Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky. Memories, part 1

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Here are memories of Fyodor Ivanovich Dus-Chotimirsky, an old-time Russian and Soviet player. Take note that those were published in old Soviet times, soon after Stalin's death. In that time, to get non-fiction books published, anyone and everyone had to praise the Soviet way of life and, preferably, say bad things about Tsarist Russia and "bourgeois" West. Take those passages with a large pinch of salt, though keep in mind that there is at least a grain of truth in everything Dus-Chotimirsky said.

Concerning Prince Dadian of Mingrelia, I can only refer you to an excellent series of articles about him here at, written by chess historian and researcher batgirl. Dus-Chotimirsky's point of view was obviously skewed.

You'll also find an old Russian tradition which strongly resembles the viral Ice Bucket Challenge here.

Annotations by Dus-Chotimirsky unless noted otherwise.


A Russian chess player's way was very difficult and thorny in the Tsarist Russia. Many bright chess talents have perished in the pre-revolutionary conditions of deprivation of rights, poverty and oppression.

Soviet youth has unlimited opportunities to use chess as a means of recreation and sporting education. The chess art flourishes everywhere: in kolkhozs, factories, educational facilities, institutions, military units, Pioneers' Houses and Culture Palaces, sports societies' chess sections. Our Soviet chess youth is guided by very qualified instructors and teachers, so they are bound to be successful.

In my time, young people had no opportunity to learn chess systematically.

Russia's chess life was slow and ugly; chess were mostly played in big provincial towns, in their cafes and restaurants.

A young Soviet chess player would be appalled to know that the "chess culture" was contained in such inappropriate places. Chess were played in clouds of tobacco smoke, for money bets, in an atmosphere of unhealthy excitement.

My chess "academy", where I received most of my "education", both theoretical and practical, was the Warsaw Cafe in Kiev, well-known in its time.

What led me there?

My childhood was joyless and destitute. I barely remember my father and mother because they died when I was very young; I've left my home city of Chernigov as a teenager. I had no formal education and no profession to speak of.

Fate led me to Kiev, to the Nikolskaya suburb. I earned my living with random meager work: I would help to balance accounts, give private lessons, sometimes I would load cargo onto steamships and barges, etc.

I lived all alone and half-starved. The greatest joy of my life were books, I dedicated all of my free time to them.

I learned chess at age nineteen. In a second-hand bookstore, I saw a book by Jean Dufresne, Kleines Lehrbuch des Schachspiels (Small Chess Learning Book). I immediately remembered my early childhood and my favourite book, the leather-bound edition of Arabian Fairytales, where a coloured cartoon depicted a bespectacled monkey playing chess. I wanted to know what chess were all about. I bought the book and quickly studied it, playing against myself and fantasizing that I was actually playing some chess champion.

Soon I naively thought that I was close to chess perfection and considered myself unbeatable. I came to bitter disappointment. When I first came to Warsaw Cafe, I've lost a number of games there.

From Dufresne's book, I learned that in Russia, there were even stronger chess players than the Kiev-based ones, such as Chigorin and Schiffers. So I decided to learn the game better and earn the right to play against the strongest.

That's how my chess career started.

Just five months later, in spring 1899, I won the Kiev Championship, despite a strong line-up. This increased my self-belief. I offered to create the "Kiev Chess Players' Society". Soon, we have worked a set of rules and found accommodations: the artist Shimansky gave us some space in his studio on the Khreshchatyk Street.

I've headed the society's learning section that united Kiev's talented young players. The society invited Janowski, a renowned international master who'd just won a 3rd prize at the big Vienna 1898 tournament, for a small tour.

Janowski was sympathetic to my passion to chess and valued my playing positively.

In 1900, by Janowski's recommendation, I was invited to Moscow to take part in the Second All-Russian Chess Tournament. My dream came true: I've earned an opportunity to play against Russia's top players - Chigorin, Schiffers, Janowski (who was Russian citizen at the time).

I've subsequently met Chigorin many times - during his tours, at tournaments and in private, in Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg and Karlsbad.

Chigorin's charismatic personality had a big place in my chess life, and later I'll return to my memories of him.

I came to Moscow on 25th December 1900.

The Doctors' Club on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, where the Second All-Russian was held, amazed me with its luxury. I saw sparkling parquet floors with smooth carpets, gilded chandeliers, stylish and expensive furniture. A waiter with silver tray immediately noticed my unassuming look and asked strictly, "What do you need here?" I answered that I was one of the tournament's participants and asked to take me to its organizer, P.P. Bobrov. I was told that there was still an hour until the tournament's start, and Bobrov hadn't come yet. The waiter led me to a lunchroom and then, pointing at me, whispered something to a venerable, very tall old man with a big gray beard. I was very nervous at that point. The old man said to me, "Young man, do you play in the tournament too? Sit down. Let me introduce myself: Emmanuel Stepanovich Schiffers."

Soon, more players and guests arrived. At 6 p.m., the hall was packed. Everyone was waiting for Chigorin. Suddenly, the hall fell silent. There was a whisper: "Chigorin! Chigorin!"

"Where is Chigorin?", I asked those nearby with a sinking heart.

Finally, I saw Mikhail Ivanovich. He was not tall. I have seen his face on portraits, but his real face seemed more friendly and sympathetic to me. Black hair with a touch of gray, full, short beard, small moustache; his eyes were dark brown, big, with somewhat severe and sad expression.

The tournament began soon afterwards. Let me digress for a bit: I want to show the peculiar role that press of the day played in coverage of chess events.

The Moskovskie Vedomosti newspaper did cover the event, but quite strangely: they haven't said a word about actual chess games; instead, they would describe the tournament's participants in great detail, mocking their behaviour, manners etc.

Here's a quote from 28th December 1900 issue of the Moskovskie Vedomosti:

"G. Lebedev often changes his poses, he worries much during the games, sometimes even his face contorts; he constantly wrings his hands, pinches his straggly moustache and beard nervously and, having made a move, quickly jumps up from his seat... It's not a random occurrence, but a habit: he made 20 moves and stood up 19 times."

"G. Tabunschikov likes "comfort", he leans heavily on the chess table, almost lying upon it; the table's four thin legs creak under his weight."

"We watched Antushev. His pince-nez falls on the table after each move: he says "Check", and his pince-nez jumps down."

Such "information" by a bourgeois newspaper sounds more like a joke for us.

Let's get back to the tournament.

Sharov's victory over Janowski became the main sensation of the first round. Many touted Janowski to win the first prize, thinking that Chigorin was "out of form" and past his prime. Despite that, Chigorin won one game after another. His result was remarkable: 16.5/17 (only Janowski managed to draw him).

I finished 15th, scoring 4.5/17.

In the ninth round, I won against Sharov. Chigorin took interest in this game. He came up and said to me endearingly, "Do not be embarrassed with your losses. In the beginning, I've lost a lot of games too, but then I started winning."

I left Moscow with Chigorin's request to unite the Kiev players and organize the next All-Russian Tournament there.

The Kiev chess players were very enthusiastic about Chigorin's idea, but it only came to life in 1903.

Before returning to Kiev, I visited St. Petersburg. Then capital of Russia, it charmed me with its planning, modest beauty of the streets, squares and parks, various monuments combined into impressive ensembles. I dreamed a lot while standing at the shores of the Neva River, taking in the beautiful and majestic view.

The St. Petersburg Chess Club was always lively and noisy. Chess life was also very energetic at the old Dominic Cafe at the Nevsky avenue. The strongest chess players of St. Petersburg at the time, besides M.I. Chigorin, were E.S. Schiffers, S.Z. Alapin, S.F. Lebedev, A.M. Levin. A bit later, in 1904-05, Evtifeev and Znosko-Borovsky also came to prominence.

Upon returning to Kiev, I took an interest in higher mathematics and astronomy, which I've liked since childhood. I read a lot of astronomy books and dreamed to work with telescopes. To get an opportunity to develop my skills further, I decided to meet the Kiev Observatory director, Professor Khandrikov. I came to the appointment in the morning, long before the agreed time, and just walked nervously around the observatory's garden. I was told that Professor Khandrikov was still sleeping. Finally, after hours of waiting, the porter gave me an envelope. Inside I found five roubles and a small message that there were no janitor vacancies in the observatory!

For the first time in my life, I cried bitterly from the humiliation, and immediately wrote back:

"Professor! I could prove to you that my theoretical knowledge was enough for me to work at the telescope, but I'm afraid that I cannot provide you with responsiveness and ability to understand this proof.

F. Dus-Chotimirsky.

P.S. Give five roubles to the porter for his work."

On the same day, the writer A.I. Kuprin, who was a friend of mine, tried to console me, saying that the chessboard is like the sky, where thoughts can fly for an eternity. He apparently forgot about his funny story Marabou, where he likened chess players at their tables to a ruffled-up bird.

Now, in my old age, I often regret that my youth didn't coincide with the Great October [Revolution]: all my life would be different, and I wouldn't suffer from knowing that I did much less than I actually could. Our Soviet youth have unlimited opportunities to work in any field of knowledge.

In 1902, I met Chigorin again: he was invited to Kiev for a very successful tour. Sadly, Chigorin's visit to Kiev was marred by a conflict between him and a petty tyrant, Prince Dadian of Mingrelia who thought of himself as a chess genius. Shortly before Chigorin came, there was an incident between the Kiev chess society and the Prince. Chess section of one newspaper, edited by the society, published a game that the Prince lost to me. For this "insult", the Prince officially challenged all society members to a duel (which, of course, never took place), and tried to lure me into his house to beat me up.

Prince Dadian of Mingrelia would often invite well-known chess players to his house and, for considerable sums of money, convinced them to "lose" a "beautiful" game to him. After that, he would print those games with his own boastful annotations. He'd dreamed to "defeat" Chigorin in such manner for a long time. But Chigorin was infuriated by the duel-inducing incident and Prince's plans concerning himself, so he just refused to visit him. The Prince was angry as well, and he decided to take revenge.

He managed to settle that score in the dirtiest way possible a year later, on 17th March 1903, at the opening of Monte Carlo international tournament. The Prince was the honorary chairman of the tournament committee, and he demanded to exclude Chigorin from the tournament. His demand was satisfied; Chigorin was told that he could not play and immediately left Monte Carlo.

This story was met with great indignation in the entire chess world.

In 1903, I was invited to edit the chess column of Kievskaya Mysl'(The Kiev Thought) newspaper. The work was very interesting, and soon the chess column became a mirror of chess news from Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg and even abroad.

The 3rd All-Russian tournament took place in Kiev and attracted all the strongest Russian chess players. Besides Chigorin and Schiffers, there were a strong St. Petersburg-based player Yurevich, the very talented Levitsky, young Bernstein, the energetic Salwe and his mighty pupil Rubinstein. I also played.

After an intensive struggle, Chigorin won the tournament, like he did in two previous ones, held in Moscow in 1899 and 1901.

3rd All-Russian Tournament, Kiev 1903, and other early games.

At the All-Russian Tournament, I've managed to beat the future famous Grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein. Also, I should tell you a bit about some other participants, first and foremost - about Stepan Mikhailovich Levitsky. He was a peculiar, whole-hearted and original Russian man. His chess talent was phenomenal. It's unknown where and when Levitsky learned chess and who taught him. Levitsky very rarely played in tournaments, most of his games were unpublished and didn't survive.

Nevertheless, Levitsky should be regarded among the strongest pre-Revolutionary Russian masters.

I met Levitsky several times. In Vilno [Vilnius] in 1912 he amazed me when he swimmed in an ice-hole in a freezing weather.

In 1911, Levitsky won St. Petesburg Championship. In the 1912 All-Russian Masters' Tournament Levitsky finished third, just one point behind the winner Rubinstein, but ahead of Alekhine, Nimzowitsch and others. Levitsky quit competitive chess early when he went to work in the province.

Levitsky's last chess-related appearance was in 1923. He came to Petrograd to play in a tournament, but was bedridden by severe disease. A few days later, he went back home to Nizhny Tagil and soon died.

I also have to characterize Akiba Rubinstein, who was a good friend of mine, despite being a bitter "enemy" at the chess table.

Rubinstein was born in 1879 in Bialystok (Wikipedia says that he was born in 1880 in Stawiski) in a poor family. After losing his father, he started to work as a salesclerk in a shop. Akiba learned chess in his teenage years, his first coach was a strong local player, Bartaszewicz.

The studies weren't successful at first, but some months later, Akiba's talent manifested like a bright flame. Rubinstein achieved much success in practical games.

When Rubinstein asked his teacher "Would I ever play chess as strong as a Master?", Bartaszewicz answered, "You're already playing at Master strength."

After that, Rubinstein decided to fully dedicate himself to chess. Friends raised 40 roubles for him to go to Warsaw, where he could perfect his playing further, but he soon moved to Lodz, met Master Salwe there and became his pupil, eventually surpassing him. Both Rubinstein and Salwe lived in poor conditions at the Lodz Chess Society; they lived as chess professionals and had to play in all international tournaments of the time to earn their living.

Other young chess talents have gathered around Rubinstein and Salwe: Daniuszewsky, Rotlewi and others.

The All-Russian Tournament in Kiev was the starting point of Akiba's great career.

The next game was played in a small Moscow tournament in 1907, before Chigorin and I went to Karlsbad for the international tournament.

This game won the brilliancy prize, and M.I. Chigorin commended me.

Before the game, I didn't even think to defeat Chigorin, and explained my unexpected victory with his poor opening choice. But several years later, I've also started to play 1... Nf6 after 1. d4, choosing the Old Indian defence and stepping into Chigorin's shoes. The Old Indian defence should really be called Chigorin's Opening.

Here's my training game against Chigorin.