The Prospect (U.K.) has a long article, The Lion and the Tiger,
by David Edmonds on the latest Armenian chess savant, Levon Aronian, who may follow in the footsteps of world champ Tigran Petrosian. (Levon means lion, Tigran tiger). Like the great Gary Kasparov, Aronian is half-Armenian, half-Jewish. Edmonds writes:
They offered me 64 different explanations for why Armenians are world-beaters at chess. Armenia’s heritage as a cog in the Soviet chess machine plays a part, although that alone can’t explain why it outstrips other former eastern bloc nations. Some of them emphasised education–Armenian literacy rates are higher than in the US or Britain. A few others pointed to Armenia’s tradition of creativity in many fields, including music and painting. Armenia is poor and chess is cheap, one man told me. Then–and this is a favourite rationalisation–there’s the individualistic nature of the game. Armenians take perverse gratification in their incompetence at team games. (Weight-lifting is the only other sport at which Armenia excels.) The British ambassador, whom I later met in Yerevan, pressed a more physical, less abstract explanation upon me. Armenia is so mountainous that there’s no room for football pitches and athletics fields–but chess needs only space for a small board.
Being poor and smart helps, along with having the government shove chess down your throats the way the Soviets did.