Text: Vlad Tkachiev

Photos: Irina Stepaniuk


Yury Averbakh on chess history, different types of player, a criminal gang made up of the world’s leading chess players and much more.

V.T.: As far as I’m aware you’ve got an extremely interesting theory of the reasons behind the origin of the game of chess.

Y.A.: The story is as follows: first of all, in order to play you need free time. When primitive man walked around gathering food he had little free time – he had to defend himself against animals and fight off enemies. After the emergence of cattle rearing, however, it turned out that the cattle would wander about while you sat and did nothing. I discovered that not just anywhere but in Nepal, in 1986. They were holding the Spartakiad, which involved two forms of intellectual game: chess, which in Nepal is called “wise move”, and their own national game “leap of the tiger”. What’s that? It involves 4 tigers, 20 goats and a square board, though the moves aren’t made to squares but along the intersections. The goats only have the right to move when all 20 of them are on the board, while the tigers capture as in checkers – by jumping. It’s clearly a very old game. The second thought occurred to me during a few of my trips to India. Rice began to be planted there in the second century BC. There’s a feature of rice: when it’s almost ripe you need to wait another 3 days until it’s fully ripened, and the fear at that point is that the birds will peck away at it. At that time the villagers would all go out together – men, women and children. Well, and what could they do? So they thought up a game, one very similar to Chaturanga, by which I mean it’s played by 4 people. The board was 5 by 5. That made me think about how chess could have arisen there.

V.T.: And is that your original point of view, or has someone else proposed it?

Y.A.: No-one. Another important point is that I’m sure it didn’t happen without the Greeks, as Indian philosophy doesn’t give free rein to the will. Instead fate governs everything. The way you live determines… well, you know about reincarnation.

V.T.: It determines whether you’ll turn into a flower or something unpleasant!

Y.A.: Yes, exactly. So it was necessary to find a civilisation that possessed free will.

It’s well-known who that was – the Greeks. I began to look and see what contacts they had with the Indians. And it turned out that from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD there were states in India where the writing on coins was in two languages – Sanskrit and Greek – so the rulers were Greeks. But why did the Indians start to play chess? The thing is that after Alexander the Great, who created a giant state that broke apart after his death, India began to suffer invasions from a series of Central Asian tribes. So in order to fight against the nomads the Indians were forced to learn the art of war. Their legend has roughly the following to say about that: once upon a time there lived a father and a son. After the death of the father the son was told there were enemies all around and it was necessary to prepare to defend.

The only thing was that he didn’t know how. And then a wise adviser invented the new game.

V.T.: So chess was thought up as a war simulation?

Y.A.: Yes, exactly. And when chess penetrated into Iran it began to be used deliberately for the training of young princes in the art of war. There was even a phrase I brought back from India:

“I don’t understand a Padishah who’s incapable of playing chess! How can he rule over his kingdom?”

V.T.: And who exactly does the phrase belong to?

Y.A.: Ardashir Papagan, although it’s likely it’s only attributed to him, as he lived at a time when chess didn’t yet exist.

V.T.: A few years ago I came across an article on chessbase.com which gave a detailed justification for the Chinese theory on the origin of chess. As far as I understand it you’re sceptical about that, yes?

Y.A.: Yes. The thing is that in the first version of the Chinese game the pieces were magnetised. But the most important point is that they also lacked free will, while the main principle of chess is to score a victory using reason.

V.T.: While for the Chinese heaven prevails over everything?

Y.A.: Exactly! They predicted how a battle would end using a magnet. I support the generally accepted European point of view on the origin of chess, as I don’t see any convincing counter-arguments from the Chinese. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re definitely wrong.

V.T.: According to your research is it true that chess arose at the end of the 5th century in India?

Y.A.: Not long ago in 1985 a book was published by the Englishman Eales, in which he points out that before the 7th century no information about chess appeared at all, and all the rest is just speculation. That really is the case.

V.T.: So everything about what happened before then is a paraphrase of some other sources.

Y.A.: Yes. A paraphrase and, perhaps even more likely, an interpretation of those sources. For example, almost the first evidence is considered to be the Kingdom of Harsha, that the poet Bana wrote a poem about. It’s called “Harshacharita”, and he writes that at the time, somewhere around the year 640, everything was calm, and “only the bees argued while they sucked out the nectar, feet were cut off only in verse and chaturanga was set up on the ashtapada”.

Chaturanga was a formation of four army divisions, while ashtapada was an 8x8 board. The text of the poem is one of the main reference points in the study of chess history.

V.T.: I’ve read a few times about the astrological significance of chess, and how you could use it to predict the future. Is that true or not, or is it just one of many theories?

Y.A.: Well, that’s already secondary.

V.T.: For example, the way backgammon is played makes that purpose obvious.

Y.A.: No, although that’s completely obvious in backgammon the same isn’t true of chess. Do you know what the tax inspectorate was called in England after William the Conqueror? The Chamber of the Chessboard.

V.T: I read about that, the “Exchequer”?

Y.A.: What did William the Conqueror do? He described all the property in his kingdom: animals, land, water and so on. You see that was necessary to collect taxes.

V.T.: In other words, all of a person’s property was reflected on a table divided into white and black squares, and depending on that the taxes were somehow calculated?

Y.A.: Moreover, it was as if it was a clash between the sheriff who conducted the affairs and the man paying the taxes. The most interesting thing was that the people who worked in the office were called “Barons of the Exchequer” and each of them could incorporate the chessboard into their coat of arms. It had nothing to do with chess but only the Exchequer.

V.T.: Well yes, after all the Normans spoke French…

Y.A.: Of course.

V.T.: And does the Croatian flag have any relation to what you’re saying?

Y.A.: I can’t yet say anything about the Croatians. Another matter – and you might laugh – is that taxi drivers received checkers for that.

Have you ever watched car competitions? Pay attention! The flag’s a chess one..

V.T.: The flag remained behind from the taxmen?

Y.A.: And passed to judges!

V.T.: Ah! Very nice!

Y.A.: I’ve looked into these things simply for amusement: where does something come from and how does it happen? For example, here’s a simple question: where did the expression “hot dog” come from?

V.T.: I like such questions myself, but I don’t know the answer to that one.

Y.A.: I can explain it very simply to you: the thing was that in Hamburg sausages where known in German as: “heiß rund” – which means “hot round”. Someone made a mistake and instead of that said “heiß Hund”. Hund is a dog. And that was that!

V.T.: And German immigrants brought it to America!

Y.A.: Where does the word “dollar” come from?

V.T.: Don't know.

Y.A.: From “taler”. The most popular coin in Medieval Europe was the Austrian taler. And later it turned into the dollar. Another one: where does the word “academy” come from?

V.T.: I remember reading about that: when Plato returned from exile he began to describe the place he met his students after a God there – Akademos, it seems…

Y.A.: That’s not right at all!

Akademius was the owner of the garden where they sat. So you see it’s really fascinating!

V.T.: I’m a great fan of such things myself.

Y.A.: Another amusing example: “lebezit” (a Russian word meaning “to fawn” – WhyChess) – “Ich liebe dich”. I was once travelling in a train with a professor who told me the history of Russian swear words, and my jaw dropped as I listened. And where’s “sharamyzhnik” (“parasite” – WhyChess) from – “cher ami”. It’s a very interesting feature of the Russian language – an incredible number of words borrowed from other languages have for some reason acquired a contemptuous meaning here. For example, the simple Polish word “zmiotki” means “things”. But for us it means rags: “Get your rags out of here!”

V.T.: Returning to chess history, you don’t share the mystic theories of the origin of chess?

Y.A.: No, I stick to the scientific and mathematical approach.

V.T.: I read that in Arabic Andalusia chess was taught in universities, and the most beautiful mansubas (an ancient analogue of the modern chess study in Arabic and Central Asian countries – WhyChess) were more popular than paintings. I was always interested in understanding the features of the mentality of those people and what they saw when looking at those positions.

Y.A.: I can’t say. After all, the point is that

the first European book on chess was the treatise of the King of Castile and León, Alfonso the Wise.

103 pictures which allow you to determine how many Arabs, Christians and Jews there were in Spain. Of course those calculations don’t 100% coincide with the statistics, but they give a rough impression of the relative numbers of those three groups. By the way, on Spain – where did the modern form of chess with the current moves of the queen and bishop arise?

V.T.: I read your article – in the 15th century in Spain a group of intellectuals decided to change the rules of the game and one of them even wrote a poem about it.

Y.A.: Yes. They called the game “Juego de la Dama”, in honour of Isabella of Castile – that same fanatic who dispatched Columbus to America and expelled the Jews from Spain. And she was, by the way, much more powerful than her husband Ferdinand. When Isabella married him he wasn’t yet a king but she was already a queen. Hence she was the one mentioned, as after all she’d managed to unite Spain. (Yury Lvovich had in mind that for this reason it was decided in Spain in the 15th century to make the queen the most powerful chess piece on the board, modelled on the all-powerful Queen Isabella – WhyChess). During her reign the last Arab territories – Granada and Cordoba, ceased to exist. The Spaniards have now published a whole series of books devoted to that topic.

V.T: Do you think that somewhere in Southern Spain – in the libraries of Granada or Seville – there still remain some chess sources left by the Arabs? Or was everything burned and destroyed?

Y.A.: The most terrible thing, of course, is that little was left after the Reconquista. There are essentially three books: one was published in 1495 by Francesc Vicent, the second book was by Luis Ramírez de Lucena and the third by Pedro Damiano. That was published in Rome in 1512. All three of those books were written by Jews expelled from Spain. So what happened to them led, ironically, to the spread of chess.

V.T.: When a match was played between Lopez and, it seems, El Greco…

Y.A.: …between Lopez and Giovanni Leonardo. The latter was an Italian known as “the kid”. That was in 1475 at the court of King Philip II.

Luigi Mussini – “Chess Tournament at the Spanish Court” (1886)

V.T.: So then, it’s well-known that for the period their match had a very decent prize fund. What would it have been in current terms?

Y.A.: It was undoubtedly a significant sum. The main thing was that the match participants were freed from taxes and given presents.

V.T.: Was the court status of the major chess players, let’s say As-Suli or Al-Adli, similar to the position of astrologers or musicians?

Y.A.: Roughly the same. There’s even a legend: when someone remarked on the beauty of flowers Caliph Al-Radi replied: “Yes, flowers are very beautiful, but nevertheless As-Suli’s mansuba is even more beautiful.” As-Suli was, of course, superior to everyone. I even call him the first grandmaster of the Middle Ages. He was head and shoulders above the rest.

V.T.: I was very glad when I read in one of your articles that if the revolution hadn’t taken place in the 15th century we perhaps wouldn’t play chess today. So the reforms were essential for its survival. It seems to me that the modern situation in chess is very similar, and that without any changes we’ll simply perish the way many other games, languages and even civilizations have. Do you agree?

Y.A.: Yes, absolutely. Firstly, there’s a joke: “Who thought up communism, scientists or simple people?” “Of course it was the simple people, because if it had been scientists they’d have experimented on rats first”. The point is that practice is the criteria of truth. You need to try things out!!!

There are ideas which live and those which die. For instance, until the war there was a game called “ShakhBoi” (“BattleChess” – WhyChess), which featured cannons, machine guns, tanks and anything else you could think of. In the Park of Culture and Rest in Moscow three games were played in the chess pavilion: checkers, chess and that battlechess.

V.T: How was battlechess played?

Y.A.: I don’t know as I never played it, but there were people who were really into it. In general, chess has proven itself very tenacious, because when it clashed with Islam after Persia was conquered by the Arabs many imams thought the game should be banned.

V.T.: Because chess could lead to gambling and temptation?

Y.A.: Yes. It was even considered the same as playing dice, or backgammon. Special rules were formulated so that the Sunnites could play chess: avoiding swearing during play, not forgetting about religious obligations and not playing publicly or for money. Chess later had problems in Europe as well, but again it withstood them. In Russia, which took its religion from Byzantium, the game was widespread, although it was treated very strictly there. In other words, chess is very tenacious and that’s something that needs to be exploited.

V.T.: How do you think that unique tenacity can be explained?

Y.A.: Perhaps it’s that games of chance, for example, attract only one kind of person, while chess attracts all different kinds. As a coach I divide chess players into six groups. The first is the “knockouters”, who I previously called “killers”. That’s Kasparov, Botvinnik, Fischer and Korchnoi. For them it’s important not only to beat their opponents, but to crush them. To knock them out.

V.T.: To break them?

Y.A.: Yes, of course. The second group are the fighters, who give everything they’ve got but don’t feel obliged to deliver a knockout. Those are Bronstein, Kasparov, I nevertheless put him in both those categories, and Lasker – a classic example. The third group are sportsmen for whom chess is simply like tennis. That’s Capablanca, Keres, Euwe and probably Kramnik.

V.T.: Karpov?

Y.A.: No. Karpov’s a pure player. The fourth group are players who play everything they can. Durak? Why not! That’s Karpov. Yanofsky also fits there.

V.T.: Tal?

Y.A.: Tal fits into two categories – a fighter and an artist. But apart from that there are also two other groups: investigators and artists. For an artist it matters not only that he wins, but how.

Investigators, meanwhile, are people for whom chess is food for thought.

That’s Tarrasch, that’s me, that’s Fine.

There are also plenty such people, though no-one from those last two groups has yet become World Champion.

V.T.: And can you give examples of artists?

Y.A.: Yanofsky, Rossolimo, Simagin.

V.T.: And maybe also Bronstein?

Y.A.: You know, things are more complicated with Bronstein. There are people who play a role all their lives, and if you’ve encountered the world of acting you’ll know some.

V.T.: He played the role of an artist?

Y.A.: Yes, he played that role. For instance, Spassky always plays the role of the Artist. I’ve had a lot of contact with the world of acting and I can see it – he’s acting! Even forgetting about it himself in the process.

V.T.: And that side is probably also strongly developed in Kasparov?

Y.A.: I don’t know. I haven’t studied him from that point of view. In any case, a lot of public figures… for example, both Tal and Spassky were transformed when they played on a stage. In 1962 at a banquet after the USSR Championship in Yerevan, Spassky, when it was his turn to speak, said: “And I want to raise a toast not only for great chess players but also for the management, and for my modest neighbour.” He noted that everyone was drinking wine while that man was drinking water. After that he paused before continuing: “…for my friend and his notebook!”

V.T.: So it was a guy from the KGB?

Y.A.: Well of course. At the time that was a bombshell! So that’s a typical display of acting for you.

V.T.: You say chess has survived for 15 centuries because it appeals to a great number of different types of people. The question arises: why does it appeal to them all?

Y.A.: Everyone can find something that interests them in chess.

V.T.: Due to the variety of moves and pieces?

Y.A.: Moves, pieces and situations on the board.

V.T.: What was, after all, the main way in which chess came to Rus’, from Byzantium or from Persia?

Y.A.: Via Khwarezm and Khazaria, although there’s no proof of that – our archaeological finds date from a later period.

V.T.: You mean what was preserved of the Vikings.

Y.A.: Yes, while nothing remained of the Khazars, as Atil (the capital of Khazaria – WhyChess) is submerged underwater, not far from Astrakhan.

V.T.: What do you think is behind the popularity of living chess, which was introduced by Charlemagne but has survived until the present-day?

Y.A.: Well, it’s a performance, and that always attracts interest. I can tell you a story: in the 50s, when our club had money problems, a man came along and offered us a way to earn money. Well, who would refuse? He needed the right to organise spectacles with living chess pieces, and he promised us piles of money. As a result the Ice Palace, which could hold 16-17,000 spectators, was the venue for a game between Smyslov and Botvinnik. I arranged it and I was also the chief arbiter. The idea was that when the pieces left the game the artist representing them would perform his act. We had Utyosov, Kozlovsky, Bernes – a top-class line-up. We also had tens of thousands of people at the “Burevestnik” Stadium in Leningrad, but the greatest number of people was in Tbilisi – 42,000. Bronstein played Petrosian.

V.T.: Why did those spectacles cease?

Y.A.: The person who organised it all stepped on someone’s toes. The Union of Theatrical Workers had a Department of Mass Events, so it seemed their thunder had been stolen. There was a lot of money involved, and in the end the man was arrested for something and sentenced to 6 years.

V.T.: What was his name?

Y.A.: Edward Weiner. He didn’t serve his full sentence, but he died soon afterwards. In 1967 there was a court case, and the accusation against him was formulated as follows: “Edward Weiner amassed a criminal gang which included Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Bronstein, Averbakh, Korchnoi, Tal…”

V.T.: It was a great financial success?

Y.A.: Everyone earned a lot, but it ended badly.

V.T.: Did anyone repeat the idea afterwards?

Y.A.: No, a lot of people thought: why? Chess is popular in any case!

V.T.: Well, that’s a problem we don’t face nowadays!

Y.A.: Yes. (laughs) There’s no longer such a problem, although living chess was still used after that.

V.T.: But it seems living chess pieces just by themselves aren’t so interesting. After all, even Mickiewicz (a great Polish poet of the 19th century – WhyChess) described how the pieces performed a song and dance as they left the board.

Y.A.: But of course, it’s theatre! You need to tell stories. Incidentally, on the issue of teaching chess: when I teach chess to children from 6 to 9 years old I demonstrate positions in which there’s a story. Something dramatic, comic, balletic – the children grasp it and find it interesting. So their education begins from perceiving chess not as a sport but as theatre. For that, however, you need specially chosen positions which are straightforward and amusing.

Do you know what I call my course? “The Theatre of Chess Pieces”.


On Averbakh interview

It is always interesting to listen from witnesses of chess history. As the older living chessmaster Averbakh has many things to tell us and, it would be very interesting to ask him about every chessmaster he knew in the past. Stories about them, their lives, their feelings, their ups and downs...