Check Czech chess I: Prokop’s poetry

by Siegfried Hornecker
8/25/2018 – A new mini-series is kicked off this month by our study expert SIEGFRIED HORNECKER, who tackles the legacy of Czech master František Josef Prokop (pictured). Story and studies from the first half of the 20th century for you to enjoy at your leisure.

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Study of the Month: August 2018

We continue our series of classical chess composers with four articles about the Czech or Bohemian composers, starting with a man named after Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Czech master František Josef Prokop (pictured) was born in 1901, on July 18th. Already three months ago we had talked about a July 18th "child" in Kling.

Prokop, FranticekJohn Roycroft, with whom I have good contact, celebrated his 89th birthday in July. In his quarterly "EG", now led by Harold van der Heijden, an article by Alain Pallier appeared (EG 197 and 198. Thanks to Alain for sending the article which is used as a main source).

Prokop was born into what today is the Czech Republic but back then was Bohemia — a distinction made by several languages to denote the origin by the Gallic Boii tribe, but not found in the Czech language, which attributes both with the adjective for "Czech".

The Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and the Bohemian School with its rich mate pictures of at least three model mates per problem would all attribute to "Czech" if translated into the Czech language. A famous master of endgame studies who also composed Bohemian mate problems was Miroslav Havel whose story will be told in a future column, including why he received the highest title for chess composition — one not even invented when he lived — long after his death. Similarly, the Bohemians/Czechs Oldřich Duras, Ladislav Prokeš, Jindřich Fritz and František Dedrle also were famous endgame studies composers of said era and might also appear later in this "Czech" subseries.

Sadly, the chess program Fritz was not named after the latter but rather just invented by young "advertisement people", as "The Soul of Fritz” Mathias Feist, who with Frans Morsch invented Fritz in 1991 is quoted on German Wikipedia.

Prokop, being a member of the Dobrusky Chess Club, studied natural sciences and law at the Charles University in Prague, but was thrown into financial difficulties when his father died in 1922, two years into studying. Just like (famously later) Keres after his marriage, Prokop also was thrown into writing by the financial difficulties. After his year of writing, possibly due to tuberculosis, Prokop avoided military service in 1923, pursuing chess composition instead while still writing, now for nationalist and right-wing papers such as the "28 říjen" ("28 October") in 1924-1925 and then the Národni hnutí ("National movement"). From 1927 to 1936 the conservative National Democratic Party’s organ "Národní listy" ("National newspaper") employed Prokop, starting in 1928 as editor-in-chief for a monthly magazine, after its failure after half a year as chess columnist and film critic. Being laid off in 1936, Prokop found non-chess work at another magazine that collapsed in 1938, now not pursuing writing anymore from personal frustration rather than the increasing oppression of free speech in Germany, of which Bohemia became a part in 1938 under the "Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren" (Reich Protectorate Bohemia-Moravia). At first an inheritance by an uncle in 1938 supported Prokop, but it didn’t last long. So in 1940, against what he wanted, he had to resume working for money again, later described as "the real tipping point in his life". Prokop worked for the České slovo ("Czech word" or "The word of the Czech") now, showing also more political topics in articles, changing again his employer in 1943.

České slovo

České slovo logo in 1938

In May 1945 Prokop was arrested. His membership in the League against Bolshevism of January 1945 and Saint-Wenceslas bronze eagle from March 1945 were put on trial on March 24th to 28th 1947, where it had to be determined if Prokop was an ideologist, or forced into activism for Germany by the circumstances. Going into full detail would be beyond the scope of this article, so the most important information only is given below, which already is a lot. As we know today, Prokop knew nothing about his membership nor bronze eagle medal. Prokop’s political articles were also put on trial. The maximum sentence was death, which was received by 8 of 84 journalists. 34 more journalists who were not put on trial were excluded from the Czech Union of journalists. It is of note that the trials were relatively fair,[1] allowing Prokop to defend himself by saying he was not interested in politics and rather only worked to be able to devote to chess while being an executant. Prokop defended that his articles came to pass under German influence, also he feared for his life because of his praise received as a chess composer from the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Earlier articles proved Prokop was opposed to the German imperialism. A 750 page manuscript on the history of chess (part I) (possibly the foundation for an unpublished 988-page manuscript from 1968, "Dějiny šachu - díl 1" [any information about it is welcome] proved Prokop’s lack of antisemitism. Several witnesses confirmed Prokop’s opposition in private against the nazis during the occupation. As Prokop worked together with members of the resistance, but on the other hand had published articles as a journalist that were pro-German, he was sentenced to four years in prison. Prior to the communist coup d’etat in 1948, he was released on a three years probation after serving a total of 32 months pre-trial and eight months post-trial.

From what we can collect from the internet, the length of the trials varied but they were held in March 1947 and openly antisemitic journalists had the death penalty asked for. Rudolf Novák (editor of Árijský boj), as an example, was executed on March 26th 1947, which means that taking other sources into account the executions must have been carried out at the day of their verdict and verdicts were given on the day of or after the pleading.

Emil Vlasák (thanks also to Michal Hlinka, editor of endgame studies in Československý šach for which Prokop worked at one point) contributed a lengthy Czech article by Pavel Večeřa, which would be a recommended further reading on the trial but for legal reasons can’t be shared by us.[2] A court document from the article is reproduced here, likely from the verdict, as it is dated March 28th 1947 in the article. To demonstrate what we would have missed if full force was crushing on Prokop, some studies from after 1947 are in this month’s selection.

Prokop started composing in 1922 and already had 85 published studies in 1924, as well as compositions in other genres. Until 1971 this would become a total of 375 studies, of which around 300 are unique ones, i.e. no corrections or versions of other studies. (I myself also published a lot of studies in the first few years, since then only scarcely; other composers create few studies each year but steadily.) In the late 1920s, Prokop turned to selfmates.

In 1931, Prokop published, for a few months, a small magazine coming out every two Saturdays, and containing the same studies numbering as in his 1944 collection. Many of his studies contain echo stalemates, i.e. stalemate positions that are repeated on different squares in different variations. The limitations of such themes led to very short solutions, often only three or four moves long. Nevertheless, at the time they were a novelty, so Prokop dabbled in the theme until around 1926, after which he worked on more elaborate ideas. It is unclear what left him without inspiration, if his trial in 1947 was involved, but after WWII only 60 studies of Prokop appeared.

Zauber des SchachdiagrammsProkop’s book "Zauber des Schachdiagramms", prepared by Artur Mandler, was published in Germany in 1968, pairing studies and selfmates together, linked by the white pieces in a study being the same as the black pieces in the selfmate. There are 14 originals in the book, of which one is a study and 13 are selfmates.

On September 21st, 1973, in Prague, having led a long life dedicated to chess, Prokop died without ever publishing his biggest manuscript (see above). The "Central House of Youth and Pioneers Julius Fučik" had published three books of Prokop between 1965 and 1971, five others were published in Prague between 1935 and 1944, including a lengthy biography about Duras.

What remains is the many compositions of Prokop and the "honor" of him being one of only two chess composers to ever having been put on trial for their WWII work, the other one being another well-known master about whose private life isn’t known much, Alois Wotawa. But more about this ingenious composer in another year. As for Prokop, we can conclude that his integrity was kept, even if the verdict suggests otherwise, as in private he resisted the temptations of Nazism, and being able to prove it.

So was Prokop a collaborator? Not in my opinion. He might have been a journalistic opportunist, but then he also needed to survive, and even if not, he was married without children since 1929 so at least had to care for his wife Anna whose last name he sometimes adapted as pen name...


[1] Of course, as a writer, I think such trials should only be held in the cases where the authors actually incite violence, insult someone, etc., making me have a very critical look at trials that are only held for having a certain ideological viewpoint in articles. Even for opinions we hate, we should stand up for the right to speak them out.

[2] VEČEŘA, Pavel: Geneze jednoho kolaboranta. Novinář František Josef Prokop a jeho role při medializaci soudního procesu s generálem Aloisem Eliášem. In: Soudobé dějiny. Odboj, kolaborace, přizpůsobení. XVII/1-2. Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, Praha 2010, s. 82–120 (in Czech language)

 

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World Federation for Chess Composition

World Federation for Chess Composition (www.wfcc.ch)

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Siegfried (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.
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