"He who hated draws": Dawid Janowski, the gambler

Jan 14, 2012, 11:05 AM |

Dawid Janowski had two passions in his life - chess and gambling. He would visit a casino whenever there's a chance, often losing hefty sums in one night. Here's a recollection of some less-known gambling episodes from Janowski's life by Oleg Skuratov.


The Champion of St.-Petersburg

He has a place in the history of chess as a bright, interesting person. An ace of risky, adventurous combinations, maestro Janowski won several big tournaments in the beginning of 1900s, received a lot of brilliancy prizes, even played two matches with Emmanuel Lasker. Though he failed to defeat the great champion. "How can one count on success", the American maestro Frank Marshall, his rival and admirer, remembered, "if he spends a whole night in the casino and then, not getting any rest, play against such a titan as Lasker?" Roulette and cards are the second largest part of his life. Or perhaps the largest. He even admitted that he was playing chess with one hand and placing bets with the other.

Risky endeavours are very characteristic for Dawid Janowski. There are some witnesses' accounts, the most thorough of them is in the Count A. Serebryakov's memoire, People from Casino ("Люди из казино"). That's what he writes:

"The end of 1909 was a deadline for funding the match between Lasker and Janowski. The challenger had to bring a large sum - 10,000 francs. But Janowski managed to gather only half the funds, thanks to his sponsor and friend, the Dutch painter L. Nardus who loved his playing style.

He hoped to obtain the second half by subscription from his loyal fans. Dawid Markelovich headed to the bank and saw that the fans managed to gather only 400 francs. Janowski was astonished. His followers didn't believe in his success!

The infuriated Janowski pulled himself together only two quarters away from the bank. Now, for the match to take place, he had to find 4,600 francs in less than a day. But where? Ask Nardus again? He didn't want to abuse his friendship... But Dawid Markelovich didn't have any other close friends in Berlin. So, the match with Lasker would be cancelled?

But a gambler always has one more chance... And so, in the evening, the impeccably shaven maestro in well-ironed clothes came to one of his favourite casinos. He bought chips for all the money he had and headed to the central roulette table. For some time, the maestro just stood among the players, not placing any bets. Janowski was waiting for a situation predicted by his new system. Today, he wasn't interested in straight-ups, splits or corners that could win him a very large sum. His goal was much more modest: to double his current money. This could be achieved with a single outside red/black bet. If he guessed the right colour, then he would play against Lasker, but if not... He didn't even want to think about that. Janowski was an impulsive player, but that night, he didn't rush, following the self-devised rules. At first, the colours were distributed evenly, then, finally, there was a small black streak. The maestro grabbed his chips... Should he place a bet now, or wait some more?

"26, even, black!" the croupier announced.

"Why don't you bet, messieur?" a woman standing next to Janowski asked, suddenly turning to him. She was notorious for her huge losses. "May I give you a tip? Bet on black!"

Oh, those tips! Dawid Markelovich was usually very irritated by them, but now, he was glad to hear this woman out.

"You gave an invaluable advice, madame", - Janowski's eyes flashed with resolve. He put his entire handful of chips on... red. Then the croupier said, "The bets are placed." And the metallic ball went around the coloured wheel.

"She seems to take offence", the maestro thought, "she turned away. But I both acted on my system and used the principle, "Ask a woman and do the contrary." If the ball stops in the damned black sector, then I'll be doomed. No excuses before Lasker would help. Nardus, of course, will turn away from me. And what would the whole chess world think about me? Oh God, when will this ball finally stop?"

"7, odd, red!" the croupier said indifferently. He quickly counted the chips and pushed 10,800 francs to Janowski with a spattle...

"Where did you get the additional money?" Nardus asked in the morning, looking into his friend's tired eyes with suspicion.

"By subscription, from my fans. They believe that I'll beat Lasker", Dawid Markelovich answered with a smile".

...In the match against Lasker, Janowski played under a French flag, but he could as well play as a Russian. Born in the Russian Empire (Volkovysk, 1868), the 20 years old Janowski headed to France at his peril, to conquer Paris with nothing but several roubles in his pockets. His main capital was his amazing talents at both chess and card table. In the memoires of the former champion of Cafe Regence, chess master A. Getz, he says the following: "Janowski first appeared in the cafe in the end of 1891. I don't know what led him to Paris, and, to be honest, nobody cared. Everyone admired his brave, brilliant playing. Two years later, he won the champion's title from me. He was talented in other games as well. Cards, roulette... He always thought of great luck. The chess veterans, of course, remember how he spent his entire first prize in a Monte Carlo casino in 1901."

In 1910, during the match with Emmanuel Lasker, Janowski got to know a man in a Berlin casino who helped him elevate his game level. This was Count Alexander Vladimirovich Serebryakov from St.-Petersburg, the honorary member of the Vladimir Club, known all throughout Europe. Owing to his refinement, knowledge of many languages and witty humour, the count was welcome in all card-playing companies of the Old World's capitals. Soon, he invited Dawid Markelovich to Athens. There, the wealthy ship owners passionately played bridge. The stakes were evergrowing, and it was possible to win or lose 25-50,000 dollars in a single night. Serebryakov and Janowski's superb technique gave its results. The friends left Athens with a travelling bag full of American bills.

Soon they parted ways: Serebryakov returned to Russia, and Janowski went to another tournament at San Sebastian. He wreaked havoc in the city's best casino. For two days in row, the main table of the Castilia casino was covered with black cloth, mourning someone's huge loss. Why wouldn't Janowski just concentrate on chess and then take home his 47,000 francs? But no, he decided to play one last time and lost all his francs as well as dollars to the roulette.

In the spring of 1914, maestro Janowski was invited to St.-Petersburg for a famous "Champions Tournament", with Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Nimzowitsch taking part. This chess parade concided with another tournament that was very interesting for the grandmaster, so he came to the shores of Neva with doubled fervour. The aforementioned Vladimir Club organized an open preferans championship. Players from Moscow, Kiev, Nizhny Novgorod took part... His Serene Highness Prince A. Gorchakov refereed the evet. He allowed foreign players to take part, which attracted much interest from the capital's newspapers and audience.

In the chess tournament, Janowski came just ninth. But in the preferans tournament, he got all the way to the finals. There were some names, too...

In the end of 50's, the former Vladimir Club member Petr Arkadievich Shterin showed me a yellowed table of the final. In the lower area, the seal of the St.-Petersburg Vladimir Club was still seen clearly. By the way, the owner of this relic didn't make it to the final. Petr Arkadievich explained that he had to play against Boris Khinchin in the semi-final - even the Niva magazine described him as a cheat. And Khinchin shuffled him a "five-trick misere". Though it was impossible to prove anything - Khinchin was just too masterful.

"If you'd like, I can introduce you to him", Shterin continued. "He lives nearby, at the Kolokolnaya Street. He knows cards through and through, he's a nemesis for any card player. He was a successful lawyer once, but has retired since. An old man, but watch your step with him..."

He didn't win the third prize for nothing, it seems! Serebryakov took second place, and fourth came one of the St.-Peterburg's best preferans players, nicknamed "Lucky Faberge" in the Vladimir Club. He was called that because he always managed to get out of even the grimmest situations. Not only due to his playing level - he was really lucky sometimes. Many players challenged the owner of the famous jewelry company, but the jeweler would almost always win - so good cards he usually received.

But in the final, luck deserted him. An hour before the end, he lead both by mountain and whists. And he called a 9-trick game. The audience surrounding the table applauded. It seems that the jeweller himself also believed that he would win soon. But cards don't forgive complacency. And they take revenge for self-confidence. Karl Faberge got four trumps and lost the contract heavily with three undertricks.

And he was overtaken by Janowski, who won almost all the raspasovka hands and had positive whists and small mountain. "I saw", Serebryakov recalled, "how his eyes flashed. He looked like a hunter closing in on his prey. Janowski looked the same at the chessboard when he played decisive moves. I don't know much about chess, but when I stood beside him, I would always see the critical moment in his eyes.

Three years before, I met my friend in a small San Sebastian casino in the darkest day of his life. He stood at the roulette table, making small bets absently. By his lacklustre eyes I could see that he wasn't interested in the results. In that dull February day, he ruined a beautiful, even genius game. I was in the tournament hall in the morning and watched Janowski. He destroyed the position of his mighty opponent, Jose Capablanca. With a daring Bishop sacrifice, Dawid Markelovich drove the Cuban's king of his hideout and started an irresistible attack. And then an impossible blunder ruined the game of his life."

There were just minutes before the end of the St.-Petersburg preferans championship final, when fate decided to test Janowski once again. Serebryakov remembered: "We both got good cards, worthy of seven-trick contracts. I bid up to 8 tricks, knowing about Janowski's boundless bravery. It wasn't as important to play my game as to drive him out of suit. In that case, he could get several undertricks and lose the first place.

My plan almost succeeded. Janowski staked everything on his bid, going beyond his strongest suit, diamonds. I passed, knowing for sure that he'd have to bid for 8 tricks. Now, my friend could be saved only by an ace in the talon, or something similar. Perhaps he also understood that the risk he took was too much, and, to hide his anxiety, readjusted his hair twice, looked into his cards and then slowly reached for the talon. The hall went silent...

But the gods favoured Janowski that day. He got two more diamonds, declared a 9-trick game and became an undisputed champion."