Yuri Averbakh, A History of Chess From Chaturanga to the Present Day. Foreword by Garry Kasparov. (Russell Enterprises. 2012.) 88 pp., $14.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
Yuri Averbakh has left his mark on almost all spheres of our beloved game. He was a great player, winning one Soviet Championship and tying for first in another while making it all the way to the Candidates tournament back in 1953. (Was he ever a trainer?) He contributed to opening theory, and a variation of the King's Indian has been named after him. At the other end of the game, he authored an incredibly important, valuable and influential series of books on the endgame. He was the President of the Soviet Chess Federation and an arbiter, too. So what's left? He has now taken a turn as a historian of the game.
Or perhaps more accurately, at least as far as this book goes, a pre-historian of the game. Averbakh traces the history of chess's forebears from its murky roots in India up to the period before its modernization in Western Europe during the Renaissance. In the first chapter Averbakh argues that the path to chess began with a race game that turned into a military game, and eventually - perhaps under the cultural influence of the Greeks - went from a game of dice and chance to one of pure skill.
There is much more, of course, as he then follows the game to Iran and subsequently other locations like Armenia, Western Europe, Russia and so on. Averbakh considers various ancient manuscripts, draws inferences from the sorts of pieces used in various precursor games, and interacts with historians of chess (including of course Harold Murray) and culture. Averbakh's research is not just from the comfort of his armchair; over the past 40-50 years he has visited many of the sites and examined crucial documents firsthand and has become a genuine expert, or at least a very sophisticated amateur historian.
The book ends at the cusp of the start of the modern game in the 1500s, which he intends to make the subject of another book. As this volume weighs in at a slim 88 pages (and that's including various fore- and end-papers), it's a pity that the books couldn't be combined. Perhaps considering Averbakh's age (he'll be 91 in less than two months) and the length of time he must spend on research and writing, it may be a prudent decision on his part.
While slim, it's an attractive volume with many illustrations, almost all of which are in color. (All pictures of ancient pieces and manuscripts are.) If you're interested in the (pre-) history of chess, it's a book you'll like. Recommended to history lovers.
(You can find an excerpt here.)