A gambler’s life: The remarkable stories of Michal Horáček
Michal Horáček is a man of countless talents. As a very successful song lyricist, his work is familiar to generations of Czechs. He has also been a journalist, was active in the Velvet Revolution, became extremely wealthy with a pioneering betting company and came fourth in presidential elections in 2018. It is rare to meet anybody with such a range of experiences as Mr. Horáček – and he shared several of them on a recent visit to our studio.
Could you please tell us something about your background? What kind of family did you grow up in?
“I was born in Prague, into a family of some interest.
“Because my mother came from a well-established Prague family, full of scientists and artists.
“My great-grandfather was the dean of the Faculty of Law at Charles University, and his son, Jaroslav Heyrovský, was the first Czech to be awarded the Nobel Prize, for chemistry in 1958.
“His brother Leopold was my grandfather. He and my grandmother shared the large apartment we had in downtown Prague.
“He was president of a section of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. He was a lawyer by education, but he didn’t care very much about the profession [laughs].
“He became world famous as an entomologist. There is even one beetle named after him [laughs].
“He was very much keen on nature, and he tried to convince me that this was the way one should look at the world.
“Whereas his wife, my grandmother, was quite a bigot, Catholic.”
A bigot, you say?
“Yes, really, she was very much into it [laughs].
“From my earliest age she used to take me in the pram around Prague churches.
“She really wanted to convince me to be a good Catholic – that that was the most important thing in the world.
“But then of course my parents lived in the same apartment, and my father was a staunch Communist.
“So his relationship with my grandmother would be quite difficult, but then they found a modus vivendi, you know.
“Even though my grandmother hated all communism.”
Did your father’s communism ever fade? Or was he always a believer?
“That’s such a difficult and sad story.
“When the Russians came with their tanks in 1968, it was a great shock for him, because he was a staunch Communist, but he was really a patriot.
“He really admired the deacons of Czech literature and knew by heart large parts of Ladislav Vančura or Karel Čapek, especially people who used to write for the stage.”
He was a theatre director?
“No, he was what we call a dramaturge – that’s the man who takes care of the repertoire.
“So it was such a terrible clash between his patriotism and his communism that his mind really wasn’t able to, I don’t know, sustain this.
“He quite literally had to be removed to a mental asylum: schizophrenia.
“And he never quite recovered from this terrible shock.”
Horáček’s lyrics to this classic song reflect his own experiences in the world of betting.
On a happier note, you later became a famous lyricist. You were born in 1952, which I guess was the perfect age to enjoy the music of the ‘60s?
“Actually we are just meeting after I have recorded my first [Czech Radio] programme – there are going to be 52 instalments [laughs] – of a series dedicated to my experience with music, and I’m beginning in the 1950s.
“But, as you have mentioned, the 1960s – that was something.
“New music was coming from America, especially, and England. Also from France, especially these ‘chansons’, with great personalities like Edith Piaf or Charles Azanvour.
“And some of it got through the Iron Curtain, somehow, and that was so influential.
“Because I realised that the cultural environment was changing, as opposed to the time of my parents, who knew by heart written poetry.
“One said verse A, and anybody really was able to follow with verse B.
“No longer with my generation. It all changed and these reverential occasions were now pertaining to songs, to popular songs.
“And here we had a very interesting phenomenon, which was a small theatre called Semafor.
“There were two people, Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr; Mr. Šlitr was a composer and Mr. Suchý was a lyricist.
“They established this enormously influential duo and I was lucky enough to be able see them, at a very, very young age – like 11, 12 years old – when Semafor opened in 1964.
“I was lucky enough to be able see Suchý and Jiří at a very, very young age when Semafor opened in 1964.”
“Because my mother was a psychologist and in socialism – it’s so difficult to explain now – you had to be a member of a network.
“They were informal networks where people were trying to help each other. Everybody knew something, or had something, whatever.
“Some of the clients of my mother were able to get tickets to Semafor, so I was able to see Suchý and Šlitr in person, which was very rare.
“Their songs got played on the radio, but to see them in person, that was something extraordinary.
“It had such an enormous influence on me.”
I was reading that in the early ‘70s you got into the Faculty of Social Sciences in Prague, but then you were kicked out. Why did they throw you out?
“When the Soviets came, all the thaw, as they used to say, in the political environment ended abruptly – it seemed forever.
“But I hated to be just a pawn in this game, communism.
“What we were not supposed to see in our lives was the West, especially the United States of America, the great imperialist, backward power that practically any day could drop on us an atomic bomb; stuff like that.
“In order to prove to myself that I could prevail over these so-called circumstances, I wanted to go to the United States.
“No-one was really allowed to do that at that time.
“But as I’ve already said, my mother had many good friends, so she was able to obtain for me from the bank – that was necessary – a so-called currency promise.
“That allowed me to buy maybe 60 dollars or something like that [laughs], because foreign currency was so scarce.
“But I had to ask the, let’s say, chief of the Socialist Union of Youth… the Socialist Union of Youth was everywhere, and practically everybody had to be a member, but I wasn’t!
“But formally I went to this guy, who was my friend, my colleague – we played football together and everything – but he refused to give me his signature, so that the Socialist Union of Youth of the Faculty of Sciences agrees with my travel to the US.
“So as I already said, my grandfather was an entomologist and he headed the Department of Entomology at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.
“And he had, of course, a rubber stamp, a round rubber stamp.
“The problem was that in the middle of the stamp there was this huge honey bee.
“But I was 20 [laughs] and you can understand that people of 20 years of age may be quite audacious.
“I said, Well, this is a round rubber stamp, and this is the most important thing.
“So I took his rubber stamp with the honey bee and put it on the paper, then I wrote, We recommend that Comrade Horáček go to the United States.
“Amazingly the police accepted that, and they gave me the permission to go to the United States.”
But you still got caught somehow?
“Oh, yeah. I did travel around the US. I saw all those wonderful things I only had heard about before, like New Orleans, places like that. San Francisco.
“Today it is impossible really to explain how distant that was. It’s like today if you went to Mars or something [laughs].
“When I came back the police were waiting for me at the airport. They arrested me and put me in jail.”
“But when I came back the police were waiting for me at the airport. They arrested me and put me in jail in Ruzyně [prison]; I spent two months there.
“But I had the full experience, because they might have given me six years or whatever, you know [laughs].
“So I really understand how it is when you go to jail.”
That’s an amazing story.
“Yeah, that’s a great story.
“I am so proud of it, that I was able to beat the system.
“Even though of course they arrested and they immediately threw me out of the faculty and I had to search for jobs; I did odd jobs, like washing dishes and stuff like that.”
But you also ended up writing about horse racing in English for Western magazines. Where did your interest in horse racing come from? And was that your first exposure to betting?
“Somehow, by pure chance, I found myself at the Prague race track.
“It was so attractive, because slowly I discovered there was this informal community of people who were betting with each other on the horse racing.
“That was as opposed to the stated owned… machine that normal people were betting with.
“I wanted to understand as much as I could, so I started studying horse racing and the breeding of race horses.
“That took me to, for example, Poland, and also to a small beautiful castle at Slatiňany in the Czech Republic, where there is a library dedicated almost exclusively to horse racing and horse breeding, from Count Kinský.
“I have a suspicion that I was the only one who ever went through those volumes.
“So that was one thing. I wanted to understand, I tried hard to understand.
“Also I wasn’t allowed to publish anything in Czechoslovakia at the time, so I said maybe if I mastered English [laughs] there’s a market, and that market would be, perhaps, writing about horse racing.
“There was a lot of interest. Especially in something called The British Racehorse, a very authoritative magazine published in London.
“I discovered there was this informal community of people who were betting with each other on the horse racing.”
“These people were very interested in Englishmen and English horses coming over to Central Europe back in the 19th century and early 20th century.
“Very often these people were quite famous in England and then they sort of disappeared.
“I discovered them again, in Central Europe: in Budapest, or Warsaw, in Sluzewiec, or even in Czechoslovakia.
“So they were very interested and they did publish those pieces.
“It was so good because I sent them my text in English and they of course published something that was at least a bit different [laughs], so I was able to learn English, how to write in English.
“So my spoken English is not very good, but my writing knowledge is far better [laughs].”
This song is one of Horáček’s best-loved works as a lyricist.
You eventually became a journalist in Czech, writing for the magazine Mladý Svět, and you interviewed people like Roald Dahl and Kurt Vonnegut. If there’s one writer I think everyone loves, it’s Kurt Vonnegut. What was he like to meet and speak to?
“Well, he was a man who had these moods.
“Vonnegut really tried to convince ME that communism wasn’t good at all.”
“He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for example, and you will know that his death occurred on a stairway; I saw that stairway in his house in Manhattan.
“But it all began on a sour note, really, because I bought with my precious dollars a bouquet flowers for his wife, Jill Krementz; she was a very famous photographer.
“And a lady came to answer the doorbell, so I gave her these flowers, but unfortunately I didn’t realise it was a house servant, a maid [laughs].
“This is how it began. But to me he was very open. He answered any question I had.
“From his point of view, that meeting was also a bit difficult. Because I was coming from a communist country, so most people presume that if you are from a communist country you are a communist.
“So it took some while before…”
He was suspicious of you?
“Of course. But he still agreed to meet me.
“But as opposed to his own writing – because he was a very left-leaning writer and thinker – he really tried to convince ME that communism wasn’t good at all [laughs].
“It was so funny.”
Another amazing story. And there’s another one coming up, maybe. You got into conflict with Pragokoncert, which was the enterprise that organised concerts here, and somehow this resulted in a famous Depeche Mode concert in 1988. What is that story?
“After many years, they did allow me to take a proper job as a journalist in Mladý Svět.
“It was by then by far the most popular and widely read magazine, so it was influential.
“Then one day there were so many people coming, all clad in black and going to the place of the Depeche Mode concert.”
“I was writing about the fact that in neighbouring countries big names from the Western world were coming, especially to Budapest: Bruce Springsteen, Genesis.
“Tens of people went to Budapest, to the Nepstadion, a huge sports stadium.
“I was just asking if our comrades in Hungary are able to do that, why aren’t we?
“But the local policy was managed by, as you said, Pragokoncert, which had a monopoly on bringing over foreign bands and artists.
“And they didn’t want to do that.
“But somehow, to cut a long story short, I prevailed. Here I say ‘I’ because it was my personal crusade.
“And then one day – it was a very murky day, drizzling – throughout Prague in an age with no internet and no cell phones, not even telephones really [laughs], there were so many people coming, all clad in black and going to the place of the Depeche Mode concert.
“It was such a feeling of triumph for me, that I was able to orchestrate this.”
In the summer of 1989 you set up Most, which means ‘bridge’, with Michal Kocáb of the band Pražský výběr. It was intended to be a kind of go-between between the opposition groups and the Communists. Why did you feel that time was right for that? And how did the Communists respond to these young guys trying to be a kind of go-between?
“We thought the time was ripe for some solution of the rising unease of the people.
“Then there was Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union.
“Much was happening in East Germany. Much was happening in Poland, with the Polish pope and stuff like that.
“For the Communists we were kind of acceptable. We had to become acceptable for Havel and the opposition people.”
“But here the tension was just bubbling under the surface
“And we thought it would be good to set up an intermediary to provide a space for the talks you mentioned, between the opposition groups, led by Václav Havel, and the Communists.
“We were in a good position, really. Because Michal Kocáb was a very famous rocker; he had a very famous band, Pražský výběr.
“And I was, after all, a member of an official magazine. So for the Communists we were kind of acceptable.
“We had to become acceptable for Václav Havel and the opposition people and we went to see them and talk to them.
“They agreed with us to try to go ahead.
“Everybody, both the Communists and Havel and people like that, didn’t really think that this might succeed, at all.
“They called us ‘boys’: ‘Lads, do you think anybody is waiting for you [laughs]?”
Apparently Havel later said that you were everywhere in the Velvet Revolution. What are your strongest memories of that period?
“There are so many, because it was such an emotional storm.
“But perhaps the one I remember the most vividly was when myself and Michal Kocáb were presenting at Letná, where a huge gathering of Czechs and Slovaks was taking place – actually the greatest gathering in the history of the Czech nation ever [laughs]!
“Our revolution began with a special police unit beating up young people on Národní třída, during a peaceful demonstration.
“But we had these policemen clad in full gear – with the shield and helmet, everything – going up and saying, We were wrong, we were totally wrong and we offer our apologies.
“It was such a gamble, because those people gathered were not ready to listen to policeman like that.
“But, amazingly, they did accept this apology.
“And for me it was maybe the greatest gamble of my life, of a gambler’s life [laughs].”
After 1989 many of your associates entered politics. You entered business, with Fortuna, the huge betting agency, which made you a very rich man. What was the secret of your success with Fortuna in the ‘90s?
“I was following the horse racing world and was a part of it.
“I understood how attractive this is, the possibility to bet on anything that moves, as the bookmakers say.
“And myself and three colleagues of mine said we might try to offer this.
“It was so difficult, because there were no rules, we had no knowledge, we knew nothing of economics or law or stuff like that.
“And we had no money. No-one in the Czech Republic had any money to speak of.
“It was a rollercoaster ride through the early 1990s, but we did establish this and we brought this phenomenon to the Czech Republic which is now regarded as quite normal – normal betting opportunities on sporting events, but also political elections and stuff like that.”
Jumping forward a lot, in 2018 you stood in the elections for president and did pretty well, coming fourth in the first round. What was the main thing you feel you learned from that whole experience of standing of state?
“You have to have a campaign. And my campaign was probably the most extensive ever [laughs].
“I visited over 550 places in my own country, discovering my own country, because there were places I had never even heard of before – those places high up in the mountains, on the borders.
“I think I had a great opportunity to get acquainted with something that I should have gotten acquainted with decades earlier [laughs].
“Because I was maybe 25 times in New York, I was in Alaska, or New Zealand, or in the heart of Africa.
“I visited over 550 places in my own country, discovering my own country.”
“But [laughs] there were so many places in the Czech Republic I had never seen.
“And if I had more time in life, I would certainly turn back to that as a great inspiration for my lyrics.”
Michal Horáček’s collaboration with the late musician and composer Petr Hapka was extremely fruitful, resulting in countless hits such as this song.
You have written many songs that are hugely popular. You worked very closely with Petr Hapka, and also many others, like Hana Hegerová, Robert Müller, Pražský výběr. Typically how did your collaboration work with the musicians who were writing the music? Would you sit down together? Or would you write lyrics like a poem, before or after they wrote the music?
“It was both ways.
“Of course the composers prefer if they write the music and then they sing into the recording in what here is called ‘Swahili’ – just syllabics, so the lyricist would know what is expected of him, where are the vocals, how many syllables are there and stuff.
“On course they prefer it that way.
“I was able to handle this. It took me some time, but after a while I was able to do that.
“Even with Petr Hapka, some of the songs that we wrote together came into the world just like that.
“But I was so lucky, because Petr Hapka was also prepared to put music to any words I would present him with. That was so good.
“He never really worked. He was waiting for inspiration and somehow he was rewarded for his waiting.
“The inspiration did come. Sometimes it took three days after I gave him a sheet full of words, sometimes it took 10 years.
“But almost all of the stuff I presented him with got his music.”
You’ve had an amazing life and career. You’ve published several books, studied anthropology and history of art, you’re a published poet, you’ve written works performed by the State Opera and have worked with Magdalena Kožená. Also, as we spoke about, you ran for president, you were the head of the Czech Music Academy and you’ve written these words that everyone knows and loves. Which of these many activities would you say feels closest to you? Which are you proud of?
“Most probably it would be the songs I was lucky enough to be a part of.
“Personally what I’m most proud of is a collection of songs I wrote after Petr Hapka’s death, as a result of my writing lyrics in the form of the so-called French ballade, a very demanding genre.
“Then I put them on the internet, asking people, If you feel like it, try to put music to them.
“After a while I got over 1,000 of these renditions, coming from the most unexpected people.
“Most of them were people who had no real music experience – they had no bands, had never performed on stage.
“But we were able to put together 32 of these songs, called The Czech Calendar.
“And this is what I’m the most proud of.
“Because if you work with a genius like Petr Hapka, it’s a privilege, it’s wonderful.
“But if you find flashes of genius among unknown people, and provide them with the first chance to really be heard, and putting together this collection – this is something I’m really proud of.”