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

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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.

[After repeating the intro, we'll now continue with Part 2 below. You can read the first part here.]

Part 2 of 2

By GM Stuart Conquest

In the 1958 Soviet Championship Averbakh had another excellent result, finishing 4th, behind Tal, Petrosian, and Bronstein. He thereby qualified for the Interzonal, held in Portoroz, Yugoslavia, which is where he first met the young Fischer. Averbakh played well, and was close to qualifying for the Candidates, though finally missing out. In Russians versus Fischer (since this isn't a proper review, I feel at perfect liberty to bring in other books) Averbakh describes the 15-year old US champion as,

a lanky lad in a sweater and jeans, something of a 'savage' in communicating with people. He gazed without the slightest interest at the beautiful scenery of the Adriatic...

Their game was a sharp 21-move draw, Averbakh playing his "trademark" variation against Bobby's King's Indian. Fischer offered a draw, though it was his move, and Averbakh took it. Bobby is quoted as saying,

Averbakh was afraid of losing to a kid, and I was afraid of losing to a grandmaster. That was why we agreed to a draw!

In the 1959 USSR championship final - an especially strong one - Averbakh finished a respectable 7th-8th, equal with Paul Keres. Top three were Petrosian, Spassky, and Tal. The last-named had asked Averbakh to assist him for the forthcoming Candidates tournament in Yugoslavia. Here again Averbakh's path crosses with Fischer's. It was at this long event (28 rounds!) that Tal beat Fischer in their personal encounters 4-0. Averbakh and Koblents were Tal's coaches; Bobby had Bent Larsen. By winning this event, Tal, only 23, gained the right to a World Championship match with Botvinnik. Averbakh is silent on this 1960 match (and the 1961 return match). I therefore presume he was not part of Tal's team on either occasion.


Three further good, solid results in Soviet championships came in 1960 and 1961 (twice), but in his narrative Averbakh passes over these performances. He finishes 6th or 7th in all three events, with famous names both above and below him. It should be borne in mind that to reach a USSR Final all but the very best players had to qualify from Semi-finals (and even Quarter-finals), themselves extremely tough arenas. Doubtless this exacting process brought a lasting resilience to all the top Soviet players. (In passing, let me recommend the ending to the game Averbakh-Furman, played at the 1960 USSR Semi-final.)

Yuri Averbakh in the 1960s

In Averbakh's narrative he now discusses the famous Candidates tournament of Curacao, 1962. But first - surprise! - Averbakh's wife (had you forgotten her?) makes a sudden but fleeting reappearance! (I have underlined her in green ink.) The point is that she

...worked in a defence factory

and was thus

not allowed to travel abroad for security reasons.

Kotov (chief trainer), as well as L. Abramov (head of delegation) tried to take their wives along on this exotic trip, but were struck off the list for insubordination. Averbakh took his chance and replaced them both!

And once again - Fischer is here, but transformed into a

tall, elegant, and assured young man. The sweater and jeans had been scrapped in favour of a fashionable, well-tailored suit.

(Averbakh in Russians versus Fischer.) A fine passage in the book I am meant to be reviewing tells how late one night, at the hotel, Averbakh sees a solitary figure in the dark, standing outside by some old cannons. It is Fischer. Bobby comes over to him.

Did you see how I beat Filip today? Do you want to look at it?

And so Averbakh lets Bobby show him the game. It was Fischer's first win in the tournament.

Of course there is some discussion of Fischer's subsequent claims of Soviet conspiracy. There were only two trainers for the five Soviet participants (Boleslavsky and Averbakh), and Averbakh writes:

We only helped our players when they were playing foreigners.

Perhaps more revealing is a quote from Averbakh in (you guessed it) Russians versus Fischer. Summing up at the half-way stage (after 14 rounds), Averbakh says,

He (Fischer) apparently still believed that in his own games with the leaders he could beat them and that they would bash one another.

As everyone knows, this was the event where Tal fell ill and withdrew, Fischer being the only participant to go and visit him in hospital.

Averbakh is now forty years old. He has just published the third and final volume of his famous endgame series. He has long been a chess reporter, a chess trainer, and now (following the death of V. Ragozin), he is offered editorship of the magazines Shakhmaty v SSSR and Shakhmatny Bulletin. But...what about actual play? He writes,

The main thing was that I never obtained great pleasure from winning. I did not have that great emotional reaction which drives sportsmen in the event of success.

Averbakh understands that, in practical terms, he will henceforth be considered an amateur player. And he adds,

I had before my eyes several sad examples of professional players such as Levenfish, Kan, Panov, Lilienthal, Bondarevsky and many others.

Were these players really in straightened circumstances? (Unless memory fails me, I believe Sosonko's writings cover some or even all of these players.) It is a distressing thought that even in the Soviet Union, with its comprehensive State support for chess over many decades, some well-known players may have led precarious existences.


I shall refrain from gradually chronicling all the major episodes in the remainder of Averbakh's narrative – for at this stage, we are still only about halfway through the book. Increasingly there are sections devoted to meetings of various Soviet and, later, FIDE, committees and commissions. Averbakh becomes President of the USSR chess federation. He attends FIDE Congresses. Unfortunately one soon tires of reading about the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of the USSR Sports Committee, the decisions taken by the FIDE Executive Board, and so on – at least, I found much of this material uninteresting. Others might disagree. In general, I was using my green felt tip pen less and less as the book went on.

There are many examples of the dark side of Soviet chess. Players' names are quietly removed from crosstables and books. The heading at one juncture is the Kafkaesque: 'Who informed on me?' Political tensions keep spilling over into purely chess affairs, secret letters are written, instructions issued – and Averbakh writes things like,

Now it became clear how I had been replaced by Krogius


This was something we could not stand for.

There is plenty on FIDE Presidents Euwe, Olafsson, and Campomanes. One section is titled, forbiddingly, 'The new FIDE president and his mistakes.' Naturally Korchnoi's defection is covered, but also Murey's inclusion in the 1982 Moscow Interzonal is discussed.


There are several curious episodes in Averbakh's book which can probably not be found elsewhere. One concerns the death of Gideon Stahlberg, which occurred in Leningrad in late 1967 (Stahlberg was there to take part in a tournament). There is also a tantalising fragment to do with a woman from Curacao, who suddenly turns up in Moscow. In green ink I have written, Our Man In Havana, the title of the Graham Greene novel which (as I remember it) pokes fun at the whole Cold War construct of espionage and double-agents. Here, as elsewhere in the book, one is unfortunately left mulling over the near-certainty that Averbakh is not telling all he knows...

There is also one mistake. Averbakh talks of the match-tournament between Reshevsky, Hort and Stein

at the very beginning of 1963,

adding that these three

had shared 6th place at the Interzonal not long before...

but he has the incorrect date. (They played in 1968, in Los Angeles, following the Sousse Interzonal of 1967.) Averbakh was Stein's second. He gives us no chess details from this trip at all – perhaps because of the unfortunate result from the Soviet standpoint. (Stein, who was leading, lost his last round to Hort - "after declining a draw", writes Keene in Leonid Stein, Master of Attack, which circumstance I don't quite understand – and Reshevsky, who drew all eight games, took the single Candidates' spot.)

Averbakh at his 80th birthday (photo Jurgen Stigter)

There are intriguing portraits of less famous Soviet players, such as V.Simagin. But probably readers will be more eager to learn about Averbakh's experiences in Buenos Aires, where he went in 1971 as one of Petrosian's two seconds (the other was Alexey Suetin) for the match against Fischer. My favourite sentence from this part is the following:

However, whilst lying asleep, in his dreams, Petrosian found a way to strengthen Fischer's play and he jumped up and sat at the board again.

In Palma de Mallorca, 1974, Averbakh is once more performing coaching duties (on this occasion jointly with Igor Zaitsev), and again in the service of Petrosian, but now in the ex-World Champion's 1/4-final Candidates match versus Portisch. Petrosian won a close contest, but lost to Korchnoi in the next round. Nine years on, and Averbakh is head of delegation for Smyslov's match with Huebner in Austria. Averbakh gives lots of material on this Candidates' cycle, which culminated in Smyslov's 4,5-8,5 defeat in Vilnius at the hands of Kasparov. At which point we have reached the Kasparov-Karpov era.


Averbakh's last Soviet championship was in Riga, 1970. He scored a solid +1 (+4 =14 -3), sharing 8/9th places. Korchnoi won; Anatoly Karpov made his debut.

These days, and already for some years I believe, Averbakh is deeply interested in the origins of chess, and in the related board games that preceded it, as well as in the roots of other games. He is a serious researcher, a true academic. Probably he developed this thoroughness when working on his endgame books. As Jan Hein Donner once mischievously observed,

The endgame books by Averbakh – dealing with rook endings that had not interested anyone for decades but in which he managed to find new and surprising variations – must have cost him years. And not a single mistake, as far as I can see.

Yuri Averbakh last year as the arbiter at the Botvinnik Memorial Veterans

In his Endgame Preparation (1981) Jon Speelman has written a difficult and complex chapter which he calls 'The Theory of Corresponding Squares'. Almost all the material comes from Averbakh and Maizelis' Pawn Endings. It is easy to see from his examples that the earlier work must have been a monumental undertaking. One also sees that Averbakh and Maizelis do not once budge from their system of classification, but resolutely stick to their guns.

Unlike in Donner's writing, reading Averbakh one seldom meets with anything that one would call humour, though occasionally one can glimpse it. For example, Averbakh writes that Shakhmaty v SSSR, in his time as editor, used to include a draughts section, but

in about five years, we received just three letters connected with draughts, and one of these expressed the view that there was no point in having a draughts section in a chess magazine.

The remarkable thing is that this sentence does not end in an exclamation mark! And I like this unfortunate typo:

...but the Filipino remained clam.

This, when Campomanes is staying calm.


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