Informant: “We all started calling each other the ‘du’–it’s ‘durak’ but we just shortened it to du. And then like each of us went to college and taught that game to our friends, and I feel like all those people now use the word du, like oh, you triple du’ed. You’re the durak. You’re the du. You wanna play some du. I dunno. And it’s funny cause it comes from some Russian ass shit that we had no–like, we have barely a little bit of contact with who, this like intermediary–and the kids who we taught it to have like no even conception of, the don’t really have the context for it.”
[So you learned it from like, some transient Russian link?]
“Actually, not even me, like it’s more like–those weren’t the people who taught me that game to be honest anyway. I mean, I knew them, and they taught our friends. Well–yeah, they taught our friends. But like, I didn’t directly learn from them. Um, I guess it’s the same with you.”
“There are kids who bet on it, back at Stuy [the high school we went to], and we just do it just to pass the time, I guess, it’s just really more like, just when we’re hanging out. It’s just like one of these, one of the more… chill ways to pass–just like, do something while talking. I mean, kind of the whole point of the game is, it’s like not about winning–it’s about not losing. So… it’s fun to play with friends cause… instead of just tryna be the best, you just kinda end up tryna fucking each other over and… I dunno. It’s like a different kinda competition.”
[So now tell everyone reading the archive how this game is played.]
“Well, it goes around in a circle and everyone has to defend themselves, one by one. And the way that the attacking and defending works is that the player on the right initiates it, by throwing cards, which the player who’s defending must either beat or, if he has the same card as the one or more cards that are thrown at him–because only doubles, triples, or one of a kind can be thrown, or four of a kind–um, he may pass it so that he adds his card onto the cards that are attacking, and the player to the left of him has to defend. Um, so by attacking and defending, you get rid of your cards, because when you successfully defend of an attack–that is, put a higher card of the same suit on every single one that’s attacking you–those cards are out of the game. But if you can’t successfully defend, you pick up all the cards. Um, and the point of the game is to not be a loser, cause the loser is the durak, that means stupid in Russian. So yeah, like, when you bet on it, I think basically the loser pays into the pot which goes to everyone else–I’m not exactly sure but, anyway, the loser–the real shitty thing about being the loser is that in the next game, the first person to go is always the person to the left of that. Like, it goes around in a circle, and so the idea is that if you lose, you’re gonna be the last person to go in the next game, which is a serious disadvantage because obviously the people who go first have more of an opportunity to get rid of their cards.”
“Whenever the attacks are being held out, it’s everyone against one. It’s never just one-on-one. Anybody can play a card that is already on the board, anybody can attack but only using the numbers that are already out there. But six is the limit [of attacking cards] because you only get six cards [to defend with].”
[Anything else you’d like to say about durak.]
“Um… durak all day all night? Durak every day? Du life.”
My informant is very concerned with authenticity. He makes it clear, somewhat regretfully, that he did not in fact learn the game from the actual Russian kids. But his friends did, and that counts for something. The kids that he taught it to here in California have no link whatsoever, which doesn’t make them any less worthy, but still there is something lost to them. The original context is important to him. This ‘original’ context, however, is only original to him–a far cry from the gambling rooms of Soviet Russia. Still, it colors his own personal understanding and relationship to the character of the game, so even though it’s always changing as it goes, he holds on to the one he knows.
In our high school, durak formed a subculture of jaded kids who rejected the utilitarian idealism of the American Dream, who preferred to gamble in hidden alcoves nestled at the turn of hallways. Others adopted it more casually, recognizing it as the perfect focal activity for a group of friends to engage in while hanging out–something to do, to take the pressure off of silence, which allows the way for organic conversation and genuine connection while exercising mental acuity.
The dynamic of the game itself fosters a unique competitive atmosphere, as I think my informant described very well. Everyone gives up the conceit and delusion of being a “winner” and instead gets their kicks from trying to delay each other as much as possible. It’s some cynical ass shit that proves oddly refreshing to the hopes-and-dreams-fed American sensibility.