Yuri Averbakh remembers some old-time players

Aug 27, 2014, 6:19 AM |

Yuri Averbakh is currently the oldest living grandmaster (he's 92 years old). Here are some of his memories about old-time Soviet players.

Games were picked by me.

Nikolai Mikhailovich Zubarev (1894-1951). A thickset man with shaved head, always impeccably and tastefully dressed, Zubarev was the head of Sports Committee's chess department - as they say now, he was a "suit", a chess official. A pedantic, rarely speaking man, Zubarev took his work very seriously. He was respected in the Sports Committee; during the war, he was trusted with handing out extra food allowances. He played in a solid positional style, but couldn't achieve much over the board and dedicated himself to organizational and arbiter work. In essence, Zubarev created our qualifying system. Also, he was an exemplary chess arbiter - knowledgeable, clear and calm. I can't remember any serious conflicts or mistakes involving him. Nikolai Mikhailovich was protective towards the young players, gave them advices, helped if he could.

Many years after his death, in 1965, I was contacted by the Union of Friendship Societies and asked what do I know about Zubarev.

"What's up?" I asked.

"One of the top executives of French TV came to Moscow. He said that Zubarev was his father!"

That's how we learned a curious part of his biography that he probably omitted in the surveys: during the World War I, he fought in France as a part of the Russian Expeditionary Force, married a woman there and had a child. But after the Russian Revolution, he left them and returned to Russia.

Benjamin Markovich Blumenfeld (1884-1947) was a lawyer. When I was a schoolboy, I once came to the court to listen to his speech about the famous case of three climbers who died in the mountains. He was a very witty man and knew a lot of funny stories and anecdotes. Some funny stories happened with him, as well. Here are two of them.

In the 1930's, during a Moscow tournament, some first category player had White against Blumenfeld. Under time pressure, he made his last control move and then saw that he's now getting a mate in one. But Blumenfeld wasn't in a hurry. He sat in his characteristic pose, and thought, and thought. One minute passed, then another one, then his flag started to lift. And he still had his move to make. His opponent started to worry. What if the master doesn't see the mate in one? What if he loses on time? He squinted at the chess clock, watching the flag. Another second, and... Blumenfeld moved his piece and checkmated him.

"Benjamin Markovich!", his partner exclaimed. "Why were you thinking for so long?"

"I was trying to understand why didn't you resign", he answered.

After his retirement, Benjamin Markovich started to study the problems of chess psychology and would often write down his ideas while his partner was thinking about his move.

Once he played against a young man who, having noticed Blumenfeld writing something, started to walk behind his back and read his notes.

After one move, he read: I'm very afraid of the move Qd5.

"A-ha!" The young player joyfully returned to his seat and, when Blumenfeld made his move, quickly played Qd5 and went to see what would Blumenfeld write now.

And the master wrote in his scrawl: As I expected, my unexperienced partner has gone into a trap. Now I win his Queen!

After the war, we became friends. Blumenfeld would often visit my home and once offered me to become a "guinea pig" for his dissertation. He thought that the opening theory's development is good, the sporting side is well-developed as well, but the psychology makes only the first steps, and there's much room for improvement.

We spent some evenings doing the research: Benjamin Markovich would ask me to remember the games that I've played before the war, in the 1939 Moscow Championship. We quickly learned an interesting thing: the moves that caused some emotional reaction were easier to remember. This idea formed the basis of his dissertation that he subsequently defended. Sadly, our friendship didn't last long: soon he died.

Fyodor Ivanovich Dus-Chotimirsky (1879-1965) worked as an instructor in the Lokomotiv sports society, so he dressed as a railroad worker. He often toured the country, popularizing chess. He was an original player, never studied openings much, preferring, as he would say, theoretical back roads, rather than mainstream. If he could get initiative, his attacks were very dangerous. Chess enthusiasts liked his lectures: they were accompanied by jokes, various anecdotes and peculiar humour. He would set up complicated positions from his games on the demonstration board and ask an innocent question: "What move would have you played?" After a pause, some brave listener would answer, "Nc6 to e5".

"Yes, yes!", Fyodor Ivanovich would exclaim. "I made this idiotic move as well!"

I remember how we returned to Moscow from some tournament together. There was also a young girl in our compartment. Fyodor Ivanovich immediately engaged in conversation; when he learned that she was a conservatory student, he asked if she knew who Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapine was.

"Of course I do!" she answered.

"Then let me introduce myself", Dus-Chotimirsky extended a hand to her, "Fyodor Ivanovich Dus, While Mirsky (his surname in Russian was homonymic to a phrase with this meaning), but not Chaliapine!"

By the way, everyone called him Dus behind his back. Of course, he knew that and would write just "Dus" on his game sheets.

Once he was to play against my friend Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovsky. They sat at the board, Fyodor Ivanovich asked his name. Misha answered, but Fyodor Ivanovich couldn't hear him and asked again. Misha answered, but again sounded unclear. Fyodor Ivanovich waved his hand in exasperation and wrote in his game sheet: "White: Dus, Black: Not Dus!"

When I played Fyodor Ivanovich for the first time, he wrote down my last name as "Averbuchhalter" ("Averbookkeeper"). I only laughed at that.

Abram Isaakovich Rabinovich (1878-1943). He was a short man who wore pince-nez on his big, reddish nose. In summer, he would wear a canvas blouse. Before the war, he was the editor of chess column in the Vechernaya Moskva newspaper. In his last years, he would study theory extensively and liked to discuss various theoretical variants with young players. If someone disagreed with his evaluation, he would say, "Let's play!" And the blitz-speed analysis would continue deep into the endgame.

As far as I remember, his last tournament was the 1937 Moscow Championship that was held in a brand new building of the Chess and Checkers Club at the Vesnina street.

And that's what happened to him there.

The last playing hour was on. The hall was completely silent, save for ticking of the chess clocks.

And suddenly, there was a scream: "Mate in three!"

The spectators and players who already finished their games rushed to the table where Master Abram Rabinovich played against V. Snegiryov, a first-category player. The position was very sharp: both kings were exposed. Both were in time trouble: they had literally seconds to make five moves. The flags are hanging. Snegirev spread his hands and said, "Well, checkmate me then". The master grabs his Queen, places it on another field with a loud noise and declares: "Check!"

The King escapes. "Check!" The King escapes again.

"Checkmate!" the Master says gleefully.

Snegirev, stunned, watches the board for a few seconds, then wants to remove the pieces from the board, but suddenly sees a free square for his King and makes a move. Pause... The flabbergasted Rabinovich watches the escaped King with wide eyes, and then says, "No mate? I don't mind."

The game continued and ended in a draw.

In 1941-42, the elderly Master remained at Moscow and lived in poverty and hunger. I saw him for the last time during the first rounds of 1943 Moscow Championship. He died shortly after that.

Boris Markovich Verlinsky (1887-1950). In his youth, he lived in Odessa, the hometown of the famous musicians Yasha Heifetz, Misha Ehlman, Emil Gilels and David Oistrakh. He had absolute hearing, and his parents wanted to make him a child conductor, but this ended badly: he got ill with meningitis, his hearing was greatly compromised, and some speaking troubles developed. Verlinsky was a bright and original player. In the Moscow 1925 tournament he defeated the World Champion Capablanca - in the years when Capablanca's defeats could be literally counted on fingers of one hand. In the late 1940's, I played together with Verlinsky for Zenit sport society in the trade union tournaments. By that time, he got tired easily and would complain to me, "I still can swing a sword, but instead of striking down the enemy, the sword falls out from my hands and hits me on the head!"

He would often visit my home, because he lived nearby. Sometimes he would sit down at our piano and play - his near-deafness didn't deter him a bit. We got along quite well: despite his speech troubles, I understood him easily. Verlinsky was an avid supporter of mine. He thought I was playing below my true potential.

"It's too bad that you have a second career", he would say. "If you were hungry, you'd long ago have become a Grandmaster!"

Sadly, when I did become a Grandmaster, Boris Markovich was already dead.

In 1929, Verlinsky won the Soviet Championship. For this, he was awarded the USSR Grandmaster title. But after that, he was quietly stripped of the title; as far as I know, there were no special decrees concerning that. Of course, he was devastated by this. For some reason, he blamed Zubarev for all that and thought that he was his number one enemy. Ironically, they died almost simultaneously: Verlinsky - in early November 1950, Zubarev - shortly after the New Year.

In January 1951, I met Verlinsky's widow at Arbat street by chance. She asked what's new in chess. When she learned that Zubarev died, she said, "Ah, so bad that Borya didn't live to see that. He'd be so glad!"

Petr Arsenievich Romanovsky (1892-1964). One of our greatest chess luminaries, the teacher of many generations of Leningrad and Moscow players. He was the arbiter of the Moscow Championship where I achieved the master's norm. After the tournament, Romanovsky invited me to come over, and I've often visited him afterwards. Petr Arsenievich was a very hospitable man. Many young chess players would visit him - Dmitry Ter-Pogosov, Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovsky, his Leningrad pupil Yury Steinsapir. We played chess, solved studies, discussed various chess issues. Sometimes Petr Arsenievich would read us lectures about chess history, development of chess ideas, chess schools and great masters of the past. Romanovsky helped me to develop my combinational and tactical skills, which I somewhat lacked. Once we even played a small training tournament in his house, though we didn't finish it. Petr Arsenievich was often visited by Nikolai Ivanovich Grekov, a historian and Chigorin's biographer, by Vladimir Mikhailovich Volkenstein, a well-known theatre critic, by chess historian Isaak Maksovich Linder.

I remember how Romanovsky once played a concert for us: he was an accomplished balalaika player and performed some classical music on it. He would also read his own poems. One of his poems, The Old Wolf, was very autobiographic: in 1942, he, half-dead, was evacuated from the blockaded Leningrad, where his entire family (wife and four daughters) perished.

I also should tell you how we fell out. Romanovsky prepared a compilation of his games for publication, sent it to the Fizkultura and Sport publishing house and asked to send the book to me for review, and not to send it to V. Panov, whose relationship with Romanovsky was tense. Department head N. Krasheninnikova, the granddaughter of a famous traveller and geographist, nevertheless, made a "Solomon's decision": she sent one copy to me, and the other one to Panov.

I read the manuscript and gave it a positive review, though pointed out some weaknesses. Romanovsky agreed with my criticism and removed some things on my advice.

Vasily Nikolaevich Panov was a caustic man. He perfectly knew Petr Arsenievich's weaknesses: hypertrophied vanity and touchiness. Being an acclaimed master, he liked to lecture people, sometimes with very colourful language. All that was shown in Panov's review, in very caustic, satirical form.

For instance, Romanovsky criticized one of his opponents, the first category player Abramson, saying that he was "infested by the conservatism bug" and "worshipped the god of dogmatics".

"What did he expect from the poor Abramson?" asked the reviewer sarcastically. "Dogmatics, conservatism... Couldn't he simply say that Abramson was a poor chess player?"

Also, Romanovsky wrote: "With this move, my opponent wanted both to save his chastity and get the money". Panov countered: "In a book targeted at the Soviet youth, you shouldn't use idioms that are appropriate only among prostitutes!"

Long story short, Panov's poisonous arrows hit the target. Romanovsky was deeply hurt. And after he compared our reviews, he saw that we both pointed out the same weaknesses, though I was much more delicate.

"How can that be?", he asked Misha Bonch-Osmolovsky. "Panov is my enemy. He cannot evaluate me objectively. But Averbakh pointed out the same things as Panov. So, deep inside he dislikes me as well."

What could I say about that? First of all, all those reviews were strictly for internal use. They weren't published, and the public didn't even know about their existence. Second, I honestly wanted to help Romanovsky improve his manuscript, but didn't remember that teachers don't exactly like when their pupils criticize them."