Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who's the Biggest Fool of All? Chess Master

It was a tale with a story book ending: Albert Minnulin entered the competition as a little-known, mild-mannered chess reporter, but he beat former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov in a tense final to emerge $3,000 richer, and the biggest fool in Russia.


Minnulin earned the title Saturday night by winning the Russian Duraki, or Fools, Championship, prevailing over his friend and mentor Karpov. Despite its name, duraki -- a card game similar to the Western game often known as war -- is no game for fools, Minnulin said.


"I don't mind being called the biggest fool in Russia," he said. "Any game where I can beat Anatoly Karpov in a final, that's a tough game and I'll take the victory."


Saturday's final round marked the end of an all-Russian tournament which began in late February, took place in more than 50 cities and included some 3,000 participants. It was sponsored by the World Chess Federation -- whose president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, reached the semifinal -- and Minnulin's newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda.


Minnulin, a master level chess player, has known Karpov for years and often travels with him while covering tournaments Karpov plays in. To kill time on the road, the two often play chess and duraki. And if Minnulin has won nothing but frustration on the chessboard against his friend, he has steadily made gains against him at the card table.


"I've never beaten him in chess, but this win today makes up for everything," he said. "We've played hundreds of times together, and before today, I'd say we were about even, with him holding a slight advantage. But this puts me over the top."


Although luck plays a big role in the game, the winning durak, participants in the tournament said, must also have a gift for card-playing strategy.


In the game, both players are dealt six cards. The first player throws down a card. If his opponent can beat it, then the first player must pick up both cards.


If the second player does not have a higher card than the one his opponent has thrown down, he must put down his highest card and take two from the deck. The object of the game is to rid oneself of all of one's cards.


Because the ability to count which cards have been dealt and which are left in the deck is a key to the game, people with prodigious memories -- particularly chess players such as Karpov and Minnulin -- have an advantage.


"It's luck and memory, that's all," said Armen Aryametov, an Armenian living in Moscow, who lost a close match to Karpov in the round of 16. "If you can guess which cards are coming, you're going to win."


Aryametov claims he has a photographic memory -- he does not own a telephone or address book -- and said that he was not impressed by the contingent of chess "ringers" in the tournament. Like most of the contestants, he attributed his victories to skill and his losses to bad luck.


"I'm a better player than Karpov, my cards just didn't go right," he said. "He got lucky against me. But I guess I'm glad I'm not the main durak around here."


Like Karpov, Ilyumzhinov, who in addition to his title as president of the Chess Federation is president of Kalmykia and claims to be a master level chess player, received little praise from his defeated opponents.


"O.K., sure, he's president of Kalmykia, but he got lucky against me," said Muscovite Andrei Bely, Ilyumzhinov's victim in the round of 16. "You can give 10 Karpovs the cards I got against Ilyumzhinov, and not one of them is going to win."


Ilyumzhinov, who scarcely moved or broke a sweat throughout his victories, brushed away the talk of luck with a smile.


"It's not as hard as chess, but it's not simple either," he said. "It takes skill to be a durak."