Archive for January 2nd, 2015

Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.  -Saul Bellow, Mr. Stammer’s Planet

In our modern age, where we are immured by the artifice of consumerism, it is tough to know what to buy and read. Courtesy of on-line purchasing and the emergence of e-books, we are more spoilt for choice than ever, now unsure of which format as well as what to buy in a rapidly evolving market.

Apart from experiencing the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, GM Averbakh established himself as both a noted journalist and diplomat across many decades, which is why he is a good choice of subject for chess lovers. In his ‘personal memoir’ he gives us great insight into his early life, and Moscow in the 1930’s. Some thirty pages in, chess appears and his thoughts on his opponents and the various political institutions he represented make for a fascinating read. The latter stages of the book give an insider’s account of more recent times, and opinion if Averbakh was not directly involved in the events he discusses. This does mean though, that like myself, you will be scratching your head as to what the genre of the book actually is.

It’s old news that ‘New In Chess’ are rather sloppy at times, and so the sub-title ‘A personal memoir of a Soviet chess legend’ is a little confusing, and certainly not one our self-effacing author would have chosen I’m sure. Traditionally, memoirs have a narrow focus and are nothing like how the book begins, with its strict chronology and broad subject matter, which reads more like autobiography. They are also never referred to as ‘personal’ since they are always first-person accounts. But once the author’s chess-life makes an appearance it does take ‘centre-stage’ itself and narrows the content accordingly, however, the move towards memoir quickly disappears towards the end of the book as the author spends much time describing events which he had little or no involvement in at all. For most readers this probably won’t matter at all but I found it disappointing since Averbakh writes about his own life very well. The book would have been stronger had he remained true to its purported aims. Its failure to do so was yet another predictable example of trying to cram as much material into a publication, I thought.

‘It has been said that though god cannot alter the past, historians can’ Samuel Butler

At his best, GM Averbakh describes his past as like a plaited rope with its interwoven strands representing its different aspects, all united by his chess, which is the rope itself. His efficient style and the structure of the book make for an engaging read. I noticed that, unlike many of his former comrades, Averbakh is able to resist embellishment, safe in the knowledge that the richness of the content does all the work for him.  

‘History is…never history, but history-for’ Claude Levi Strauss

‘(…) it’s one thing to recall what happened yesterday, but something else entirely when you recall what happened 50 years ago. Naturally you perceive things completely differently. In actual fact, Russian history contains an awful lot of lying, and that’s to put it mildly. Yuri Averbakh (

When writing about the many people whom he encountered Averbakh is magnanimous rather than grandiloquent. The impression you gain from reading -and it is only an impression, more on that to come- is that he is insightful, mature and consistent in his views; you understand very quickly why his exploits off the board surpassed those over it. Regarding the comments on the back cover, ‘A unique, revealing and at times unsettling story -essential reading for anyone interested in the history of chess and the Soviet Union’. Again, it is an essential read for those ‘interested in the history of [20th century] chess’, I think, but to what extent the content can be considered reliable is another matter. The major flaw with this publication is that there is no introduction so we don’t know whether research took place and what material was used. At times it’s obvious that the author was writing without assistance as his attempts to set events in context are sometimes inaccurate by decades. Writing about events 50 years ago and more is problematic on a number of levels. You would have to have a very simplistic view of how memory works, thinking we can just rewind into the past like a video cassette and replay events as we wish to think otherwise. Since Freud it has been generally accepted that we strive to forget as much as we remember and that this plays a crucial role in forming our identity and self-hood. Moving beyond there is the difficulty of understanding what exactly our relationship to the world is as our pasts aren’t just shaped by our own actions but the actions of others too. Often these are hidden from or by ourselves and may appear contingent and without a rational basis. Furthermore, the moment you employ a narrative to describe the past, you are already selecting what to and not to include, thus representing the past in its completeness quickly becomes unachievable. This is why people believe in autobiography so much, as first person accounts enable the author to appear more complete, coherent and consistent than they really are.

‘Each time I’ve been to Jouy I’ve seen a bit of canal in one place, and then I’ve turned a corner and seen another, but when I saw the second I could no longer see the first. I tried to put them together in my mind’s eye; it was no good. But from the top of Saint-Hilaire its quite another matter – a regular network in which the place is enclosed. Only you can’t see any water… . To get it all quite perfect you would have to be in both places at once; up at the top of the steeple of Saint-Hilaire and down there at Jouy-le-Vicornte’.

Proust, Remembrance of things past Vol 1 (Penguin) pg.114-115

I think the best use for Averbakh’s book is to use it to help you build up a picture of 20th century chess but bear in mind its limitations.

Some quick last thoughts… 

‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ Milan Kundera, The book of laughter and forgetting.

Averbakh is good at telling us how his life was shaped by others. I suppose if there’s ever one culture in which our decisions are made for us, Soviet Russia, with its neglect of individualism would be it. If you read the book, you will understand how vital it was to tow the party line. If you’ve ever wondered why Soviet chess became infamous for being plagued by internal dissensions, Averbakh’s book can help you understand why. Even the smallest of mistakes, such as asking to think something over instead of doing as you are told without question was enough to have your career ruined. Averbakh’s career both on and off the board suffered numerous setbacks because he made the mistake of thinking for himself whilst dealing with pedantic, and sometimes psychotic, officials. As you may know, several ex-KGB members had senior positions in chess in Soviet times, the most notorious being Baturinsky. I know very little about the KGB but feel that the book does a disservice to them, whenever they appear, all the jokes they made amongst themselves were about having someone arrested or imprisoned or shot! Happy reading.

Condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming…the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present…forgetting is essential to action…it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting’ Nietzsche – Untimely Meditations, pgs.61-62.

A nice win by Averbakh


I’ll leave you decide whether being on the fringe of the world championship cycle for a brief part of your career entitles you to the term ‘a chess legend’ but from reading his book it would appear that Mr.Averbakh was indeed a gentleman.

The Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union?

Some upcoming publications from the wonderful world of chess literature (images courtesy of Kingpin & Release the Kraken)

There are many who are fond of Kasparov's series. Do they know he didn't write much of it, employing a team up upwardly mobile  GMs to do the research for him.

There are many who are fond of Kasparov’s series. Do they know he didn’t write much of it, employing a team up upwardly mobile GMs to do the research for him I wonder?


Our overworked academic sets the record straight, amending all those rickety assertions we have become inured to over the years by titled chess players. With over 300 million pages to explore this book is a real bargain.


Notice the buzz word ‘Secrets’ there. I can’t tell you anything about this book because its a secret, so you’ll have to buy it first before realizing its a waste of money.


A shocking cover and a choice of opening that the author has never played but has recently coveted as it provides a niche in the market for our cash-strapped author.

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