Biographies - Austin

Rudolph Josef Austin

(5th August 1936 –5th June 2019)

By Alastair F. White

When I joined Edinburgh Chess club in 1968, there were a few people who were ‘regulars’ who came to the club most nights. Rudolph was one of those, along with Johnny Marr, Phil Condie, and A.G. Laing.

Rudolph was born on 5th August 1936. His father, Josef Rudolph D’Agastini, was from an Italian family who owned the Café Restaurant in Leith Street, Edinburgh. After Josef married a local girl they adopted the surname ‘Austin’. But the Scottish weather did not agree with Josef (he suffered from Rheumatism), and they decided to move back to Italy. He could hardly have chosen a worse time to do so. When the Germans occupied Northern Italy in 1943, the family suffered many privations. Nevertheless, his father did what he could to help the plight of the Italian Jews who were hiding out in caves nearby. This made a lasting impression on young Rudi, who although not a Jew himself, henceforth identified with Jewish culture, and in particular his Jewish chess heroes such as Emmanuel Lasker and Akiba Rubenstein.

The family returned to Scotland after the war, but this period left its mark upon the gentle, sensitive and nervous young boy. He found school difficult, and subsequently never found employment. His mother supported him, (and provided for him after her death), so he never had to work. During the daytime you might find him walking the streets of Edinburgh, or in a café, with his trademark navy blue blazer, and grey flannel trousers, carrying a briefcase. This contained mainly his chess set, his cigarettes, and some current newspapers. By night he was to be found at the chess club, playing the game he loved.

I believe he lied about his young age to join the club in 1953 - the club did not accept juniors at that time. At the club I also remember he had a tempestuous relationship with schoolteacher Phil Condie (father of Mark), and they had frequent (although not too serious) arguments over the chessboard discussing games. I satirised this in the first edition of ‘Capital Chess’. Despite the bluster, they complemented and deserved each other.

He was a clever and resourceful player, but prone to frequent lapses and flights of fancy over the chessboard, and so he never quite hit the heights in competitions. However he hit the spotlight in the penultimate round of the Scottish Championship in Dundee in 1967. He was on 4/5, half a point behind the tournament leader Gerald Bonner, who he was playing in the sixth round. Bonner made an unsound sacrifice and might have lost. However Rudolph spent too long trying to work out his way around the complications and lost on time with ten moves still to make. Had he won that game he would have been half a point clear with a round to play. Needless to say he lost in the last round too.

Scottish ch 1967 (H.D. Holmes report)
Bonner built up a splendid position and sacrificed correctly in time trouble. He continued wrongly and on move 24 found himself a piece down with little to show for it. In addition he had about a minute for his 16 remaining moves, while Austin had nearly a quarter of an hour. Overcome by the occasion, Austin could but play six moves before his flag fell.

Rudolph generally behaved with courtesy and respect to his friends, acquaintances and opponents alike. But his volatile nature led to him developing a number of grudges against other players. (He held a bit of a grudge for against me for 30 years, but that’s another story). Once after a congress, he got into a serious argument with another player, (who had better remain nameless, but as well as being a strong chess player this guy was a serious ‘hard man’ who practiced karate and had been known to win fights against nightclub bouncers and the like). A chase ensued in the street, but Rudolph, despite his trousers being pulled down round his ankles, landed a lucky punch and laid out the supposed hard man. But there was a sequel to this. Some years later, when Castle Chess club was playing a Spens cup match, their captain decided to boost his team’s chances by inviting some strong outsiders to play. Not knowing the history, he asked both Rudi and his street-fighting opponent to play! That didn’t work out well - Rudi ambushed his team-mate outside the playing hall, grabbing him round the neck and once again knocking him out cold.

Rudi’s involvement with the Edinburgh Chess Club ended abruptly when the club voted to ban smoking in the club. But this was unthinkable for Rudolph so he left ECC and subsequently played for the Civil Service club for a further 20 years until his death.

Here is a typical game where he beat a supposedly stronger opponent.

[Event "Edinburgh Congress"]
[Date "1977.12.28"] [Round "5"]
[White "Smerdon, William S"] [Black "Austin, Rudolph J"]
[Result "0-1"] [ECO "B34"] [WhiteElo "2000"] [BlackElo "1825"]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Nxc6 bxc6 7. e5 Nh5 8. Be2 Ng7 9. O-O Nf5 10. Bg4 Bg7 11. Bxf5 gxf5 12. Bf4 Qa5 13. Re1 Bb7 14. Qd3 e6 15. Rad1 {White has developed sensibly and has a slight edge.} O-O-O 16. Bg5 Bxe5 {Black correctly sacrifices the exchange to increase the activity of his pieces.} 17. Bxd8 Rxd8 18. a3 Qc7 19. g3 f4 20. Qe4 d6 21. gxf4 Rg8+ 22. Kf1 Bxc3 23.bxc3 Ba6+ 24. c4 d5 25. Qxh7 Bxc4+ 26. Re2? {This is wrong. Rd3 now or later was absolutely necessary.} Rg4 27. f5 Qe5 28. Rde1 Qe4! 29. Qh8+ Kc7 {Qh1 is coming with mate.} 0-1

Various others have commented that in his later years he usually played a double fianchetto with either colour to avoid theory and confuse his opponents. I may inadvertently have had something to do with this. When I first knew him, he was playing very sold classical stuff in the manner of his heroes Lasker and Rubenstein, and I often had great difficulty in breaking down his defences. That was until I tried playing fianchetto lines against him, with an immediate improvement in my results. Did he copy that strategy?

This is a description of him by a journalist:

On the other side of the room from Vagif, frowning down at his board as if it were an inscrutable foe, is Rudolph Austin, who is 75 years old and lives in Edinburgh. His hair is swept back from a face that would make Samuel Beckett appear unlined. The pockets of Austin’s suit jacket are full of cigarettes and old scoresheets and coins and newspaper articles. He suffers from hypertension and ringing in the ears, and says that sometimes his mind is in turmoil. Yet, even when he is feeling quite ill, he turns up to tournaments. “My urge to play,” he explains, “is very strong.”

He is an anxious man, running on caffeine and nicotine, constantly nipping outside to smoke after he has moved his pieces. Among staff in the Haymarket branch of Beanscene, where he visits and plays chess several times a day on a small portable board, he is known simply as Chessman. One of his rituals is to draw the Star of David on his scoresheet at the start of every game.

Austin’s first memory of chess is seeing his parents playing with red and white ivory pieces. This was in Italy during the Second World War. The family had gone there so that Austin’s father, a property owner, could take mud baths for his rheumatism. While they were abroad on holiday, Italy entered into an alliance with Germany, and the family from Edinburgh were not allowed to return home for three or four years. It was a traumatising experience, from which he has never quite recovered. They often went hungry. Austin remembers an attempt was made by a German officer to rape his mother and to have his father shot dead. Through these dark, fearful days, until the Nazis took the board, chess was a consolation and has remained so. “I have a craving for security, which I think chess provides,” he says. “Someone once said that the real motivation for playing chess is the wish to create order in a chaotic world. I think that’s possibly true.”

The Scotsman, Saturday 1 October 2011-re 38th Grangemouth Congress


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