Thursday, 29 November 2012

Averbakh 26: Centre Stage and behind the scenes: Final post.

Save for providing a list of errata and footnotes that should have been in the English edition, this will be my last post about Averbakh's memoirs.

A regret I have heard from many readers of the English translation is that Averbakh should have been more open about some of the controversies that dogged the chess world at various times: whether it be Bronstein's accusations concerning Zürich 1953, or what went on at Curaçao in 1962. Many recall Taylor Kingston's interview with Averbakh, which can be found in two parts at ChessCafé: here and here. In the first link one reads the words of Averbakh: In my book I publish only what I heard and saw. I have some documents to prove what I say, which is important.

To me this provides a complete explanation for some of the omissions. For instance: I heard this story about Bronstein, that they told him Geller will make a draw with him, and they did not tell Geller, and Geller won the game against Bronstein. I doubt this is a real story.

In light of the previous declaration, why would this tale appear in Averbakh's book?

On the subject of Bronstein, I'd have liked to have read something of his protector Vainstein. I can't recall any mention of him at all in the book and his name is not in the index (neither under v nor w).

Another point raised by Kingston is: Hague-Moscow 1948: there has long been the suspicion that Paul Keres was coerced to lose to Botvinnik in that tournament, so that Botvinnik would be assured of winning the world championship.

Again Averbakh gives an answer: That is something very difficult to prove, either side is very difficult to prove. ... soldiers in that invasion had papers, orders, to arrest various important men of Estonia. And my friend had orders to arrest Keres.

Have you any papers proving it?”. I had to say no,

There's no evidence, according to Averbakh, therefore it wasn't in the book.

Keres had been to hell and back during WWII, he was of a decidedly nervous disposition. He knew what Stalin's Soviet Union was like (when the Soviets overran the Baltics following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, there were many purges and executions). Did he need to be told, particularly given the trouble he had in being allowed to play chess, that he was not a desirable champion?

Kingston related: … orders came from Stalin himself, that Smyslov and Keres should perhaps lose to Botvinnik to make it easier for him to win the world title. Botvinnik claimed, though, that he refused to go along with this; he considered it an insult.

Averbakh responded: I don’t believe that Stalin would give such a recommendation, myself. It would be completely out of character. If it was given, it could not have been given by Stalin...

I won't repeat the rest of his answer. I cannot conceive of any Soviet defying an order of Stalin's in the late 1940s over such a matter and getting away with it. Whether one dates the absolute dominion of Stalin from the murder of Sergey Kirov in 1934 or some other time, the truth was he could and did do anything he wanted; for instance, on page 593 of Let History Judge (ISBN 0 19 215362 5), Roy Medvedev gave: His personal secretary Poskrebyshev was a frequent butt. One New Year's Eve Stalin rolled pieces of paper into little tubes and put them on Poskrebyshev's fingers. Then he lit them in place of New Year candles. Poskrebyshev writhed in pain but did not dare take them off. Cruel practical jokes were also played on highly placed officials invited to visit Stalin …

To me, some of the reaction to Averbakh's work is an echo from the Cold War. It is nonsensical to assume that all Russian triumphs were a product of cheating. Indeed, I am old enough to recall a Western grandmaster, one who has been compared favourably to Soviet players, perusing at a bookstall during an Islington Congress in the early 1970s. When challenged, it was discovered that the pages open related to the position on his board! The reality was that Botvinnik, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, … were great players. Only Fischer, amongst Westerners, could claim a superiority (Fischer never played at Islington, in case there is a misunderstanding).

What Averbakh does is tell his reader what life was like in the former Soviet Union for a member of the intelligentsia; one, moreover, of suspect ethnicity. From page 49:

'Let me ask you a confidential question: under “nationality”, why have you put “Jewish”?'

'But you have a Russian mother!' exclaimed Pavlov. 'If you want the advice of an old, experienced man, change the nationality. Under the law you have the right to choose.'

Soon after, I went to the police with the application form. Reading it, the section head grinned and said: 'Isn't it funny how all these Jews want to become Russian?'

Notwithstanding what that hated relic of Czarism the internal passport showed, Averbakh's name was a big clue as to his racial origins. Anyhow, here are the words of Article 123 of the Stalin Constitution:

Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.

Averbakh does describe some of the deal making that went on; and how it did not always go to plan. He was approached by the Moscow master Viktor Liublinsky with a draw proposal, which was agreed given this would not jeopardise Averbakh's prospects of qualification for the main contest. Liublinsky then got Averbakh tipsy before their game, which the Muscovite, contrary to the arrangement, went on to win.

I liked the mini-portraits of some of the figures of Soviet chess painted by Averbakh. It's a pity there were not more. I was entertained when I read how Spassky had thumped Aivars Petrovich Giplis when both were playing in the Soviet students team. Giplis was of grandmaster strength long before being awarded the title at the age of thirty. As related in previous posts by me, Averbakh's humour has sometimes been skipped in the translation. Fortunately surviving the cull was his account of how Postnikov, as head of the delegation to the 1953 Candidates, booked the Soviets into a hotel in the middle of the red light district in Zϋrich. It took him a week to extricate the players!

The lack of empathy of Soviet officials shines through when one reads that Averbakh was not informed of the death of his father, lest his play suffer in a match against the French in Paris.

In summary, as a social study, this book is outstanding. Regrettably, the number of mistakes in the English version is excessive, which will mar it for some; indeed, I very much doubt that much editing was done, presumably on the grounds of cost. Possibly, too, there should have been more attention paid to some of the oral histories; however, Averbakh is not alone in downplaying that.

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