Culture and Civilisations

Yuri Averbakh, 1922-2022

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Yuri Averbakh, 1922-2022

Just over a year ago I celebrated the 99th birthday of the Russian Grandmaster, world championship candidate and former Soviet champion, Yuri Averbakh. Sadly, having passed his 100th birthday in February, Averbakh finally succumbed to the ravages of time on May 7th (last Saturday). I cannot avoid the suspicion that the complications in Russian life and economy after the Ukraine débâcle must have hastened the demise of a necessarily frail centenarian.

In this, my definitive obituary for my friend, I rely very much on the research which I carried out for my encomium of Yuri from just over a year ago. He was an icon in the chess world. Apart from being the archetypal Soviet chess grandmaster, during the heyday of the USSR’s chess imperium, Averbakh was 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. Averbakh was, as the first Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote: “A man so various that he seemed to be, not one but all mankind’s epitome!”

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 Shakhmatny v SSSR. In addition Averbakh authored many books, mostly focusing on his great area of expertise, the endgame.

Yuri was active at the perihelion of the Soviet chess empire, and thus encountered all the illustrious figures of that uniquely spectacular state-run chess edifice on a regular basis, from Botvinnik, the first Soviet world champion, right up to the reigns of Karpov and Kasparov. Although Yuri was notably successful against strategically inclined opponents, such as Tigran Petrosian, Bent Larsen and Max Euwe (scoring eight wins against just two losses) and even taking four games off Botvinnik himself, he was relatively helpless when facing the red in tooth and claw carnivores of the tactical jungle. Yuri’s overall score, for example, against Mikhail Tal, David Bronstein, Leonid Stein and Boris Spassky, consisted of a meagre two wins, but seventeen losses.

Yuri developed a theory about types of players, categorising fighters, (Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky, David Bronstein, Leonid Stein, Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal) researchers, (Botvinnik) practical problem setters, (Karpov), artists, (Vassily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian ) and puzzle solvers. He included himself in this last group, with the obvious implication that the ivory tower existence of the problem solver put him at a disadvantage in the hurly-burly of competition, especially when confronted by the sabre teeth of the fighters.

Averbakh was born in Kaluga (later the cradle of Soviet space exploration) on February 8, 1922, which means that in February this year he celebrated his 100th 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 Czar himself, Mikhail Botvinnik, seated in splendid isolation on his imperial throne in Moscow, awaiting the identity of his challenger. That turned out to be Smyslov.

Averbakh was 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. Tukmakov and I tied in our qualifying section, so a coin had to be tossed to decide who proceeded to the final.

Nowadays such matters would be settled by a rapid play shootout, lasting perhaps an hour. In those more sedate times, aleatory adjudication was deemed more fitting by FIDÉ, the world chess federation, and Yuri proved himself to be an excellent second by winning the toss for his protégé.

In 1983 he again functioned as second, this time to former world champion 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 for the world title at the Savoy Theatre in 1993, Averbakh assumed the role of Arbiter-in-Chief. Coincidentally, Smyslov had reached the 1983 semi-final on the turn of a roulette wheel after tying his quarter final against the German grandmaster, Robert Hübner. Yuri certainly acted as a lucky talisman for those whom he chose to support.

In his personal life, he echoed the classical lines of Thales of Miletus: “What man is happy? He who has a healthy body and a resourceful mind…”

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 had a parallel career as a concert pianist. Taimanov, who died six years ago at the comparatively youthful age of 90, was later to marry Yuri’s daughter.

Averbakh had a deep interest in chess history, shown in his book about life in the chess world, 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.

I might add that if starting off with My System was a mistake, it was also one which I committed!
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.”

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: “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 weeks first game is between Yuri and Tigran Petrosian. Played in 1961, it is one of Averbakh’s most famous victories, in which he defeats the Soviet-Armenian grandmaster who was soon to become world champion. The second game is a typical black strategic victory against a three-time candidate for the world championship, the Yugoslav grandmaster Svetozar Gligoric.

In the second game Gligoric’s 13. h5 throws away any advantage White may have had from this strikingly original opening. Correct is 13. Bd3, with which Florin Gheorghiu won a a sensational game against Bobby Fischer at the 1966 Havana Olympiad. I was there to watch that game and saw Fischer decline draw after draw offered by the painfully nervous Romanian grandmaster, as, paradoxically, Gheorghiu’s attack strengthened by the minute, while Fischer’s ramparts progressively crumbled. What fighting spirit by Fischer! I can think of no other player, not even the hyper-aggressive Kasparov, who would not have bailed out and accepted the draw.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell’s

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

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