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A Century of Chess: Oldrich Duras (1900-1909)
Duras (L) at St Petersburg 1909

A Century of Chess: Oldrich Duras (1900-1909)

kahns
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Of all the matches that never existed, one of the ones that I most would have liked to have seen is Duras-Lasker circa, let’s say, 1911. Duras rarely appears in the best-players-not-to-be-World-Champion conversation, but he’s one of the most talented players to have ever pushed a pawn two squares. 

At least up to a certain point, he seems to have had a completely charmed life. He was handsome, debonair, from a good and (I think) wealthy family, was universally liked in the chess community - his notes to the Salwe game below give a sense of his easygoing personality - and, over the board, had a magical gift for finding combinations and resources. Sometimes in his games there's just this feeling of being chosen or something by the spirit of chess. I was struck in particular by his 1906 game against Spielmann - a chaotic position in which mating attacks materialize out of nothing and the tactics all somehow work out in Duras’ favor. Of all other chess players, I’d compare him most to Boris Spassky - cool guys, with a certain congenital laziness, touched by otherworldly talent.

Duras in Sachy Dolmen

The difference in their careers was geopolitics. Duras didn’t have the Soviet chess machine behind him and World War I curtailed his career when he was very close to his peak. He joined the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and then remained with the Ministry of Defense in the newly-independent Czechoslovakia. And here, for once, not everything went Duras' way. The Ministry of Defense for some reason didn't view chess as highest priority and declined to give Duras time off for tournaments and that was the end of his playing career. He continued to compose problems, to write a chess column for a Czech newspaper, and appeared in some tournaments at the end of his life, but the overall sense is of a loss of talent - a similar story as in the careers of Ignatz von Kolisch, Max Weiss, Reuben Fine - a god-given gift that just wasn't fully socially acceptable.

For such a charismatic and talented player, there’s been very little written about Duras in English and there’s a curtain around 1914 after which it’s very difficult to get an image of the shape of his life. He was born in 1882 either in Prague or else moved to Prague when he was very young, first rose to prominence as a problemist - and he's still sort of best remembered for his composed problems. He appeared in the tournament scene as part of a fluorescence of talent in the middle of the 1900s and, for several years, his career very closely paralleled Akiba Rubinstein’s - although it’s hard to think of two chess players who were more different in personality and playing style. They were debutants at the exact same moment, the great chess festival of Barmen 1905, took shared first in Haupturnier A and then tied an aborted playoff match. 1907 was Rubinstein’s year, with wins at Karlsbad and Ostend-B, but 1908 was Duras’. He took shared first at both the Vienna and Prague jubilee tournaments and forced his way into the world championship conversation - although had to take his place in line behind the older generation, Schlechter and Janowski. But, unfortunately, that was his competitive peak. Rubinstein vaulted ahead of him at St Petersburg 1909. Duras was on pace to win a strong tournament at Hamburg 1910 but lost to a tail-ender at the finish line and then drifted towards the middle or even bottom of the pack at the marquee tournaments of the 1910s. In the years before World War I his glamorous lifestyle took him on trips to New York, London, and St Petersburg - and in all cases tournaments and matches were hastily arranged to take advantage of his presence - but his interest in the game seems to have waned somewhat, and he disappointed in all of these custom-made events.

Duras. Wiener Schachzeitung 1907.

And then the curtain falls and it’s not completely clear what happened. One story is that he married a wealthy older woman - hence the cruise line trips - who disapproved of his chess playing. The other story is that he became subsumed in the Austro-Hungarian and then the Czech military and couldn’t play in post-war tournaments even though he wanted to. There are several other interesting directions to follow in Duras’ life, although I can’t find much about them. His sister Bozena was apparently a famous singer, a leading diva at the Prague opera, and married in her turn to a prominent sculptor - and there’s kind of a lovely image of the idyllic bourgeois bohemian family, the grandmaster, the singer, the sculptor, all of them stylish and urbane, all deeply impacted by the war - but Bozena, like Duras himself, recedes from the English-language internet. And then Duras' World War I service would likely be an interesting story if I could find anything on it - Bill Wall has the tidbit that he was a platoon leader, which sounds like a no-joke kind of job, but provides no additional sourcing. The rabbit hole of following this took me into the very curious story of the Czech military’s performance during World War I. Essentially, the whole nation malingered - upset about nationalities’ policy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and less-than-enthusiastic about fighting the Empire's war - and whole units of Czechs surrendered en masse to the Russians as soon as they arrived on the Eastern Front and concocted elaborate stratagems, like strike slowdowns, to avoid fighting. I have come across glimpses of this before - it’s what Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is really about; and the wild story of the Czech Legion, fighting their way across the Trans-Siberian Railroad to return to Czechoslovakia via ship from Vladivostok, makes more sense in this context, that they were doing whatever they could to avoid conscription by the Central Powers - but the fun for me of working on a series like this is, above all, to come across these various historical and political detours. Duras was in the middle of it and likely would have experienced complex, tangled questions of loyalty, but, unfortunately, I haven’t found any information about how all of that played out in his life.

So - one of the most talented, likable players ever - and, in a curious way, lost to history.

Duras

Duras' Style

1. Combinations

In the way that, I believe, Frank Marshall played a high-end version of ‘hope chess’ - visualizing a winning position and combining his way towards it - Duras had a similar approach, of playing chess as if everything were a ‘problem.’ He seemed to be less interested in strategy or positional architecture, approaching each position with fresh eyes and with an assumption that somewhere deep within in was a gorgeous winning combination. This is the philosophy of Anderssen, Zukertort, the Romantic School, which had been supposedly rendered obsolete by modern scientific methods, but Duras made that approach work at top-level right in the golden age of the classical school. And his gift for combinations is just staggering. The games below can be played very much the way you might take in works of art - this is not ‘chess fundamentals,’ and is very far from how beginners are encouraged to play - but this really is about as beautiful as chess can get.

2. The Queen Sacrifice 

I guess it’s a sign that you’re a really great combinative player if the queen sacrifice is an integral part of your arsenal. Duras shook the chess world in 1906 with a pair of queen sacrifice games - against Erich Cohn and, especially, against Richard Teichmann. Most impressive of all to me, though, is the game against Johner in which Duras falls into a nearly lost position and uses a defensive queen sacrifice to get out of it. To the true chess elite, there was always a whiff of the circus about Duras - and it's possible that his combinative wizardry wouldn't really have gotten him anywhere in matches against Lasker or Rubinstein - but these games show how a startling queen sacrifice can be fully integrated into the demands of the position. Particularly in the Johner game there's the sense that the board-shaking queen sacrifice is the only possible way to play. 

3. Cunning

"Duras calmly ignored opening finesses and often came into the middlegame with an incredibly deplorable position," wrote William Napier. "But he was a patient, crafty, incredibly stubborn fighter." It's interesting that, for such an elegant, debonair person, Duras' enduring claim to fame may be his 168-over grinding loss against Heinrich Wolf, which, for decades, held the record as the longest tournament game ever played, but it's more understandable in that context. With his lackadaisical treatment of the opening, Duras often seemed to be playing from behind. That meant tremendous resourcefulness in defense and even from lost positions - where his gift for the swindle rivaled Marshall's and Lasker's - and a tendency to play miserably long games in which he would gradually outplay an opponent. 

Duras in the Opening

Duras was legendary among the elite for his lack of knowledge of the opening. On the whole, he tended to just stumble through to some semi-playable middlegame and then make it work from there, but he was such a talent that he couldn't help but be occasionally innovative in the opening as well. The Caro-Kann was a rare guest in the classical era, but Duras saw something in it and became its leading champion, scoring +4 with it through his career.

In the only games he played with the white side of the Queen's Gambit Declined, he contributed a critical idea to the opening's theory - deploying his queen to a4 and bishop to a6 to trade off black's 'bad' light-squared bishop and then snaking the rest of his pieces through white's weakened light squares on the queenside. (He ran the table at Breslau 1912 with this idea.) But his lasting legacy is the Duras Variation of the Ruy Lopez, featuring the pawn formation c4-d3-e4. It's one of these great 'hack' openings,  like the Sveshnikov or Rossolimo Sicilians - it feels like it shouldn't be possible to play this way - but in the Duras Variation white gets to choose the imbalances of the position, conceding the weak d4 square to black but blocking off all other central counterplay and adopting the sort of stable center needed to launch a kingside attack. 

Sources: More than I would like to, I've had to rely on some unsourced posts from chessgames.com - although I tend the trust the posters, Gypsy and Honza Cervenka. Simaginfan has a nice piece on Duras on this site and there are discussions of aspects of his career in Andy Soltis' Frank Marshall: United States Chess Champion and Emanuel Lasker: A Reader.

Plugs: As I've mentioned, I'm plugging for my journal on Substack called Castalia. Link here. Articles this week include a reported piece on Western volunteers in Ukraine, discussions on modern art's hustle, Ukraine peaceniks, the state of Substack and contemporary fiction, and the short story Sexcapade. Thank you for reading!