnik-Kasparov Chess School.

Botvinnik Kasparov Chess School
Session at the Botvinnik-Kasparov school. How many superstars do you recognize? | Credit: Boris Alterman

Akopian was one of them. Among the others were future superstars like Alexei Shirov, Vladimir Kramnik.

A young Vladimir Kramnik at the Botvinnik Kasparov school
Guess the kid standing next to the board | Source: 

The training schedule at the Botvinnik - Kasparov Chess School looked like this:

Training schedule at the Botvinnik Kasparov chess school

They ended up studying 6 - 6:30 hours on chess. During that time, Akopian developed good relations with Botvinnik.

“With Botvinnik, we were very close. When I was like passing through Moscow, I would always call. Sometimes I would even visit him like it was before the U16 World Championship in Argentina.”

However, the path to even represent the Soviet Union in Argentina was in itself no more difficult than the World Championship.

Earning the right to represent USSR

At the time, USSR was a powerhouse of chess. So Akopian had to prove himself, not once, not twice, but 3 times as a worthy candidate for the U16 World Championship!

“First of all, I had to finish in the top 10 of this Soviet Championship U18.”

“After that, there was a qualification tournament for young stars – players below 16. We played in Sochi in 1986, it was not even one, but a double-round robin tournament. There were 7 of us, including Shirov, Kamsky, Sakaev, me, and other 3 guys. I won rather easily that tournament.”

“After that, the Soviet Chess Federation decided to organize this match against Ulibin in Odesa. Ulibin was a very strong and tough opponent during those years. He did not play in this tournament we played because he was considered stronger than us.”

Mikhail Ulibin
Mikhail Ulibin | Source: Chessbase

The match with Mikhail Ulibin was extremely stubborn, with both sides playing fighting chess.

“The first 5 games ended in a draw. In the very last game, I was playing with Black. It was an extremely long game (105 moves) and in some Bishop endgame, I finally won and earned the right to represent the Soviet Union!”

Winning the U-16 world championship in Argentina

“It was my first-time experience for me to fly rather far to Argentina, to play in this World Championship. So we arrived (in Moscow) from Yerevan, something like two weeks before our departure.”

Botvinnik’s valuable advice

At Moscow, Botvinnik invited Akopian to his home before the latter would fly to Argentina.

“I, with my mother, went to his house. He was with some of his relatives maybe.”

Since Botvinnik had worked closely with Akopian, he knew of his style of fighting for a win in every game. The patriarch shared an important piece of advice for the 14-year-old Akopian.

“He told me that you know that psychology is very important. 11 rounds altogether, I had to play and he said that it's extremely important not to lose a game because you not only lose a game, but you also get some psychological blow, which can affect the rest of your games. He said that if you want you can make draws. Just try not to lose.”

Becoming the world U-16 champion

The advice did wonders. Akopian didn’t lose a single game in Argentina and became the U16 World Champion.

Vladimir Akopian is the U16 World Champion in Argentina 1986
U16 World Champion in 1986 

“For me, the qualification was rather easy. But the match with Ulibin was much more difficult than becoming the world champion in Argentina.”

Botvinnik’s impression of Akopian

Botvinnik was known for his methodical approach to studying chess. So he could sense whether a player worked on his chess on his own or not.

Botvinnik, Akopian's trainer and coach
Botvinnik had a big influence on Akopian’s chess

“Normally I had to choose which games I want to show. But he (Botvinnik) asked me to show some particular games, from the World Championship in Argentina, that he wanted to see.”

“I didn’t want to show them because I was having trouble with White in the opening. And immediately it was clear to him, that if you get such positions as White, then probably you don't work on chess properly.”

Comparison with Capablanca

At the same time, Botvinnik knew of Akopian’s tremendous chess talent.

“He wanted to always stress my talent. Once he also said ‘I know only one player who would get such positions like you (from the opening). It was Capabalanca. But you know you aren’t Capabalanca’.

“But okay if he just compared me with Capablanca, already I’m very happy because Capabalanca was notorious for his talent😀”

Jose Raul Capablanca
Many similarities between Capablanca & Akopian

When asked what was similar between the type of positions he and Capablanca got in the opening, Akopian clarified:

“It means a very bad position. I was kind of suffering immediately in the opening. But now I understand this is quite normal if you don't work on chess; if you don't work on your openings.”

Chess talent

Akopian made up for his deficiency in the opening with his incredible talent in the middlegame, and especially the endgame, just like the great Capablanca.

“Botvinnik also was always emphasizing that people who play strong chess endgames at such an early age, definitely says about their great chess talent. Because when you're young it's very difficult to play endgames well; tactics when you are young, it's normal. But playing the endgame well means you should have a great chess understanding.”

So what was behind the talent of Akopian? There were a few things.

The coaches who nurtured Akopian’s game

Akopian was lucky enough to meet the right people for his chess at a young age.

“I was working with very good chess coaches. This is a rare thing:

  • I had Alexander Aslanov – a very talented and good chess coach, especially when he worked with young players.
  • I had also the positionally strong player himself, Alexander Morgulov.
  • I had some very good ones in Armenia too, like Oleg Dementiev, famous for our older generation. He was training such players like Vaganian, Arshak Petrosian, Sergey Galdunts and was also a trainer of our national chess team those years.”

Vladimir Akopian with Oleg Dementiev
Oleg Dementiev, one of Akopian’s coaches | Source: 

Great coaches may not be the best players

Akopian also revealed an important quality his chess coaches had.

“They had good chess understanding. It doesn't matter their level of chess. I mean maybe some chess tactics they cannot calculate precisely or something like this. But as coaches, their chess understanding was very high. Working with them was very useful for me.”

Keeping your memory sharp

Along with his talent, Akopian also had a good memory. If you’ve read the article on how to memorize chess openings, you’ll know that Akopian didn’t allow his students to take notes while learning new variations.   

“Once you have written it down, then you already forget about it; definitely, you should forget because you already have it. Why should you remember?”

Apart from taking notes, using the computer during the session with Akopian was also prohibited.

Use your brain first, not the computer

By relying purely on computer lines, one misses the chance to train their calculation skill and understand the position in depth.

“I was working with Arshak Petrosian sometime. We would have this chess board, chess pieces before us, and analyze the position on the board.”

Vladimir Akopian with Arshak Petrosian, Levon Aronian
With Arshak Petrosian (middle) and Levon Aronian (left)

Instead of relying on computer lines, Akopian trusted his thinking process.

“I was trusting myself. I was always very strong in calculation. The computer was used only to confirm my estimation.”

When Avetik was training under Akopian, there were times when the latter’s suggestions were stronger than that of the engine. Avetik remarks,

“I remember in the French you were sacrificing a piece that engine was not offering. I was struggling to defend the position, during the lesson. I was going back to the engine, putting the move in it, and it took 30 minutes for the engine (it was Stockfish, already a strong engine) to understand that Akopian is right.”

Talent, good memory and trust in his thinking process helped Akopian.

But there was one thing that propelled him to the top. He had a fighter’s mindset – one that’s needed to beat the best in the world.

Having a better score vs Kasparov and Karpov

“Kasparov and Karpov, I have a plus score even today. When I played Kasparov, I knew that he has gaps. All world champions have some weak points. They’re not like gods. You have to use this.”

“It’s difficult of course because they are still strong. And they have a title which is also important from a psychological point of view.”

But Akopian was fearless.

Don’t be afraid of titles

“He’s a world champion – for me, it's not important. I was never afraid of anybody.”

Vladimir Akopian against then world champion, Garry Kasparov
Not afraid of the title | Source: Akopian’s FB

Akopian also shared an important concept on what it takes to fight against the greatest.

Understand shark psychology to defeat the best

“These strong players, like Kasparov, Karpov, Fischer, are like sharks. If they feel you’re afraid of them, then you shouldn't come and play. You can just resign without making a move.”

“On the other hand, whenever you fend off their attack, then the sharks just swim away because they know there’s some resistance here.”

3 weaknesses of Garry Kasparov

From his rich experience, Akopian revealed the strengths and weaknesses of one of the world’s greatest players.

“First of all, relatively weak chess understanding. I mean positional understanding.”

“Rather weak play in defense. Have you ever seen how Kasparov defends? He would not defend. He will just give you material, a pawn or something. He will try to counterattack. If this does not work, he just resigns.”

“Also the third one, relatively weak play in the endgame. If you can, you definitely should transition into the endgame. He can be better in the endgame, doesn't matter. He will actually do something wrong there because it was not his strong point.”

All of these were relative weaknesses compared to other areas of his game.

The strengths that made Kasparov dangerous

“Of course, he compensates (his weaknesses), with extreme opening knowledge. It will be very difficult to go out of the opening with him. You can be crushed.”

“An extremely strong feeling of initiative, an extremely strong feeling of compensation, an extremely strong feeling of attack on your king – You have to survive this, and not many players can survive.”

Fearsome Garry Kasparov
The fearsome Kasparov

This deep breakdown of Kasparov’s game would prove extremely useful in the European Chess Club Cup in 1995.

One of the greatest forgotten team successes

The European Chess Club Cup in 1995 was a knockout-format team championship. The winning team qualifies. The losing team gets eliminated.

“We played with this famous Bosna team.”

Their lineup of 1995 would intimidate any team even today – Kasparov on board 1, Michael Adams on board 2, Ivan Sokolov on board 3, Predrag Nikolic on board 4.

Meanwhile, Akopian was leading the Yerevan City team, and on his board was facing none other than the then-world champion, Garry Kasparov.

“All our team was composed of Armenian players. On every single board, we had more than 100 points (in my case 150 points) less than our opponents.”

This difference in strength would make anybody doubt.

Betting money to motivate his team

“I felt that our guys just feel it's already the end of our tournament here. Being the captain, I told them okay guys – can you make five draws tomorrow?”

What Akopian said next speaks volumes of his fearless attitude.

“I beat Kasparov with White and we qualify. What’s the problem with you?”

To raise the stakes, Akopian was even ready to stake the money he was earning.

“I was getting $500 for a game there. So if I make a draw or if I lose, I don't get $500. But if I win, I get $1000. After that, I felt they were already getting confidence.”

No matter how silly the bet sounds, something clicked.

Defeating the legendary team

“At some point, we didn’t expect but already we were winning.”

On board 1, Akopian had an ideal position anyone would dream to have against Kasparov. He could either repeat the moves or continue pressing.

“I totally outplayed him, was winning but missed the direct win. But the position was still somewhat better. It was exactly the position I knew I would play because Kasparov needed to defend, and he would probably just give up something just not to defend this.”

But in team events, often the match situation and your teammates can influence your decisions on the board.

“I was sure I was going to win so it didn’t even cross my mind to repeat the moves. But they (teammates) came and started talking me into making a draw. And I just couldn’t do anything.”

“If I was alone or if it was some individual championship, it would never have crossed my mind to make a repetition.”

Winning the European Chess Club Cup 1995

In the end, Yerevan City won that round with a score of 4-2, without any defeat, knocking out the dangerous Bosna team.

Led by Akopian, the team later went on to win the final, becoming the champions of the European Chess Club Cup in 1995.

“If I remember right, it was the only time that we played a knockout system to become a champion. We won six matches in a row. And it’s something that it's very difficult to do.”

“I consider it one of the greatest successes. It’s also possible to compare it with victories in the Olympiad because this was the only time that the Armenian team won such a difficult championship.”

Akopian’s contribution at the Olympiads

In the chess Olympiad, Akopian was one of the biggest stars of the Armenian National Team.

With him in the team, Armenia has won 3 gold and 2 bronze medals, despite never being the favorite on paper.

Why does Armenia perform well in the Olympiads?

While there are many factors, you cannot overlook Akopian’s insane track record in team tournaments. It’s legendary.

The invincible Vladimir Akopian

“I played 42 games (at the Olympiads). With the European Club Cup, there are six, so it will be a total of 48 games. I did not lose a single game. There were extremely bad positions. I was just holding them somehow. It's an extremely big plus.”

To put things in perspective, when Armenia has won gold, nobody during all those years, could snatch the full point from Akopian.

Vladimir Akopian
When Akopian is unbeaten, Armenia wins | Source: Akopian’s FB

Everyone fights when the team needs it the most

At the same time, every member of the Armenian team performs well when the team needs it the most, be it Gabriel Sarigissian, Levon Aronian, Sergei Mosvesian or others.

Akopian highlighted one particular instance from the final moments of the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul.

“He (Mosvesian) didn’t play well the whole tournament. He was minus one or something. But in the very important last game, he won against Almasi. And this allowed us to make 3 draws. We won the last round game, a very important one vs Hungary, and became the champion.”

Armenian team in Yerevan after winning the 2012 Olympiad, last of Vladimir Akopian
The Armenian team in Yerevan after winning the 2012 Olympiad, also turned out to be Akopian’s last.


There are many more interesting stories, including Akopian’s journey to the final of the World Cup in 1999, working with Botvinnik, the time when he got arrested in Dubai after being mistaken by Interpol, his advice to chess improvers, what captivates him the most about chess and so much more.

Watch the full interview on the ChessMood podcast below. Don’t miss the chance to step inside the mind of one of the titans of chess!

Share your thoughts with us in the forum.

Originally published Jun 27, 2023

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