“It’s always interesting to watch his games because he always goes for it, he never plays for a draw!” So said Magnus Carlsen of Jan-Krzysztof Duda, and the 22-year-old Pole has the potential to make as big an impact on the game as some of the legends of Polish chess, from Rubinstein to Tartakower to Najdorf. Marcin Furdyna provides a whistle-stop tour of the brilliant and tragic history of Polish chess in the second installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.Of the many brilliant anecdotes that circulate about Polish chess players, many concern Ksawery (Savielly) Tartakower. In 1924, while attending the New York International chess tournament, he visited the Bronx Zoo on a day off. At some point, he walked up to a cage with an orangutan, took out a small chess set and asked the animal what opening he should play in the next round. No one knows whether the animal had studied chess before, but she (as her name was Susan) reportedly told Tartakower to play 1.b4, and so he did.
Probably more than a few eyebrows rose when I wrote that Tartakower was a Pole. It is understandable, as he seems to be widely known as a great post-war French player, at least in the West. Nevertheless, before 1939, he was a successful representative of Poland’s team, one of the strongest of its time.
Rubinstein was by far the best Polish player of all time. He led Poland’s team to its first and only gold medal at the Chess Olympiad in Hamburg, Germany in 1930, accompanied by Ksawery Tartakower, Dawid Przepiórka, Kazimierz Makarczyk and Paulin Frydman; all of them, except for Makarczyk, had Jewish origins. Poland was among the favourites for the title after finishing third in the Hague two years before, even though the line-up, including a Hungary led by Géza Maróczy, was extremely competitive.
The Poles simply destroyed the Hungarians 3.5-0.5 in the first round and over the course of the entire tournament they only lost to the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. Rubinstein ended undefeated, scoring 15/17 and taking the main individual prize, whereas Tartakower was outplayed only by Vladimirs Petrovs from Latvia. Shaking hands with the winner, Tartakower said, “Poland is not yet lost,” quoting the first words of the national anthem. Indeed it was not, and Poland took gold, finishing a full point ahead of Hungary.
Poland kept playing its best chess with outstanding results. At the Olympiad in Prague the following year, the same line-up secured second place behind the United States. Unfortunately, as it turned out, it was Rubinstein’s last appearance. Tartakower noted that Rubinstein was a man of great sportsmanship who had a habit of walking away from the chessboard in order not to disturb his opponents. This obviously cost him a lot of time and he would often have to be brought back to the table. But as of 1932, Rubinstein had walked away for good, giving up professional chess because of anthropophobia and schizophrenia.
It was Tartakower who then had to play first fiddle on the national team. Right after becoming the Polish Champion in mid-1935, he went on a tour around the country to complete, as captain and coach at the same time, the line-up for the upcoming Olympiad in Warsaw later that year. In Toruń, he played a sparring match against young Mieczysław (Miguel) Najdorf in a café, which he surprisingly lost. That was how Najdorf, along with Makarczyk, Frydman and Henryk Friedman, secured spots on the Olympic team. Poland finished third, much to the disappointment of many fans who had hoped for gold. The following Olympiads in Munich, Germany in 1936 (unofficial) and Stockholm, Sweden in 1937 brought other podium finishes - second and third place respectively.
Nevertheless, the golden age of Polish chess was soon to end, and the 8th Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Argentina in August-September 1939 was its swan song. As soon as the news of the German invasion of Poland came to South America on September 1st, it left the Poles dumbfounded. Najdorf, who had initially secured a better position against a Dutch player Nicolaas Cortlever on board two, was shocked and barely able to continue the game; he lost a pawn, then the game. It was only after the war that he found out that the Nazis had murdered his entire family.
Poland, represented by Tartakower, Najdorf, Frydman, Teodor Regedziński and Franciszek Sulik, finished second, losing to Germany, both over the board and in the field. As it turned out, the war was a brutal conclusion of the success story of Polish chess.
Politically, socially, and even geographically, Poland was no longer the same country in 1945 as it had been before the war. This applied to chess as well. Najdorf and Frydman decided to stay in Argentina; the latter even retired from professional chess for health reasons in 1941. Sulik fought the Nazis in the Polish army in Italy, then emigrated to Australia where he played chess with some success. At the same time, many Polish players of Jewish descent fell victim to the Holocaust. To name but two, Przepiórka was murdered in one of the mass executions in Palmiry near Warsaw in 1940, and Izaak Appel disappeared mysteriously after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.
In 1950, FIDE officially bestowed the grandmaster title upon Rubinstein in recognition of his past achievements. In the 1950s, though, he was already a shadow of the man, let alone the chess player, he had been; he died a couple of years later in Belgium. Finally, Tartakower became a French citizen, successfully continuing, like Najdorf, his chess career. It is worth noting that the only member of the gold team of 1930 who was able and chose to play in post-war Poland was Kazimierz Makarczyk. Even though he became the national champion in 1948, there was no doubt that the glory days of Polish chess were nothing more than a vague memory.
Nonetheless, despite the lack of significant success in the international arena (maybe except for the 3rd place at the Women’s Chess Olympiad in Valetta, Malta in 1980), there were at least a dozen relatively strong male and female Polish chess players in the following decades: Bogdan Śliwa (an autodidact and “great fighter, ready to play for a win even against the devil,” according to Jacek Bednarski, another talented player), Jerzy Kostro, Aleksander Sznapik, Włodzimierz Schmidt, Aleksander Wojtkiewicz, as well as Krystyna Radzikowska, Grażyna Szmacińska and Hanna Ereńska-Radzewska, to name but a few.
That decades-long stalemate seemed eventually to be broken at the turn of the 21st century when Michał Krasenkow became the first Polish player to cross the 2700 rating threshold. Two years later, in 2002, Bartłomiej Macieja won the European Championship in Batumi, Georgia. At the same time, the Polish Women’s team took bronze at the 35th Chess Olympiad in Bled, Slovenia in 2002 and gold at the European Chess Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2005. In the meantime, Radek Wojtaszek’s brilliant career gathered pace. He became the European Rapid Champion in 2008 and won the silver medal at the European Chess Championship in 2011, and that is not forgetting the fact that he had for years been a second to the World Champion Vishy Anand.
That was the moment when the Polish Chess Federation saw the opportunity to take advantage of Wojtaszek’s success. In 2011, along with the Comarch company, it brought the Wojtaszek Comarch Team to life, with the then Polish no. 1 as leader, assisted by grandmasters Grzegorz Gajewski, Bartosz Soćko, Kamil Mitoń and Artur Jakubiec.
The idea, in short, was all about supporting a few gifted youngsters, Jan-Krzysztof Duda among them, to build up a solid national chess team that would be able to compete with the best at the Chess Olympiad in 2018 - the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining independence. Tomasz Sielecki, the then president of the federation responsible for establishing the project, pointed out that the main goal was to hark back to the tradition of Polish pre-war chess.
Bearing in mind that Poland's last great success had been achieved 70 years earlier, one could say that such an ambitious task was almost impossible to accomplish. However, it turned out that, to a great extent, all the effort paid off. First, Poland took bronze at the World Chess Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia in 2017, slightly increasing the team's odds before the Olympiad the following year. But the performance of the Polish team in Batumi, Georgia exceeded the wildest expectations. Admittedly, Poland did not achieve a podium finish, but the players fought tooth and nail to reach a still historic 4th place, taking down such giants as the United States and Russia en route.
The news made headlines around the world: Poland had emerged as a dark horse for the tournament, with Jan-Krzysztof Duda playing first fiddle.
When asked in interviews about his ultimate goal, Duda puts it bluntly, “to become the world champion one day.” He considers the current world no. 1 a “genius” and the “Mozart of chess,” but it only motivates him to get better. Before this year’s tournament in Wijk aan Zee, he half-jokingly said he was “out for Carlsen’s scalp.” All he managed to get there was a draw.
As a matter of fact, Duda already knows how it feels to be on top. Born in 1998 in Cracow, Poland he began his jaw-dropping international career in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam in 2008 by becoming the U-10 World Champion. He reportedly told his coach, Leszek Ostrowski, that if he won the title there would be no need for him to practice anymore. In the following years he collected many feathers in his cap, wining the European Rapid Chess Championship in 2014, scoring 8.5/11 on board three at the 41st Chess Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway that year, and losing by inches to Mikhail Antipov in the World Junior Chess Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia in 2015.
This dizzying junior career would probably not have been possible without his family’s support, and above all that of his mother Wiesława. She introduced him to chess when he was 5.5 years old by signing him up for a local club in Wieliczka, near Cracow. It is also worth mentioning that back in 1991, her sister Czesława Pilarska, then Czesława Grochot, became the Polish Women’s Champion and drew her game in a simultaneous exhibition against Garry Kasparov. Needless to say, she is also a keen supporter of her nephew.
In the club, Duda learned the rules of chess from Andrzej Irlik, his first coach. As of 2006, he had been working with Leszek Ostrowski and, occasionally, with Jerzy Kostro. Ostrowski, an IM himself, had shaped Duda as a strong grandmaster and “made him a killer,” as Jan-Krzysztof’s mother once reportedly said. Since 2014, Duda has perfected his skills while accompanied by grandmaster and gifted trainer Kamil Mitoń, a former coach of the Polish men’s team. Combined with long-lasting assistance from the Polish Chess Federation and the University of Physical Education in Cracow, where Jan-Krzysztof is currently studying, that paved the way for him to become a grandmaster right after his 15th birthday and join the elite 2700 club already by the age of 19.
However, it was only in 2018 that Duda set the chess world on fire by defeating many top-ranked opponents and drawing everyone’s attention to his brilliant and sometimes foolhardy blitz games, both over the board and on the internet. It was also high time for him to put his own house in order by winning the Polish Chess Championship in classical chess for the first time. The result? He took the crown almost effortlessly, finishing a full point ahead of the defending champion Kacper Piorun and beating the then Polish no. 1 Radek Wojtaszek. Nonetheless, Mateusz Bartel, a 4-time Polish Champion, wrote after the event that Duda had not actually shown his enormous potential during the tournament and that the peak of his talent was yet to come.
As subsequent events showed, Bartel was right. However, this time Duda shone in blitz, taking down such strong players as Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk in the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship. The icing on the cake, though, was his incredible performance in the World Blitz Chess Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia in December, when he finished as runner-up to Magnus Carlsen, ahead of Hikaru Nakamura. Fueled by Red Bull and winning game after game on the final day, Duda was chasing the Norwegian to the very end. He not only took silver but at the same time became the first Polish player to cross the 2800 rating barrier, albeit in blitz.
And this is precisely the type of chess that Duda prefers: sharp and messy positions with plenty of tactical opportunities and no time on the clock. He is just like a shark: when he smells blood, he goes all-in, even though it can sometimes backfire badly. Nevertheless, Duda considers himself a rather universal player. He was brought up on Rubinstein’s games, but now he believes that his style resembles that of Bobby Fischer, at least to some extent.
Although they have cooperated and learned from each other for years, Duda often points out that he is a completely different player to Wojtaszek. Whereas the latter is always well-prepared and memorizes a lot of lines, Duda likes bluffing, even in the opening, and relies, to a great extent, on his intuition; that's why people love watching his games. Magnus Carlsen said about Duda while commentating on the 2018 Olympiad:
I think he still has a long way to go when it comes to experience and understanding, but he makes up for a lot of it by being very energetic and extremely optimistic as well. It’s always interesting to watch his games because he always goes for it, he never plays for a draw.
So far, no more than four Polish players have been able to defeat a reigning world champion over the board: Akiba Rubinstein (vs. Lasker) in 1909, Savielly Tartakower (vs. Alekhine) in 1933, Michał Krasenkow in 1998 (in a match against FIDE World Champion Anatoly Karpov), and Radek Wojtaszek (vs. Carlsen) in 2015. Will Jan-Krzysztof Duda soon join them? He is definitely capable of competing with the best in all formats, not only in rapid or blitz, which he showed in 2019 in the Hamburg Grand Prix, where he only lost in the final in a thrilling match against Grischuk.
Will it be enough to defeat the “Mozart of chess”? Well, as Tartakower once said, “The move is there, but you must see it.”
How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!
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