Vlastimil Hort: Karel Opočenský

by Vlastimil Hort
6/23/2017 – In his series about great chessplayers of the past Vlastimil Hort honors Karel Opočenský, the first Czech chess professional. Hort knew him personally and Hort knows that it was Opočenský who once showed Najdorf an interesting new idea in the Sicilian.

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K.O. – the first Czech chess professional

I wonder when we first met in person? As a young chess talent from the countryside I had heard a lot about K.O.. I regularly read his columns which he published in various newspapers and I also knew his book „AVRO 1938“ by heart. I also knew which scene in Prague he frequented and I had toyed with the idea to seek him out. But whether the "almighty Opo" would even talk to me was very much an open question.

Autumn 1961 – I was in Prague to study and had made my bed in the student hall of Jarov but my first steps did not lead me to the lecture hall of the university but to the famous chess café U Nováků. There, K.O. had a regular seat, reserved for him till kingdom come – only the chosen few were allowed to sit down to discuss, to analyze, or to play cards or blitz with him.

The head waiter Lhotak had his eyes everywhere and for the Maestro he kept a jealous watch over a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape. The good red wine from France was locked in a drawer but always at hand. While "ultimate socialism" was built outside of the café and the Iron Curtain separated West from East, the head waiter calmly uncorked the bottle. This scene had something celestial. Opočenský came almost every day to the chess café. His taxi arrived around 3 pm in the afternoon and around midnight he was picked up again. Naturally, the bon vivant K.O. also dined luxuriously in the café and liked to light a "Virginia" with relish after dessert.

His daughter Eva Franzova has fond memories of him: "My father was a bohemian, he was incredibly well-read, sophisticated, a fantastic story-teller and a dazzling charmer. But for him chess came first. He lived only for a few years with us, during my childhood. He was often and for long times away on chess tournaments. But I will never forget his nice Christmas presents, exciting, entertaining and wise children's books."

In 1931, under the aegis of the then president G. Masaryk, the Chess Olympiad was played on all floors of the U Nováků house. Opočenský, the sad hero, was the last to sit at the board. If he had successfully converted his better position against Hans Kmoch from Austria the team of Czechoslovakia would have won silver. Unfortunately, in the end Opočenský had only bishop and knight left while Kmoch had a knight. Pity! 1. USA, 2. Poland 3. CSR.

The following Olympiad took place in Folkestone two years later, in 1933. In this Olympiad Opočenský achieved the best result of his career, 11.5/13 and thanks to him Czechoslovakia came second!

 


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I, The economics graduate to be, patiently searched for the master. At that time I did not know that I was waiting for the Equator Blitz Champion. In the summer of 1939 the ship Piriapolis took out to sea from Antwerp, destination Buenos Aires. Participants of the Chess Olympiad were also on board. Opo remembers: "The journey was very long and near the equator Keres challenged me to a blitz-match. The English master Harry Golombek immediately seized the chance and opened a betting office. Our match ended with a 10-10 tie, a rich harvest for Golombek because no one had predicted this result. This whetted the appetite of another Englishman, Mister Wood, who organised the "Equator Blitz Tournament" the following day.

1. Opočenský (7.5), 2. Engels, 3. Stahlberg. Among the other participants were Tartakower, Lundin and Golombek to name just a few.

Miguel Najdorf missed the tournament because the heat caused him to oversleep. With his flat, stylish cap he came just in time for the winner's ceremony, however, not without protesting loudly and challenging me for a new match." Result: Opočenský +3 =2 -0. Guerra, Guerra! After arriving in Buenos Aires World War II disrupted the Chess Olympiad.

"Young man, for you, there is always a seat at my table. Please, Mr. Lhotak, give the man a glass of my wine." For the first time in my life I drink Châteauneuf du Pape. The maestro even wanted to acquaint me with Liduška, the waitress. We finished the evening playing cards and I lost 60 crowns at Czech Skat. A staggeringly high amount for a student whose lunch in the university canteen cost just two crowns and 60 heller. I could only pay my debts by installments and this lasted for months. Chess, cards, billiards - no matter the political system, the police always kept the "sinners" of Prague under control.

Vlastimil Hort, Karel Opocensky, Slavoj Kupka

An accident? They were born in the same year and for decades Alexander Alexandrovic Alekhine (born 31st October 1892) and Karel Opočensky (born 7th February 1892) remained good chess friends. An unusual relationship. Former World Champion Boris Spassky told me a macabre story pertaining to it, which I here retell with his personal permission. The scene is an international tournament in Bukarest 1953. K.O is the main arbiter of the tournament, he smokes his beloved Virginias, and cadet Spassky is curious and asks him: "'Please tell me, Karel Ivanovich, is it true what our chess journalist IGM Kotov writes about Alekhine? Was Alekhine homesick for the Soviet Union? Would he really have liked to return from exile?' Opočenský puffs pensively on his cigar and finally replies: 'But of course, young man, he always wanted to return, ideally on German tanks!'"

As a matter of form – a few sentences about Opočenský's beginnings. His father, Jan Opočenský, a well-known building tycoon in Prague, had decided that little Karl, the middle child and the most gifted of his seven children, was to take over the family business. But instead of studying diligently little Karl preferred to play chess. Faust sold his soul to Mephisto, Opočenský fell for the chess goddess Caissa.

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The famous Café Louvre, where the members of Prague's oldest chess club „Dobruský“ regularly met in the back, still exists today. But the Czechs not only played chess there, they also dreamt of independence and statehood. In 1910, when Opo still went to grammar school, he played the first chess tournament of his life in this café. His father was furious and gave him the choice whether - or... "I was very sorry to give my father such a lot of grief but I have never regretted my choice."

But Opo was no prodigy, he had to work hard for his chess knowledge. His father remained stubborn and little Karl had to see how to get by. But Opo was very ingenious when in need, he writes chess articles, he reports from tournaments, he annotates games, he teaches. Just before midnight, when the newspapers have their deadlines, he is particularly active. He looks for allies wherever he can and step by step increases his playing strength.

The year 1914 - K.O. plays in two tournaments abroad. The well-known chess master and journalist Marco from Vienna organized an analytical gambit tournament in Baden. A lot of chess aces gathered there: Spielmann, Schlechter, Tartakower, Reti, Breyer, and an unknown master from Prague. In Baden Opo develops his own chess style and his whole life he is faithful to it: surprise and trap – trap and surprise. In worse positions he prefers a last try - that is a quick counterattack with tactical chances - to long hours of defense.

German chess congress in Mannheim. Alekhine clearly led the Masters Tournament, K.O. played in the Main Tournament. World War I brought both tournaments to an early end, the players had to return home empty-handed. To his displeasure Opočenský finds that Jan, his oldest brother, started a political career with the extreme right.

Let us once again quote Opočenský's daughter, Eva Franzova: "When we strolled through Prague with Alekhine and his wife, Madame Alekhine often caressed my hair. All the chess greats, including Dr. Euwe, respected my father, although he was a staunch communist. His attitude and his philosophy of life only partly changed after the Russian occupation (brotherly help) in 1968."

From politics back to chess. I quote my colleague L. Kavalek: "The variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6, 3. d4 cd4 4. Nd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6) was also an invention by K.O, who back in 1946 had insisted that Black's next move should (had to) be 6...e5. After 6. Be2 e5 Black is right, but after 6.Bg5 the move 6… e5? would be a flop and the hole on d5 ugly. In contrast to Opočenský Najdorf understood that the square on d5 had to be defended and therefore he played 6… e6, even before World War II."

Vlastimil Hort: „Opočenský tried in vain to claim his copyright to the variation. He told me dejectedly that he himself had shown his variation to Najdorf. Later Najdorf included the whole system into his repertoire. Miguel Najdorf was of course much better known and the stronger player. What decsion would King Salomon have made?“

 


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What is Opočenský's literary heritage? Back in 1923 he published a small book for beginners, "Chess Methodology". He dedicated it to his brother Wenzel who had been killed in action during World War I. In the era of communism three entertaining books about chess followed, which, however, appeared only in Czech: "Play chess and laugh", "Over there (in Russia) they all play chess", "On the chess boards of the world". They all have a very fine narrative. Today, you still find them in antiquarian bookstores. For some time he was also part of the editorial team of the „Revue Fide“.

One should not forget his commitment to bring arbiters to chess events. In 1951 and 1954 he is main arbiter of the World Championship matches in Moscow. His fee was a car, a Schiguli, which he immediately converted into cash to go back to get chauffeured by taxi.

Prague has always been a chess friendly city. Like Vienna, at the end of the 19th century Prague was full of coffeehouses and chess was played in most of them. But how did chess fare in Bohemia and Moravia during World War II? Playing chess was not on the black list and, provided the club was registered, could be played till a quarter to nine in the evening. However, there always had to be a watchdog who was responsible that it was not a political gathering.

In this time two important tournaments were played in Prague, in the Hotel Palace. Alekhine won both.

Our focus is on the Easter Tournament 1943. It was a big social event. Honorary chairman was Vlasta Burian, the best Czech comedian of all time. In the tournament committee we do find one of the most famous Czech soccer players, Josef Bican (Slavie Prag). From the German occupants Erhard Post, general manager of the Greater German Chess Federation, was there. The owner of the Hotel Palace, E. Oppel, was very generous and the tournament director Citibor Kende (Tibor Kendelényi) again and again managed to come up with an enormous sum for the tournament. Kende loved chess more than anything but unfortunately wrote for the wrong side. After the war he received six years for collaborating with the Germans. He exchanged the prison sentence for ten years of work in an uranian mine. Like K.O. he remained faithful to chess until he died.

 

The tournament table shows a number of illustrious names. Masterful and superior, Alekhine, Keres superclass, big surprise an amateur, Katětov, professor of mathematics. The German participant Carl Carls from Bremen, had to stop playing because of personal reasons, he was replaced by the Czech player B. Thelen. True to his "feast-or-famine" approach Opočenský can be found in the middle of the table. Next to him is Ludek Pachmann, who appears on the chess scene for the first time. But who is Max Dietze, who finished 18th?

The German Erhard Post was in charge of the festive prize-giving. Alekhine, who finished first, shook hands with Post. Two of the Czech prize-winners thanked with the nazi salute. In the sixties Urbanec, a master from Prague, who had played in the tournament, offered me two photos from the prize-giving ceremony which show the two players offering the nazi salute. I am still sorry that back then I did not want to pay the high fee for the photos.

Prague 1943 (Photo: Chess Society Prague)

Alekhine-Keres, Prague 1943 (Photo: Chess Society Prague)

 


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Karel Opocensky, Edvard Beneš (right)

Jan Foltys and Jaroslav Šajtar were the two players who had raised their hand. The former had serious problems after the war, the latter joined communist intelligence. Šajtar later advanced to the post of general secretary of the Czech Federation and even became FIDE Vice President. All of this was seen and known by K.O. who after the February putsch in 1948 suddenly held all the trumps and had the best conditions for a political career. All his red buddies were supporting him and the minister of information Kopecký (the left hand of Klement Gottwald) appointed him as councillor.

I think it is much to Opo's credit that he only wanted to make a career on the 64 squares. He never took part in a witch hunt, he never took revenge and he never harmed his former political opponents. However, he was really delighted that certain subjects reluctantly had to address him as councillor. Unfortunately, the plans for a chess palace in Prag-Dejvice, his chess dream, never became reality even though the construction plans had already been drawn. Another disappointment - the Soviet Union declaring chess as a sport. For Opo this was nonsense! For him chess was always culture.

Coming at 3 pm by taxi, going back around midnight. His daily schedule never changed. He was only missing after the invasion of the Russian army in 1968. Did he analyze or change his approach to socialism or was he afraid? Opo saw his successor in me although I have tried again and again to convince him that even communism with a human face does not keep what it promises.

Gens una sumus. I saw Opo in the U Nováků a few days before his death. On 16.11.1975 the Czechoslovakian master of 1927, 1929, 1938 and 1944 left his regular seat forever. His humor, his commentary, his ideas, his originality remain immortal.

Photos, if not indicated differently, are from the book: "Karel Opocensky - 1. cesky sachovy profesional" (Karel Opocensky - 1st Czech chess professional): http://www.praguechess.cz/knihy-vydane.php?langue=en

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer



Vlastimil Hort was born January 12, 1944, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s he was one of the world's best players and a World Championship candidate. In 1979 he moved to West Germany where he still lives. Hort is an excellent blindfold player, a prolific author and a popular chess commentator.
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CMPonCB CMPonCB 6/27/2017 05:37
Another wonderful article. Who knew that Grandmaster Hort had so many stories in the locker? Please encourage him to keep them coming!
anandymous anandymous 6/25/2017 03:25
Another terrific article by GM Hort. Please write more. Perhaps something on Pachman...
rohuegel rohuegel 6/24/2017 07:46
An excellent article! However, it's not correct that his books only appeared in Czech. I have a book by Opočenský, co-authored with Vitezslav Houska, entitled "Heiteres aus der Welt des Schachs" (1961).
indiankid indiankid 6/24/2017 08:43
More such articles please! I am a great fan of Chess history and keep imagining how they would have played or practiced their art. Wonderful !!!
Igor Freiberger Igor Freiberger 6/24/2017 06:07
Excellent article! But the game comments were not translated from German.
RayLopez RayLopez 6/23/2017 09:27
Nice article, I learned something and did not know the artist Duchamp was so strong a chess player. I like this part: "Young man, for you, there is always a seat at my table. Please, Mr. Lhotak, give the man a glass of my wine." For the first time in my life I drink Châteauneuf du Pape. The maestro even wanted to acquaint me with Liduška, the waitress. We finished the evening playing cards and I lost 60 crowns at Czech Skat. A staggeringly high amount for a student whose lunch in the university canteen cost just two crowns and 60 heller. I could only pay my debts by installments and this lasted for months." - seems the old master was a bit of a card shark, and the young man fell for the 'gambit' of a free glass of wine in exchange for a later debt of 60 crowns, haha! :-)
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