Yuri Averbakh, the oldest living grandmaster, turns 100

GM Yuri Averbakh, the world’s oldest living grandmaster, is 100 years old today. After recovering from Covid last summer, he appears to be fit again and says he is still analyzing finals to keep his mind sharp.

Born on February 8, 1922 in Kaluga, a town 180 km southwest of Moscow, Averbakh is today the first chess grandmaster to become a centenarian. Before him, the oldest living grandmaster was GM Andor Lilienthal, who died in 2010, three days after turning 99.

On his 100th birthday, Chess.com got in touch with Averbakh and learned that he was doing well, both in health and in spirit.

“The Russian Chess Federation offered me a month’s treatment in a convalescent center after I was discharged from hospital,” he said of the period after contracting Covid, in June 2021. “I I’m fine now. Considering how far from my youth I can say I’m fine.”

Considering the remoteness of my youth, I can say that I am doing well.

Averbakh is still involved in chess, but only to a lesser extent. “Unfortunately, in the last few years my eyesight and hearing have diminished considerably, so I can’t work on the computer like before,” he told Chess.com. “Sometimes I meet with my colleagues and share with them the ideas that come to mind. Sometimes I analyze endgame positions. I understand that in the computer age, these analyzes do not have no practical value, but this activity helps keep my mind sharp.”

Yuri Averbakh in 2017. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Sometimes I analyze late game positions. I understand that in the computer age these analyzes have no practical value, but this activity helps me to keep my mind sharp.

It’s become difficult for the 100-year-old GM to keep up with top chess these days, but there’s one player he’s particularly fond of. “Unfortunately, I cannot follow recent matches for the reasons mentioned above. Among modern players, I have always had great sympathy for general manager Ian Nepomniachtchi. I was very happy when he became a candidate in the world championship. It’s a shame that he didn’t have enough stamina in the second half of the world championship game. However, I think his talent will allow him to win more victories brilliant.”

Ian Nepomniachtchi
Averbakh expects more results from Ian Nepomniachtchi. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

During his long life, Averbakh was not only a chess player and grandmaster; he was also an acclaimed coach, international arbiter, chess composer, endgame theorist, writer and chess historian. But what does he consider his greatest achievement?

“Thank you! It is true that I have devoted my whole life to chess and have been able to approve of myself in various aspects of this great game. At the moment, I feel that my greatest achievement is my latest book on the history of chess. I am glad that I managed to complete this work. I’ve been collecting material for this book all my life.”

We also asked if he might have a favorite game. “I recently calculated that I’ve played over 2,500 tournament matches in my life,” Averbakh said. “It’s very difficult to choose my favorite, but if I only have to choose one, I would choose the match against Sergey Belavenets, which I won in 1940 (if I’m not mistaken). It was my first victory against an eminent master and a friend who played an important role in my life. He was the one who instilled in my mind a taste for the endgame and an understanding of the secrets of his strategy.”

(Unfortunately, even with the help of chess historians, we have been unable to unearth the moves for this particular game, which was played on October 12, 1941, in an unfinished game. Moscow Tournament with the Nazi army only a few kilometers away. The game is not in the databases. If any of our readers can help here, let us know.)

Averbakh obviously met many people during his life. One of the most memorable for him was GM Vasily Smyslov: I met a lot of interesting people. I can probably single out Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov, who was notable for his philosophical mind and his ability to “grab the core”. [Averbakh likely cited from Boris Pasternak’s poem here. – PD] And there was also Sergey Vsevolodovich Belavenets mentioned above, who was a great person with high moral principles. He had a premonition that he would not return from the war and this sad omen was true.”

Smyslov was notable for his philosophical mind and his ability to “grasp the heart”.

Vasily Smyslov
Vasily Smyslov. Photo: Harry Pot/Anefo, Dutch National Archives.

Averbakh has had great success as a player. In 1944 he was awarded the title of Master of Sports of the USSR and he became a Grandmaster in 1952, setting the total number of Grandmasters in the world at 35 at the time.

Averbakh is the last living participant of the famous Candidates’ Tournament of 1953 in Zurich, one of the strongest tournaments in history about which David Bronstein and Miguel Najdorf wrote books which are considered among the best in the literature of chess.

The tournament, a 15-man double round robin, was held from August 30 to October 23, 1953 and was won by Smyslov, who would challenge GM Mikhail Botvinnik for the world title the following year. Averbakh is tied for 10th place with Isaac Boleslavsky, scoring 13.5/30.

Averbakh on the board.  |  Photo: Russian Chess Federation.
Averbakh on the board. Photo: Russian Chess Federation.

A year after the Candidates, Averbakh won the Soviet championship convincingly with 14.5/19, 1.5 points ahead of GM Mark Taimanov and GM Viktor Korchnoi, with GM Tigran Petrosian, GM Efim Geller and GM Salo Flohr also in the peloton.

At the 1958 Interzonal Tournament in Portoroz, half a point short of qualifying for another Candidates Tournament. General managers Mikhail Tal, Svetozar Gligoric, Petrosian, Pal Benko, Fridrik Olafsson and Bobby Fischer qualified. In this world championship cycle, Tal would win the crown in 1960 against Botvinnik.

Averbakh became interested in chess journalism from an early age. He was a commentator at the 1954 Smyslov-Botvinnik World Championship. From 1962, at the age of 40, he left the professional playing profession and began to focus on journalism and coaching. He was editor of several chess magazines.

Yuri Averbakh in September 2017
Yuri Averbakh in September 2017. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Averbakh also acted as chief referee for the first Karpov-Kasparov match in 1984, and for Kasparov-Short, London, 1993 and Kasparov-Kramnik, London, 2000.

He said in a previous interview that “working hard” was the secret to his longevity. However, until the age of 87, Averbakh went swimming almost every day, which probably didn’t hurt him either.

On behalf of the chess community, Chess.com wishes Averbakh health and happiness in his incredible life.

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