I once saw a car bumper sticker at a chess tournament that said, "Old grandmaster never die…they just lose their ability to mate!" But for true longevity in the game, two great veterans of the golden age of chess - who are also the world’s oldest-living grandmasters - celebrated back-to-back birthdays this week: On Sunday, the multi-talented and sprightly Mark Taimanov had a milestone 90th birthday; while on Monday, Yuri Averbakh was 94.
With the rise of world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, Averbakh and Taimanov were among the seemingly endless conveyor belt of talented players who allowed the Soviet Union to dominate the chess scene from the 1950s through the ‘70s. And along the way, both had their chances to challenge for the world title.
Averbakh is the consummate all-rounder, equally famous for his journalism, writing, arbiting, chess politics, endgame knowledge, studies composition and his over-the-board play. He qualified for the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates’ tournament and almost repeated the feat in 1958. He did though win the Soviet Championship in 1954 - ahead of Petrosian, Taimanov, Korchnoi and Geller - and only missed out after a play-off in 1956.
There are many ‘Averbakh systems’ named after him in the King’s Indian and Modern Defences, but his true legacy to the game is his seminal four volume work on the endgame, co-authored with Vitaly Chekover, that before the advent of computer endgame tablebases, was once regarded as the 'endgame oracle.' Averbakh also served as the president of the Soviet chess federation.
Taimanov is unique as he combined two parallel careers as a Grandmaster and professional concert pianist. He played as part of a duet team with his first wife, Lyubov Bruk; and in 2000, both were immortalised in volume 15 of the Philips CD series Great Pianists of the 20th Century. However unlike his many mono-maniacal colleagues, he was able to switch seamlessly from one creative outlet to another - and indeed this switch was never a burden, as Taimanov explained during an interview with Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam for New In Chess magazine: "When I gave concerts I was taking a rest from chess and when I played chess I was resting from the piano. As a result my life has been one long holiday."
Chess-wise, Taimanov was at his peak in the 1950s as one of the world’s top 10 players. He won the Soviet Championship in 1956, winning a playoff ahead of Averbakh and Boris Spassky. And like Averbakh, he played in the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates’ tournament. He also qualified again for the Candidates’ matches in 1971, but famously had the misfortune to face a rampant Bobby Fischer in the quarterfinals, who routed him 6-0 en route to winning the world crown from the Soviets. Despite the disappointment, few though in the game have beaten six world champions (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Karpov) as Taimanov has - and later in life, in the early 1990s, he did win two back-to-back World Senior Championship titles.
Both Taimanov and Averbakh played in the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates' tournament, regarded by many as one of the greatest and most historic competitions of all time. And their clash in the sixth round was described by David Bronstein, in his seminal Zurich 1953 tournament book, to be "One of the tournament's most interesting games...".
GM Mark Taimanov - GM Yuri Averbakh
Zurich Candidates 1953
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Rubinstein Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 The Rubinstein Variation was practically de rigour for White during the era this game was played. 4...0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 b6 7.0-0 Bb7 8.a3 Bxc3 9.bxc3 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Generally in the Rubinstein, White will get the two bishops - but his dark-squared bishop is hemmed in, and Black tries to stop it from finding activity. 10...c5 11.Bd3 Nbd7 12.Re1 Ne4 Stopping White getting in e4 and activating the dark-squared bishop. 13.Bb2 Rc8 14.c4 Ndf6? In his Zurich 1953 book, Bronstein was critical of this move. Instead, he suggested 14...Rc7 with the idea of ...Qa8, ...Rfc8 and...Nf8. 15.Ne5 Rc7 16.a4! Before embarking on a kingside foray, Taimanov creates the opportunity to damage Black's queenside pawns, that could-well offer further possibilities later in the game for his rooks. 16...Nd6 17.a5 Nd7 18.axb6 axb6 19.Qh5! Taimanov seizes his chance to weaken Black on both sides of the board - he has good queenside play against his opponent's pawns, and now a clear line of attack on the kingside. Something has to give. 19...g6 20.Qh6 Nxe5 Averbakh opts to resolve sooner, rather than later, any possible chances of an x-ray mating attack on g7. 21.dxe5 Ne4 22.Bxe4! The best practical choice to keep the momentum of the attack going. If Taimanov retreats his bishop, then 22...Qd2 and suddenly Averbakh is the one looking to win. 22...Bxe4 23.Red1 Rd7 24.Rd6! (See Diagram) Taking full advantage of the x-ray mating attack on g7 to completely dominate the d-file. 24...Bb7 If 24...Rxd6 25.exd6 f6 26.Ra7 is decisive. And if 24...Qc7 25.Qf4! gains a valuable tempo by attacking the bishop. 25.Rad1 Rxd6 26.exd6 f6 27.d7 Bc6 If 27...e5 28.Rd6! is very strong, as Black can't play 28...Qc7 or 28...Qe7, as 29.Qxf8+ forces the matter. And if 28...Rf7 29.Qh3! 28.h4 While 28.Qxf8+ looks spectacular, it backfires as Black can escape into the notoriously drawn opposite-colour bishop ending after 28...Kxf8 29.Bxf6 Qxd7! 30.Rxd7 Bxd7 and a likely draw here. 28...Bxd7 29.h5 gxh5? A tougher nut for Taimanov to crack may well have been 29...g5!? 30.f4! (Not 30.Bxf6? Rxf6 31.Rxd7 (If 31.Qxg5+ Kf7 32.h6 Ke8! and the king is escaping to safety while keeping the sacrificed material.) 31...Qxd7 32.Qxf6 Qd1+ 33.Kh2 Qxh5+ with a draw) 30...gxf4 (Remarkably, if 30...g4 White's winning plan is simply 31.Kh2- g3 for an endgame win: 31...Rf7 32.Bxf6! Rxf6 33.Rxd7! Rxh6 (Now there's no perpetual after 33...Qxd7 34.Qxf6) 34.Rxd8+ Kf7 35.Kg3 Rxh5 36.Rd1! and White wins the rook and pawn ending.) 31.exf4 Rf7 32.Rd3! and Black's only hope is to head for the worse ending after 32...Qf8 33.Qxf8+ Kxf8 34.Rb3. 30.e4! Suddenly the threat is simply Rd3-g3 mating. 30...e5 31.f4 exf4 Black is now lost as 31...Qe7 falls to 32.fxe5 fxe5 33.Bxe5! Qxe5 34.Rxd7 Qa1+ 35.Kh2 Qe5+ 36.Kh3 and Black has run out of checks and lives. 32.Rd6 Qe8 33.Bxf6 Rf7 34.Rd5! Now Rg5+ mating can't be stopped without a heavy loss of material, so Averbakh resigns. 1-0