Vlastimil Hort turns 75 — an interview

by André Schulz
1/12/2019 – If Vlastimil Hort did not exist one would have to invent him. He was born in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, on January 12, 1944, and in the 1970s he was one of the world's best players and World Championship candidate. He also enriched chess with his stories full of wit, humour and a deep knowledge about the game he loves. Today, Vlastimil Hort celebrates his 75th birthday. | Drawing: Ottokar Masek

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An interview with Vlastimil Hort

Dear Vlastimil, today you celebrate your 75th birthday, congratulations! You grew up in a country that, after World War II, was under communist rule. Do you still have memories of this time?

The communists brought the Czech people a lot of misery and pain. But they could not nationalise the youth or steal the childhood of each and every individual. And not mine!

Can you tell us something about your parents?

My father was very musical — self-educated. He played four instruments and had almost perfect pitch. My parents both gave me a lot of freedom.

Is it true that you have German ancestors?

I did some research about my ancestors to answer that question but unfortunately found nothing in the archives. But I definitely know that my paternal grandparents come from the small village of Selb in the "Sudetenland". To find work they settled in 1910 in Kladno, the place where I was born. Even on her deathbed my grandmother was still only speaking German with me. I guess I am 1/16 German.

How did you start playing chess?

By chancel! When I was five and a half years old I suffered from high fever and had to go to hospital — though no one found the cause of the fever. I had to spend two and a half months in quarantine and only doctors and nurses were allowed to see me. I was totally unhappy until one of the doctors, Dr Novak, taught me the basic rules of chess and to add to my fever he also infected me with the chess virus. Which is still active.

Was there a lot of chess literature back then from which you could learn?

After the war, there was little of everything. My first chess book was the tournament book "Avro 1938". I knew all the games by heart.

Do you still have memories of special moments in your youth?

Ludek Pachmann was really keen to train us, the talented young players. But his seminars focused very much on theory and were not my cup of tea. After my first and only seminar with Pachmann, I returned to doing things my way.

When did you become a member of the national team?

In 1960, at the Chess Olympiad in Leipzig. I played a couple of games as second reserve — with good results.

Hort-Weinstein, Leipzig 1960 | Photos: sach.717

When did you first play in the "West"?

In Den Haag 1961 — the World Junior Championship. I did not play particularly well in the preliminaries and was not allowed to play in group B of the finals. Why? The sports federation of the CSSR wanted to save foreign currency.

You met Bobby Fischer a couple of times. What was he like?

I have already told a lot of anecdotes about Bobby Fischer on ChessBase. Here are three more words about him: brilliant but mad. And a fourth word: unforgettable!

Who is the greatest chess personality you have met?

No need to think about that — Paul Keres.

Before you left Czechoslovakia you had started to play in Germany's first league for the SG Porz. How did you get the connection to Porz and its sponsor Wilfried Hilgert?

Through Prago-Sport. Like many other athletes, I was simply sold to the West.

What motivated you to emigrate to Germany?

Most important was the invasion of Russian troops in Prague 1968. But at that time I was not yet ready emotionally because I was waiting for my son to come of age. But then, in 1985, things went very fast. After the Interzonal Tournament in Tunis I went on board a Lufthansa plane to Frankfurt and asked for political asylum in Germany.

A lot of German chess players still know you from TV where you moderated very popular chess shows together with German grandmaster Helmut Pfleger. How did you get in touch with Helmut Pfleger and how did the chess shows come about?

"Schach der Großmeister" (chess of the grandmasters) had been running for about a year when Dr Claus Spahn, who was responsible for the show at the TV station, proved good instincts — he thought my accent from Prague would go well together with Helmut Pfleger's Bavarian accent.

How many years did you two moderate the show? Why did you stop?

The chess fans liked the show and I was happy to be part of it. For 22 years, exactly. There were two reasons for cancelling the show — Dr Spahn wanted to make the show until he was 65 and the guy who was artistic director of the TV station back then had no connection to chess.

When and how did you discover your talent for humour and for storytelling?

I try to switch on humour in all situations in life. My model for this is Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk. Humour can calm many hairy situations and laughter helps against a lot of minor ailments. My advice — before giving a speech every delegate of the UN should tell a joke from his or her country…

You are a prolific author. How many books have you published and can we hope for more?

I do not know exactly — they are all out of print. I currently work on my chess anecdotes. The magical number 64 will soon be reached. A lot of my chess fans are waiting already.

You like to play Chess960. Why?

No theory! Pure creativity! The last World Championship match would also probably have gone differently if they had played Chess960 — fewer draws!

What is your take on the Carlsen vs Caruana match?

The twelve classical games were of high quality. However, with the current rules, it might indeed happen that one of the finalists can keep or get the crown without winning a single game. This is absurd! The rules must definitely be changed. Otherwise, all deceased World Champions would turn around restlessly in their graves.

What could FIDE do better?

The new International Masters, Grandmasters, and titleholders should not only have their eyes on rating points. After all, chess is more than just a sport — it has a long cultural history. The applicants should know some of this and take an exam. If they fail, they should, of course, be able to try again.

Can you tell an anecdote from your chess life that you still find amusing?

Yes, one of my funniest memories is "Tapp, tapp from the otherworld".

In Skopje, Macedonia, they did not only have a fine Chess Olympiad in 1972 but just before the Olympiad they also played an interesting tournament in the municipal theatre. Outside, the summer temperatures reached high degrees, inside, in the playing hall, the heat was even greater. A lot of spectators came to support their favourite players, particularly so in time trouble. Thank God we played on the stage and a deep orchestra pit separated the players from the spectators. During the tournament neither musicians nor prompters had access.

The tournament arbiter was a Croation, the retired IM Vladimir Vukovic (1898-1975). I knew him through his articles in Sachovski Glasnik (which appeared in Zagreb), and he also had often exchanged letters with Alekhine.

Everything went smoothly in our tournament and Vukovic did not have much to do. Because of the unbearable heat, he preferred to enjoy the time when the games were in progress in a rocking chair. In wonderful regularity, he nodded away into his dreams before time trouble. His two assistants did not begrudge him his nap and watched over the boards when time trouble came. Perfect task sharing!

One day, during time trouble, when the nerves of the players were on edge, we suddenly heard a drumbeat. Chess commentators like to use the metaphor "Like a bolt out of the blue!" What happened? Did a bomb explode?

The sleeping arbiter had rocked himself quite close to the orchestra pit into which he then vanished with a thunderous noise. The spectators in the first row had seen the accident but no one had the courage to lean over the railing to find out how serious things were. The whole theatre was silent as a grave.

Suddenly, as if from the otherworld, you heard a soft tapp, tapp, tapp. On the little staircase of the orchestra pit appeared the familiar figure of the arbiter. A scratch on his cheek was the only sign that he had paid a visit to the otherworld. But his rocking chair did not survive his fall, of course.

No "super-stuntman" could have fallen so well and so soft as he had done. Did the chess goddess Caissa pull the strings behind the stage?

Looking back — what would you like to forget?

My match with Spassky.

Candidates Match Spassky-Hort, 1977 | Photo: Skaksamband Island

Looking ahead…

… I hope that mother nature allows me to still sit at the chessboard for a long time to come.

Questions: André Schulz, 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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ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 1/14/2019 05:05
long live Mr.Hort!
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 1/12/2019 01:20
Spassky-Hort 1977 Someone know if they used the same table, chairs, chessboard and pieces, and clocks as in 72? Friedrich that had visit the playing hall and did a report about it here on ChessbaseNews should know.
RichardEaston RichardEaston 1/12/2019 08:56
Thanks GM Hort for these wonderful stories.
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