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Duda: 'Since I Was Six Or Seven, I Have Been Convinced That I Would Become World Champion'
GM Duda was interviewed by Chess.com's FM Dawid Czerw. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Duda: 'Since I Was Six Or Seven, I Have Been Convinced That I Would Become World Champion'

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Chess.com's Polish Director FM Dawid Czerw sat down with GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda, one of the youngest players in the 2022 Candidates Tournament field and the man who broke GM Magnus Carlsen's record-breaking undefeated streak. Among other things, Duda talked about his chess studies, hobbies, and how he's preparing for the Candidates, which starts on June 17. 

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Chess.com's coverage of the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament runs from June 16 through July 7. This event is the most important of the year as the world's best players gather to fight for a chance to play for the world championship title in 2023. Follow all of the action on Chess.com's Events page!


Let’s start with the question about your first name? Is Jan-Krzysztof a compound first name or are they two separate ones?

Technically, it is one name with a pause between Jan and Krzysztof. Actually, this was my parents’ idea.

They couldn't agree on which name to choose and decided to make one out of two?

It's a complicated story, which I can't quite remember. There were various external factors that influenced this choice. Originally it was supposed to be the other way round, Krzysztof-Jan, but it didn't sound too good. Jan-Krzysztof sounds way better, so they stuck with that.

2022 Chess Candidates Duda
Duda all smiles after his World Cup victory. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Everyone knows that the Candidates is an extremely important event, so all participants must be preparing their special novelties. Are you now trying to avoid playing openings that you have up your sleeve for the Candidates?

I try not to give away my preparation for the Candidates. I may play something from my prep from time to time because if you try to keep things a secret too much, it may have quite the opposite outcome and what you really tried to hide may become obvious to others. I'm testing various openings now, especially with Black and especially those that I have had some problems with from White’s perspective. Of course, it makes sense to get a better grasp of tiny little details in certain openings.

As a matter of fact, now I often play quite randomly—something pops into my head, and I play it. For example, now in Warsaw (author's note: the interview took place before the Superbet Rapid & Blitz Poland) I'll decide what to play on the spot. Of course, I will do some preparation and check what has been going on in certain openings. Most often, these are new things, because I like being stimulated in such a way and I was taught to jump into the deep end. All in all, I try to be diverse and play about everything.

2022 Chess Candidates Duda

And how do you prepare at the 2700+ level? Players of that strength know virtually everything…

First, we need to clarify that there is a difference when I play White or Black. If I play Black against a strong opponent, then I'm usually satisfied with a draw and the preparation itself is much easier. I decide which opening I want to go for and there are far fewer lines to remember. You need to have something against 1.d4, 1.e4, and it would also be good if you had something against 1.c4 and 1.Nf3.

It’s easier with Black, but with White, things get a bit more complicated. When we play 1.d4, there are more than ten ways in which Black can reply and the same goes for 1.e4. However, stronger players are rather consistent in their choices. I think most of them will play 1...e5 against 1.e4 and, on the one hand, this is cool as it considerably narrows down the preparation, but on the other hand, it can be frustrating. Just imagine having to play for a win against the Berlin Defense, the Marshall, or the Italian Game.

It is frustrating for me too! When you're commentating on your tenth game in a row and you see the exact position after 15 moves, it can get a bit off-putting. And what else do you practice? Do you assume that you already know the endgames perfectly or maybe you do some puzzles to keep your calculation skills in good shape and in the end you keep drilling the openings?

I definitely spend most of my time on my opening preparation. Naturally, I can't devote 100% of my time to it, because then I will get rusty. From time to time I do puzzles although I must admit that I’m not quite keen on it—after doing that I feel mentally exhausted.

What does your typical training day look like?

I can't really describe a typical day because I'm not so fond of routine and I need variety in what I do. I practice different things at different times, mainly those miserable openings. I think I spend at least five hours a day with chess, 80% of which I devote to openings. Sometimes it’s even 100% of the day’s workload.

And except chess-related training, do you work on any other aspects, like physical preparation, diet, or psychological well-being?

I try to be active every day, I mainly focus on my stamina. I run because it's the easiest activity to do. I swam quite a lot, but I haven't had much opportunity to do that lately. I would say that my focus is on running and strength training, but it's not regular... When I took part in training camps with GM Kamil Miton (author's note: Duda’s coach) and GM Grzegorz Gajewski, we played tennis or table tennis a lot. I’m not that skilled in these sports, but I like them.

2022 Chess Candidates Duda
Duda on the tennis court. Photo courtesy Jan-Krzysztof Duda on Facebook.

Let’s go back to your preparations for the Candidates. Do you prepare for each player individually or are you going to have a general repertoire that you can use in all games?

With the black pieces, I am planning to have the same repertoire for everyone.

With the black pieces, I am planning to have the same repertoire for everyone.
— Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Does it mean that you want to take a solid approach with Black and go for the win with White?

I don't foresee a scenario where I'll be forced to win with Black. Of course, such a situation might happen, and then playing a quiet opening with Black won’t help in a must-win situation. The more openings I play, the more variations I need to memorize and that is certainly not one of my wishes. I have never liked to work on openings in great depth, let alone spend several hours a day memorizing them.

Have you ever tried any mnemonics or doing as GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek once said: "I revise over and over again until it finally sticks?"

I second Wojtaszek’s choice. We are talking about such a large number of moves that I’m not sure if any mnemonics could be helpful. It's a matter of regular repetition as this is a massive amount of material.

Sometimes fans have no clue what it looks like, but we can compare it to learning an encyclopedia by heart. And as far as your opponents from the Candidates are concerned, is there anyone that you are particularly afraid of? I hear you find it unpleasant to play against GM Alireza Firouzja—is this still the case or has something changed?

I think that the field of players is very strong, and every player is outstanding and thus uncomfortable to play against, so I don’t expect easy duels. If I were to pick players who I will feel least comfortable against, they would probably be Firouzja and maybe Fabiano Caruana. I have only won one blitz game against him, and we have already played a few classical games.

2022 Chess Candidates Duda Firouzja
Firouzja is a tough opponent for anyone, including Duda. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

There are also players who have much more experience. As I said, it is not going to be easy. It may seem that I should find it easy to play against GM Teimour Radjabov, but he plays really well in such tournaments. His style is unpredictable.

And as for the World Championship match—reportedly GM Magnus Carlsen is not so eager to play another World Championship title match. Are you concerned that the Norwegian might not want to play the next match?

I must admit that I'm not at all in a position to comment on it, as first I need to win the Candidates. However, I don't think that's true. I understand he might have a problem with motivation because he's been on top for a long time. He's already won everything in his career, so it's understandable that his motivation isn't what it used to be. But I can't imagine him giving the title away for free.

He's already won everything in his career, so it's understandable that his motivation isn't what it used to be. But I can't imagine him giving the title away for free.
— Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Apart from the tournament in Warsaw, are you planning any warm-up games? What is it like at the highest level? (author's note: Duda eventually won the Grand Chess Tour event that took place in Poland)

Yes, I play unofficial online games. They are often useful when practicing a particular opening. I practice with different players, such as Grzegorz (Gajewski), Kamil (Miton), or even players from the world top.

Duda after his Superbet Poland victory. Photo courtesy Jan-Krzysztof Duda on Facebook.

Is everyone who reaches 2600 able to hit 2700 with the right training and tournaments, or do you need to have something special?

This is a very tough question that doesn't have such a clear answer. I don't think that every 2600 player can reach 2700. Apart from hard training and, of course, playing in a variety of strong tournaments, you need to have that spark from God—natural talent. Certain circumstances must be met for the talent to become apparent. The biggest difference between players rated 2750, 2600, and 2550 is that the former generally see more on the chessboard.

I don't think that every 2600 player can reach 2700... You need to have that spark from God—natural talent.
— Jan-Krzysztof Duda

And I thought you were going to say it all boiled down to openings.

Players rated around 2750 are much more experienced. They see a lot, analyze the position better, and are more mentally resilient. In a worse position, a 2600 player may resign, while a 2750 player will fight on. They are very stubborn people; you have to push and push to win the game.

How do you work with the engine? Is it a normal PC, a super-special-hyper machine, or do you remotely connect to some powerful computers?

I connect remotely. I don’t think you need a supercomputer for that. It's hard to say how powerful a computer a chess player needs.

Let’s go back to the opening ideas. You surely remember playing in the Grand Prix 2019 against GM Wesley So. You won the first game with White, so in the second game a draw with Black was enough for you to advance. However, you went for one of the sharpest variations of the Sicilian Defense—the Dragon. What was your idea behind it?

In sharp variations, there are also a lot of forcing lines and a lot of forcing draws. I hoped it would be a big surprise for Wesley. We spent some time analyzing this variation and I played a lot of practice games, so I just thought he hadn't played these lines too many times. However, it turned out he knew the theory very well and I mixed something up, so in the end, it didn't work out. But generally, when it comes to So...

… you find it difficult to play against him, right?

It’s been by far better lately, but in the past, there were only two options: either I outplayed him in a miniature game or just lost after a long grind.

And it was Wesley who eliminated you twice in the Speed Chess Championship. It was evident that you struggled against him. He also showed his best at the Fischer Random World Championship, where he completely crushed Carlsen, so it seems that he enjoys playing strange and unusual positions. But let’s now switch to tournament formats for a while. The Candidates will definitely be the most objective, because you are going to play one game with White and one with Black against everyone. Are there any tournament formats that you are not comfortable with?

As far as the Candidates are concerned, I don't actually like the time control. It's the same as in the World Championship match, so the 30-second increment comes after the move 60 and there is more time in the beginning. I don't understand the reason behind it, as we are used to the increment from the very beginning. It seems strange to me. Even an increment of 2 seconds would be useful in order not to lose on time. (author's note: the time control in the Candidates is 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game with a 30-second increment per move starting on move 61.)

Then what would you say is the optimal time control for classical chess, the one you like best?

There are pros and cons to each time control, but everyone is used to having an increment, so it's about always having those two seconds in order not to lose on time. But I don’t know—maybe I'll play the tournament of my life and later say this time control is great? Now when we are talking before the tournament, I simply don't like it.

And do you think that the most serious tournaments will continue to use long time controls or will chess in general steer towards rapid play?

I think that time controls will be more and more shortened and more prestigious tournaments will be played in rapid format. Online tournaments should be treated with a pinch of salt, because there are some weird things that don’t normally occur during games, such as mouse slips or premoves. I do enjoy playing online though!

I've noticed that you've had a more or less fixed schedule in the past few years—Tata Steel, FIDE Grand Prix, World Cup, the Chess Olympiad.

I have already entered this path—being a 2750 player has some benefits. When you are 2710 or 2720 you don’t have any guarantee of playing in these strongest tournaments.

This is actually a very interesting topic. At which moment of your career would you say you started to get more invitations to take part in tournaments while before such best offers were relatively rare?

I'm still not in the Top 10. If I were, things would be even better as I would be invited to all of these round-robin tournaments. For example, I didn't take part in the entire Grand Chess Tour cycle, but I often get a wildcard for such tournaments. A lot depends on the style of the player, too. You can surely get more invitations if you play aggressive, strategic, and complicated chess that is entertaining for the fans.

2022 Chess Candidates Duda
Ratings as of June 10, 2022. Image: 2700chess.com.

Let’s talk about your school years now. Was school important to you considering the fact that you had a chess career on your radar from an early age?

Well, I won't lie if I say that I didn't enjoy school. I always preferred to do something else.

Was it because you were not interested in school subjects or because of discipline?

A little bit of everything. My problem with learning was that I had always been good at chess, so there were topics or subjects which I liked, but there were also things I found tedious. I'm actually glad that I didn't excel at school, because it allowed me to focus on chess.

And if it were entirely up to you, would you have taken the matura exam or gone to university, or would you rather not?

I don't know... I would rather not have gone to university. The matura exam cost me a lot of time and stress because I had to prepare for it a lot. In retrospect, I had a relaxed attitude to it, but during the exam, it was a bit unpleasant as there is always tension and social pressure to pass it. I found it very unpleasant. I took the standard level written exams in math, Polish, and English, and the advanced level exam in English. I also had to take the oral exam in Polish, which for me was a disaster. But the biggest challenge was actually math.

It's very interesting because one might be convinced that a chess player is certainly a good mathematician. At the Polish Academic Chess Championship, the best teams are usually from technical universities. Is this not a rule then?

No, it's not a rule. I would agree that most chess players have a knack for science, and they use their left hemisphere to a bigger extent, but I have never been a good calculator. I would have been very good at math if I had spent more time on it. I have never liked math because it was more demanding than other subjects.

Now, all kids listen! Please remember that Jan-Krzysztof Duda’s ELO rating at the age of 12 was already around 2000, so that is why he didn’t have to focus on school so much and could think about a professional chess career. If you're 12 years old and you are starting your chess adventure now, you'd better study for those exams.

If I’m not mistaken, I think I had 2000 ELO rating when I was 10...

Oh yes, now I remember why I got it wrong, we’ll get back to that in a second. Now about your successes which started very early. You won your very first Polish Youth Championship and later you won the championship titles in older groups as well. Do you think that at some point your successes went into your head—then or now?

This is a tough question...

Oh... I like those.

I can’t recall any major incidents, but sometimes my ego was overgrown. I clearly remember one episode from when I was 14. I was already a GM then and I had a streak of 40 classical games without any losses. I went to play in the Croatian league and lost to a GM who was selling books there...

Chess can bring you down to earth very quickly. I will tell you why I thought that you had 2000 ELO when you were 12 years old. When I was 12 years old, I took part in my first Polish Youth Chess Championship, and I remember that you were the winner of the tournament. At the closing ceremony, I was sitting next to you and your mom, and a lady came up to ask you which place you finished the tournament. I remember your reply "What do you mean? First, of course!" I think that your ego was already at a solid level.

Since I was six or seven, I have been convinced that one day I would become the world champion—it was quite obvious to me.

Since I was six or seven, I have been convinced that one day I would become the world champion—it was quite obvious to me.
— Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Jan-Krzysztof Duda with his mother Wieslawa. Photo courtesy Jan-Krzysztof Duda on Facebook.

Where did you get that conviction from? Did you fall so much in love with chess?

I was very attracted to it, and I was a peculiar child. I could play with one toy for 3 hours and that's how my mom got the idea of chess. That's how chess started in my family, and I completely got hooked on it. I think that at that time I was a bigger fanatic of chess than I am now. Nowadays it's my job or a way of life.

I think that at that time I was a bigger fanatic of chess than I am now. Nowadays it's my job or a way of life.
— Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Now your goal is to become the world champion. Have you thought about any other options? Streaming or YouTube like Hikaru or Jobava?

As a player, I’m not at all interested in these things. I have never been fond of streaming. I don't like this kind of exposure at all. Of course, now I am a strong chess player and I try to promote this discipline as much as I can, but most of all, I just love to play!

What about the anti-cheating controls at the highest level? Are there any during online tournaments?

Sometimes when I played from home, I have to show my ears to the camera! Top players don't cheat. They have too much to lose. As for over-the-board tournaments, it depends on the rank of the tournament, whether it's the Olympiad, the World Cup, or Grand Prix. There is a security check during these tournaments: You often have to pass through special gates, and you are not allowed to have any personal belongings with you, not even a pen, a watch, anything. Drug tests are definitely the worst. To me, they seem totally pointless.

Three quick questions at the end:

  • Best or favorite chess book?

It's hard to say, I have always liked the My Great Predecessors series by GM Garry Kasparov since I was a kid. There were five parts (three in Polish and two in English).

  • Favorite opening?

Sicilian Defence, Najdorf Variation.

  • Favorite world champion or the one you would associate yourself with?

My favorite is probably Alekhine, and the closest... maybe Spassky?

It was fun talking to you and I learned a lot of interesting things! I'm really into chess, but I still don’t know many things related to the world's top players. Thanks for the conversation!

Thank you!

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