GM Stuart Conquest on Yuri Averbakh's Centre-Stage and Behind the Scenes (Part 1 of 2)

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

I seldom review chess books. To review a chess book one has to read it - at least, I always do - and this immediately presents a problem, for what if the book is no good? In that case one's time is doubly wasted, for not only has one read a worthless book, but afterwards one is obliged to write about it. In such unhappy circumstances there is no point in being a fussy, rebukeful bore, peering down from sham intellectual heights like a man intent on parodying, say, the Times Literary Supplement. Far better to entertain one's readers, and oneself, by taking the business lightly. Probably W.H. Auden had something like this in mind when he wrote, "One cannot review a bad book without showing off."

Anyway, this is not a review, it is an essay, and the book under discussion is not bad. It might have been a whole lot better, that's all. But let's take a closer look.

Part 1 of 2

By GM Stuart Conquest

On 8th February, 2012, Yuri Averbakh celebrated his 90th birthday. I have never had the pleasure of meeting him. In fact, what did I know about Averbakh before reading Centre-Stage and Behind the Scenes?

(i) That, in his prime, he had been a strong player;
(ii) That he wrote several important and well-received endgame books;
(iii) That the system with Be2 and Bg5 in the King's Indian bears his name.

That was about all.

Averbakh's book is pure and simple autobiography. It contains not a single game, game fragment, or diagram, and it is legitimate to ask: why not? (In, for example, my old Batsford copy of Korchnoi's Chess Is My Life, the games - most of them explicitly mentioned in the text - are in a separate section at the back.) Here we have the story of Averbakh's life - in chess - but with no illustrative examples from his playing days: only photos, and text. The book weighs in at a solid 260 pages. Its subtitle: 'The Personal Memoir Of A Soviet Chess Legend'.

Everyone's life is interesting. But the life of a chess master evidently includes their battles on the chessboard. To abstain from including any excerpts at all means that the writing must somehow trick the reader into not missing these instances of actual play.

It is worth inserting here the fact that Genna Sosonko has already written many excellent articles on Soviet master players (with collections made into books). These portraits of former times cannot be faulted in style and composition, and obviously would not be "improved" by adding games.

Paul Morphy (1837-1884)

Let me be allowed another small diversion. The Exploits & Triumphs in Europe of Paul Morphy the Chess Champion (a book I recently read and enjoyed, in the 1973 Dover reprint) by Frederick Edge, also contains only prose. Edge was Morphy's manager, and this book is a valuable, first-hand account of the main events during Morphy's visit to Europe in 1858-9. (And, incidentally, it is often the small, inconsequential remarks which appeal most, such as the fact that Morphy and Edge miss the train to Folkestone by a few minutes because Paul enjoys a longer, more relaxed breakfast than his friend advises.) Once again, the lack of games or game extracts does not detract in the slightest. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that the first English language biography of Tolstoy includes the complete score of two of that famous gentleman's chess games!

Having agreed to review Averbakh's book (though, as I said, I consider this rambling contribution more of an essay than a review) I then determined to read every page, with care, not skimming through with half an eye on the time it was taking. As I read I underlined in green ink and made notes in the margins. I have never done this to any book before. I thought it might make it easier to refer back to later.

The book's narrative unfolds chronologically. It is hard to comment on the book without respecting its linear time sequence, so, for better or worse, that is the way I shall describe it.

Like every conventional autobiography ever written, Averbakh's memoir begins with his birth and childhood, his school years, and early family life. In my own opinion (it may just be a question of taste) this is a classic weak area in all such narrative enterprises - unless the writer is very gifted. Everyone is born, we all go to school, we all have families. The first dash of green biro comes with the tale of Arctic explorer Umberto Nobile, whose airship crashes on its return flight from the North Pole in 1928. I also underlined the fact that the young Averbakh once saw Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper, act in a production of The Cherry Orchard. (I am a sucker for anything vaguely literary. For example - and I digress - I recently learned that Stendhal used to frequent the Cafe de la Regence - the famous chess meeting-place - and eat lunch there. This was, however, in the early 1800s, before he became a writer.)

Café de la Régence, the famous chess cafe in Paris in the 1900s

Amongst Averbakh's early chess reminiscences, it is worth noting that our young hero saw both Emanuel Lasker and Rudolf Spielmann at Moscow, 1935, when they gave simultaneous exhibitions. (Later Lasker, then resident in Moscow, presented Averbakh with one of his books, autographed, as a prize.)

There are grim shadows thrown on the lives of some early Soviet chess celebrities. The endgame composer, Sergey Kaminer, "was shot" – Averbakh does not say why. Averbakh's own father was arrested, and disappeared for a year. This period of Stalinist repression seems to have begun around 1937.

At the end of the 1940s Averbakh made the decision to become a chess professional. (In an interview elsewhere Averbakh has stated that as a chess professional he received a salary of 2,000 roubles a month.) Nevertheless, right from the start Averbakh seems to have accepted that a career in chess, for him, meant combining playing with other activities. We see him quickly taking on journalistic duties (such as reporting on the Botvinnik-Bronstein World Championship match), as well as seconding work – at the 1950 Budapest Candidates he is appointed coach to Lilienthal.

Over the board Averbakh soon made his presence felt in the highest circles, qualifying for the final of the USSR championship in both 1948 and 1950 (the second time winning the semi-final en route). At the 1951 USSR semi-final, 4 rounds before the end, Petrosian, Geller and Averbakh are tied for 1st, a point ahead of Boleslavsky. There follows a surprising and rather shocking exchange:

Geller: "Do you want to win this tournament?"
Averbakh: "No, I am just concerned with qualifying for the final."
Geller: "Then let's allow Petrosian to go ahead..."

The final results were: 1st Petrosian, 2nd Geller, 3-4th Averbakh and Boleslavsky.


The 1951 USSR championship was a battlefield of chess colossi: World Champion Botvinnik played, as did Bronstein, Smyslov, Petrosian, Keres, Kotov, Flohr, and Taimanov. What a line-up! Keres won, but Averbakh qualified for the Interzonal. This was held in Saltsjoebaden, Sweden, the following autumn. By his subsequent success in this event Averbakh became both a Candidate, and - his title announced by FIDE President Folke Rogard at the closing ceremony - a Grandmaster.

Yuri Averbakh at the Saltsjobaden interzonal in 1952

The pot of gold waiting at the end of this chess odyssey was the famous 1953 Neuhausen-Zurich Candidates event. The impressive Soviet delegation comprised 22 members, of whom only 9 were participants! Although Averbakh calls it "the most important competition of my life" he does not dwell on chess details - but why doesn't he? (Is it just because of his mediocre result?) He writes that players like Smyslov (who, as we know, won) and Keres had single rooms "with a view over the lake", whereas he had to share a room (no view) with his trainer. In Zurich, unfamiliar with the city, the leader of the Soviet delegation accidentally chooses accommodation for his players in the red-light district! (One wonders if here, too, Smyslov and Keres had certain advantages.) Averbakh's final position was mid-table. This was the only time that he placed his foot on the ladder for the World Championship - to my mind it would have been nice to hear more about this experience. I don't have Bronstein's famous tournament book to hand, but in volume 4 of 'My Great Predecessors' Kasparov includes the game Reshevsky-Averbakh, won by the American. Reshevsky considered it his best creative achievement from the event.

Stalin died in March, 1953. However, East-West relations did not improve overnight. For example, what could have been a wonderful USA-USSR match, planned that year in New York, was canceled due to official diplomatic wranglings. The Soviet team, of which Averbakh was a member, was left hanging around in Paris for a week (the reader who has followed Fred Edge and Paul Morphy in Paris will not be able to follow Averbakh, who gives no details) before being recalled to Moscow.

In 1954, in Kiev, Averbakh scored perhaps the most cherished result of his playing career, winning the USSR championship. In the words of Bernard Cafferty (The Soviet Championships, Cadogan, 1998) : "Averbakh produced several masterpieces in this event. A deep strategist, who later gained a reputation as a leading expert on the endgame, he was at his best in this event. Neither before nor after in the course of his long career could he match this superlative performance."

Averbakh played in the Soviet team that visited Argentina and France that year. The aborted USA-USSR match was also held in 1954, but Averbakh's disagreements on this trip with the head of delegation were probably the reason he was left out of the Soviet Olympiad team - as national champion! His place was taken by Kotov. Averbakh thus became the only Soviet champion never to play an Olympiad. In 1957 he was accepted into the Communist Party. Averbakh writes, "I will not deny that party membership gave me one important advantage. I started to be named as head of various chess teams."


It is curious how Averbakh omits, or pushes into the background, certain details. For example, his wife appears on page 88, yet until now Averbakh's marriage had not been mentioned! He also nowhere talks of his opening work, such as (of course) on 5.Be2 and 6.Bg5 versus the King's Indian. However, he tells us his first book on endgames came out in 1955. It took around 6 months' work.

The world famous endgame books by Averbakh were translated into several languages

Probably this sustained effort was a factor in his poor result in that year's Soviet championship, where, as defending champion, he could only manage 15th place. In the same event the following year he was back to his best, tieing for 1st with Spassky and Taimanov, the last-named winning the play-off. Curiously, Averbakh had only recently seconded the young Spassky at the World Junior Championship, held in Antwerp, and won in grand style by Boris.

Let no one be under any doubt: throughout this period, Averbakh, when playing his best, was amongst the world's top ten or fifteen players. Between 1955 and 1957 he played about 25 training games with Botvinnik, at the latter's invitation. The results were only slightly in Botvinnik's favour. Averbakh's opinions of the World Champion are revealing. Of course in some way he looked up to him: in 1936, the young Averbakh would listen to the radio for news of Botvinnik's progress in the great Nottingham tournament. Averbakh says: "Even as a youth, he (Botvinnik) set himself the task of becoming world chess champion, and turned away from everything that interfered with that aim."

The second and last part of this review essay can be found here.


More from ChessVibes
A lengthy interview with David Navara (part 2 of 2)

A lengthy interview with David Navara (part 2 of 2)

Robots in a Moscow park... playing chess (VIDEO)

Robots in a Moscow park... playing chess (VIDEO)