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Yuri Lvovich Averbakh was born 100 years ago today. As a boy, he saw Emanuel Lasker play, and he went on to witness almost the entire rise and fall of the Soviet School of Chess, winning the USSR Championship in 1954 and tying for first place with Mark Taimanov and Boris Spassky two years later. For the occasion, FM Yosha Iglesias looks back on the remarkable life of the oldest ever Grandmaster.
Yuri Averbakh was born in Kaluga, USSR, on February 8, 1922, less than a year after Jose Raul Capablanca took the World Championship title from Emanuel Lasker. Chess appeared in the house of the young Yura three years later, thanks to the enthusiasm generated by the famous Moscow Tournament, won by Bogoljubov ahead of Lasker, Capablanca, Marshall, Tartakower and co., during which the movie Chess Fever was shot.
Although he learned to play at seven, Yuri was not yet passionate when the 2nd Moscow Tournament was held in 1935. If Averbakh could see Emanuel Lasker playing, it was because he came to support the champion of his school, who was playing in a simultaneous display against the 2nd World Champion.
Yuri fell in love with chess at 13 during a conference given by the great study composer Nikolai Grigoriev. Averbakh would later tell of this epiphany:
Grigoriev gave a lecture in the club, showing some of his famous pawn studies. They made an enormous impression on me, and that was the first time I sensed that chess wasn’t simply a game but was something more, that it was an art. And I also had the urge to master that field. That’s how I got involved in chess.
Here is one of Grigoriev's most famous studies. White wins after a series of triangulations: 1. g4 Ka3 2. Ka5 Kb2 3. Kb6 Kb3 4. Kb5 Kc2 5. Kc6 Kc3 6. Kc5 Kd2 7. Kd6 Kd3 8.Kd5 Ke2 9. Ke6 Ke3 10.Ke5 Kf2 11. Kf6 Kf3 12. Kf5 Kg2 13. Kg6 Kh3 14. Kh5 Kxh2 15. Kxh6 +- Such endgame studies can make you fall in love with chess.
Yuri had done a year of boxing to be able to defend himself in his neighborhood, liked skiing and ice hockey, and practiced volleyball at a promising level before focusing on chess. He trained at the Pioneer's Palace, where he gradually established himself as the best player.
Averbakh describes himself as a fatalist. Knowing how he escaped World War II may explain why.
Averbakh started school at the age of seven instead of the usual eight. In 1939, his newly-graduated classmates were 18 years old and had to do their military service. Those who came back did not do so until after the war. Yuri was only 17 years old and could continue his studies at the Bauman Institute.
In September 1941, three months after Russia entered the war, Moscow wanted to show that everyday life was going on, and in addition to his classes, Averbakh found himself playing chess.
Because he was playing a master tournament in the middle of October, he missed the train that served to transfer his school to Izhevsk, some 1200 km from Moscow.
Averbakh could not escape the panic call to enroll new "volunteers". Averbakh did show up, but with his summer boots. The recruiter didn't have winter boots that fitted the tall Yuri (1.90m, size 45) and sent him out to buy a pair. There was no open store that had his size in the whole city, and Yuri thus found himself on the road, like hundreds of thousands of Muscovites, on October 16. He was alone, carrying a bag that contained only two loaves of bread, some sugar, and a few rubles. Thanks to his studies, he managed to repair the engine of a broken truck. The driver rewarded him with a ride to Murom, where he finally caught the train he had missed in Moscow!
Averbakh worked at a factory and then at the Institute before returning to Moscow in 1943.
The war did not prevent him from becoming a Master in 1944.
In 1946, Yuri became a graduate engineer and at first did not intend to devote his life to chess, having worked for five years at the Research Institute of the Ministry of Aviation Industry.
Boris Verlinsky, who had beaten Capablanca in the Moscow 1925 tournament, told Yuri:
It's too bad that you have a second career. If you were hungry, you'd long ago have become a Grandmaster!
Averbakh played the first of his sixteen USSR Championships in 1948. Here is an anecdote that sums up the fatalistic side that Averbakh's life has sometimes had.
In the 4th round, Averbakh had White in this endgame against Igor Bondarevsky.
Bondarevsky has just played 57...d3 and was probably waiting for his opponent to resign.
It so turns out that a few months earlier, Averbakh had been a judge at the USSR Championship for Composition. Genrikh Kasparian had sent in a study.
The intended solution would surely have brought yet another prize for the Armenian composing genius: 1.Rb3 h4 2. Be5 Kf5+ 3. Bg3 Qc6+ 4. Kh2 h3 5. Kxh3 Qh1+ 6. Bh2 Qf1+ 7. Kg3 Qc4 8. Rf3+ Kg5 9. Bg1 Qg4+ 10. Kh2 Qxf3, with an incredible stalemate. But Kasparian's honesty cost him the prize, as he later sent an alternative solution to the judges (admitting it was "cooked"): White does not have to move the bishop as 1.Rb3 h4 2.Rh3 Qxg7 is a draw!
Back to Averbakh's game against Bondarevsky: the game continued with 58.Rfxd3 Qxd3 59.Rxa4+ Kd5?
A step in the wrong direction. In order not to be cut off, better was 59...Kb3 60.Rxh4 Kc2. 60.Rxh4 Ke6? (60...Qg6+ was still winning after some precise moves) 61.Rh3! and Averbakh finally reached the drawn endgame he knew by a fortunate coincidence! Bondarevsky probably could not believe his eyes, but had to agree to a draw on move 74.
The story could have ended there, but it so happens that the discoverer of the fortress is not Kasparian but Grigoriev — the same Grigoriev who made Averbakh fall in love with chess before dying tragically in 1938, and whose analysis, published posthumously in 1952, contained this endgame.
At the Stockholm 1952 Interzonal, the top 5 were to qualify for the Candidates Tournament planned a year later in Zurich, thus getting the Grandmaster title.
Averbakh had to draw his last (21st!) game against Hermann Pilnik to finish 5th. After having suffered the whole game, Averbakh played the drawing move with only a few seconds on his clock!
The last move before the time control 40...a5! made sure that both the queenside pawns would get exchanged, and a draw was agreed on move 68.
Yuri Averbakh finished 10th out of the 15 players in Zurich, scoring 6 losses, 17 draws and 5 wins, including two against former World Champion Max Euwe. Here is the conclusion of one of them:
36...Nxa3! 37.Bxa3 Nb5 38.Bc1 Nxc3! (38...a3 39.Kd2!=) 39.Ne2 Nb1! 0-1
Playing 28 games against the best players in the world, excluding Botvinnik, proved to be the best training. At the 1954 USSR Championship, Yuri Averbakh was walking on water!
Averbakh is not the type to show off, but who can resist when the most spectacular move is also the best? A rook down against Geller, Averbakh sacrificed the other one with 46...Rd1! and White had to resign!
"Why didn't I become World Champion?" wonders Yuri Averbakh in this fascinating interview given to bg.ru. He explains:
The thing is that I divide chess players into several groups.
The first group is Killers. If you compare it to boxing, it's those who not only try to win but who try to knock the other out, and in chess — to crush them. Botvinnik, Fischer and Korchnoi were like that, and Kasparov also has those traits.
The second group is Fighters. They put on a good fight, but they don't have to knock out their opponent; they just have to win. Lasker was like that, Bronstein, Tal, although Tal has some artistic traits.
The third group is Sportsmen. For them, chess is the same kind of sport as tennis. That is, they put themselves out there really well, but when the sport comes to an end, they are normal, ordinary people. Capablanca was like that, Keres too.
And the fourth group is the Players, for whom chess is one kind of game. They play cards, they play dominoes, they're ready to play anything. The classic representative of this group is Karpov. All World Champions belong to one of these four groups.
And then there are two more groups — Researchers and Artists. None of them have ever become champions; they are not motivated enough.
I'm a researcher. I'm interested in chess as a subject of research.
Max Euwe +2 -0 =0
Averbakh won both their Zurich 53 games.
Mikhail Botvinnik +3 -11 =14
Yuri Averbakh was one of Botvinnik's sparring partners.
Vasily Smyslov +1 -3 =9
Smyslov was born one year before Averbakh, in 1921.
Mikhail Tal +0 -5 =8
Tal and Averbakh first met at the 1954 2nd Soviet Cup. With the white pieces, young Misha did what he would become famous for: create chaos.
Averbakh spent a lot of time untangling the complications, and he ended up making his 40th move a few seconds too late.
While Tal pondered his 41st move, the clock showed that Averbakh's flag had fallen. As the position is a dead draw, Misha wanted to make a draw, but his captain forbade it. That was Tal's first win against a Grandmaster!
Tigran Petrosian +4 -2 =16
Another World Champion against whom Averbakh has a +2 score!
Boris Spassky +0 -4 =7
At the 1956 USSR Championship, the title seemed to be a race between Averbakh and Spassky, but Mark Taimanov won his last three games to force a tie-break (which, back then, was still played in Classical Chess!).
Against Boris' King's Indian, Averbakh played the variation to which he gave his name. For 13 moves, Yuri was still following his crushing victory against Oscar Panno played two years before. On move 16, Spassky played what Tim Krabbe describes as the most fantastic chess move ever played!
Averbakh then spent one hour before finally taking the knight!
In his autobiography, Yuri Lvovich recalls:
It turns out that my thoughts were occupied by the following problem: what was better — to try and continue the attack or to concern myself with realizing the material advantage? And, after much hesitation, I chose the first option. Strictly speaking, this was not the best decision and was at the least a double-edged one: the position in the center and on the queenside would be opened up, and my king could then also be in danger. But from the practical viewpoint, there was nothing at all to think about. I should have taken the knight, and only then decided what to do next. However, as I said earlier, my state was far from normal, and my tired brain found it hard to withstand the resulting load.
After many twists and turns, the game ended in a draw. This missed half-point cost Averbakh a 2nd USSR Championship title in a row. Taimanov scored 3/4, Averbakh 2.5, and Spassky 0.5.
Bobby Fischer +0 -0 =1
Averbakh's peak was already behind him when he met the 15-year-old American prodigy in 1958.
Fischer was not known for offering draws in complicated positions. After 21 intense moves of an Averbakh variation of the King's Indian, he made an exception for Yuri. Bobby later smirkingly explained what happened.
Averbakh was afraid of losing to a child, and I was afraid of losing to a grandmaster. And so we agreed to a draw!
Anatoly Karpov +0 -0 =1
Yuri Averbakh met the 12th-World-Champion-to-be at his 16th and last USSR Championship in 1970, 22 years after his first one!
Garry Kasparov +0 -2 =0
Averbakh met Kasparov for the first time in a 1974 simul and again in a classical game in 1982. Garry won both games.
Even though he kept playing for many years, Yuri Lvovich quit professional chess at the age of 40. Since then, he has done every chess-related job you can imagine.
Yuri Averbakh has been a second to four World Champions for their World Championship matches: Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky! In addition, he also was one of Botvinnik's sparring partners!
Averbakh became an International Arbiter in 1969. He was the arbiter for one of the Karpov-Kasparov matches, as well as the Kasparov-Short and Kasparov-Kramnik matches!
After the 1972 World Championship crisis, the Soviet authorities turned to Averbakh to rectify the situation. He was President of the USSR Chess Federation from 1972 to 1977. He also had significant roles in FIDE.
Averbakh has written at least a dozen books. His Journey to the Chess Kingdom literally taught millions of Russian children how to play chess.
He displayed his encyclopedic endgame knowledge in the 5-volume series "Comprehensive Chess Endings."
The erudite Grandmaster has also written about chess history.
Averbakh was editor-in-chief of several Russian chess magazines, including the famous "Chess in the USSR."
Disclaimer: This impressive list of occupations is far from exhaustive.
Averbakh sums up his chess life in the preface to his Selected Games.
I have spent a long life in chess, and have been not only a player but also a trainer, arbiter, journalist and publisher; I have been an administrator of my own country's federation and internationally. And I am eternally grateful to the royal game for the fact that it has brought me so much joy, the joy of creativity. I should like to repeat the words of Siegbert Tarrasch, that chess, like love and music, has the power to make men happy!
Yuri Averbakh became the oldest living Grandmaster when Andor Lilienthal died at 99 years and 3 days old in 2010.
Averbakh has officially been the oldest Grandmaster ever since last year, but some worrying news shocked the chess world in June.
Fortunately, COVID turned out to be just another opponent beaten by Averbakh, whose contributions are still relevant.
Yuri Lvovich Averbakh is now the first ever Grandmaster to become 100 years old. The specialist has applied the most famous of endgame principles to his own life: Do Not Hurry!
Congratulations, Yuri, the living legend status suits you perfectly!
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