Jan-Krzysztof Duda: 'When I Beat Magnus, I Will Feel Like I’m At The Very Top'
Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Jan-Krzysztof Duda: 'When I Beat Magnus, I Will Feel Like I’m At The Very Top'

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Jan-Krzysztof Duda, the youngest player in the world’s top 20, speaks to David Cox about his experiences of Polish reality television, being superstitious, and why he can’t stand it when other players don’t observe the dress codes in chess.

A new generation is beginning to make their mark on the chess elite. With Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Vladimir Artemiev, Wei Yi, and Alireza Firouzja all in the world’s top 30, the coming decade could see the emergence of a host of new pretenders to world chess’ biggest crowns.

Duda has long been a serial winner. A former world junior champion, he won more than 100 different tournaments before he even turned 18 and scored 8.5/11 on board two in the 2014 Olympiad.  Now 21, he achieved a career-high FIDE rating of 2758 in December after reaching the final of the Hamburg Grand Prix.

In a few days from now, the second edition of the Prague Chess Festival starts. Duda is the top seed in the Masters, a 10-player round-robin with an average rating of 2708.

Duda’s success continues a proud tradition of Polish chess which goes all the way back to Boleslaw III, the 12th-century Polish king, who learned the game from Crusader knights returning from Jerusalem. More recently, Poland has produced some of the most well-known players of the 20th century. Most notable is Akiba Rubinstein, who was poised to challenge Emanuel Lasker for the world title in 1914 before the outbreak of World War I. Duda will hope to go one better.

The interview was conducted via phone. Text may have been edited for clarity or length. To start with, tell us how important your mum has been to your career. We know she played a particularly instrumental role in helping you take up the game.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda: Unfortunately, my dad passed away when I was two, and so my mum was raising me at the same time as running her own business. She wanted to find where my talents lay, and so when I was five, I tried many activities from sports like swimming, table tennis, tennis, gymnastics, and chess as well as music. I fell in love with chess, perhaps because I was capable of staying focused for a long time even as a child. I was always like this. I could play with a toy for many hours. And then when I started traveling to competitions, my mum’s job allowed her to travel with me. Until I was 18, she came with me everywhere all over the world. I owe her a lot.

A rare appearance from Duda's mother on stream.

We’ve seen this theme with many of the top players. They’ve often benefited from the support of a parental figure traveling everywhere with them. Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana had their fathers for instance, and Wesley So still travels with his stepmother Lois. Given that chess can be such a tough game psychologically, can you tell us more about the benefits of this parental support?

In general, it meant I didn’t have to think about other things, only chess. She was kind of my manager as well, so she organized coaches, flights, everything. I just played chess, and that was that. But she also knew what to do when I lost a game. Because I was young, I wasn’t always capable of dealing with losing. I would react very badly afterward, like in a physical way, jumping on the bed and stuff. Some old friends of mine still tell me stories! But she always knew how to calm things, before I grew up and this kind of thing stopped!

That’s pretty funny. We heard that alongside your chess career you’re also studying physical education. How important is staying in shape for a chess player?

Yeah, at present I’m studying at the Academy of Physical Education in Krakow, and through this, I have an opportunity to work with top Polish trainers and sports specialists, for example, the physiologist of former Polish tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska. Without this, I would just be a weaker player because I wouldn’t be capable of withstanding the tension. I think being in shape is a must for a very, very top player. Magnus is a good example of this because he’s a very sporty guy, and he was capable of getting rid of the pressure in his World Championship matches against Anand, better than Vishy. Ok, he was a lot younger, but I think it was one of the reasons why he won so apparently easily.

Do you have any other ways of coping with the tension?

In general, I’m kind of superstitious; many chess players are. I don’t really believe in superstitions, but I like to have them just to be sure! So I used to have my lucky pen, and now I have my lucky shirt. But if you win too many games in a row, that can be a problem! For example, when I won the Polish Championship in 2018, I drew four games in a row – pressing in most of them but not able to convert the win. Then after I won my first game, I won the next three, all wearing exactly the same clothing. The worst part was I was eating the same things as well. And I’d had steak on the day of the first win, so from then on, it was two steaks a day. It was kind of expensive, but whatever! I love steak, anyway.

Wow, that’s a lot of steak. Any other vices?

I tend to sleep for too long, or in other words, I manage my rest well! I think most chess players are night owls, and I’m not sure why. As a child, I’d go to sleep very early and wake up early, but now I’m more efficient in the night. So during the Hamburg Grand Prix, I was waking up at 11.30 and getting to bed around 2-3 am. But this can be a problem. When the last round is in the morning, it’s not so easy to cope with. During the European Team Championship in November, the last round was at 10 am, and I was hoping the captain wouldn’t select me! Unfortunately, he did, so I had to play Dmitry Andreikin with Black. I was sleepy, but somehow I managed to draw quite easily. In general, I think my last rounds are a bit below par.

Jan-Krzystzof Duda
Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Talking of shirts, you always tend to be very well dressed. Is this something you pay a lot of attention to?

Completely the opposite. I’m actually surprised to hear this. It’s the FIDE dress code to wear a suit. I used to dislike playing in a suit a lot, but I’ve got used to it, although I really don’t like situations where I’m wearing one, and other players aren’t respecting this rule. It kind of makes me angry. Perhaps because of this, I lost to Wesley So in the Moscow Grand Prix when he wasn’t wearing a proper shirt, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Riga who was wearing jeans, and Jeffrey Xiong in the World Cup who was in a t-shirt! I’m the kind of man who follows the rules, even if I’m not happy with them. It is a sign of professionalism.

Let’s talk about the Hamburg Grand Prix where you made the final, losing to Alexander Grischuk. Afterward he gave an interview where he compared the experience of playing you to playing an old Fritz, where the machine had no opening book, but yet still managed to slowly outplay him.

I like it. Grischuk always has a good mouth! But it’s actually kind of true because my openings were not very good in this tiebreak. Basically I was playing some random stuff. If my openings were better, then I would have had a much greater chance to win. But I think intuition is one of my strengths. When I was very young, I studied a lot of classical games. I grew up with Garry Kasparov’s book 'My Great Predecessors,' a bible for chess players, and I think that might be the reason why my intuition is so strong. As a player, I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good calculator.

I believe that was the biggest final you’ve been in so far. What was that experience like?

It was very stressful, but I didn’t expect to get to the final. It was a bit unpleasant that it was against Grischuk because in the Grand Chess Tour before, I had crushed him 3-0 in rapid and blitz. And while I was aware that I wouldn’t crush him in this match, it was kind of stressful knowing that I had such a good score against him. Psychology is a funny thing. He’s very strong, and I possibly could have done better, especially after winning the first game, but it wasn’t a disaster. I could have been eliminated earlier in the tournament, for example when I lost with white to Daniil Dubov in the first game of the semi-final tiebreak. It’s knockout so there’s a lot of pot luck.

Jan-Krzystzof Duda, FIDE Grand Prix
Duda winning his first game against Grischuk in the FIDE Grand Prix. Photo: Valeria Gordienko/World Chess.

I know you were worried about doing this interview in English. What made you more nervous, this interview or playing Grischuk in a Grand Prix final?

Haha, my English is terrible! It’s so, so different in comparison to Polish. It’s sometimes difficult. I’ve studied for so many years in school, but I’m too lazy to try and improve it on a daily basis. When I flew to St. Louis, it wasn’t great. But it’s all relative. When I speak to some Chinese players, I don’t feel such misery about my English. It’s funny though because sometimes I end up saying things in English that are quite different from what I actually mean. For example, I did an interview after my Speed Chess Championship win over Anish Giri last year. I read the story a couple of days later, and there was a quote which had come out completely different to what I meant to say. It made me laugh.

English issues aside, do top chess players ever hang out at tournaments and perhaps speak about things other players have come out with at the press conferences?

Actually I don’t talk much with these guys, only after the games, and then it’s mainly about the match we just finished. But sometimes I do like to watch interviews with other players because usually chess players are not very good at them! And generally I tend to overestimate the top players at everything in life, so when I see they’re not good at something, it makes me feel better.

Why do you think you tend to overestimate them?

I don’t know. I’ve always had this. You read about guys like Magnus who crossed 2880, won so many tournaments in a row, and you see him as this kind of god. It doesn’t help because then you have to face him, and he’s creating pressure with every move. I’ve never won a match against him, but I think I just need to play him more. When I beat him, I will feel like, ‘Ok I’m at the very, very top.’ Basically playing Magnus is like playing Leo Messi when you compete for a team in the Polish football league. But I dream to be like a Polish Robert Lewandowski, so I must play on Messi’s level more, much more.

Who’s the most intimidating to face out of all the top players?

There are always some players who play particularly well or badly against you. I’ve always had a hard time playing against Wesley So. For some reason, he doesn’t suit me very well, but at the same time, I’ve also won several miniatures against him. I crushed him once in 17 moves, and in last year’s Grand Prix, I also beat him in 25 moves in one game. But if he survives the opening, he’s an unpleasant player to face!

Duda's 25-move victory against So.

But in the past, I also used to be afraid of Chinese players. I would always play badly against them. I remember playing Wei Yi in the World U14 Championship. I got an entirely won game and could have forced victory in 2-3 moves, but I missed a combination. Then I was two pawns up in a queen endgame, but I still didn’t convert it, and he went on to win the tournament and became a superstar in his country. I always felt guilty that because of me, this guy became a big star, as without this victory, he could have become lost in China. There are so many talents out there.

Anyway this has changed after the Chinese Federation invited me to play a tournament in China a couple of years ago, and after having good games against all the Chinese super-gransdmasters, I learned I am not different. This was a time when I realized I can do more. On the other hand, I like to play with Russian players. They represent a kind of ‘chess culture,’ and every game is more than just a competition, it is an experience of all elements of chess – the art, science, and sport in one. 

For many years, Radosław Wojtaszek has been the strongest Polish chess player. Has he helped you at all in your rise to the top?

When I was younger, the Polish Chess Federation developed a special program around Radek for the most promising juniors. I was a part of that program and had an opportunity to learn from him. We are two totally different players with totally different approaches. He was a second for Anand, and after that, he crossed 2700 and basically became an opening freak. He puts a lot of effort into checking, checking all the time, memorizing lines, while I don’t at all. But I also have some skills he does not possess. For example, he cannot bluff. Especially in the opening. He would never play something he hasn’t checked, even in blitz, and I think that if he develops more courage and takes more risks, he might reach the very top. To compete with the top ten, you need to be capable of playing almost anything and having a wide knowledge.

Finally, we heard that in 2017 you won a reality TV show in Poland called ‘The Brain – A Brilliant Mind.’ Tell us about that experience?

It was quite a stressful experience for me because I’m not a showman or a TV guy, and I was aware that all my friends and even teachers would be watching this! But it was enjoyable because in the end I won. The producers asked my mum, and we weren’t initially aware of what I’d got myself into. But then they sent me a 20-page contract. I found out it was being held in Warsaw, and I realized it was a serious thing, and it was too late for me to get out of it! But it was a good thing to do as it promoted chess a little bit. It’s funny how stress affects the mind as part of the contest required me to solve ten mates in one within 60 seconds without knowing who is to move. And everything is going on live, so 60 seconds – hero or zero! For one of them, I looked and looked, and I couldn’t see the mate! I was panicking like, ‘What the hell? Should I tell them that something is wrong with the exercise?’ But in my panic, I’d seen one of the pieces as being the opposite color in my head! In the end, I realized and managed to solve it.

It was an interesting experience as this kind of reality show stress is different to chess. And competing with other talented people was very interesting. All my competitors were equivalent to top grandmasters in their own specialist area.

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