Duncan The Subtle

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"Explore the unique and confusing chess of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles." :D

Or so goes the lead line from the description of a book about the guy on goodreads.

Again, to quote from that same blurb:

"In the era before computer-driven homogenization of chess styles and the instant transmission of new moves through the internet, chess players had distinctive styles, and none was more distinctive than that of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles."

Yep, Dunc was a favorite topic at our chess club. Of course, it was a lot more difficult to obtain scores to games back then, but whenever any of us could latch on to another Suttles game, it always made for some fine entertainment. We would go over the moves and chuckle and laugh outright throughout.

I mean, how could the guy be getting away with this stuff? Flouting opening principles and seemingly ignoring the center while not doing much of anything. To us, he seemed to be the Court Jester of chess. Or--as we were soon to dub him, in an undeniably semi-mocking sort of way--Duncan the Subtle.

Eventually I managed to get ahold of the tournament book for San Antonio 1972 (the one published by RHM Press, which featured a number of good titles...even though their bindings never seemed to hold up for very long!). That was the tourney where Suttles became a GM, going 9-6 (and tying for sixth place with Hort) in a field that also included Keres, Gligoric, Larsen, Mecking and Browne--not to mention the three who tied for first place (Portisch, Petrosian and Karpov).

So now I had fifteen more imponderable DS games to ponder. I remember shaking my head throughout. I mean, what the heck was the guy doing? Pushing rook pawns, not worrying terribly much about castling, just curling up into a tight little ball and waiting. What sort of substance could he have been on? :)

The only parallel to his style at the time was maybe Steinitz in his dotage (and Julius Breyer also came to mind). But Steinitz in his later years played like some sort of stodgy armadillo, curled up tight and waiting for the opponent's attack to come, resolutely holed up on the back two ranks and hoping to fend off the charge via all that armor plating. And as for Breyer...well, who back then knew anything about the guy except for that variation of the Ruy Lopez and a few of his games that you could find in Reti's books?

And yet Suttles' style really bore very little resemblance to anything Steinitzian. Sure, he would tend to stay back at the very beginning, camped out and observing events. But then all of a sudden would come this dashing counterattack or manic queen raid (or a Wall of Pawns would descend upon his opponent like a veritable tsunami). Yep, somehow or other Suttles managed to combine stodgy with aggressive.

"Few players have been as willing to take risks as Suttles, and his games combine fearlessness and creativity in a unique way."

Among fairly recent players, Michael Basman is a rare example that comes to mind. And the only other guy who seemed to be very nearly as uncompromising (and the only one who was also a GM) was Leonid Stein.

Incidentally, Suttles and Basman actually did meet once (although I must say that the game was disappointingly conventional). Stein and Suttles also played a game (at Sousse 1967)--which regrettably wasn't terribly weird either. :)

And I should say a bit about that whole "computer-driven homogenization of chess styles" business. Okay, it is likely true that all this silicon has led to a certain blandness and conformity in OTB play. But who could've foreseen the explosion of Blitz, where anything and everything is possible (and quite frequently gets tried)? In the era of 1 f3 2 Kf2 (and far stranger permutations), it's easy to overlook how thoroughly Suttles was a Pioneer of the Strange.

The homogenization of styles is hardly a brand-new phenomenon either. I got into the game at the start of the Karpov Era, when a staid positional approach and "normalcy" were key concepts. And farther back than that, there was Tarrasch with his frequent lambastings of the weird in chess.

Even somebody as creative as Alekhine could come off seeming quite the doctrinaire. Regarding 1... g6 (in answer to 1 e4), he wrote (or perhaps that should be "sniffed"): "Capablanca took the liberty once of playing this Joke Opening. Naturally, this experiment has no claim to any theoretical significance."

(And this from the guy who played 1... Nf6.) :D

Of course, for Dunc psychology was a key part of the game. Bruce Harper relates: "Suttles' view is that in positions where the outcome is objectively in doubt, an 'ugly' move is, for psychological reasons, more like to succeed than a 'normal' move, as the opponent may become disoriented or may feel he has to refute the move."

And Suttles got results! He beat Larsen (twice), Ivkov, Uhlmann, Gufeld, Evans, Spraggett (a fellow Northerner who later made it to the Candidates semifinals), Seirawan (twice), Browne, Benko, Kavalek, Timman, Miles and Reshevsky.

But perhaps the ultimate tribute to DS' Triumph of the Unconventional was passed along by Keene. Regarding Suttles' game against Kavalek at the Nice Olympiad in 1974, Raymond recounted: "When Suttles demonstrated this game to me, he pointed out with unrestrained glee that White had followed all the beginner's principles of Fred Reinfeld (develop your pieces quickly, knights at B3, bishops at B4, centralize your rooks, occupy the centre with pawns...) and now stands worse."

Here's a typical game of Dunc's (if "typical" is quite the word for it). :) He starts off using only his wing pawns, allows a great big wedgie in the center, continues to play on the wings, and then a queen raid finishes things off: