Yuri Averbakh on women's chess
Yuri Averbakh and Susan Polgar. From chessdailynews.com

Yuri Averbakh on women's chess

Jan 4, 2019, 7:11 AM |

This interview was conducted by Sergei Rosenberg in 2016 for an upcoming book about the Soviet women's chess champions by the late Rimma Bilunova and Rosenberg (still unpublished, as I understand it). 


The first question. Yuri Lvovich, tell me please as a historian: did women play any part in the invention of chess?

There's a lot of legends on the origins of chess. A 7th century Persian legend says that a wife of some warlord got tired of him being always away waging wars, and she asked a clever philosopher to invent a war game that would stop her husband from actually taking part in wars. This is, to my knowledge, the first mention of women in connection with chess.

For centuries, chess was mostly played by men. How did women's chess tournaments come about?

Before the 20th century, women played very little chess, even though there was a Ladies' Chess Club in England in mid-19th century. The history of European women's chess more or less begins in 1924, when FIDE was established, and in 1927, first women's world championship was held. It was won by Vera Menchik from Czechoslovakia. The Soviet players didn't take part because Krylenko sent an official letter to FIDE saying that our country upholds the principles of class struggle and doesn't want any contact with organizations following other principles. Basically, we refused ourselves.

How strong was Vera Menchik?

Vera won women's world championship seven times, but when in 1935 she came to Moscow to play in men's international tournament, she finished last. Drew only 3 games out of 19 and lost all the others. So, she was head and shoulders behind the men, but head and shoulders ahead of other women. During the tournament, Menchik gave a simultaneous display to ten best Soviet players. Rubtsova declined to take part, but Chudova, Morachevskaya and others agreed. The score was 9-1 or so in her favour.

Did you encounter women over the board yourself?

Yes, you can say, since the very beginning. I learned chess when I was six, and my first opponent was a woman, my mother's friend - Vasily Panov's sister; by the way, Panov was the first master I've ever defeated. I took chess up seriously only at the age of 13 (before that, I played volleyball), in 1935. So, I came to the Young Pioneers' Stadium (YPS) and noticed two strongest Moscow girls playing. Their last names were Mokhel and Udrugova. I remembered the position well: Udrugova had two extra pieces, but suddenly blunderd one. And Mokhel said gleefully, "Now we're playing!" I got my third and second categories at the YPS. When the Moscow City Pioneers' Palace opened, I went to study there. The first MCPP champion wasn't Henkin, as it's often thought - it was Naroditsky, the future famous engineer and the grandfather of the young American grandmaster who recently won the youth world championship. I have a lot to remember! For instance, when Aleksandr Chistyakov played a qualifying match for the master's title with Sergei Belavenets, I studied English with his mother.

How did the famous Soviet women's chess school develop?

After the Central Chess Club opened in 1956, Aleksandr Markovich Konstantinopolsky started to work with woman players systematically. Konstantinopolsky was a grandmaster-level player, a prominent theoretician and experienced pedagogue. Before the war, he worked in the Kyiv Pioneers' Palace. He trained several famous Soviet chess players - David Bronstein, Isaak Lipnitsky, Abram Khasin, Anatoly Bannik and others, including several talented girls, the future Ukrainian champions. And in Moscow, Konstantinopolsky's training sessions with the strongest Soviet woman players were so effective that his pupils would constantly win Women's Chess Olympiads, international tournament and Soviet championships. Back then, two strongest women were Rubtsova and Bykova, who had a brilliant memory. She was an accomplished durak [Russian card game] player, where you should always remember everyone's hands; she would defeat everybody. Later, she would work at the Shakhmatnaya Shkola TV show. Kotov created the show: he met Lapin, and the latter was a chess fan. There were three hosts in the show: Yudovich taught openings, Kotov taught middlegames, and I taught endgames. Bykova received boxes of letters from the audience, and she would keep them in her bathroom. Interestingly, Bykova had a peculiar fantasy: she thought she could force her opponents to make bad moves. She thought she was hypnotizing them. Our show had a weekly format, we all spoke for an hour. Then we were joined by Boris Voronkov and Lyudmila Belavenets. This TV school existed from 1969 to 1986. In these years, we helped 80,000 category-holding players to develop.

How did a great chess school arise in the Soviet Georgia?

The phenomenon of Georgia was created by a single person: Vakhtang Ilyich Karseladze, who had been the head of the Tbilisi Pioneers' Palace chess section since 1947. "The person's role in history", as we might say. Of course, there were other strong coaches in Georgia before him, for instance, Archil Ebralidze, Tigran Petrosian's mentor. But Vakhtang Ilyich combined all the traits of an ideal pedagogue in himself: he was qualified, demanding, kind, loving to his pupils and very selfless. The achievements of Nona Gaprindashvili and Nana Alexandria are testaments to his greatness. But, of course, there were other serious preconditions for women's chess success in Georgia. Ever since Queen Tamar's time, Georgian girls received chess as gifts to avoid harmful communications. Sadly, Karseladze died too soon - he was just 47. Mark Dvoretsky was his worthy successor as a coach. His talent as a theoretician and methodist played a large role in development of Soviet and world chess.

Yuri Lvovich, what can you say about the woman players' style and quality of play?

Here, we're discussing two aspects: the choice of moves and game plan a) in standard, learned situations and b) in original positions that necessitate evaluation and calculations. Women are prone to confusing these two categories, and sometimes mistakes happen. Most woman players, even the youngest, fanatically believe in what they are taught, basically cramming it into their heads. For instance, Bondarevsky read a lecture to a strong player who already made her mark in the Soviet championship about opposition - distant, close, diagonal. Basically, he messed with her head. And in one of her games, there occurred a position where going into opposition was the stupidest choice. I made a bet with someone that she would make this bad move because she unconditionally believed in basic truths, despite numerous exceptions. She made that exact move and then wouldn't talk to me for a full month because I predicted that move. Basically, if you can implement someone's credible recommendation, women too often do that. Memory also plays a big role. Some players' memory, such as Zvorykina, wasn't particularly good. Kira Alekseevna, a very talented player, once got into a trap. When her coach, NM Bonch-Osmolovsky, asked her, "How come, Kira? I did show this trap to you, didn't I?!", Zvorykina answered, "Well, I thought this was familiar..."

Do these properties of women's brains show only in chess, or in general too?

You know, I think these properties are general, not only chess-related. Here's a characteristic moment that happened in Tallinn at Paul Keres' 90th anniversary. Larisa Volpert, a three-time Soviet chess champion and a great philologist, was there. I used this opportunity to ask her about one of my ideas about Mikhail Lermontov's works. In his drama Masquerade, the protagonist Arbenin kills his young wife out of jealousy. I thought that psychologically, this development isn't realistic, because if the man is much older, he has fatherly feelings, but here, he acted too cruelly. This was just a version. But Larisa Ilyinichna suddenly flare up. "You have no right to criticize a genius!" she exclaimed. At first, I was quite surprized. Volpert was a pupil of the famous scientist Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman, who was never autoritarian. Lotman was a free thinker, he analyzed the creations of greats and criticized them. For instance, he complemented the formula of the Nobel laureate physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov about the two types of people - Artists and Thinkers. Lotman contended that, according to the parallelism of consciousness, inside each artist, there's a thinker, and vice versa. But we know that Lermontov was double the artist: in painting and in literature. Arbenin's destructive side was obviously born of Lermontov's imaginative vision of relationships between men and women.

There is something in that. When you see a dramatic scene of Nina's death as presented by talented cast of the Maliy Theater, you can't help but think that it looks improbable.

Of course, being determines consciousness. In his childhood and youth, Lermontov often fell in love with girls who didn't reciprocate. Perhaps this role was a revenge to all of them. The main idea of the plot was derived by young Lermontov (he was 21 at the time) from Shakespeare's Othello.

But why can't a reader look critically at the works of greats? Later I understood, that Larisa Ilyinichna's typically womanly reaction was based on strong hierarchical views. This was another example that made me even more sure that beings of different genders think differently. Women's thinking is more ordered, approaching zero entropy. Everything should be in order: kids are fed, dishes are washed, pieces on the chess board are developed! It's something metaphysical: you can criticize a lesser writer, but can't touch a genius!

But in an extraordinary situation, women often struggle to find a right solution. Car drivers, for instance, say that women are in general more accurate and disciplined behind the wheel than men, but in extreme circumstances, they get confused. Something similar happens at the chess board too.

But all the Polgar sisters, especially Judit, were great in extremely sharp situations at the board, finding complicated combinations.

Because their brains were specifically trained to solve chess situations, we should credit their dad Laszlo for that. He created a unique practicum for them, where difficulty increase happens differentially, with infinitesimal increments. Most often, the authors of lessons primitively go from simple to complicated, forgetting that brain doesn't like sudden jumps. But even Polgar sisters, who are all superb players, still show some womanly weaknesses. Woman players tend to overestimate their position. I once played against the middle sister, Sofia. In a roughly equal position, she wanted to defeat an aging grandmaster (I was in my seventies at the time), so she played a risky move and lost. Something similar happened to Judit in a very important game against Svidler in the FIDE Cup. In a slightly worse position, she violated Steinitz's principle, decided to attack and lost.

How can you explain such a quick increase in women's playing strength in the last half-century?

Yes, modern women are progressing by leaps and bounds. Firstly, they train with experienced male coaches; secondly, they are able to devote much of their time to chess and to consistently play in men's tournaments. Just compare Vera Menchik, who lost most of her games against strongest male players in the 1930s, and Judit Polgar, who was almost equal to the strongest male grandmasters at the turn of the century! Perhaps in 60 or 70 years, every draw with the strongest woman players will be celebrated by men...

Modern woman players have a sharp tactical vision, play good combinations and work very hard. But when you have to extrapolate something, use your subconscious, they're still weaker than men. I don't know why - it's probably a biological matter.

Which prominent figures, except for world champions, can you point out in women's chess?

I'll tell you about three women. Let's start from the oldest. The longevity record is held by Jacqueline Rotschild-Pyatigorski (1911-2012). She had to flee from France to the U.S. during the Nazi invasion. She was a wife of the famous cellist Grigory Pyatigorski, and she founded the Pyatigorski Cup in the 1960s. She invested a lot of money into chess, music, art, culture. She was an active sportswoman herself: won the U.S. tennis championship and took part in the first Women's Chess Olympiad (2nd board for the U.S. team).

Vera Tikhomirova from Russia lived for 90 years (1918-2008). She did much for chess development in Russia. She managed to balance her vast tournament practice with public work. She won the Russian SFSR championship four times, played in 14 Soviet championships. For 25 years, she was the chairwoman of Russian chess federation. In the 1960s, she was the founder of the legendary Sochi international tournaments, took care of young players, helped many of them in difficult situations. She also managed to create the best conditions for the Russian SFSR team. In 1975, the team triumphed: Russia didn't just win the Spartakiad of the Soviet Nations, but crushed the Moscow team in its strongest line-up 8.5-0.5!

One of the strongest European woman players was Chantal Chaude de Silans (1919-2001). She was the head of the Caissa Chess Club in Paris. She won numerous French championships, starting at the age 15. She often played in men's French championships. She represented France at the 9th men's chess Olympiad (1950) and at the first Women's Olympiad (1957). She took part in the Women's World Chess Championship tournament of 1950 and in several Candidates' tournaments. She was an International Master since 1950, and became an honorary Grandmaster in 1990. But even putting aside all her titles and achievements, she was a beautiful and very witty woman. They said that Chantal once took part in the Miss France contest. She had five children, and when asked "How did you manage to have so many children during the German occupation?", she would answered, "There was nothing more to do!" At the Women's World Championship held in Moscow in 1950 Aleksandr Prorvich from the Sports Committee handled economical questions. Once he knocked at Chantal's door to give her the daily allowance. This happened the morning after a banquet in the French embassy. When she asked grumpily, "Who's there?", Prorvich sheepishly answered in French, "Money!" The door immediately opened, and Chantal said with a smile, "This door is always open for money!" I once talked business with her, when she published mine and Beilin's book Journey to the Chess Kingdom in France. There was a game, and we learned that it wasn't actually played over the board, but constructed artificually by Kreichik. When I wanted to exclude the game, Chantal told me that the very fact that someone fakes chess games proves that chess is an art.

Why modern grandmasters often falter in well-known endgame situations?

Well, I can only quote Tigran Petrosian's favourite joke: "In our time, youth have higher education... without the secondary!" How else can you explain Svidler once failing to win a Queen vs. Rook endgame? This means that he didn't work on the simple endgames enough. Sometimes people play Rook vs. Rook+Bishop or Knight inadequately as well.

And what can you say about the modern openings?

A deluge of theoretical information overloads the players' heads even before the games, and it rather stifles their creative independency. I think that we should have a system similar to card games: begin the games from theoretically equal positions. For instance, draw lots before the round and choose a position from the Ruy Lopez, or Sicilian, or Queen's Gambit, etc. White player should be the one drawing lots. We can assemble a FIDE expert committee that will create a lot of such positions. This is somewhat similar to exams. You come to play and draw an "examination ticket" - a position from any opening. This would be better than the current situation, where a chess player, knowing his opponent's opening repertoire, prepares a "killer" surprize with a strong chess engine.