USSR vs "The Rest of the World", Belgrade 1970: An interview with Vlastimil Hort

by André Schulz
4/7/2020 – The match between the USSR and the "Rest of the World" in Belgrade 1970 – the "Match of the Century" – was a fantastic event. Vlastimil Hort played in Belgrade for the "World" and in an interview with ChessBase he shares his memories and talks about Fischer and Keres and rumours that the Soviet cheated in the final round.

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"It was fantastic": Vlastimil Hort about the "Match of the Century"

André Schulz: You are one of the players from the "Match of the Century", USSR vs The Rest of the World who is still alive. Who else played in Belgrade 1970 and is still alive?

Vlastimil Hort: Boris Spassky, but he is very ill, Lajos Portisch, Wolfgang Uhlmann, Boris Ivkov, Fridrik Olafsson and Klaus Darga.

Was the enthusiasm really as great as reported?

Yes, it was fantastic. Incredible.

How did people live back then in the Czech Republic, two years after the country had been invaded by the states of the Warsaw Pact?

It was almost like being in prison. No Western press, of course. Forbidden. Including chess magazines from the West. No contacts at all to people from the West. There were only Soviet magazines, but they came with much delay. You got Shakhmatny Bulletin and Shahs from Riga, published by Aivars Gipslis. But everything came very late.

The "Match of the Century" was a clash of the best players from the West against the best players from the Soviet Union. Were any top players of that time missing in Belgrade?

Actually, all the best players of that time were in Belgrade. For Robert Hübner the match came a little too early. Otherwise he would have been there for sure. The selection of the "Rest of the World" team was very good. Dr. Euwe, our captain, had good instincts.

When and how did the players get to know the line-ups?

The line-up was discussed at a meeting of the players in Belgrade. Euwe had published a suggestion for the line-up somewhere, but most of the players didn't know this because – as I said – many of us didn't have access to Western magazines, or only with a long delay. Olafsson knew Euwe's proposal, but he kept silent during the meeting.

Fischer and Larsen argued about who should play on board one. Euwe persuaded Fischer to play on board two. Najdorf and Reshevsky fought about who should play on board four behind Portisch. It was a real fight. In the end we agreed on the line-up Euwe had suggested but that was a coincidence. However, it shows how good Euwe's intuition was.

What about Elo ratings? How much did they influence the line-up?

The Elo ratings had been introduced a bit earlier but were not yet as important as they would become later.

Was Fischer afraid to play against Spassky or why did he agree to play on board two?

Fischer was not at all afraid to play against Spassky. He liked to play. Fischer stepped back because he liked the idea of the match.

Did you have contact to the audience?

Yes, a lot of contact. My Serbo-Croation is okay and I talked a lot with people from Belgrade. 

Could the players from the "Rest of the World" talk to the players from the USSR?

Yes, no problem at all. Most of the Soviet players spoke some English. And of course a lot of the Non-Soviets spoke some Russian.

Which Soviet player was the most agreeable?

Paul Keres was always the most accessible. He spoke perfect German and it was always pleasant when he was around.

Paul Keres

Tal only learned some German later in his life. He could speak a little English, but did not have a great gift for languages. But after the rounds the players usually analyzed together.

Fischer already seemed to be mentally unstable back then. What was your impression of him?

No, he did not at all seem mentally unstable. He seemed entirely normal.

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Did you get any prize-money?

Maybe Fischer and Larsen managed to get more, I don't know, but we got $2,000. The conditions were very good.

What is your take on the rumours that some players from the Soviet "satellite states" did not give their best to help the USSR avoiding a defeat?

That's rubbish. It's true, Portisch had a winning position against Kortschnoi in the last round and Najdorf was better against Tal but they were both content with a draw. It seems they were both interested in a good individual result. But in general we were a team and we wanted to win as a team.

 
 

Was 1970 a good time to be a chess professional? Compared to today?

The Fischer-effect was still to come. In general, we did not make much money. It was Fischer and the World Championship match 1972 against Spassky that led to higher prize-money. We owe him a lot.

What do you do in the times of Corona when you do not talk about or report about chess tournaments that were played long ago?

Haha. I am grateful that I was able to participate in this event. I write a lot to fight against Corona. I use the telephone to fight against Corona. And I am working on another book of chess stories. I thank you for this interview.

We thank you!

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

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André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.

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