This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.
Looks at Books

Yuri Averbakh, walking treasure-house of chess history, comrade and confidant of the greatest generations of Soviet champions from Andor Lilienthal and Mikhail Botvinnik to Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, and for many years one of the most powerful men in the USSR’s chess apparatus, has hundreds of historically revealing insider-stories to tell. But he’s keeping those to himself. Instead, with the less-than-modestly entitled Centre Stage and

Behind the Scenes: The Personal Memoir of a Soviet Chess Leg- end, he gives us chatty, jumbled reminiscences of small scenes with the big chess players—enjoyable enough for a real fan of the game. Along the way, we get a taste of what it was like to steer a wary course through the Kafkaesque chambers of the old Soviet hierarchy, with divisions like the “Department of Propa- ganda and Agitation,” a phrase right at home in an old Monty Python skit. But it wasn’t funny at the time. A scribbled note made “in your file” could wreck a career or, during Stalin’s reign, get you sent right to the Gulag or even shot. And the “offense” needn’t be important or even political. In 1954, despite being national champion, Averbakh himself was made a neviezdny—one who was- n’t allowed abroad—because, cranky and tired from losses to Donald Byrne in the USA-USSR match, he refused instructions to help with teammate Alexander Kotov’s adjournment. Averbakh rehabilitated himself by joining the Communist Party. Always and everywhere, life is a series of accommodations. The next year he served as

teenage Boris Spassky’s second to the 1955 World Junior Cham- pionship. After winning the event, Spassky, channeling his salty- tongued trainer Alexander Tolush, issued a barrage of foul language while playing billiards in Antwerp with the Soviet ambassador, who dutifully reported the lapse in comportment to the Sports Com- mittee. Spassky was immediately recalled to Moscow for a hearing— which would have kept him from going to the Interzonal in Stock- holm and perhaps derailed his career. Luckily for his charge, Averbakh knew how to ooze just the right oil on the perilous waters, and the young champ went on to play in Sweden. Like anyone, Averbakh seeks to put himself in a good light.

championship match. Two years later, after Korchnoi’s defec- tion while in Holland, then-federation president Averbakh was asked to sign an official letter of condemnation. “Failing to return from a trip abroad was then considered a criminal offence, tantamount to defecting from one’s nationality,” Aver- bakh writes. Next come two sentences exquisitely framed to confess the pettiest instincts of man. “But that was not the main thing, of course. Given that Korchnoi had only recently written me an apologetic letter, I had absolutely no desire to support him now.” Averbakh signed. And he catalogs some notables who had also signed—Tal, Vassily Smyslov, Pet- rosian, Taimanov, and others—, and goes on to write that “Only a few failed to sign”—Botvinnik didn’t, Gulko, who “immedi- ately fell out of favor,” and David Bronstein, who then “became a neviezdny for a long time.” Averbakh shrugs off the arranged

draws between Soviets during interzonals with an “after-all- they’re-friends” attitude, never acknowledging the USSR’s “col- lective” approach to producing communist challengers while con- structing a Berlin Wall of collusion to block the progress over three decades of Western threats like Sammy Reshevsky and Fischer. Averbakh cruises through a quick recollection of 1953 Zurich with- out even a whisper of the conspiracy now acknowledged (with at least ostensible repen- tance) by the super-tournament’s chief chronicler and second-place finisher, Bronstein. Ironically, Bobby Fischer made

Centre Stage and Behind the Scenes: The Personal Memoir of a Soviet Chess Legend by Yuri Averbakh. New In Chess, 2011, 272 pages, $32.95 from uscf- (catalog number B0109NIC).

Averbakh president of the USSR Chess Federation. Soviet chess apparatchiks were diving out of the way before the bulldozer Bobby was driving left them try- ing to explain the shambles to their bosses. There were no oth- ers who “wanted to put their neck on the line.” That left Yuri. So they made him an offer he could- n’t “refusenik.” Averbakh felt compelled to visit

Spassky’s training camp, and the peek we get confirms the legend of Boris as the loveable, lazy Russ- ian bear of chess. “The table was

Three-time U.S. and Ukrainian champion GM Lev Alburt, who defected in 1979, told me that “Averbakh never did anything hurtful unless he was really forced to.” High praise, I suppose, for a long-term Soviet apparatchik. After all, few have the con- victions and courage of a Boris Gulko, who, in The KGB Plays Chess—a truly revelatory and important book—, recalls Aver- bakh as a willing KGB-collaborator. Sometimes, even in Averbakh’s own version, we can see through the cracks in the book’s persona. In 1974 Viktor Korchnoi had written Averbakh an insult-

ing letter blaming him for the late starting time for his finalist match with Anatoly Karpov, which turned out, when Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title, to be the de facto world

covered with dominos and playing cards, and when it came to lunchtime, a smiling Boris produced a bottle of whisky.” With all the pressure from the Kremlin to stop Fischer, you might expect instead a dour cadre of Russian theoreticians laboring into the wee hours to uncover ambushes in the Najdorf Sicil- ian. So I asked Alburt if he could verify Averbakh’s image. “Well, not exactly,” he laughed. “When I visited, it was only a bottle of vodka.” Oddly, there’s nary a diagram or a chess move in the book,

which seems a strange omission when the onboard position is central to a specific reminiscence. Just a dozen or so well-placed game snapshots would have added a lot of interest for the book’s target audience. If a book, like a restaurant meal, has to be judged in part

based on its potential, then this one is like getting a plate of beans at Morton‘s Steakhouse. They’re nice beans, but you’d expect a meatier dish.

Chess Life — February 2012 13


Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76