WORLD’S OLDEST CHESS GRANDMASTER
Born in Kaluga in Russia, southwest of Moscow, he had a younger sister. His father, a forester, was Lev Lazarevic Averbakh, a Jewish immigrant from Germany whose original surname was Auerbach, but who changed it upon arrival in Russia. His mother was a teacher.
Neither of their parents (his grandparents) approved of what was essentially a mixed marriage. His father classed himself as a Jewish atheist and his mother was devout Eastern Orthodox. In later years, asked about his religion, Yuri described himself as ‘fatalist’.
His family moved to Moscow when he was three and lived in a communal government-owned flat with no heating or electricity. They shared kitchen and bathroom facilities with three other families.
The year after Yuri was born, the chess world championships were held in the USSR, known as the ‘Moscow Tournament’. Jose Raul Capablanca beat Emanuel Lasker – and the whole of the country was entranced by chess, including his parents. Yuri himself took up the game aged 7.
That was the year he went to school. The starting age in the Soviet Union was 8, but as a bright boy, he was allowed to go a year earlier.
One of his mother’s teaching colleagues was Anna Panov. The two women became close friends. On a visit to Anna’s house, Yuri was startled to see her brother Vasily Panov playing chess against himself. Vasily was one of Moscow’s best players.
Yuri grew very tall at school, six feet and two inches. He was a boxer, skier, and an ice hockey player and was good enough to have been a professional volleyball player. He was to give volleyball up for chess.
Yuri started taking chess more seriously when he was 13. His school champion got to play a game against former world champion runner up Emanuel Lasker at the ‘House of Young Communists’ – and beat him. Yuri was just a spectator, but the lecture Lasker gave afterwards enthralled him – “I sensed that chess wasn’t simply a game but it was something more, that it was an art. And I had the urge to master that field.”
He played Andor Lilienthal in an outdoor game in a Moscow park. The game went on for 12 hours until Lilienthal made a mistake and Yuri was victorious.
And this led to him being invited to join the Moscow Chess Club. They met in the basement of the Ministry of Justice. By now Yuri was also training at the Pioneer’s Palace, where he quickly became champion.
His class finished school aged 18 in 1939. Then the boys had to sign up for two years national service. But the Second World War intervened, and his classmates were away for seven years (those that survived).
Yuri was one year younger so was spared national service. He went to train as an engineer Bauman Institute.
He had been part of a group of four close friends at school and the other three went off to war. Two returned (one as a Hero of the Soviet Union) and one died in a German concentration camp.
When the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941, Yuri was not allowed to sign up. The authorities wanted to show that normal life was still going on, so he was ordered to carry on playing chess.
But he still enrolled as a ‘New Volunteer’. He turned up in his summer boots but his supervisor told him to buy some winter boots before he was sent to duties in the east. The problem was he had very large feet. Most of the shops in Moscow were shut and those still opened did not have his size of boots. And he missed his train east (a capital offence in the Soviet Union).
So, he started walking east, along with hundreds and thousands of other people fleeing Moscow. All he had with him was a bag containing two loaves, some sugar and the few roubles given him to buy boots.
On the way he came across a truck by the side of the road that had broken down. With his engineering knowledge he fixed the truck. The driver was so grateful, he gave him a lift to Murom, from where Yuri was able to catch a train east.
And in the east he spent his war in a factory mending tanks.
He still had time to become a USSR Chess master in 1944.
After the war he returned to Moscow to pursue his career in engineering. He worked at a missile research institute and took a PhD in engineering.
But it was words from another chess master, Boris Verlinsky, that made him take stock. Verlinsky told him, “It’s too bad that you have a second career. If you were hungry, you’d long ago have become a Grandmaster.” Yuri decided to give chess a go.
In 1948 he qualified for his first Soviet Union Chess Championship – the first of 16 times he participated. He came 5th.
By now he had created his distinctive style. It was extremely defensive, designed to counter attacking chess. It was slow, laboured and not that pleasing to the eye – ‘solid’ was the phrase often used about his play. He was a great believer in using all his allotted time to make a move (and more than once time ran out and he had to forfeit a game). He believed in the tactic of wearing down his opponents.
Nevertheless, his first major success came at the 1949 Moscow championship when he beat several leading players.
This led to him becoming an International Grandmaster in 1952.
The following year, Yuri made it to the candidates Tournament (i.e. the qualifying for the World Championships). It was the closest he ever got to being world champion.
In 1954 he won the USSR National Championship.
Two years later, 1956, in the National Championships, he tied for first with Mark Taimanov and Boris Spassky. In the play offs, he finished second to Spassky. A reporter said, “Spassky played the most fantastic chess move ever played.” In response, it took Yuri an hour before he played his next move.
He represented his country on many occasions in the 1950s.
In 1956, FIDE (the International Chess Federation) made him an International Judge of Chess Competitions. From then on, his career began to change. Although he still played, he became an arbiter (i.e., chess referee), and writer, historian and journalist on chess.
He wrote 12 books including the 5-part ‘Comprehensive Chess Endings’ and a book that taught children how to play the game, ‘Journey to the Chess Kingdom’, which has become a staple in most Russian households.
He became the sparring partner of his friend Mikhail Botvinnik (a world champion) and they played each other over 25 times. Then Yuri switched his allegiance to Mikhail Tal, and Botvinnik accused him of being a traitor.
In his forties, Yuri retired from competitive chess. He had faced 9 world champions and had beaten some of them. On four separate occasions he had been the runner up in a tournament won by a reigning world champion.
He noted that Russia took chess so seriously in the 1960s, that top players were forced to train alongside the Soviet Olympic teams. He found it bizarre that such weedy specimens were in a gym alongside athletes, volleyball players and basketball stars.
In 1968, he played the 16-year-old rising American star Bobby Fischer, already known for refusing to let matches end in a draw. Their match ended in a draw. Fischer said, “Averbakh was afraid of losing to a child and I was afraid of losing to a Grandmaster. And so, we agreed to draw.”
Yuri became President of the USSR Chess Federation between 1972 and 1977. At the same time, he was the editor of ‘Chess in the USSR’ magazine.
He was the arbiter at the legendary 1984 World Championship final between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, which the latter won.
His only daughter, Evgenia (known as Jane), married his former rival Mark Taimanov. Nothing more is known about his family.
In 2010, he became the oldest living World Chess Grandmaster.
In 2017, for old times sake and aged 96, he played a game against Boris Spassky (81) again.
In 2020 he was rushed into intensive care in a Moscow hospital, with Covid-19. Expected to die, he made a remarkable recovery.
Which led him to become the first ever World Chess Grandmaster to live past 100.
He died three months after his hundredth birthday.
He once said he got no pleasure from winning, but just absolutely hated losing.
RIP – Russian International Player