Yuri Averbakh turns 90

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Only a week after Boris Spassky, the oldest living former World Champion, turned 75, we have another legend celebrating a special birthday. Yuri Averbakh, the oldest living grandmaster in the world, turned 90 today.

Yuri Averbakh at his 80th birthday | Photo Jurgen Stigter, Wikipedia

Yuri Lvovich Averbakh is one of the last true legends of the 20th century. He won two Soviet Championships and participated in the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates tournament. At the same time he is a renowned endgame theoretician who published numerous books, which were translated into twenty languages, and produced hundreds of studies. Averbakh is also an international arbiter (a role he fulfilled at World Championships and Olympiads) and International Judge of Chess Compositions. On top of that, the Russian grandmaster is an active chess historian.

Having learnt chess at the age of seven, Averbakh got captivated by the game in 1935, when the second international tournament in Moscow was held. 

His first major success was first place in the Moscow Championship of 1949, ahead of players such as Andor Lilienthal, Yakov Estrin and Vladimir Simagin. He became an International Grandmaster in 1952. In 1954 he won the USSR Chess Championship ahead of players including Mark Taimanov, Viktor Korchnoi, Tigran Petrosian, Efim Geller and Salo Flohr.

In the 1956 Championship he came equal first with Taimanov and Boris Spassky in the main event, finishing second after the playoff. Later Averbakh's daughter, Jane, would marry Taimanov.

Averbakh's other major tournament victories included Vienna 1961 and Moscow 1962. He qualified for the 1953 Candidates' Tournament (the last stage to determine the challenger to the World Chess Champion), finishing joint tenth of the fifteen participants. He also qualified for the 1958 Interzonal at Portorož, by finishing in fourth place at the 1958 USSR Championship at Riga. At Portorož, he wound up in a tie for seventh through eleventh places, half a point short of advancing to the Candidates' Tournament.

Averbakh is the eponym of several opening variations, perhaps most notably the Averbakh System in the King's Indian Defence: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Be2 0-0 6.Bg5. (See also Averbakh's Wikipedia entry.)

During the Kasparov-Karpov blitz match in Valencia, in October 2009, Averbakh gave a lucid lecture on the Valencian origin of modern chess. He was in fact the first to suggest, back in 1985, that Lucena borrowed many if not all problems of his 1497 book from the now lost Valencian chess book by Francesch Vicent. Afterwards the lecture, about which you can read more here, the then 87-year old veteran was more than willing to pose for photographs with fans from the audience and indeed with some journalists as well.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Vladimir Barsky interviewed Averbakh for the website of the Russian Chess Federation. The legendary grandmaster is still very much interested in chess history, and even in the intellectual games that preceded chess, like tic-tac-toe. He provides many examples of chess playing a role in many different languages, regions and (former) empires.

For example, he tells Barsky that until the 19th century the Treasury in England was called 'the house of the chess board'.

William the Conqueror introduced a rigid system of taxation and set up a special ward for the collection of taxes. The table, on which taxes were calculated on the forest, water and so on, was covered with black squares divided by the cloth, resembling a chessboard.

Members of the House (they received the high title of barons of the chessboard and the board had the right to include it in its coat of arms) were known for their probity, and taxes were collected probably better than we do now. So the chess board on the emblem was a symbol of honesty. And the tax collection process was perceived as a battle between the Treasury and the payer.

As Averbakh told Dagobert Kohlmeyer, the festivities around his birthday will take several days. On Wednesday there will be organized a special night at the Technical Scientific Library in Moscow, where Averbakh himself once established a chess center.

We also want to attract veterans to chess. However, instead of playing tought tournaments, they solve chess problems. Dedicating time to endgame studies helps against Alzheimer's disease.

sais Averbakh in the interview. He explains his old age by pointing out that he always did a lot of sports.

Until two years ago I went for a swim frequently.

During the Anand-Gelfand World Championship in May in Moscow, Averbakh will be involved in a seminar for chess historians.

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