Hort Stories: "My David Ionovich"

by Vlastimil Hort
10/11/2018 – David Bronstein was certainly one of the most creative players in the history of chess. In 1951 he drew a World Championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik who thus narrowly defended the title. Vlastimil Hort remembers encounters with "my David Ionovich", including how a promise to play the King's Gambit in 1970 came back to haunt him 24 years later!

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David Ionovich Bronstein

1946, a match between the cities of Prague and Moscow. Bronstein was the youngest player on the Soviet team. Back then he was also the youngest player ever who got permission to travel to a tournament "abroad". The superiority of the Moscow team was obvious but it was the youngest player who achieved the best result: Bronstein!

His original ideas in the King's Indian inspired and delighted a whole generation of chess players, as illustrated by these two games:


Click or tap the second game in the game list to switch

It rarely happens that you can sacrifice the exchange with moves like Ra8xa1 in two games in one week. And, of course, only immense talent and a lot of work can spark such tactical fireworks!

King's Indian: A modern approach

Bologan: "If you study this DVD carefully and solve the interactive exercises you will also enrich your chess vocabulary, your King's Indian vocabulary, build up confidence in the King's Indian and your chess and win more games."

See also: Hort on Ludek Pachman

"Bronstein did not win a single game in Pilsen"

David BronsteinI like them, the old, often bizarre newspaper reports about chess events back then. The headline quoted above is from a local newspaper from Pilsen and was published at the end of March 1946. What had happened?

After the match Prague-Moscow 1946 (which the guests won 23-13) the Soviet team (Alatortsev, Lilienthal, Simagin, Bronstein, Kotov, Bondarevsky, and Smyslov) stayed another 14 days in Czechoslovakia to show their skills in exhibition matches and simultaneous events in Prague and other cities. It was only a short time after war and liberation and the Soviets were still very welcome and popular guests in my country.

GM Bronstein was expected to arrive at the main station in Pilsen where a welcome committee was waiting for him. An attendant from the Soviet embassy — at that time these people simply had to be there! — had also been announced but surprisingly Maestro Bronstein arrived just on his own, and because hardly anyone in Pilsen knew him personally the delegation did not notice him. Therefore, Bronstein set off on his own. The delegation was waiting and waiting. The next train arrived but brought no Bronstein. The planned simul on 35 boards had to fall through. Instead, the desperate organisers improvised a big blitz tournament.

In the meantime Bronstein sat snugly in the hotel Smitka, enjoying one or several beers. It was late at night when a chess fan found him there. A disaster for the organisers! The next day and thoroughly unhappy about the unfortunate turn of events the organisers brought Bronstein to his train to Prague. I believe in his entire chess career Bronstein has never earned his fee more easily.

Here's a little extra. Local journalists often criticised Bronstein. He would make too many bloodless and quick draws, their rags claimed. His reply was prompt: "What do you want from me? Shall I seriously exert myself against an overpowering opponent like World Champion Smyslov for three roubles and 53 kopecks in change?" Did this statement find its way into his political dossier?

"The last round à la Bronstein"

Vinkovci 1970. The day of the last round. Time for the game Bronstein vs Hort. For both sides, the result was very important. I was greatly surprised when my opponent asked before the game whether I was familiar with his assertion that "the tournament ends with the penultimate round?". Up to then, I had only known that the last stage of the "Tour de France" that ends in Paris is only symbolic. But to be on the safe side I came well prepared to our game. Bronstein played fast and even quicker he offered a draw. I accepted and we shared second place with Gligoric.

Final standings after 15 rounds

Rg. Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Pts.
1 Bent Larsen
  1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 1 10.5
2 Svetozar Gligoric
0   ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 10.0
3 David Ionovich Bronstein
½ ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 10.0
4 Vlastimil Hort
½ ½ ½   1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 10.0
5 Dragoljub Velimirovic
½ ½ 0 0   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 9.5
6 Tigran V Petrosian
½ ½ ½ ½ ½   ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 9.0
7 Laszlo Szabo
1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½   0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 9.0
8 Mark E Taimanov
0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1   0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 1 9.0
9 Dragoljub Minic
½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 9.0
10 Rudolf Maric
½ 0 ½ 0 0 1 ½ ½ ½   1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 8.5
11 Miguel Angel Quinteros
½ 0 0 1 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ 0   1 0 ½ ½ 1 7.0
12 Bruno Parma
0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 0   ½ ½ 1 ½ 6.5
13 Mario Bertok
0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 1 ½   ½ 0 1 5.0
14 Tomislav Ledic
0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ ½ 3.0
15 Marijan Ozanic
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 ½   1 3.0
16 Dragoslav Tomic
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 0   1.0

Bronstein cartoon

"What a queer bird, this David Ionovich," I thought to myself. Up to then, I had known him first of all as the author of the tournament book about the Candidates Tournament in Zurich 1953. A jewel among the tournament books.

After the prize-giving Bronstein came up with another surprising offer. "I still do have a bottle of pure Georgian cognac in my suitcase." I was very curious and accepted his offer. The night was long. My new buddy talked too much, I talked too little but we had equally strong headaches the next morning. And I remember that Bronstein was quite relieved and happy that he managed to finish ahead of Tigran Petrosian…

Was this all a dream or reality? The cognac made us agree to play the King's Gambit in our next game against each other, no matter who would have White. I darkly remember that the Interzonal was to be exempt from this agreement.

'Oh my dear Vlasty, are you crazy or still drunk', I asked myself the next day. My suspicion that we shared more than one bottle got stronger and stronger. In my entire chess career, I had never even considered to play a King's Gambit with White. It was simply not part of my repertoire. All the more a reason to dislike this idea! But a promise is a promise and has to be kept. "Maybe we will never again meet at the board," I tried to cheer myself up. But discretion is the better part of valour and I decided to diligently practise the King's Gambit with White should push indeed come to shove. And then it happened…

The King's Gambit

Only chess players which Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner had valued were invited to group B of the Donner Memorial in Amsterdam 1994. 

Jan Hein Donner and David Bronstein | Photo: Nationaal Archif

Even Bent Larsen, who at that time was living far away in Argentina but who was a great friend of Donner, wanted to come. It's a pity, a real pity that health issues forced him to cancel just before the tournament. The tournament table shows that the old guard was very well represented. Like Donner, Ligterink and Ree, two of the three Dutch participants, were excellent journalists.

Standings after nine rounds

Rk. Title Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Pts.
1 GM Vassily V Smyslov
  1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 5.5 / 9
2 GM Svetozar Gligoric
0   0 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 5.5 / 9
3 GM Wolfgang Unzicker
½ 1   ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 5.5 / 9
4 GM Dragoljub Velimirovic
½ ½ ½   ½ 0 1 1 0 1 5.0 / 9
5 IM Gert Ligterink
½ 0 ½ ½   1 0 1 1 ½ 5.0 / 9
6 GM David Ionovich Bronstein
½ ½ ½ 1 0   ½ 0 1 ½ 4.5 / 9
7 GM Vlastimil Hort
½ 0 0 0 1 ½   1 ½ 1 4.5 / 9
8 GM Hans Ree
½ ½ ½ 0 0 1 0   ½ ½ 3.5 / 9
9 GM Ludek Pachman
0 0 ½ 1 0 0 ½ ½   ½ 3.0 / 9
10 IM Robert G Hartoch
½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½   3.0 / 9

But looking at the starting line-up brought mixed feelings. Vinkovci 1970 – Amsterdam 1994! The obligatory King's Gambit, the agreement with Bronstein, was hanging like a sword of Damocles over me.

I therefore ardently practised this opening which I did not like and that still seems not entirely correct to me today. With Black, I would always have some pet lines ready but with White, the game could only end in a suicidal kamikaze attack. The drawing of lots came nearer. I tried in vain to find a dignified way out. Could a few bottles of the best Dutch genever help my "contractual partner" to change his mind? And has this oral agreement not expired anyway by now?

The day of the festive opening ceremony with the drawing of lots arrived. But the chess goddess Caissa showed no mercy. First round: Hort vs Bronstein! What a shock!

I hardly slept in the night before our game. No less than 24 long years had passed since the agreement. And what would be the legal take on our case? A chess court would certainly hold me responsible, a civil court might be more lenient. I also knew that relatives of Donner were judges and held high posts at Dutch courts…

The first round came quicker than I liked. Handshake. With White I rather quickly played 1.f2-f4. My opponent threw an understanding glance at me and reacted immediately by playing 1…e7-e5 à tempo though he usually had the habit of thinking 15 to 20 minutes about his first move. The past caught up with me. I struggled with my conscience — should I or should I not? Now I — and not Bronstein — spent almost 20 minutes thinking about my second move before (cowardly) playing 2.d2-d3. By now the spectators had become quite restless.


I am not proud of this game, I would rather eradicate it from memory. For some inexplicable reason, Bronstein came into horrendous time-trouble — he had only one-and-a-half minutes for 18 moves. When he offered a draw I thought I heard the angels sing. I was so relieved that I shook his hand with a vengeance.

I think, we both could have used an psychotherapist in Amsterdam. Did Bronstein even get my present for him, the bottle of Genever, which I had left at the reception of the hotel? At any rate, I was happy that he did not throw evil glances at me during the tournament. But one thing is clear — I probably will never get rid of my aversion against the King's Gambit.

Bronstein helps young talents to improve

"You know what I mean…"

David Ionovich grew old. We occasionally met each other during the AEGON "Man against Machine" tournaments in Den Haag. His flow of speech had also become stronger. He talked more and more. His glasses also got thicker and thicker. His favourite expression in broken German was "You know what I mean?"

No, I — and many others — did not know what he meant. We tried to be polite and listened to him for a while. But at a certain point in time, I could not help it but had to point out to him that he was playing a game of chess and that he was to move. 

One question that still interests and probably many others as well. Did he have to agree to a draw in his World Championship match against Botvinnik in 1951? Bronstein's father spent many years in a Siberian labour camp, and I am convinced that the state apparatus in the times of Stalin was ready to do all evil possible. You know what I mean?

Unfortunately, our last contact was by phone: Prague to Minsk, June 2006. Pavel Matocha from the Chess Society Prague and I would really love to see him play in the "Snowdrops vs Old Hands" match. He was really happy about the unexpected invitation but unfortunately had to decline because of health issues. His quiet voice at the telephone sounded very sad. Half an hour later, Matocha and I tried again. Our offer: "You are welcome to come with a companion, you don't have to play. We would be happy if you could participate in the tournament as guest of honour."

"Thank you, I appreciate that someone is still remembering me. In 1946 I was very happy in Prague. I will never forget the Czech beer and the "Spekacky" at Wenceslas square." Those were his last words.

In chess and in life it will always be the same — one generation goes, the next comes. In the same year, December 5, 2006, one of the greatest chess players of the second half of the 20th century leaves the chess scene of our planet for ever. Thank God, he still had the chance to see that his beloved Ukraine became independent again.

He had a lot of success in his career. I have always been fascinated by his play in Chess Olympiads. In 1952, 1954, 1956, and 1958 he won gold with the Soviet team! In 1952 and 1956 he also had the best individual result on board 4 and in 1958 he had the best score on board 3.

Are you looking for another book in your library? I can recommend The sorcerer's apprentice, a tribute to Bronstein by Tom Fürstenberg!

His peak Elo-rating in May 1971 was 2595, his best historical rating was 2792 in June 1951. Kudos!

He will also be remembered for his original ideas and moves and here an adequate follower still has to be found…

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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