Vlastimil Hort: “My most interesting encounter was with Paul Keres”

by André Schulz
1/14/2024 – Chess legend Vlastimil Hort turned 80 on Friday. In a short interview, he talks about when and how he learned to play chess, which player he admired the most, why he left the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and what he thinks of online chess tournaments. | See also: Vlastimil Hort, the great chess entertainer, turns 80! by Eduard Frey

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An interview

When and how did you learn to play chess, and how was it possible to become so good at chess without the internet?

I started playing chess when I was about five years old. It was actually a coincidence. I spent two months in quarantine in a hospital. I don’t remember what kind of illness it was, only that the friendly Doctor Novak — I’ve never forgotten his name — taught me my first moves in chess.

I went to a chess club, of which there were many in the Czech Republic. At the beginning, I lost most of the games, but I learned quickly from my opponents and, above all, I was passionate about the game.

Did you have a chess teacher?

No!

Were there any good chess books for sale in Czechoslovakia after the war?

I only remember my first chess book, which simply explained the rules of chess and presented a few games, for example by Alekhine. I was seven years old at the time. The author was Professor Zmatlik. I worked my way through it and after a short time I was able to play all the games by heart.

At the Junior World Championships (U20) 1961 in The Hague | Photo: H. Lindboom, W. van Rossem / ANEFO, via the Dutch National Archive

1968 was a special year in Czech post-war history. The Prague Spring was brought to a violent end. What impact did this have on Czech chess players, and on you in particular?

We were very restricted after that and, of course, hated everything Russian! We were only allowed to take part in tournaments in the Eastern Bloc countries. Western chess books or chess magazines were taboo for us. Everything was pro-Russian, even the officials from the Czechoslovak Chess Federation.

When did you decide to leave the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic?

Of course, I would have preferred to leave in 1968, but my son Daniel was only one year old at the time. I didn’t want to leave him alone and, above all, I didn’t want to see him grow up in that environment. At some point, I was so fed up with it that all I could think about was leaving everything behind. Unfortunately, my son didn’t want to come with me, so I fled to West Germany after the tournament in Tunisia in 1982.

Why did you go to Germany and not to the United States like Kavalek?

I already had good contacts in Germany. At that time, PragoSport had already ‘loaned’ me to patron Hilgert and his chess club in Porz.

How did you make the leap into television?

The idea came from Dr. Claus Spahn, who was a member of the editorial team at WDR. We had both met in Merano during the Hübner v. Korchnoi match. Perhaps he liked my Czech accent and my sense of humour. In any case, we laughed a lot together.

Looking back, who were the most interesting players you met? Who were the ‘bad guys’?

The most interesting encounter was with Paul Keres. I have unpleasant memories of Florin Georghiu.

Vlastimil Hort and Paul Keres (r.) — second from the left is Frantisek Blatny, Luhačovice, 1969

What were your favourite tournaments and tournament venues? What was your favourite place to play?

The absolute best was Monte Carlo and the tournaments organised by Joop van Oosterom!

What was your biggest success, what was your biggest disappointment?

My greatest success was that I qualified for the Candidates Tournament in Manila. Accordingly, my biggest disappointment was losing the game against Spassky on time.

Do you still play chess regularly?

Yes, I can’t imagine my life without chess.

How do you see professional chess today, with many online tournaments, rapid chess and blitz events, compared to the past?

Impersonal, boring and superfluous!

Representing Germany at the Senior Team World Championships | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

After the publication of your book with the best chess stories, now comes a book with your best chess games. What can readers look forward to?

I have conjured up the games that mean something to me from my memory. There are also a few little anecdotes and photos from my private archive in the book.

Who said, “chess is beautiful and always gives you reasons not to feel old”?

I don’t know, but it could have been me.

[Editor’s note: That's right — at a lecture in Prague in 2014, Vlastimil Hort said: "Chess is beautiful and it gives you always some idea that maybe you are not so old". Quoted from Macauley Peterson’s article on chess24.]


Facing the World Champions

During his career, Vlastimil Hort, who himself belongs to the same generation as Bobby Fischer, met no less than eight world champions over the board. In the early 60s he crossed swords with Mihail Tal, and at the end of the eighties he was sitting over the board from Garry Kasparov. Between the two there were meetings with chess legends Botvinnik, Petrosian, Smyslov, Spassky, Fischer and Karpov.


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