Culture and Civilisations

Averbakh at 99: mens sana in corpore sano 

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Averbakh at 99: mens sana in corpore sano 

Yuri Averbakh, 2017 (Sergei Bobylev/TASS)

Yuri Averbakh is an icon in the chess world. Apart from being the archetypal Soviet chess grandmaster, during the heyday of the USSR’s chess imperium, Averbakh is the Renaissance Man of chess: a highly successful player, awarded the Grandmaster title in 1952, World Championship Candidate in 1953, Soviet Champion 1954, International Judge of chess composition (otherwise known as chess problems) in 1956, International Arbiter in 1969. As Benjamin Disraeli might have put it, he reached the top of the Soviet greasy pole by becoming President of the USSR Chess Federation from 1972-1977. Averbakh had clearly been enlisted for supreme office in order to shake things up, after the notorious Soviet disaster of Boris Spassky’s failed 1972 title defence against the unpredictable American genius, Bobby Fischer.

If those achievements were not already sufficient, Averbakh also became editor-in-chief of a number of Soviet-era technical chess journals, including Shakhmatny Bulletin and Shakhmaty v SSSR. In addition Averbakh authored many books, mostly focusing on his great area of expertise, the endgame.

Averbakh was born in Kaluga on February 8, 1922, which means that this month he celebrated his 99th birthday, thus making him the world’s oldest chess Grandmaster, and the sole survivor from the mighty World Championship Candidates’ Qualifying Tournament, held at Zurich- Neuhausen in 1953. That stellar competition read like a roll call of the chess titans of the day, with Vassily Smyslov, David Bronstein, Paul Keres, Sammy Reshevsky and Tigran Petrosian also in the lists. The sole absentee, of course, amongst the world’s elite, was the Red Tsar of Soviet Chess, Mikhail Botvinnik, sitting alone on his throne in Moscow, awaiting the identity of his challenger, who turned out to be Smyslov.

Averbakh is well known to British chess fans. I first encountered him at the Junior World Championship in Barcelona 1965, where he acted as second to the Soviet representative, Vladimir Tukmakov. In 1983 he again functioned as second to the selfsame Vassily Smyslov in the Candidates’ Semi-Final contest against the Hungarian Grandmaster, Zoltan Ribli, staged at London’s Great Eastern Hotel. In yet another London appearance, when our own Nigel Short challenged Garry Kasparov at the Savoy Theatre in 1993, Averbakh assumed the role of Arbiter-in-Chief.

Whenever Averbakh’s name surfaces, I cannot help thinking about the late first century AD Roman poet, Juvenal, and in particular his prayer:

“Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.”

“You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.” 


Juvenal is widely quoted in sporting and educational circles to express the desideratum that physical fitness  is an essential component of mental and psychological well-being. An earlier, similar, saying is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales: 

ὁ τὸ μὲν σῶμα ὑγιής, τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν εὔπορος, τὴν δὲ φύσιν εὐπαίδευτος;

What man is happy? He who has a healthy body and a resourceful mind…

Juvenal’s Satires were a clever intermingling of sound advice and, as one might expect from their title, barbed satire. They have inspired many authors, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, (1709-1784) who modelled his poem “London” on Juvenal’s Third Satire. Johnson’s views on London are encapsulated by his famous remark, quoted by Boswell, that: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford…” On reading Johnson’s satire, it becomes strikingly obvious how closely his concerns mirrored many of our own. London becomes the target of unwanted illegal immigrants, the machinations of European powers, the untrustworthiness of the press, corruption amongst London’s government and, a constant theme: lack of respect for our historical traditions.

“LONDON! the needy Villain’s gen’ral Home,
The Common Shore of Paris and of Rome;
With eager Thirst, by Folly or by Fate,
Sucks in the Dregs of each corrupted State.
Illustrious Edward! from the Realms of Day,
The Land of Heroes and of Saints survey;
Nor hope the British Lineaments to trace,
The rustic Grandeur; or the surly Grace,
But lost in thoughtless Ease, and empty Show,
Behold the Warriour dwindled to a Beau;
Sense, Freedom, Piety, refin’d away,
Of FRANCE the Mimic, and of SPAIN the Prey;
All that at home no more can beg or steal,
Or like a Gibbet better than a Wheel;
Hiss’d from the Stage, or hooted from the Court,
Their Air, their Dress, their Politicks import;
Obsequious, artful, Voluble and gay,
On Britain’s fond Credulity they prey.
No gainful Trade their Industry can ‘scape,
They sing, they dance, clean Shoes, or cure a Clap;
All Sciences a fasting Monsieur knows,
And bid him go to Hell, to Hell he goes,
Ah! what avails it, that, from Slav’ry far,
I drew the Breath of Life in English Air;
Was early taught a Briton’s Right to prize,
And lisp the Tale of Henry’s Victories;
If the gulled Conqueror receives the Chain,
And what their Armies lost, their Cringes gain?”

Doubtless such themes reverberated from the identical fears expressed by Juvenal himself from the days of imperial Rome.

Juvenal also provided a source for the name of a significant species of beetle, Histeridae. In case it should be erroneously assumed that Juvenal, like The Creator, in a phrase attributed apocryphally to both Darwin and Haldane, exhibited an inordinate fondness for beetles, Juvenal in fact used the word “hister” to mean a dirty, lowly being. Juvenal is also the source for several well-known maxims, including, that the common people – rather than caring about their freedom – are only interested in “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses; ‘fodder and fun’, in my loose translation, or perhaps, ‘chips and celebs’). We have Juvenal to thank for this perennially troubling conundrum: “who will watch the watchers?” or “who will guard the guardians themselves?” (quid custodiet ipsos custodes). 

The continuing relevance of Juvenal, not just for Dr. Johnson in the 18th century, but for modern times, can be seen from the autobiography of the German Nobel Prize winner, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985). In the high school which Böll attended, under Nazi rule, an anti-Hitler teacher, Mr Bauer, drew special attention to Juvenal. Mr Bauer had realised the continuing topicality of Juvenal, how he analysed such phenomena as arbitrary government, tyranny, corruption, the weakening of public morals, the decline of the Republican ideal, and the brutality of the Praetorian Guards, which in Böll’s time would be paralleled by Himmler’s Schutz Staffeln, the dreaded SS. Incidentally, the word ‘Hister’ was interpreted from prophetic quatrains by Nostradamus {https://www.thearticle.com/chess-cricket-chickens-and-nostradamus} by various ultracrepidarian commentators as being a forewarning of Hitler, whereas it is far more likely that the French seer was referring to the River Danube (“Hister” in Latin).

Returning to our hero, whose career so strikingly exemplifies the Juvenalian ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body, Averbakh won the USSR Championship in 1954 ahead of Mark Taimanov, Viktor Korchnoi, Tigran Petrosian, Efim Geller and Salo Flohr. Averbakh was equal first in the Soviet Championship of 1956, but lost in the playoff for first place to Taimanov — the only Grandmaster to have a parallel career as a concert pianist and who was later to marry his daughter.

Averbakh has a deep interest in chess history, shown in his book about life in the chess world called Centre-Stage and Behind the Scenes. By modern standards he was a late starter, as he himself wrote: “I learned to play chess at the age of seven, but I became fascinated by it only much later, when I was already thirteen.” Nowadays, if you are not a Grandmaster by that age, you may as well abandon any aspiration towards a career in chess.

In his autobiographical work Selected Games, published by Cadogan in a translation by Ken Neat, Averbakh eloquently wrote of his induction into chess:

The first chess book that accidentally came into my hands was My System by Aron Nimzowitsch. It was hard to think of a worse choice! After all, in chess you must first learn to attack, and only then to defend, you must gain a mastery of tactics, and only then strategy. My System is a good book, only not for beginners. It is a textbook on positional play, and first you must learn to make combinations. As will be seen, with me it all happened the other way round, and it is not surprising that later, to a significant extent, I had to relearn.

Late in 1935 I visited the Moscow Chess Club for the first time, and there I was fortunate enough to listen to a lecture by the great endgame expert Nikolai Grigoriev. It made an indelible impression on me. When Grigoriev explained his pawn studies, moving the pieces on the demonstration board with his thin, artistic fingers, I sensed, rather than understood, the great depth and beauty of chess, observing with my own eyes how human thought spiritualises these little wooden pieces, and they, like real actors, begin performing miraculous spectacles, capable of touching the most sensitive parts of the human soul. It was this perception of chess as an art that finally linked me with it. I wanted to understand chess and study it.”

Averbakh’s relation of the next phase of his upward chess trajectory is most revealing, not only about his own inner dilemma as to his future, but for the light it throws on the status of chess within the USSR at that time.

After gaining the master title and finishing at the Institute, for five years I tried to combine engineering work with participation in tournaments of various standards. However, at the end of the 1940s I had to consider my future. I was at the cross-roads. I had interesting work as a research engineer, and my candidate dissertation was progressing. In chess I had become Moscow Champion, and had reached the final of the USSR Championship, although I did not have any great success there.  I could not help feeling that in the creative sense I was standing still in chess: time for improvement, and even for preparing for competition, was practically not available. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the attempt to sit simultaneously on two chairs did not promise well: work interfered with chess, and chess interfered with work. I had to make a choice.   And I chose in favour of chess. I decided for a time to give up work in order to try to become a grandmaster, and to raise my chess playing to a higher standard.

If one compares the status of chess in the UK at the same time, the thought that one might abandon conventional employment, in favour of becoming a chess Grandmaster, would have been virtually inconceivable. In Russia, an army of chess professionals was already on the march. Most British chess experts of the time — C.H.O’D. Alexander, Stuart Milner-Barry, Harry Golombek, Dr James Aitken, to name the most prominent, had been deployed as breakers of Nazi codes at Bletchley Park during the war, and of that illustrious group, only Golombek had the courage to turn professional. 

Even in 1971, after I won the British Championship and decided to leave Trinity College, Cambridge, in order to become a chess professional, I joined a very restricted group which still included Golombek himself, Bob Wade and Leonard Barden. Yet in the 1940’s, under the aegis of the Soviet chess imperium, nourished and propelled by the sons of Lenin, Yuri Averbakh was able to regard the pursuit of science, or the quest for chess success, as equally valid and viable career alternatives.

After a most distinguished run as a player, Averbakh metamorphosed into the perfect roving ambassador, both for chess and his own country. His polished command of English, engagingly suave personality and deep knowledge of chess, made him a perfect fit for this role, which introduced the civilising virtues of chess to numerous peoples around the world.

I leave the last word in this panegyric to Averbakh himself, who has consistently exemplified the ideals of one of the most illustrious bards of Ancient Rome:

I have spent a long life in chess, and have been not only a player, but also a trainer, arbiter, journalist and publisher; I have been an administrator of my own country’s Federation and internationally. And I am eternally grateful to the Royal game, for the fact that it has brought me so much joy, the joy of creativity. I should like to repeat the words of Siegbert Tarrasch, that chess, like love and music, can make man happy!

This week’s game  is between Yuri Averbakh and Oscar Panno (1954). It is Averbakh’s most famous victory, one from the year which witnessed the perihelion of Averbakh’s successes in competitive play.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 95%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
53 ratings - view all

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